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My years in China

Richard de Grijs, who spent eight years as a senior scientist in China, outlines the advantages and disadvantages of working in this burgeoning scientific powerhouse.

Richard de Grijs
Courtesy: Richard de Grijs

When I first travelled to China in 2002 I clearly remember telling my wife that there was no way I could ever see us moving there. Eight years later we found ourselves on a flight to Beijing, greatly anticipating our new life in an environment where opportunities appeared to be boundless. Beijing, my wife’s home city, had achieved a level of development I could not have envisioned during that first visit. Cranes dominated the city’s skyline and there appeared to be no let-up in the rapid pace of progress.

My reason for moving to Beijing in 2010 was to take up a post as senior scientist at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics – a prestigious new international research centre on the campus of Peking University. I spent eight years in the city, which flew by like a whirlwind, fast-paced and full of excitement. China – and especially Chinese science – is still on an upward trajectory and I benefited tremendously from unparalleled access to some of the brightest young minds in the country, if not the world.

Time to move
I will, however, no longer be integral to these developments, having earlier this year relocated to Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, where I am now an associate dean. Professionally, I would have been happy to remain at Peking University: my group of students and postdocs were consistently one of the most productive research teams at the institute. I established an excellent track record in attracting external research funding, and there was no shortage of bright young talent to assist us in pursuing the great scientific challenges of the day.

But I would not have been happy doing more of the same for the next 20 years; I am still ambitious and keen to play a positive role on a more global scale. And although I fully intend to maintain the strong collaborations and friendships resulting from my deep engagement with the Chinese scientific community, a number of incidents contributed to my decision to leave China. While the Kavli Institute’s senior leadership supported my ambitions, over the years there were moments where I – as a foreigner in China – clearly felt the presence of a proverbial glass ceiling.

I was explicitly told on multiple occasions that my ambitions had been cut short because of my foreign citizenship. Once, for example, I applied for – and was offered – an appointment as associate dean for international relations at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS). The dean liked me, but the university’s vice-president said that he could not approve awarding the job to a foreigner. Other knock-backs occurred when I sought top-level government funding opportunities. Several times I also received informal feedback that prestigious honorary appointments and awards had not gone my way because I was not Chinese.

Having moved internationally a number of times over the course of my career, I also became increasingly keen to have a stable income that I could draw on following the mandatory retirement age of 60 in China. So when I was offered an appointment at Macquarie University the decision to relocate was easy. Although I am no longer based at a top global research university, I am sufficiently well established in terms of my career that this perceived disadvantage is offset by the many rewards of living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. In particular, as a former Beijing resident, I love the excellent air quality that Sydney routinely enjoys: only once so far has it dropped below that of Beijing, and that was because of forest fires in the city’s immediate vicinity. (I should note that the Beijing government’s efforts to clean the city’s air have led to noticeable recent improvements: the "airmageddon" of January 2013 is unlikely to be repeated.)

Despite China’s rise to scientific prominence there have been a worrying number of cases involving plagiarism and other forms of scientific misconduct, which have often led to China’s achievements being called into question. To me, the incessant scrutiny of the country’s scientists by the international news media – with the expectation that flagrant abuses of the system are the norm rather than the exception – is rather unfair. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that these examples of misconduct are a symptom of a bigger issue in Chinese science.

Productivity – and sometimes even one’s salary – is determined almost exclusively on the basis of the number (but not necessarily the quality) of research articles that one has published in international peer-reviewed journals either as first author, or as corresponding author on a student’s paper. Rewards (monetary and otherwise) also depend to some extent on the journal’s impact factor, which is a measure of how often papers in it get cited. This pressure to publish is most likely behind the excesses we read about on whistleblowing sites such as retractionwatch.com.

Can do, will do
Carving out a scientific career in China is largely enjoyable and mostly exciting. As a rapidly growing research superpower there are numerous reasons for ambitious young researchers to consider China as their potential destination. For one thing there are many opportunities to get involved in big science projects such as the Thirty Meter Telescope, China’s own Large Optical Telescope, the Chinese Space Station’s telescope, the next-generation particle accelerator and many more. Chinese scientists are also very keen to embrace international collaborations, which has led to a pervasive, opportunistic can-do attitude. At Peking University I was continually and enthusiastically encouraged to make a name for myself and for the institution. Indeed, the Chinese scientific community is vibrant, attractive and ever-more internationally competitive.

Science is also seen as a valuable pursuit by the higher echelons of Chinese society. Numerous government officials and many of the country’s senior leaders, for example, have science or engineering degrees. In the West, in contrast, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone at a senior level in government or policy circles with a background in science or engineering (with a few honourable exceptions including German Chancellor Angela Merkel). Because of the presence of scientists in positions of power, coupled with a Chinese economy that is still relatively strong, the funding landscape for both basic and applied research is healthy.

That’s not to say it’s easy to win funding in China: internal, institutional politics play a role too and you still need to submit high-quality proposals to stand a chance at a piece of the funding pie. With a few exceptions, however, international scientists based in China appear to thrive and they also seem happy in their personal lives. I would find it odd therefore talking to friends and colleagues abroad, who often could not understand why I had gone to China and sometimes were even hostile about anyone moving there to do research.

One potential practical impediment facing junior scientists coming to China is that they need to stay visible on the international research scene in case they one day want to leave the country for a more senior position elsewhere in the world. If you’re an early-career scientist in this position my advice would be to establish yourself first before applying for a job in China, which is best done by networking in your international community.

Establishing such ties from scratch once you’re already in China will be a much more daunting prospect simply because China is geographically so far from many institutions in the rest of the world. Postdocs considering a move to China should therefore think carefully about what the potential advantages and disadvantages might be.

Another practical issue facing many young scientists is that they are likely to have a partner or family, whose wellbeing they will have to consider. Few international couples will want to commit to a career-long stay in China (or anywhere else for that matter), probably envisioning relocating somewhere else again at some point. Unfortunately, if you have children, international schools in China’s main cities are unaffordable on a postdoc’s salary. Sadly, there is not an easy answer to this problem.

Despite such difficulties if you are a postdoc or have just obtained a PhD, I wholeheartedly recommend you spend a few years of your career in China before moving on to a permanent appointment elsewhere in the world. More senior scientists, in contrast, will have to decide for themselves whether the advantages outweigh the downsides. As for me, would I do it again? Perhaps, but I realize now more than ever that my boundary conditions – both professional and personal – would certainly all need to be met, comfortably and fully.

Richard de Grijs is an astrophysicist and associate dean for global engagement at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.



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