When Momtaz Begum first started looking for work in the research field in Canada, she felt confident about her job prospects.
After all, she has not only a master’s degree in public health from Melbourne, Australia, but also a broad range of qualitative research experience in both Australia and Bangladesh, her home country. In Melbourne, she trained hospital nurses to talk to clients about female genital mutilation and evaluated this knowledge-based intervention. In Bangladesh, one of her projects involved using qualitative methods to investigate the cultural factors behind infectious disease outbreaks.
But after immigrating to Canada, Begum found herself frustrated with her job search. “I saw all these job postings that I had all the qualifications for,” says Begum. “But nobody contacted me for interviews.”
A familiar plight
Newcomers to Canada often face tremendous difficulties finding work in their fields—despite the professional training and work experience that they bring. While the failure to recognize credentials in professions such as medicine, engineering and nursing has received publicity in recent years, scant attention has been paid to this issue in the research world.
At Access Alliance, a Toronto multicultural community health service agency, Senior Research Scientist Yogendra Shakya has seen many cases similar to that of Begum’s. As part of the agency’s community-based participatory research program, Shakya and his colleagues routinely reach out to vulnerable members from newcomer and racialized communities to be peer researchers on projects about health access and the social determinants of health. Peer researchers are not required to have previous research experience because Access Alliance offers them robust research training.
“Every time we post these peer researcher opportunities, we get applications from literally hundreds of internationally educated researchers, analysts and evaluation experts with very solid track records and qualifications, who are struggling to find good jobs in their fields,” says Shakya. “These are people with more than 10 years of experience, some with two or three post-graduate degrees, including degrees from Western universities.”
The idea came to him and Access Alliance Executive Director Axelle Janczur to create a career-bridging program for internationally educated researchers such as epidemiologists, statisticians and evaluation experts. Such a program would offer these professionals mentored and paid fellowship opportunities designed to use and strengthen their research skills, as well as build the local networks and local work histories they need to achieve successful careers as researchers and analysts in Canada.
This idea began to grow when Dr. Stephanie Premji at McMaster University and Dr. Agnieszka Kosny at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) heard about it, says Shakya. Both are investigators and collaborators on projects focused on the work experiences of Canada’s newcomers. Both had just set aside money from their grants to pay for help interpreting, recruiting study participants and conducting interviews.
“We decided to pool this money together to fund a full-time, paid position for someone to be involved in our research projects, from start to finish, and not just one part of them,” says Kosny.
Other health and community organizations also signed on to the idea of a career-bridging program, resulting in funding for two other research positions—one in refugee maternal health and the other in health equity. With these three fellowships in place, a new pilot program called the Immigrant Insight Scholars initiative was created.
‘Not just a job’
As an Immigrant Insight Scholar focused on work and health, Begum has been involved in many different aspects of the two research projects. She brainstorms ways to reach out and recruit study participants, codes qualitative data, conducts thematic analyses, gives presentations about the research, and more.
To Kosny, Begum displays a resourcefulness and adaptability that have been honed by her varied career path. “She really sees it’s not just a job, but an opportunity to develop, to learn, to be involved in different things,” says Kosny. “She’s taking every opportunity she can to be exposed to all different aspects of a research project.”
Thanks to the initiative, Premji says she now has a deeper appreciation of the challenges that researchers from outside of Canada face when trying to establish a career here.
“The way that we do research, we tend to hire people who study with us, or we find work through our mentors,” says Premji. “It works very much like other occupations, where it’s who you know—and we don’t challenge it enough.” Premji adds that she now hopes similar bridging opportunities will be built into more research projects.
With this opportunity to sharpen her skills and build her professional network, Begum says she’s now glad that she did not waver from her ambition to continue doing research. “I was unemployed for a long time,” she says. “I could have chosen other ways to make money, but I was passionate about doing research and I did not want to be derailed.”
Begum is very grateful to all those who believed in this initiative. “I don’t think I will have the same challenges [finding research work] as before,” she says. “If that’s the case, this fellowship will have changed my life.”