Working as a researcher for a Chinese university: Pros and cons

working as a researcher in china

In the last years, even in countries where it was traditionally easy to find a place as a researcher or professor’s assistant (such as France, for example) have gradually reduced offering new positions, and consequently, there are fewer opportunities for young people.

This is one of the reasons, perhaps the most important one, why ever more researchers or aspiring professors look to the East, where the university market is still expanding. Leading the way is inevitably China.

Having worked from 2006 to 2012 as a researcher both in Europe and in China, I thought I’d list the pros and cons of Chinese universities, hoping to clarify things for all those people – and they are many – who are considering such an option.

The pros for working at a Chinese university

  • Despite the worldwide economic crisis, in China there is a constant demand for specialists both in the fields of research and instruction. Such demand is fed by State subsidies and a growing number of young ones in a position to pursue a college career. Landing an academic position is therefore relatively easy.

    As if that weren’t enough, the fact that there are very few foreigners in China has generated among Chinese universities a course of internationalization. Yes, being able to add a foreign researcher to their faculty is still a sign of prestige in the Middle Kingdom (even if that situation won’t last forever).

  • China has hundreds of research and development centers, often equipped with tools and machines that would make even the most renowned American university jealous.. It’s a necessary condition for anyone who wants to develop a serious research project in fields such as biology or industrial robotics, where the limit is often dictated by the cost of tools and materials necessary for the experiments.
  • Contrary to what happens in many other countries, Chinese universities have one staff an elevated number of researchers and technical support . It is therefore common to work closely with twenty or thirty people engaged in themes closely related to your field of research.
  • In the last few years China has exponentially increased the percentage of PIL dedicated to research . Such economic effort has allowed China to become the second country (after the United States) in number of scientific publications (although the quality of the articles in average is still lower than the one of the articles published by Western Universities.
  • Being the country in which a good part of the world’s manufacturing industry takes place the cost of tools and materials needed to advance research in a Chinese laboratory is usually less than that of a similar laboratory in Europe or the United States. Moreover the delivery times are much less.
  • China offers economic incentives for publication. Or, besides just a salary, authors of published articles receive a sum of money proportionate to the impact of the scientific magazine in which it has been published. Also salaries are usually accompanied by various bonuses that can go from reimbursement for total transport expenses in China (including taxis) to covering the cost of renting an apartment. Actually, the most prestigious universities have entire buildings just to house – either freely or at a very discounted rate – professors and researchers.
  • Knowing both the Chinese and Western academic systems – two polar opposite worlds, – you can brand yourself as a “communication bridge” between East and West, leading joint research projects, carrying out bilateral exchange programs (interns, masters students, etcetera) and thereby increasing your chances of success in the event that you wish to return to work in Europe in the future (useful people are always welcome).
  • Moreover in recent years several “hybrid” universities have emerged (or institutions collaborating between Chinese universities and universities abroad) based out of Chinese territory such as UM-SJTU Joint Institute (University of Michigan and Shanghai Jiao Tong University). Not only do such universities need to continuously take on new staff to fill in the gaps, but they often pay “American” salaries (even 4,000 USD a month plus benefits like rent, health insurance, etcetera).
  • Last but not least, these days living in China and being able to communicate in Chinese opens professional highways that no other language can guarantee (except for English, but if you’re thinking about working for a Chinese university then I’m sure you already speak English).

The cons of working for a Chinese University

Not all that glitters is gold in the land of the Orient. Working for a Chinese University carries certain compromises and negative aspects as well. Here are the main ones.

  • Not everyone can adapt to China. We are talking about a country that possesses a culture totally different than our own. Starting with the “banality” of a totally different cuisine going up to the prevailing pollution problems or the culture of “saving face”, where a Chinese will blatantly lie to you rather than admit he was wrong or ignorant (even in innocent or trivial matters).
  • Starting salaries are lower than the European or United States average, even when compared to the cost of living in China. Just to give some numbers, researchers with a post-doctorate contract or assistant professors earn, excluding bonuses, about 4.000-5.000 Yuan a month (or about 650-800 USD) which works fine for a provincial city but in Shanghai, is barely enough to survive (that is, if you intend to live according to what would be acceptable conditions in the West). An associate professor will earn about 10.000 Yuan a month (1.600 USD at current exchange rates) with which you can live in either Shanghai or Beijing (but don’t expect much luxury).

    Ordinary professors can earn much more, and usually have their hands in many different private enterprises that contribute greatly to their income. To these numbers you need to add bonuses, which depending on the contract and, as was mentioned, can value between 100-200 USD a month in the form of rent to much higher figures that vary on a case by case basis. Throughout the years I happened to receive rather curious bonuses, from five kilos of rice to an ice cream cake.

    So as not to discourage young ones too much (or those destined to a starting contract), I want to add that there are research organizations such as CAS (Chinese Academy of Sciences) which, for the purpose of hanging on to the best talent, have begun offering salaries that would be competitive even in Europe or United States. In addition, as I already mentioned, there are universities with foreign collaborations that offer extremely interesting salaries.

  • The Chinese university system is extremely inefficient and in some cases, of doubtful quality. This is evident if you analyze not only the number of publications (as in the past) but also the H Index, that offers a rather precise measure of the quality and effectiveness of the scientific productivity of a given researcher, laboratory or country (here you’ll find an explanation as to how they calculate the H Index).

    You’ll notice that in this case China drops from the second to the sixteenth position. Such inefficiency is due to the monstrous bureaucracy of the Middle Kingdom, to the relative “youngness” of the greater part of Chinese laboratories and an educational system where, starting from nursery school, creativity is penalized in favor of obedience to the system (we’re talking about a “communist country with Chinese characteristics” as Deng Xiao Ping loved to say).

  • The little creativity is often compensated with quantity. This means that the principle strategy of many Chinese research groups is to point to the greatest number of published articles possible – often without a direction or specific research objective – with the hope of getting results. The “successfulness” of a laboratory is measured by the number of publications – preferably in magazines with a high level of impact – and the import of public and private financing they manage to obtain (it must be noted that this criteria goes for anywhere, not just China).
  • Chinese security standards are much more lax than those in the west. I’ve never personally witnessed this, but I have heard of toxic materials being transported without precautions, homemade electric systems and things of the like.
  • The Chinese research system is rather closed, difficult for foreigners to access. This brings on a sort of cultural isolation. The language doesn’t help. In many laboratories the level of English is rather low and it takes time to get used to it.
  • If you’re involved in humanistic matters it will be hard to find a position. China is a completely business-oriented country. To again quote Deng Xiao Ping, “getting rich is glorious.” Even if this fact is somewhat true everywhere, I think that in China the more commercially viable scientific matters enjoy a disproportionate preference.
  • Internet is one of the biggest problems of working in China. Even if the majority of strictly scientific web sites aren’t blocked by the Great Firewall of China, getting on to a web site hosted on a server outside of China (basically every web site that isn’t in Chinese) is a slow and unstable process that at times is frustrating to the point of desperation.

And the teaching?

I haven’t spoken about teaching methods because, never having taught in China, I’m not an expert. I can say that:

  • Especially in scientific fields it is possible to teach in English (at least for masters level courses). Also, collaborating international universities often offer study courses completely in English.
  • Due to the issue of saving face, or the fear of being wrong, Chinese students usually adopt a passive attitude. It’s up to you to win their trust and motivate them to actively participate.
  • If you intend to pursue a career in China as a professor you should “resign yourself” to learning Chinese.
    Don’t worry, if you live here and work closely with the Chinese it isn’t an absolutely impossible undertaking. Rather, in time you’ll learn to love this language that may be difficult for us, but is at the same time quite stimulating.

Final considerations

I’d like to conclude on a positive note. The Chinese research culture is still in its pioneer stages – with all the problems that it brings – but has, in my humble opinion, enormous potential, especially for those who decide to come before even in this field, China becomes “fashionable.”

Some may say that it’s already too late, that you should have come ten years ago. However, according to my own personal experience and having spoken with researchers working in China in various sectors, I can confirm that there’s still plenty of space for someone with the will, ability to adapt and a lot of perseverance.

I wish you good luck and don’t hesitate to let a comment below about any doubts or questions you might have!

Photo Credits: Photo by BachBackpack on Pixabay

9 thoughts on “Working as a researcher for a Chinese university: Pros and cons”

  1. Hi, Sborto. I’m HY LEE, a Chinese researcher who has interest in the topic you shared, and have already started to do related research in this field. I’m so glad to read this summary here, but it’s a pity to meet this so late. I’m curious if you still pay attention to this website. If so, would you like to share more experience to me? Thanks.

  2. Thanks Furio for the informative article. I am considering postdocroral research in a chinese university of medium repute falling in ranking of 20-30 among chinese universities. Can i expect the labs well equiped with all requisite instrumentation for materials chemistry research. Also i have heard the work culture in China is a bit tough and one has to work for long hours without a break even on weekends. Can you please share your experence.

    1. Hello Azhar,

      it really comes down to the university! No, I dont think they will make you work on weekends but you shall double check it with your advisor in China

  3. My experiences are somewhere between Furio’s and Olivier’s (probably closer to Olivier’s). I laughed at Sborto’s comment about the used gloves in particular — I work in a DNA lab, where we conduct sensitive PCRs from highly-degraded DNA sources on a daily basis, and my Chinese colleagues wear the same pair of latex gloves for a week or until they break. PCRs are set up on a bench with no UV irradiation or HEPA filtering. In the West we would get through dozens of pairs of gloves a day and bend over backwards to keep things sterile in UV cabinets! I have never seen anyone going through the lab waste for goodies to sell, but I work in a very well-funded lab. Everything does go into the same trash though. In spite of all this, my experience has been largely positive — I have been given a lot of freedom and independence to pursue my own research, though I do feel as Olivier suggested that there is some stigma attached to a Chinese academic affiliation.

    1. Hello Zhalxitn,

      thank you for sharing our experience. As I said before, experience as researcher in China may vary a lot according to the lab, the field, the city etc. Thus, it’s interesting to hear different point of view.

      Even for the article we published, although I signed it, the pros and cons are actually a mix of both mine and Sborto’s experience (we both have a background as researchers). In particular, all we shared about labs comes from Sborto’s experience

  4. This is a great summary of the pros and cons. You did well to think of so many pros! From my own experiences of working as a postdoc at a Chinese university for five years, I would add the following cons:

    – Regulations change every five minutes, especially when it comes to reimbursements. Don’t believe you’ll ever get your money back until the money is in your account.

    – Reimbursements can take up to six months and if you are here for multiple years, expect auditors asking questions about your expenses from two or three years ago and expecting you to remember what you spend the money on and where.

    – If you are lucky to travel abroad for a conference, you probably will not be allowed to go for more than the exact dates of the conference (and in some cases may have to go just for some days, because the ‘regulations’ say you cannot be away from China for too long.

    – Per diems are terrible. If you have to travel in China, you might be asked to spend under 200 RMB for a hotel room and you will not be allowed to take taxis (just public transport, that is very difficult if you arrive at an airport very late at night).

    – Contrary to Furio Fu’s experiences, I have had to wait months and months to import equipment and reagents from other countries because many proprietary chemicals (I work in life sciences) are not manufactured in China.

    – Wet lab research here is much more expensive because the importers charge sometimes 300% markups on things from abroad. Your research grant may be bigger but your expenses much higher to compensate. You will also waste money ordering things you might need in future, but do not actually use, because you have to plan experiment so far in advance.

    – Everyone will still your research grant and use it to pay for their own analyses, equipment, etc. The culture of sharing everything applies to your grant money too.

    – You will be expected to write reports for the university or grant body with very short notice. Three times I have been told a major report is due, that would normally take weeks of work, but I am given only 24 hours to write it because the administration is disorganized.

    – As Furio Fu suggested, I have seen toxic materials go straight into the garbage can to be disposed of in the regular way.

    – Good luck getting a job outside of China after working at a Chinese university. The general attitude in the west is that people only come to China to work in universities if they could not get jobs or tenure anywhere else.

    I am sure there are many pros for others and I would be happy to hear them. These are just my negative experiences from working in a major national university in China.

    1. Dear Oliver, thank you for sharing your experience with us!

      I believe the experience of working as a researcher in China may vary a lot according to the city, the University, the research team and the research field.

      So I think the experience of every one may be useful / different



    2. Hi Oliver, thank you for sharing.

      As Furio says the experience may vary a lot depending on the place. For example in my case (I was in a Biology lab), most of the reactives where produced in China so I could get it the same day (much faster than in my country).

      Also, I had a grant that I should spend in one month because no one told me they weren’t using the money (I thought that they were using it to buy reactives). However one of the things that shocked me the most was to see people searching in the rubbish (full of lab waste) for something useful to sell, of course wearing used gloves.

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