Working in physics: Riding the red dragon

Western universities have long welcomed visiting students and academics from the Far East. Now China’s ascendance offers career opportunities for researchers like Ian Broadwell who want to make the reverse journey.

Eastern promise

Imagine a climate like that of the Canary Islands, a lab overlooking a golden beach, and a dramatic mountain coastline dotted with pagodas and forests of new skyscrapers. It sounds incredible, but in December 2008 I swapped the grey, winter skyline of the UK for just that. In the space of a few short days, I found myself leaving Nottingham for a job as a postdoc more than 5000 miles away at Xiamen University in Fujian province, China.

The cause of my rapid transition to Xiamen, which is located just across the straits from Taiwan, was a two-year Science and Technology China Fellowship that I was awarded by the European Union (EU) in October 2008, coupled with a two-month fellowship funded by the UK Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (see box). These are relatively new programmes – they were founded in 2004 and 2008, respectively – and their common aim is to promote links between EU- or UK-based researchers and Chinese institutions. Xiamen specializes in the study of surface science, and I am now doing research on enhancing the power output of biofuel cells using nanomaterials.

As in other countries, postdoc positions in China normally last for two years. This is generally long enough to get a good feel for a place, but since China is such a dynamic and fast-moving environment, the desire to explore its fascinating history and diverse culture may mean you will want to stay longer. One appealing feature of such a fellowship is the opportunity to learn a new language while simultaneously conducting your research and adding to your publication record. Other benefits of collaborating with researchers in China lie in the alternative (and, to me, welcome) perspective that their academic training can bring to a project. I have found that working at Xiamen allows me additional career privileges and freedoms that I would have struggled to gain in an “ordinary” postdoc. For instance, my Chinese colleagues are keen for me to design and deliver my own lecture courses, are quick to assign Masters-degree project students to help me, and are willing to give me a lot of freedom to design my own experiments. My work is highly multidisciplinary, and, as a foreigner, I am given the flexibility I need to work between groups, as well as privileged access to facilities (such as electron microscopes and facilities for fabricating micro-electrical-mechanical systems) to complete the project. And of course, international fellowships are a great incentive for scientists like me who really enjoy the opportunity to travel.

Travelling the world
My interest in China began when I visited friends in Shanghai in 2003, but my desire to travel overseas is even more deep-rooted. After I graduated from Hull University in 1998 with a degree in physics, I spent almost a year studying Russian and physics at the Urals State University in central Russia before returning to Hull to do a PhD in physical chemistry. But then, after I finished my PhD, I was disappointed to find that employers in industries such as medical physics and pharmaceutical science often saw my broad educational background as evidence that I was either overqualified or lacked staying power.

Faced with this reality, I decided to switch fields by doing a Masters degree in exploration geophysics at the University of Leeds with support from Shell. This professional qualification led to a job as an offshore geophysicist with Veritas DGC (now known as CGG Veritas), a firm that provides seismic data to the oil and gas industries, and I spent part of 2005 prospecting for oil off the north-western coast of Australia. But after about six months, I realized that such jobs do not require a PhD, and I moved back to Hull.

The first significant step towards my goal of working in China came in 2006, when three Chinese academics visited Hull University from Xiamen after an invitation to collaborate. At that time, no-one had yet made the reverse journey from Hull to Xiamen, so in 2007 (following discussions with those visiting academics) I decided to remedy the situation by going to Xiamen twice: first on an exploratory visit, then to discuss a framework for research collaboration.

My work at Xiamen is on a project aimed at generating electricity directly from blood glucose and oxygen, and using it to power implanted microelectronic devices. With current technologies, batteries in applications such as pacemakers need to be changed at regular intervals, which involves surgery, so a “perpetual battery” would be a significant medical breakthrough. I have found that Xiamen provides all the right technical ingredients for developing the physics and engineering of this technology, rather than just improving the chemistry, which others have already done.

Practical considerations
A typical salary for a researcher in China working for a Chinese institution is around 2500 renminbi per month, or about £250. However, this can be considerably higher — about £1500 per month, tax free — if you obtain a fellowship. In addition to the programme with which I am involved, new changes to the EU’s Marie Curie Fellowships, which enable early-career researchers to work abroad (Physics World December 2004 pp50— 51), mean that EU citizens will soon be able to apply for Chinese funding under a recently negotiated joint EU— China reciprocal agreement. I was told during a meeting with several commissioners in Brussels that the funding levels for this new programme will be equivalent to salary levels in the EU.

Pay is also higher for researchers working at those Western universities that have an established “satellite” campus in mainland China. Examples of such partnerships include the University of Nottingham, which established its Ningbo campus near Shanghai in 2004, and the University of Liverpool, which partnered with the existing Xi’an Jiaotong University in Suzhou to form a new joint institution in 2006. Note, however, that as the Nottingham Ningbo campus is an independent university (unlike Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool), it does not receive central-government funding, which means that it is currently a teaching-only institution with little research activity. On the other hand, the private status of the Ningbo campus does allow academics to freely develop their own curriculum outside of the government model. Researchers who are thinking about spending time in China must carefully consider how much research and teaching they will be required to do at their host institution, compared with a similar appointment in the West.

I initially had some concerns about what I could realistically expect to achieve during a two-year fellowship, due to my lack of familiarity with some Chinese-made equipment and with how the Chinese university system operates (for instance, how money for consumables is administered or where you procure research materials). However, as a state-designated “key laboratory” in surface chemistry, Xiamen University receives regular annual funding from both of China’s main funding bodies (see box) and hence has a modern infrastructure and among the most up-to-date facilities in China for doing surface science.

Within these new labs there is state-of-the-art equipment — often procured from Japan and western countries — that allow research of an international standard to take place. This, along with the many friendly and supportive colleagues I have met, has made me feel much more confident that the original project aims can be met.

Goals and guanxi
From talking with the 30 other EU Science and Technology China fellows in my 2008 “class”, it is clear to me that working in a Chinese university gives you a lot of flexibility in developing your career. This is partly due to the open and multidisciplinary approach to research that flourishes in many institutions here. The keen demand for academic English also opens doors — although sometimes it can be hard to refuse requests to check colleagues’ academic papers. Consequently, one learns a lot about time management and guanxi, which means “personal relationships”. If you dare venture here, be prepared for a fully hands-on and action-packed two years!

If staying in academia after a foreign assignment is not for you, it is still likely that a stint overseas will open other doors. True, Western companies generally will not employ foreign, highly skilled labour to work in China when they can employ locals at a fraction of the cost, but there are exceptions to this if you bring significant skills and experience to the job. Postdoctoral researchers who have worked in China and can speak the language well will, I suspect, be highly sought after by Chinese and foreign firms. In addition, according to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, there are 1160 foreign-owned R&D centres in China, where large Western companies such as Siemens, Pfizer, Merck and many others are already using China’s cheap, graduate labour market.

So, if you are a physicist with the drive for new experiences, the determination to succeed and willingness to try, then I believe that working in China can be a life-changing experience. As a minimum, you will become a more independent scientist with a more international perspective of your work. At best, it will make you fluent in Mandarin, and open up opportunities to carve out a good career in Chinese academia or back in the West.

The dragon’s den: Chinese research funding
Navigating an unfamiliar university system can be a challenge to any researcher working outside their home country. For researchers in China, however, the problem is compounded by the country’s sheer size. China now has more than 1700 higher- education institutions, but funding is concentrated in the top 100 universities, known as “211 Project” schools (the “21” refers to the 21st century, while the “1” refers to the 100 schools). These institutions train four-fifths of China’s PhD students, two-thirds of graduate students and a third of all undergraduates. There is also a supplementary programme, launched in May 1998 by then-President Jiang Zemin, which focuses on the top 30 universities. This “985 Project” (named for the year and month it began) provides funds for academic exchange programmes, such as allowing Chinese academics to participate in overseas conferences and bringing foreign lecturers to China.

In terms of research, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) operates three different types of state-funded laboratories: National Laboratories, State Engineering Research Centres (SERCs), and State Key Laboratories (SKLs) like the one for surface science at Xiamen University (my institute). The six national laboratories focus on multidisciplinary research, while the others are more discipline specific, with the SERCs focusing more on applied topics and the SKLs on basic research. The 200 or so SKLs are designed as platforms for carrying out research at an internationally competitive level, and they are also attracting outstanding scientists who are returning to China after spending time abroad (Physics World August 2008 pp14—15).

Although China is a developing country with many financial commitments, the investment in research infrastructure has been significant over the past 10 years, and the country plans to pump 2.5% of its GDP into R&D by the year 2020. This figure currently stands at about 1.5% GDP. If we keep in mind that China has set a goal to treble its total GDP between 2005 and 2020, this would mean roughly €10bn of extra funding each year. Although the current economic crisis may force the authorities to revise their predictions downwards, this is likely to remain unchanged certainly until 2010, which marks the end of the current 11th five-year plan.

About the author
Ian Broadwell is a biophysicist at Xiamen University, China.


This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Physics World

last edited: July 31, 2014