Three perspectives: careers in China

A xinren ("recent arrival"), a zhongguo tong ("old hand") and a zhongjian ("in-between") discuss the ups and downs of doing physics research in China

Courtesy: Shutterstock/richliy

Gareth Jenkins, xinren

I came to Xiamen University, in the Fujian province of China, in early 2011 as part of a one-year programme called the UK–China Fellowship for Excellence, which is funded by the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Since March I have been a postdoc in Yang Chao Yong's group at Xiamen, working on a biophysics project that involves separating proteins by charge or size for use in genetic analysis, as well as using biosensors for the early detection of disease.

Earlier in my career, I worked in the UK for various start-up companies, developing microfluidic systems that separate molecules of different compounds according to their size-to-charge ratio – a technique known as capillary electrophoresis. Then, in 2009, I returned to academia, driven by a desire to follow my own research ideas and develop my commercial ambitions.

Initially, I worked at Imperial College London, where I had done the first part of my PhD research (my supervisor, Andreas Manz, moved to Germany when I was partway through, so I finished my PhD there). I also started my own consultancy business offering services in microfluidics, for which I have several Chinese partners, and I have engaged in a number of projects alongside my academic activities. But because the environment at Imperial is very competitive, it was hard to find students who wanted to become involved with my academic research. Also, since I spent time working for start-up companies, my publication record is shorter than that of academics of the same age who have not worked in industry. This lack of publications is a prohibitive barrier when applying for competitive UK funding. But as I had always been interested in working abroad, and since my wife is originally from Nanjing and has family in Xiamen, China seemed like the natural choice.

My first impressions of China were probably fairly typical. Clearly, the country is developing fast, as can be seen by the numerous construction projects visible in every city. The various universities I have visited have seemed to have rather chaotic and messy labs, filled with activity 24 hours a day. I was also a little overwhelmed by the bureaucracy, a problem that is exacerbated by the language barrier. However, after a few months and with the help of my group at Xiamen, I now find it possible to get things done quickly, and I can access other labs and equipment freely, with little hassle.

Although salaries for new lecturers in Chinese universities are still low, at around £400 a month, the openness and willingness I see here to form new partnerships and explore unknown areas of research has fitted in very well with my career plans. I have also found that there are a lot of people here who are eager to learn, and as a foreigner it has been relatively easy to get assigned my own research students.

Because I am a xinren or "recent arrival", it is too early to tell how my time in China will enhance my career. But as someone who is re-entering academia after working in industry, my hope is that working at Xiamen will allow me to rapidly develop my research ideas. I believe extending my publication list while I am here and having experience of working in China can only help my prospects for future career development. In addition, making contacts and finding partners from both industry and academia may well lead to exciting new business opportunities.

Stefan Metzger, zhongguo tong

I first came to China in 2004, when I had just finished my undergraduate studies in geoecology at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. Almost seven years later, some Chinese people have begun flattering me by calling me a zhongguo tong, or "old hand", in their country. As an undergraduate, I had studied Mandarin for three years, fitting this language training in between more "typical" courses in maths, physics, chemistry and earth sciences. Thanks to this experience, I was able to spend a year in Qingdao, eastern China, on a language course funded by my university's international office.

By spring 2005 I was doing an internship at National Dong Hwa University in Hualien, Taiwan. Then, my supervisor at Bayreuth, Thomas Foken, invited me to do my diploma (master's) project on assessing the quality of sites for measuring eddy-covariance (EC) flux – a technique that uses atmospheric turbulence statistics to quantify the exchange of heat and greenhouse gases at the Earth's surface. Since I had already used some of my free time to explore China's remote corners by foot, bike and bus, this project sounded ideal.

After finishing the diploma project, I began my PhD in a Sino-German research collaboration called MAGIM that studies how livestock grazing in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia is affecting climate. The group's underlying motivation is to determine the right balance between the ecosystem stability of semi-arid grasslands and cattle and sheep herding. I worked primarily on a sub-project that aimed to improve our understanding of the region's heat-exchange patterns, again using the EC technique.

As part of this work, our sub-group performed about 50 flight-days in a microlight aircraft packed with instruments. During preliminary studies in Germany and a six-week stint in Inner Mongolia, we accumulated a total of 15 000 km of airborne data. As it is unusual for foreigners to do airborne research over Chinese territory, we had to go through a lengthy process to obtain the right clearances. Also, due to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chinese airspace was closed to us throughout that year, so we completed our data collection in summer 2009, a year late.

This story illustrates one of the difficulties of pursuing science in China: a certain unpredictability that challenges your patience. It has also been my experience that you need to know the right people to get your science done. For example, we were able to access some of the areas we studied only because we had influential senior Chinese scientists as part of our international team. And even then, we had our own personally-assigned military representative with us most of the time to make sure we did not lose our way.

The good news is that Chinese funding for joint projects nowadays seems to be easier to get, especially in climate-change-related disciplines. However, the funding is often for capital assets such as cutting-edge instruments rather than for personnel. Consequently, it is not always possible to complete the proposed tasks. On the bright side, I have come to appreciate the flexibility of my Chinese colleagues, coupled with their ability to implement projects under the most adverse circumstances, including both physical and bureaucratic stresses.

After almost seven years travelling between Germany and China, this summer I am relocating to the US, where I will work as a postdoc at the National Ecological Observatory Network. This network is funded by the US National Science Foundation, and is designed to detect and forecast ecological change at the continental scale over several decades. I will be responsible for assessing and controlling the quality of a network of eddy-covariance stations – the same technique I applied in Tibet and Inner Mongolia. This time I will be working on transferable evaluation methods for up to 60 ground-based stations throughout the US, so it will be a big challenge.

Ian Broadwell, zhongjian

I last wrote for Physics World a little over two years ago, shortly after I had arrived in China to do a postdoc at Xiamen University as part of the EU Science and Technology Fellows programme (STF). When that article was published in May 2009 (p46), I had begun formal Mandarin training at Beiwˆi (Beijing Foreign Studies University), China's most famous language university, and was still feeling my way around the country's system of research funding. Today I consider myself a zhongjian, someone with an "in-between" level of experience in China, and I believe that doing a postdoc here has given me a welcome alternative perspective on doing scientific research.

During my two-year stint at Xiamen, where I work on developing an implantable biofuel cell for powering micro-electronic devices fuelled by blood glucose and oxygen, I have learned that China is a highly competitive society. Students here are eager to succeed, in part because having a chance at higher education is viewed as paramount. PhD students here must publish at least one research paper before they can graduate and this, I believe, is one of the driving forces behind China's increased output of publications. As a consequence of my time here, I believe I have become more driven and more focused on using the opportunities around me.

Many of these opportunities have come from the extensive networking I have done, beginning with the China representatives of well-established UK organizations such as the Royal Society of Chemistry, Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics World). With all three groups now having set up offices in China, such networking has opened some unexpected doors. In particular, I was able to competitively obtain funding from RCUK and Xiamen University's graduate school to run a joint summer school between Xiamen and Southampton universities. During the first week of August 2010 some 25 lecturers and nearly 100 students came to Xiamen as part of the summer school, attending series of lectures and workshops on biofuel cells and micro-energy devices.

This type of internationally funded, collaborative project has become more common in China since the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, which did a lot to raise the country's profile internationally. Since then, funding bodies in the UK and other EU countries have been increasingly willing to partner the Chinese government to support joint research projects. Even the US has a Fulbright programme dedicated to Chinese academic exchange.

On the Chinese side, one very important new development has been the Research Fund for International Young Scientists, which was set up in 2010 by the NSFC, China's main scientific funding organization. This fund provides generous levels of short-term funding (6–12 months) for international researchers under the age of 35. The picture is not all rosy, however; anyone considering applying to this fund should understand that foreigners face an average six-month wait to find out if their application has been successful, and that finding supporting electronic documentation in English is almost impossible. However, the NSFC's director-general, Han Jinguo, stated at an STF networking event in September 2009 that proposals submitted in English would receive the same fair treatment as proposals in Chinese.

In December 2011 I will be moving to ƒcole Normale SupŽrieure in Paris, where I will continue working towards an implantable biomedical power supply thanks to a two-year Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship. Although I have decided not to stay in China beyond the end of my two-year fellowship, coming here has certainly been a positive and uplifting experience, one that has given me opportunities that I could only have had by moving to the East. In the future I believe that many more Western academics will – like Gareth, Stefan and me – choose to spend part or all of their careers in China.

This article appears in the August 2011 issue of Physics World

last edited: August 06, 2012

Related information

US China Fulbright programme Provides funding for up to 20 US lecturers and 80 research students to visit China each year

China Post Doctoral Foundation Chinese-language site for funding, job and policy information, aimed at junior researchers

NSFC Research Fund for International Young Scientists English-language site with information about applying for 6 - 12 month research grants from China's National Natural Sciences Funding Council

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