Throwaway PhDs? The mindless and unfair side of higher education in China

I know a fellow from Taiwan who spent eight years laboring over his PhD — eight years! — in some area of engineering. He now runs a private media company and does real estate on the side, and regrets the years he spent on higher education. Another friend of mine came over here for a PhD in some area of environmental architecture. He is now contemplating a move over to law school.

Why do some Chinese students, after years of grueling study, toss away their higher education when it comes to their career choices?

There’s clearly something amiss in China when it comes to getting higher education, as mentioned in this article “Record students seeking to enter postgraduate courses, but job market expert says employers prefer experience“:

Some candidates who registered this year [to participate in the postgraduate entrance exams] fear their undergraduate education is insufficient. Others say they want to study abroad but cannot adapt to foreign education systems or pay overseas tuition. Yet others want to delay joining the estimated 600,000 to one million graduates who will enter the job market next June and gain an edge over future competition.

“I know a lot of people on the [job search] path, but I’m not mature enough, my undergraduate studies are not enough,” said Wu Yiyu, an accounting student at the Beijing University of International Business and Economics. She will take the postgraduate entrance exam at a People’s Bank of China research institute. Three of her roommates are also studying for the exam. One is applying for jobs as she prepares for the exam and will decide which works out better by June. Another accounting student, Han Yuxuan, hopes to enter her university’s graduate programme because she feels she lacks skills. She also has a chance at free schooling and sees advantages in delaying work. “There are so many Chinese students and competition is so intense, so there are people doing this to escape,” Ms Han said. “But it isn’t my major reason.”

People are, in part, products of their culture. And in China, the culture says, higher education is how you change your life.

In feudal times, young scholars studied fiercely with the hopes of passing the national exams to become an official — a ticket for their families to wealth, prosperity and higher status. It’s no different today, where officials enjoy cars, apartments, travel and dining privileges, with the tab generally picked up by the state. To become an official, you still have to participate in competitive exams.

Even recently, in the 1980’s, college assured lifetime stability. People who gained admission into college in that era were guaranteed a job — the whole “iron rice bowl”. It may not have been the best job, but it was essentially a job for life.

There is the problem of residency, too. Many people are barred from seeking their fortunes in the big cities because they are not allowed to become residents. It’s not like the place I live in the US. When I moved into my city, all I had to do to prove residency was bring in a couple of bills or bank statements or anything else addressed to me at my new address in the city. In China, however, merely having a Shanghai apartment doesn’t make you a Shanghai resident. Getting that residency for non-Shanghai residents is almost as bureaucratic and frustrating as getting a visa in the US. Yet, if you become a STUDENT in a Shanghai university, you can become a resident — provided that you get a job by the time you graduate.

As a result, this whole residency mess has further elevated the status of higher education into something truly transformational. I have a number of nameless friends who intentionally sought to pursue majors with little competition just so they could go to Beijing or Shanghai with the intention of becoming a Beijing or Shanghai resident. Most ended up getting jobs, sometimes not their ideal, sometimes better than expected. But they were able to become big-city residents — their primary goal.

Arguably, this model could be applied to study abroad, where students might also apply for certain majors or to certain schools, with the intention of becoming a permanent resident. My friend Douglas initially wanted to get a PhD in the US, ultimately as a means to gain residency there.

The saddest thing, however, is that Chinese people weren’t provided real guidance on how to succeed. People are taught to go through the educational system, but aren’t taught about how to discover what they really want to do. There isn’t much in the way of career counseling or vocational guidance to help students clarify their life goals, and then discover how to achieve them. So, people blindly follow the time-tested model of higher education as success.

Chinese society also didn’t provide enough alternative models of success. People such as my husband’s cousin, Jianfei. Jianfei failed the high school entrance exams in China, and decided to join the army. Once out of the army, after a few years of doing mindless work, he discovered the business of being a local courier. He eventually became the boss of one of Shanghai’s districts, and makes enough to drive a luxurious Volkswagon. Is he successful? Sure. But you’re definitely not going to see a lot of articles lauding guys like him as the next new model entrepreneur.

Abandoning a PhD is a lot more complicated than just poor planning. Sometimes education is simply a means to an end (residency) or seemingly the only option available, because you just didn’t know better.

In the meantime, I wish my aforementioned Chinese friends success in their new endeavors. Because, after all, there’s only one thing worse than getting a PhD you don’t want — never following your true dreams.

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