A bitter taste from my college education experience in China

Two weeks ago, I met one of my friends, Tong, at Wall memorial gym at our routing Friday badminton night. Both of us are close to graduation this year and we couldn’t stop talking about current job hunting situations once we touched the topic.

To be honest, I haven’t started looking for jobs yet, but I already heard how bad it is. That is actually what I was thinking about whether I should stay for another semester to be more prepared for job hunting and interviews, if I get any.

Tong is the only child in his family and he is bored about the life in USA, so his top choice is in China. We would thought he is relatively competitive since he is getting his Ph.D degree here at the mechanical engineer program. While, based on what he told me, it was not what he expected.

Started at  year 1999, China’s government made a big decision, that was to dramatically increase the admission of higher education to release the pressure from gradually growing unemployment rate, which was related with the dramatic change of China’s social and economical status during the 1990s. Before that, even the admission of higher education was gradually growing with an annual rate around 8%, from year 1999, this number soared to 38% and this high growth continued for couple years till 2006. In 2008, this number decreased to 5%, which was even lower than before this college expansion policy.

Due to this aggressive college expansion, many college graduates like me, and my friend Tong, are suffering from the serious consequence now. The biggest challenge is where to find a job for such a suddenly increased population of highly-educated people.

Even only after four years, when the first batch of bachelors jumped into the job market, lots of problems showed up.

First, it built lots of pressure to colleges and universities. Due to a sudden expansion of students, most colleges and universities had trouble to offer enough basic facilities to students, like dormitories and classrooms, especially many lab classes. Then many universities spent lots of money on building construction trying to fulfill the expansion. After several years, many universities accumulated a huge debt due to this massive construction.

Second, the quality of higher education was declined. Largely due to the shortage of basic facilities and equipment, also shortage of faculties, the quality of college education during those 9 years were questioned by the public. A low faculty/student ratio, crowded classroom, in-flexible schedule, all those ended up over-whelmed faculties and less quality control. This was really bad to graduate school. Because this college expansion was not just limited to undergraduate education, but also graduate school. This even greater expansion was thought to buffer off the high unemployment rate among the fresh college graduates. In a sudden, the graduate students under one supervisor doubled or even tripled. You might be curious how the faculties can manage the financial support for 20 or even 30 graduate students. Actually, at that moment the graduate students were sponsored by the government fund, instead of research grant from the faculty. It was impossible to instruct or tutor each graduate student by the professor him/herself. Many graduate students spent several years wondering and tumbling about what they are doing, and then graduated with just a degree instead of improvement in their real ability. Now,most of the graduate students admitted during this expansion are graduated and facing the big challenge to find an appropriate job.

Also, due to this expansion, the requirement from the employers changed too. Many job positions which a bachelor’s degree will be fully enough , now they require for a master degree or even a doctor’s degree. Especially for those good-pay jobs. This brought our higher education into an even worse cycle. Everyone thought a higher degree means good job, and they all wanted to go to graduate school, while many technique-based jobs are in a big short of workers. Several years later after graduate school, they just realized the job available were still those technique-based ones, which they were able to take when they were right out of college. Should I take this job, or should I wait for a better one? Or, should I go for a higher degree like a Ph.D or even abroad study? Many of us payed with our best years in life to learn: Higher education does not guarantee good job. Many of my friends said more than once, “If I was given the chance to remake my choice, I would take a job when I graduated from college. I might be a mom/dad now, instead of unemployed and worried about my future.”

China’s higher education administration has already regretted for this rushed college expansion and stopped this expansion at 2008. Now the graduate schools are switching to the western model. The faculty is fully responsible for graduate students’ financial support. However, just like what happened to my friend Tong, there are more people holding a Ph.D degree than what this area actually calls for.  It is a valuable experience to be able to go to graduate school, but I cannot deny the bitter taste of it.

research faculty duties, how to balance?

I was sitting in the lunchroom in our lab building alone last Thursday for a afternoon snack, grabbed a magazine from the bookshelf at the corner and  glanced few articles. the very first scientists feature article actually brought my attention, not in a traditional research sensitive way, but more humanistic thinking.

The article was a interview of a research director, Bill Jack, from the New England Biolabs (NEB) company, which is the rocket company in the whole enzyme industry. One interesting question the interviewer was asking is what brought him to NEB. Bill’s answer was quite surprising.

“As a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, I expected to pursue an academic position. When I finished my postdoctoral work, I received job offers from an academic institution, an industrial company, and NEB. At the time, I had three sons, the youngest of whom was 2 years old. When making my decision, I looked at my sons and realized that if I took the academic position, in six years, I might have tenure, which would allow time to get to know them. But there was a real possibility that I would miss a large part of six formative years in those boys’ lives. While I admire those who can succeed in academia while maintaining a balanced life, for me, that seemed a daunting task.

I read through the discussions in our forum and it is quite clear that everyone knows that the three major duties as a faculty: research, teaching, service (outreach). I heard so many stories about how stressful of being an assistant professor and how miserable it can be for graduate students working for them. I don’t think that means most of the assistant professors are evil, but apparently going through tenure-track is definitely a very stressful process. Even as those associate professors, especially when going through funding cut, the depressing atmosphere can be easily sensed. My supervisor he likes to supervise and tutor undergrads in the lab by himself, however, during these two recent years, he was so busy with grant writing and other services, he barely got a chance to work on his own bench. Most often we will hear from him “I got to get this grant due by …”; “I have to work on this weekend”; “I am tired”……

I really don’t think those faculty duties are completely beyond one’s potential, but just like what Bill said in his interview,”be successful in academia while maintaining a balanced life, that seemed a daunting task”. I am not sure about the statistical data about how many working hours those research faculties generally devote every week, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is significantly above average. And I wouldn’t be surprised that when we see more negative comments about the teaching performance of those research faculties. I think this is beyond what I know about the importance of research for tenure-track, just by sensing it, I can only say it is hard, for Bill, also for myself.