For today’s English lesson, we are going to look at the topic of “brain drain.” This is a phenomenon that occurs when lots of talented people move from developing countries to developed ones. It is an interesting topic with many issues to debate, so it is possible that you could encounter it in the IELTS writing test.

What is “brain drain” and how could it appear in IELTS?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “brain drain” means:

the situation in which large numbers of educated and very skilled people leave their own country to live and work in another one where pay and conditions are better


This is quite a big issue nowadays and it affects many parts of the world positively and negatively. As the world becomes more interconnected, it seems reasonable that it will continue to be a problem in the future.

This sort of topic is most likely to occur in the IELTS writing test and specifically in task 2. In fact, I’ll show you two sample answers below. You might also see a reading passage about “brain drain” in the reading test and I suppose it is theoretically possible that it could be the subject of section 4 of the listening test.

However, I cannot imagine that you would realistically see questions about this in any part of the IELTS speaking test. It is slightly too specialised and talking about it is a little too difficult.

When it comes to the topic of “brain drain,” you should think of this generally as being a sub-topic of work, education, and immigration. Note that IELTS topics often overlap like this.

As such, to talk about this, you should be comfortable with vocabulary related to these areas and specifically the points at which they intersect. Here are some examples:

  • advanced economy
  • citizen
  • developed country
  • developing country
  • emigration / emigrant
  • immigration / immigrant
  • permanent residency
  • standard of living
  • tertiary education
  • tuition fees
  • university

Make sure that you know more than just the loose meaning of each word or phrase. It is important that you know precisely how to use them.

Also, I have tried not to include more common words like “abroad” but obviously you should be familiar with them and confident about how to use them.

You can read more about common IELTS topics here.

How to think of ideas about “brain drain”

Sometimes, IELTS questions can be difficult not just because of the language required but because of the topic. While some people have strong opinions about brain drain, others don’t. They simply can’t think of anything to say or worry that their ideas aren’t very developed.

For this reason, it is useful not just to learn vocabulary in preparation for your IELTS test, but also to learn ideas. You can do that in different ways:

  • reading articles
  • listening to podcasts
  • watching videos or documentaries
  • engaging in debates

I recently saw this very interesting YouTube video, which goes into detail about why brain drain hurts some countries and why it keeps happening.

I have a whole article about how to generate ideas for IELTS.

Sample Essays

Ok, now let’s look at some sample questions and answers. These are quite similar but the types of question are different and so I have written different answers.

Brain Drain Essay: Problems and Solutions

Here is our first question:

An increasing number of professionals, such as doctors and teachers, are leaving their own poorer countries to work in developed countries.

What problems does this cause?

What can be done to deal with this situation?

As you can see, this is a problems and solutions question. That means you need to firstly explain the problems caused by brain drain and then suggest some solutions.

Sample Answer

In the modern era, it is common for people to move around the world for various reasons, including immigration purposes. This sometimes results in people leaving a poor country to go to a richer one, in a phenomenon that is sometimes known as “brain drain.” This essay will look into the reasons for this and also suggest some solutions.

The allure of wealthy countries is naturally going to appeal to many people from poorer nations. They look to these places and see opportunities for themselves and their families, as well as clean environments and high-quality homes and goods. It is natural, then, that these people will aspire to leave their own country and move to a more developed one in the hope of a better life. They study hard and take every possible chance to give themselves a brighter future, and once they are able to emigrate, they leave their home country and travel to their new home. This is usually a positive step for them, but it tends to trap poor countries in a cycle of poverty.

Solving this problem is clearly not easy because it is a pretty natural phenomenon and people will always want to give themselves a better life. However, if there was a way to encourage doctors and other professionals to stay in their home nation, they could help to build it into a much more prosperous society, ultimately resulting in generations of educated people with no real desire to leave. Another option is for that nation to attempt to attract doctors and teachers from other countries as a way of filling the knowledge gap. This would not be easy, but again if it were achieved it would result in a strengthened nation that would no longer encourage its citizens to leave.

In conclusion, it is a natural occurrence that people want to move to cleaner, more developed places with safer streets and better standards of living, which is why educated people flee from poor nations. However, solving this problem will not be easy and may require some creative action by various governments.

Notes on the Answer

I have a simple but effective structure here:

IntroductionExplain the main issue (brain drain) and then give essay outline.
Body paragraph #1Explain the causes (higher quality of life; more opportunities).
Body paragraph #2Suggest solutions (tempting people to stay; attracting people from abroad).
ConclusionSummarise main ideas.

In terms of language, I will note some useful phrases:

  • The allure of wealthy countries
  • see opportunities for themselves
  • high-quality homes and goods
  • take every possible chance
  • a brighter future
  • a cycle of poverty
  • a much more prosperous society
  • filling the knowledge gap
  • a natural occurrence

You will see that my solutions are not very definite but that’s because there are no easy solutions. Some students write things like “The government should pay doctors more money.” However, is this a realistic suggestion? If governments had unlimited money and could pay doctors more, they probably would. Therefore, use careful thinking and language skills to show reasonable ideas. Don’t worry about your suggestions being weakened by the admission that these ideas might not work. It is better to show that you are aware of this than to confidently make unreasonable suggestions.

Brain Drain Essay: Discuss Both Views

Here is our second question:

Some people believe that professionals, such as doctors and engineers, should be required to work in the country where they did their training. Others believe they should be free to work in another country if they wish.

Discuss both these views and give your own opinion.

You can see that this is a “discuss both views” question, so it is a little different from the previous one. Also, I suppose it is technically possible that you could answer this without mentioning brain drain, but still the idea is clearly connected.

Sample Answer

A small number of people think that highly trained professionals should be required to work in the same country where they did their training, but most people disagree with this. This essay will also disagree, suggesting that they should be free to work where they want.

To begin with, it is understandable that people might argue in favour of professionals working in the country where they trained because in some cases that country has paid for their training. Take, for example, a doctor who received medical training at the government’s expense in a relatively poor country. If they moved to another country, perhaps in order to earn a higher salary, then the government’s investment would have been wasted.

However, there are a few problems with that viewpoint. First of all, professionals of this nature usually pay for their own education, and so if they were required to stay in that country then it would be unfair. A lot of people invest in their education purely to gain the chance of moving to another country for a better life. Then, of course, there is the argument that all people should have some freedom of movement. Particularly in the case of highly trained professionals, who can bring value to different societies, it is beneficial to have them move around the world, sharing their skills and increasing diversity. Perhaps they ought to give something back to the society in which they were trained, but they should not be restricted by any law because that would be a violation of their fundamental rights.

In conclusion, people who have important skills should be free to move to other countries if they wish. They should not have a legal obligation to stay in the nation where they earned their skills, but perhaps for the sake of decency they might consider staying a short while and giving back to that society.

Notes on the Answer

I have not used the phrase “brain drain” here but the essay is still about that because brain drain is what happens when these people leave their home countries in large numbers.

Note that I have discussed both views but sided with the “disagree” perspective. That means I have written a longer paragraph full of “disagree” ideas. I have also made my opinion clear throughout the whole essay, which is also essential. In the introduction, for example, my outline sentence puts my perspective across very clearly.

Here are some more useful words and phrases:

  • highly trained professionals
  • to earn a higher salary
  • the government’s investment
  • people invest in their education
  • freedom of movement
  • a violation of their fundamental rights
  • a legal obligation

Finally, note that in both these essays I avoided the trap of repeating the examples from the question. It is a common mistake that IELTS candidates see an example and assume it is the main idea of the question. In fact, you do not need to talk about doctors and engineers. You could talk about any professionals.