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Chinese chemistry Ph.D. grads are forgoing U.S. postdocs

Strong chemistry job market in China makes U.S. postdoc opportunities less attractive

by Jean-François Tremblay
October 11, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 41

Jay Siegel and Chinese students look at a computer screen. All are wearing safety goggles.
Credit: Tianjin University
Chinese students increasingly believe their schools' education is of similar quality to that of education abroad. Shown here, Jay Siegel, dean of the School of Pharmaceutical Science & Technology of Tianjin University, works with students.

For the past 30 years or so, postdoctoral researchers from China have played an important role in chemistry research groups at universities in the U.S. Many research groups feature one or more graduates from Chinese universities who are in the U.S. to further their knowledge. But the supply of Chinese researchers is starting to dry up.

Hao-liang Zhang, a soon-to-be graduate who has focused on glycosylation during his doctoral studies at Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry (SIOC), offers a perspective typical of graduating Ph.D.s regarding the pursuit of a postdoc in the U.S.

“I would be older when I return to China, and probably less attractive to potential employers,” says Zhang, who hails from the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan. On the other hand, he can work in China right away and live close to his home too. A pharmaceutical company based in Chengdu, Sichuan, approached him recently. “The talks went well, and they offered me an attractive salary.” Zhang will relocate to Chengdu soon after defending his thesis next month.

Two decades or so ago, 90% of our Ph.D. grads would go overseas for a postdoc. But now, 90% get a good job in China as soon as they have their Ph.D.
Kuiling Ding, dean, Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry

Among the Ph.D. graduates of the top chemistry schools in China, a shrinking few are interested in pursuing a postdoc in the U.S. or other Western countries. Their reasons vary, but essentially the job market in China has become attractive for young chemistry graduates. In addition, owing to China’s heavy investment in science in recent years, students are unconvinced that going abroad will yield sufficient benefits.

“Two decades or so ago, 90% of our Ph.D. grads would go overseas for a postdoc,” says Kuiling Ding, SIOC’s dean. “But now, 90% get a good job in China as soon as they have their Ph.D.” With a total student enrollment of about 700, SIOC graduates about 100 Ph.D.s annually.

Professors at China’s top chemistry schools, who themselves studied abroad, say they strongly encourage their students to extend their horizons. However, the students have their minds set on staying in China to start their careers as soon as they obtain their Ph.D.

Also a shrinking lot

A bar graph showing that the number of Chinese and other foreign students who stay for a postdoc after getting their chemistry Ph.D. in the U.S. is declining.

Of the Chinese students on a temporary visa who receive a chemistry Ph.D. in the U.S., fewer are staying for postdoc positions.

Source: National Science Foundation's National Center for Science & Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates (2005–15)

“I advise the students in my research group who want to become top scientists or academics to go abroad to broaden their minds,” says Deqing Zhang, dean of the Institute of Chemistry of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. But most prefer to accept jobs in Chinese universities, government institutes, or the local labs of major companies like GE and Procter & Gamble. “It’s very different from when I was their age,” he says.

Chinese scientists who studied physical chemistry could in the past hope to work only in academia in China, observes Xueming Yang, deputy director of Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics. Nowadays, young Ph.D.s can get interesting private sector jobs.

“Companies in some industrial sectors now need very well-trained Ph.D.s,” Yang says. “Quite a few of our students take jobs at Chinese laser or semiconductor manufacturers.” In his role as professor at Dalian, Yang supervises 30 graduate students and postdocs.

The ease with which Ph.D. chemists can now get attractive jobs in China only partly explains why fewer plan to pursue a postdoc abroad. It has also become harder to secure postdoc positions in the U.S., the country where most young Chinese Ph.D. chemists traditionally head.

Strapped for cash, U.S. universities cannot financially support as many postdocs as in the past. Some research groups offer Chinese Ph.D.s positions but then ask them to find their own funding, which is hard for young Ph.D.s to afford, Deqing Zhang says.

More importantly, many young Chinese Ph.D. chemists no longer see the point of a foreign postdoc, Yang says. Ten or 15 years ago, “postdocs would go to work in world-class labs far better equipped than the ones in China,” he says. “But now, if they search outside China, they cannot find many labs that are better equipped.”

The Chinese government has invested heavily in science for many years. In Beijing, for instance, the government is spending $750 million to construct a state-of-the-art synchrotron with the ability to concentrate X-rays with a wavelength in the 10-nm range.

SIOC, meanwhile, has essentially rebuilt all its buildings and retooled its laboratories over the past decade. Students and faculty now work in new and extremely well-equipped facilities.

“Of course, we are focused only on organic chemistry,” says Biao Yu, a deputy director at SIOC. “But from what I myself saw, and from the reports of our students who are now in the U.S., we are better equipped than most of the U.S. Ivy League universities,” he says. When he was a student at SIOC in the 1990s, the institute had only two nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers. Today, the institute has 30.

And the relative attractiveness of Chinese universities and institutes compared with those in the U.S. will only increase, believes Jay Siegel, dean of the School of Pharmaceutical Science & Technology of Tianjin University. Before taking his post in Tianjin in 2013, Siegel was codirector of the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the University of Zurich. Before that, he was a chemistry professor at the University of California, San Diego, where he taught for 17 years.

The Chinese government has a long-term plan to develop world-class departments within world-class universities, Siegel says. The plan, he says, “makes it a priority that the world scientific community sees SIOC or Tianjin University as international venues for study at the highest level.” As a side effect, he says, “Chinese attitudes are changing toward the positive for continuing domestic study and less toward international.”

The rise of centers of excellence in China will eventually be felt by U.S. universities, Siegel adds. European and U.S. graduate students will soon start to apply to study in China in larger numbers, he expects. In the near future, several Chinese schools will offer bilingual education in Chinese and English, he says. SIOC already has several students from Europe who are supervised by English-speaking faculty.

Reduced interest from Chinese Ph.D.s in pursuing a U.S. postdoc will also attract notice in a few years, Siegel expects. “It will strike mostly schools outside the top 50,” he says. He believes the top research groups at the top U.S. universities will continue to attract students from China and abroad for a long time.

No one tracks the number of Chinese nationals doing a chemistry postdoc in the U.S. The U.S. National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science & Engineering Statistics does, however, count how many Chinese students who obtain a chemistry Ph.D. in the U.S. plan to stay in the country for a postdoc. By 2015, that number had dropped by 30% from 2005.

Some U.S. academics stateside are already noticing a decreased interest from China in seeking a U.S. postdoc. For instance, Steven O. Smith, director of structural biology in the department of biochemistry and cell biology at Stony Brook University, believes the quality and quantity of applicants from China have declined in the past decade. “I can easily imagine that research funding has increased in China over the same period, leading students and postdocs to basically follow the funding,” he says.

If he were graduating today, Weiwen Ying thinks he would still go to the U.S. for graduate studies. After obtaining his M.S. at SIOC in 1992, Ying earned his Ph.D. at Clemson University in 1998 before pressing on with postdoctoral studies at Yale and Stony Brook, where Smith was his supervisor. He remained in the U.S. afterward to work in pharmaceutical research in the Boston area.

Ying believes that science and technology in the U.S. remain “significantly more advanced compared to China.” Nonetheless, he understands Chinese Ph.D.s who prefer to stay home. “There are job opportunities and definitely more certainty in China,” he says. The pull of China is strong even for Chinese who have long settled in the U.S.

“I am in the process of setting up a company in China,” Ying says. “If even someone like me has made up his mind to come back to China, you can tell how bright the future there seems for young Chinese chemists.”


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