A Chinese PhD Student's Experience of the West


My name is Song Qi Jun. I am a PhD student in the chemistry department at the University of Hull, but I come from a very remote town, Yi Ning, in the Xinjiang Ugur autonomous region near the border of the former Soviet Union, now Kazakhstan. Xinjiang is known as a "new territory," and its level of economic development and education used to be lower than in most other parts of China. For most young people in China in the early 1980s, going to university was the key to a bright future. So, after graduation from high school, students all wanted to sit the very competitive nationwide university entrance examination.

I passed this entrance exam and started my 4-year undergraduate studies in chemistry at Xinjiang University in fall 1982. For Chinese students, the choice of university and subject of study are based largely on your interest and how well you do on the exam. In those days, to study science was always thought to be good for your future career. In fact, most of our decisions were influenced by general social attitudes, because we didn't really understand what the future would be like.

After 4 years of undergraduate studies, I decided to pursue further study to give myself better job opportunities. So I sat another national entrance exam, this time for postgraduate studies, and then moved to the Beijing Institute of Science and Technology. Pursuing an MSc degree in China has some similarities with studying for the PhD in the West, and it usually takes 3 years to complete. In a subject like chemistry, the first year is taken up with taught modules and the remaining time is spent doing research work under the guidance of a supervisor.

Upon my graduation in 1989, a master's degree was regarded as an adequate qualification for employment as a university teacher. In China, university teachers have more free time than people in other jobs. Usually we have to give only about 4 hours of lectures a week. As for research work, it depends largely on your personal interest and the availability of funding.

But things are changing very rapidly in China. These days a PhD degree is preferred for university teachers, especially for young lecturers, although this is still not compulsory in most universities. Furthermore, a PhD degree obtained from a Western university tends to be regarded as superior to its homegrown counterpart. As a result, overseas study has become increasingly popular among China's young scientists. This is why I gave up my job to come to the UK for further study. And when I joined this group in January, I found that Hull University is an ideal environment for me to do a PhD. The working conditions are excellent here, and technical services, such as access to mass spectrometer and nuclear magnetic resonance equipment for researchers, are also very good. Here I can concentrate on my work, whereas at my home university I was always bothered by many trivial things, such as teaching and administrative work, as well as household chores!

Having studied in both China and Britain, I personally don't agree that a PhD from a Western university is superior to one from a Chinese university. But there are many differences between these two education systems. In China, students tend to be told what they should learn and exactly what to do. They spend more time on theoretical studies, especially at the undergraduate stage. When they attend lectures, they are asked to keep quiet, listen, and take notes, and courses follow a corresponding textbook closely. In Britain, students seem to have fewer set modules and have more freedom to learn what they are really interested in. I think the Western style of education is more efficient at producing creative personnel, though their general knowledge may not be as strong as that of Chinese students.

Compared with my home university, I noticed there are far fewer staff here. For example, the analytical group at Hull University has only seven staff, whereas there are 20 staff in the analytical group at my home university. Here everyone seems to be very busy in both teaching and research work. In China, not all university teachers can obtain funding for their research, so many teachers do virtually nothing except give a few hours of lectures a week.

I have noticed that there are many research foundations giving grants for pure science in Britain. In China, research is increasingly directed towards "serving economic development," and as a result, it is hard to get funding for pure science research. Even if they get funding, scientists in China seem to be motivated more by the number of publications they can produce than by fascination for the science itself.

However, in China scientists are more aware of the science going on around the world, whereas British scientists can be more inward looking and certainly not as aware of science going on in China. Generally speaking, China is still quite backward in science, but the speed of development in science as well as in other areas is very fast. I believe China will lead in some research areas very soon, for example, in biochemistry, electroanalytical chemistry, and genetic engineering. So I think that communication between scientists from these two countries is urgently needed. Otherwise, British scientists may be surprised by their Chinese counterparts sometime in the future, just as the whole world was surprised by China at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

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