I'm a research fellow based in the UK. All my academic experience (bachelors, masters, PhD, postdocs) have been in UK (English) universities. For the next stage, I'm considering the benefits of continuing in the UK compared with getting a position overseas. My field is biomedicine / epidemiology / public health.

Specifically I would like to consider the pros and cons of working as a lecturer in a British university compared with working as an assistant professor in a Canadian university.

Does anyone have experience of both systems and is able to make comparisons? It would be informative to have insights on:

  • Salary and benefits (e.g. days of holiday)
  • Pensions (boring but important!)
  • Working styles
  • Teaching responsibilities
  • Funding provided by universities or research councils
  • Work life balance

As Canada has a federal system, I'm aware there can be differences between states. Any answers with knowledge of universities in Quebec would be particularly helpful.

As a benchmark, I would characterise the UK system as follows:

  • Salary for a lecturer in the region of £40,000 per year, which is low relative to the cost of living in London and the South East, but high in North East or North West England. Holidays are fairly generous (30 days per year)
  • USS pension is generous as it is a final salary scheme, but takes 10% of gross salary (and may be unsustainable in the future)
  • High administrative burden. Often competitive working environments.
  • High teaching load for early stage lecturers
  • Not much support for funding from universities, but (in my field) several external funders (Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust, Gates Foundation).
  • Hard to generalise, but work life balance often compromised by long commutes and high cost of living (more so in London/ Southern England)
  • The future of USS may be uncertain, but any benefits you've already accrued are protected by law. – Ian Sudbery Sep 23 '20 at 11:20
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    USS is not a final salary scheme anymore. – Dmitry Savostyanov Sep 23 '20 at 11:21
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    Caution: USS ceased to be a final salary scheme some years ago. – Daniel Hatton Sep 23 '20 at 11:21
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    Pension planning is a serious matter. Please take time to carefully read the rules of different providers, and consider taking a professional advice. Do not simply rely on a few opinions sourced online. – Dmitry Savostyanov Sep 23 '20 at 11:31
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    @DanielHatton Not quite true. I joined a post-92 Uni and was allowed to maintain my USS membership from my previous employment. If I were completely new to academia, they would've put me on TPS, true. – Dmitry Savostyanov Sep 23 '20 at 14:39

I do not know exact details of the UK system but I have colleagues there so at least I have some general idea of the UK system. My impressions of Quebec come from doing grant committee work for the provincial government.

In Quebec the dominant language is French: it may or may not be a requirement to learn it but if you don’t you’d miss out on much the vibrant cultural scene. Quebec also runs a French-inspired system of education (unlike English Canada, which is much closer to a US-based system): I don’t understand the UK system well enough to compare, but salaries are lower than the rest of Canada (although the prestige is greater). The provincial tax burden is not light (although it’s not the horror stories you read compared with other provinces, except Alberta), but the quality of live is quite high: you can expect to have the means of buying a house within 5 years of your appointment (something not so clear if you are appointed in Toronto or Vancouver).

Quebec is culturally more creative than the rest of Canada: the joke is that the graduating theatre class in Quebec always puts on a new play at graduation, whereas the graduating class in Ontario always puts on a Shakespeare play. This creative drive trickles to the research level: there are more funding opportunities in Quebec (the provincial government runs its own funding scheme, on top of all federal scheme). Tuition is low compared with other provinces: it is a very attractive research environment, and many in other provinces are quite jealous of the additional government funding opportunities.

Of course there is “true” tenure.

My sense is that the UK is much much more complicated. Quebec universities do not run on full-cost accounting (I know some UK universities do) so the paperwork required in applying for and managing grants is an order of magnitude lower than what I’ve seen in the UK. Many federal grants are individual grants (there are also some team grants and some industry grants) and these individual grants are very flexible, with minimal oversight and simple rules (v.g. no business class flights). If you use this $$ poorly (nothing to show for it at the end of the grant period) nobody will care but you’re unlikely to have a strong enough file to get your grant renewed: by and large the system works reasonably well. Overall, my sense is that the Canadian and Quebec systems are much less business-like and penny-pinching than the UK system. “Big grants” aren’t so frequent: the Canadian system tends to distribute its resources over individual researchers rather than concentrate resources in a few big centers.

I do not know what you have in mind, but - say - McGill is not called the Harvard of the North for nothing. It has a history of excellent research: I don’t know about biomedicine but I know that there’s a lot of hospital-based research there (same as UK as far as I know).

Side note: I have a colleague who took a job in the UK and came back to Canada simply because the funding environment in the UK was so much more restrictive compared to the Canadian system. I suppose this is anecdotal but it does align with my own experience with the UK system (through international team grants).

Nota: you can check funding levels for federal (NSERC) grants here: https://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/ase-oro/index_eng.asp

Public employees salaries in Quebec are not public but they are in Ontario (if you make over $100k). Faculty salaries in Quebec are lower than Ontario and I do not know the x factor between the two, although I would guess ~0.8. You can get some of the public sector salaries in Ontario from this link. You might have to download some stuff to search by university or sector.

Montreal has an excellent public transport system (including subway, with subway stops at all major universities).

My impression is that teaching loads are quite acceptable.


One big difference I see between Canada and the UK is that Tenure (in the US sense) doesn't exist in the UK, where as I believe it does at some places in Canada.

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    Probably it's more accurate to say that Tenure Track employment does not exist in the UK. A Lecturer post becomes "permanent" (open-ended) after a probationary period, which is non-competitive and much easier compared to US tenure. – Dmitry Savostyanov Sep 23 '20 at 11:23
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    Its a myth that probation is easy, or at least it is in my field. In my dept, 25% if people coming up for probation review in the last 5 years have failed. I don't think this is so different from tenure rates outside the famous universities in the US. The requirements are similar (a major grant, at least one 4* paper, plus teaching reqs). Open-ended is not the same as "permanent" in the tenure sense. Its very hard to get rid of someone with tenure in the US. In the UK it's no different from getting rid of any other employee. We lost someone last year for not having a good enough REF return – Ian Sudbery Sep 23 '20 at 12:01
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    Things surely differ between your Russel group university and the place I am at. In my Faculty, 96% of new staff pass their probation successfully. I agree that "open-ended" is not quite "permanent", but from what I hear, tenured academics are sometimes pushed out from U.S. Universities too. Academic life is tough and full of terrors. – Dmitry Savostyanov Sep 23 '20 at 14:37
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    @AlexanderWoo I have not worked in the US but I have worked in Canada and in the UK (only as a mathematician) and my impression is that Ian's assessment may be more accurate, from the POV of a lab science discipline. "We lost someone last year for not having a good enough REF return" is simply something that doesn't happen in systems with tenure provided one gets tenure – Yemon Choi Sep 23 '20 at 17:09
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    +1 as someone who was on tenure-track in Canada and has passed probation in both Canada and then in the UK. However, I think the answer could be improved by adding some particular practical details to illustrate the consequences of tenure or its absence – Yemon Choi Sep 23 '20 at 17:11

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