This July, Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei published an open letter trumpeting his company’s latest triumph: As part of a much-publicized plan to recruit elite students, Huawei had hired eight newly minted PhDs. According to the letter, the eight are slated to earn between 896,000 and 2.01 million yuan ($126,000 and $281,000) a year.
But an earlier missive, issued by Ren’s office in February, paints a more complicated picture of Huawei’s relationship with its PhD-holding staff. According to the letter, the average turnover rate of Huawei employees with PhDs over the past five years is almost 22%, and only 57% of the PhD holders who joined Huawei in 2014 were still working at the company four years later.
Huawei’s PhD retention problem is indicative of a broader issue. A lack of academic and research positions is driving many into the corporate sector, but those who make the leap often struggle to adapt to life outside the ivory tower. While they want to continue doing cutting-edge research and building on their academic experience, their bosses just want them to focus on the bottom line.
In 2013, almost 80% of Peking University PhDs took jobs at colleges, universities, scientific research organizations, or other public bodies. By 2018, this number had fallen to 49.5%. Over the same period, the percentage of those opting to work in the corporate sector had risen from 11% to 31%.
The country’s other top university, Tsinghua, has witnessed a similar shift. In 2014, just 29% of the school’s new PhDs chose to work at private or state-owned companies. By 2018, this figure had risen to more than 48%.
Driving this change is China’s increasingly grim academic job market. The country is producing ever more PhDs at a time when the number of new teaching posts at colleges and universities is falling. The average replacement cycle for university teachers in China is 27 years, whereas it takes between three and five years to train new PhDs. The employment outlook for the country’s excess PhDs is therefore quite dire.
At the same time, although tenure remains the goal for most, PhDs now have more options outside of academia, and today’s doctoral students are increasingly open to non-academic positions. Huawei’s willingness to pay over 2 million yuan a year to a fresh graduate is proof that the tech industry values what PhDs bring to the table. And companies benefit from more than just their hard skills and research experience. Employee education levels can play a role in deciding which firms win coveted government grants.
Yet, despite corporate interest, many PhDs find that their doctoral programs do not prepare them for life outside academia. They complain that their new jobs have little or nothing to do with what they studied, and that their roles sometimes don’t require a PhD at all.
According to a study published in March by Peking University, only a third of PhD graduates in corporate positions said their jobs involved research and development work. Just 41.5% believed that their job and major were “closely related,” while 10% stated that the two were “completely unrelated.”
During interviews with the study’s researchers, many PhDs reported being unable to make full use of their strengths. Working in industry was “not what I had expected,” one said. In the words of another, “When compared with a university, R&D is fundamentally different in a company, and doesn’t allow me to give full play to my imagination.”
Meanwhile, many corporate-world PhDs cited their own lack of innovative thinking and communication skills as barriers to their success.
These issues hint at a disconnect between doctoral programs and emerging trends in the higher education talent market. At present, PhD programs in China’s colleges and universities focus on developing students’ academic abilities, while neglecting professional training and career planning. In short, it may be time to reconsider how China’s PhD programs work.
Ultimately, the structure of doctoral programs pushes many PhD students to think of themselves as future teachers. But the brutal academic job market leaves them unable to find a teaching job in their chosen field.
This problem is by no means unique to China. In the U.K., for example, a 2002 British government review of STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — education suggested doctoral programs put more emphasis on teaching social and professional skills that would serve students outside the academic world.
By 2009, three-quarters of U.K. research institutions offered structured training courses for PhD students in transferable skills, career management, negotiation, and other topics useful to students no matter which field they choose. Although some Chinese universities currently provide similar trainings, their focus remains on current industry conditions rather than career building.
One way to solve this would be for schools to shift from providing purely academic training to a more collaborative educational model. For example, they could set up PhD training centers backed by inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional platforms, and invite business, government, and research professionals to serve on students’ advising committees. By giving PhD students more chances to work with people both inside and outside academia, schools will ensure their graduates leave with the skills needed to succeed in both academic and professional contexts.
Universities should also stop thinking of doctoral programs as specialist training for academics and start considering how their students can leverage academic training to succeed elsewhere. That means improving PhD students’ self-management and communication skills. And, toward the latter stages of a PhD program, schools should ensure they’re providing those interested in pursuing non-teaching jobs with professional help and guidance.
The job market for China’s PhDs is changing, and our doctoral programs must adapt and respond appropriately. The end goal should be to eliminate the obstacles preventing students from finding their ideal jobs, and to ensure that these highly skilled and trained individuals can put their talents to work in the most effective way possible.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Newly minted PhDs line up to receive their diplomas from Jinan University in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 26, 2019. Guo Jialiang/VCG)