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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 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 95, ISSUE 41

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

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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Wei Zhang (October 11, 2017 4:16 PM)
That's terrible for the USA research!
Dr. Chris King (October 11, 2017 4:37 PM)
Will Chinese universities take Americans as postdocs? Does it matter what your PhD is in? Just as Chinese scientist want to broaden their horizons by coming to America, I would like to broaden my horizon by getting some training in China.

P.S. I have two emails: or
Sukumar (October 14, 2017 4:33 AM)
I believe many do. But to get the best postdoctoral offers, you need to contact the faculty in your area of research one on one. Additionally there are bilateral exchange agreements between countries that enable such mobility, which you can explore.
Yao (October 11, 2017 5:15 PM)
If it is true, it is time for those foreign friends to study Chinese
Henry H Kalir, MD, PhD (October 11, 2017 9:17 PM)
The rest of the world is catching up with us, and surpassing us!
It's time for us in the USA to get back to basics - ensure a drug-free good precollege education for our children and then provide them with an affordable undergrad education. Hopefully we can then motivated them to continue on to graduate-level education.
Edward Zhou (October 11, 2017 9:39 PM)
For the past 6,7 years, US job market for chemist has been shrinking, many big pharma had big layoffs and instead prefer using CROs. That is one big reason why Chinese students are not eager to come to US.
Robert Galemmo (October 16, 2017 1:24 AM)
This is to be expected. Funding for the NIH has been flat since 2000, because of the obsession with tax cuts. US industry has steadily contracted its participation in scientific research to enhance stock prices. As long as the US is run by an elite that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing we will see a steady decline of our science, industry and our position in the world.
Ron (October 18, 2017 8:19 PM)
Whether the Chinese come here or stay in China, the US born chemist is the loser. Pharma companies hire more Chinese graduates than US citizens. The jobs that are available to Chinese graduates in China are jobs that were outsourced to China by US companies.
William Rubin (November 12, 2017 12:33 AM)
Looks like Ron is one of the few people who "gets it". American chemistry jobs are being outsourced at an incredibly high rate for the past decade. Chinese and Indian chemists are taking our jobs here in the U.S. If Chinese Ph.D. chemists aren't coming to the U.S. to take away our jobs on U.S. soil, that's fine by me. There are plenty of U.S. citizens that are chemists in the U.S. that are either underpaid or unemployed, or will be soon.
jen (November 22, 2017 10:33 PM)
I agree with Tremblay that the reduced interest of Chinese chemistry graduates in American postdocs could be troubling for American science. Because there has been an established working history of Chinese nationals staffing American chemistry labs as postdocs, it will be interesting to see how these labs will be affected by fewer international applicants. Tremblay paints a rather somber picture for the fate of American science, but perhaps fewer international applicants will mean more postdoc positions for American chemistry graduates. It is unlikely that labs will ever face a shortage of manpower given that securing a postdoctoral position is already an intensely competitive process. Furthermore, I think the true issues lie in the reasons, provided by Tremblay, why Chinese graduates are not as interested in American postdocs as in the past. Simply put, the investment in STEM education and programs have declined or stagnated in America. Couple this lack of interest with federal cutbacks for biomedical research and the current anti-science political climate and it is no wonder why international applicants do not see the point in leaving home for an undetermined time in a foreign country where the food and customs are different. The cost and benefits of pursuing an American postdoc seem skewed if the science is arguably comparable anyways in Chinese institutions.

For me, this trend is ironic. Growing up, my parents would scoff at the notion of study abroad because, as immigrants, they had left their home country in search of a better life and greater educational opportunities for their children. Study aboard seemed backwards to them when America was perceived to be the gold standard in education. What could I possibly learn overseas that I couldn’t here at a top school? Maybe a few years ago the answer would have been nothing, but after reading this article, it is not so clear. I now wonder if I should have studied abroad for a semester to learn more chemistry or biology overseas.

Anecdotally, many of the teaching assistants I’ve had in chemistry and biology labs have been international students. From such a limited survey, I can hardly say this generalizes to American college graduates being less interested in pursuing STEM PhDs, but that may not be far from the reality. A recent New York Times article called “The Disappearing American Grad Student” reported that about 64% of STEM PhD and master’s candidates at American and Canadian universities last year were international students. More than half of the advanced degrees being conferred at American and Canadian universities were not going to American or Canadian students. One has to wonder why there is a gap, why one group appears more interested in graduate studies.

Although there are many factors involved in elucidating the mechanism of this trend, I think part of the reason may be sociocultural. As the child of immigrants, math and science was heavily emphasized in my household growing up because these fields were believed to be lucrative. Furthermore, my parents found greater value in in the quantitative sciences where there were defined answers. I think, as immigrants, leading pay check to pay check lives, my parents had neither the patience nor the time for subjectivity and convoluted discourse, and this ethos reinforced the value they placed in the objectivity of STEM. It is plausible that someone with a different upbringing, one that did not necessitate constant economical decisions with sink or swim outcomes, would’ve had more time for subjectivity and convoluted discourse. Whatever the reason for the case of the “disappearing American graduate student,” one thing is clear: China is certainly not losing any momentum.

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