Just before graduation, PhD candidate Ye Ming got a phone call from the office of academic affairs, “you still have one more core subject to complete, otherwise you couldn’t obtain your degree before meeting the graduation credit requirement.” Ye felt astonished as well as ridiculous, since the course he missed was called “Scientific Research Training”.
Just as its name implies, this course is the basic training designed for new candidates. But everyone forgot about it.
It seems like an ironic miniature of Ye’s PhD life.
Ye is pursuing his PhD degree of science in a prestigious university in China, supervised by a Changjiang Scholar. Years ago, Ye chose to be his student for his great reputation, but he regretted soon, “I hardly get any academic guidance but all depends on myself.”
The amount of PhD students graduated in China has increased dramatically by three times since 1999. According to Professor Chen Hongjie, deputy of Peking University group of research project in China’s PhD quality, 43759 students were awarded PhD degree in 2008, which was close to that in America.
Meanwhile, more and more people are criticizing the quality of doctoral degree program.
Another research revealed that some supervisor guided 47 students at the same time. 3% of PhD candidates surveyed said they never communicated with their supervisors, according to the book “Research on China’s PhD quality”, written by Professor Zhou Guangli from School of Educational Research of Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST). The survey covered 1392 PhD students, supervisors and related people.
Soon after the book published, HUST officially announced that 307 postgraduate students were supposed to quit school since they failed to get master’s degree in 4 years or PhD degree in 8 years.
There was comment saying that this action “broke down the long-standing abuse in education system as a typical demonstration for other institutes and society”, given the current condition of 100% graduation rate for mainland postgraduate students.
However, Ye, who has experienced more than six years of PhD education says it is meaningless to boil down PhD problems to the absence of elimination. “The fact that losers’ fate, supervisors’ obligations and system’s responsibilities are neglected brings great unfairness to both individuals and society.”
“In order to improve PhD quality, not only unqualified students should be cleaned out, but also incompetent and irresponsible supervisors,” says Xiong Bingqi, a professor of Shanghai Jiaotong University.
Without well-structured system, undertaking a PhD in mainland China consequently becomes a gamble.
A Supervisor with 50 PhD Students
The very first gamble was to “bet on” supervisors, when Ye met his Waterloo.
He ascribed his failure to “information asymmetry” — few could imagine that a distinguished Changjiang Scholar is an irresponsible supervisor.
All about his scholarship and research capabilities sounds like a legend. Ye met his supervisor every 4 or 5 months, and seldom discussed academic issues with him. His supervisor didn’t have seminar with research group members or help and guide them either.
Another young teacher was arranged to guide Ye soon after he started his PhD career. The teacher’s research interest differs from Ye’s supervisor’s. Less than a year later, the young teacher began postdoctoral research abroad. “The guidance seems meaningless,” Ye says, “doctorial education management stays sloppy in school, while supervisors possess much power which lacks supervision.” Although the education instruction from university indicates that 4 to 5 students join a cultivation team, but it turned out to be a mere formality.
Suffering such “injustice”, Ye found no way to complain. He even foresaw the result if complained to leaders: changing for another supervisor or quitting the school with master’s degree, all of which couldn’t bring back his youth.
He was not the most unfortunate one — at least, he finally graduated in the sixth year and “left school hastily like a stray dog.” He told one of his peers’ experiences: staying in school for the eighth year, he got no allowance from school, no guidance from teacher and no resource. “You must show me some hope.” The student received such reply from his supervisor when talking to him. Ye says, “I suddenly realized that some people are as bold as brass.”
Another supervisor ever says to his postgraduate students in a meeting, “It is all none of my business but your own affairs that whether you can graduate or not, whether you can do well or not.”
PRC’s first PhD, professor Ma Zhongqi doesn’t feel optimistic about the value of local PhD either.
Ma can still remember the comfortable and lively atmosphere 30 years ago, when he often discussed with his supervisor Hu Ning. “Mr. Hu enjoyed discussing with us very much. We gave presentation twice a week and he made comment. Mistakes made by both he and us were acceptable. He is an enlightened person.” Ma Zhongqi says. “By contrast, nowadays Chinese students keep reading all the day, while foreign students talk but are adept in thinking, thus pulling away from Chinese students.”
At the same time, some supervisors guided more and more students. A supervisor took as many as 50 students, according to Ma Zhongqi. “Why academicians’ students plagiarized? He even didn’t know all the 50 students well. How to graduate? So the students plagiarized.” Ma says. “The supervisor who knew nothing about students’ papers is unqualified at all.”
As it is usual to guide more than 10 students, supervisors deal with expanded scale of students in different ways. A supervisor in Zhangfeng’s college enrolls 5 to 7 PhD candidates and masters more than that every year. He also holds an administrative position, so he couldn’t manage all this by his own and arranged several young teachers to help.
PhD students didn’t meet their supervisor all year long seems usual in China. Some students even never met their supervisors, according to Zhou Guangli’s survey.
Boss and Bonded Laborer?
Wu Anping, PhD candidate of Science from another prestigious university is also unlucky in the gamble. Rather than little intervention, Wu’s supervisor has fingers in every pie. “I spend 80% of time for supervisor’s projects in order to more funds only,” Wu says. “The projects are not of high level.”
Wu hopes to committee himself to interested research, but in reality he has to obey supervisor’s command. He says, some supervisors even indicated students that “you can do your private work if you are not anxious for degree.”
Nevertheless, supervisors hardly provide any helpful advice in the very limited 20% of research time owned by students themselves. “They just tell us some innocuous and general words like ‘read more’ and ‘cherish time’.” Wu Anping says.
“As first class professors may work for third class universities, third class professors would also exist in first class universities.” According to Zeng Daxing, professor in Chinese Studies of Guangzhou University, since the amount of PhD supervisors is interrelated to scale of doctorial education; some low-level professors will serve as PhD supervisors in some first class universities, which usually have large scale of doctorial education.
Many irresponsible supervisors play the role of “boss” who runs small companies. Students are enrolled as “employees”. “Treated as cat’s paw, students get a little allowance and diploma, but they waste their youth.” Wu Anping exclaimed.
Zhang Feng, a PhD candidate in one of the “Project 211” universities feels similarly. Since his supervisor is busy with application to various fund and projects, he communicates occasionally with students. Most projects he has ever discussed with students focus on industrialization, considering remarkable economic benefits.
By contrast, basic research that PhD candidates concern more about, seldom attracts supervisors. “What’s more, if you ask your supervisor to revise papers for publishing, he may say ‘when did you do this?’” Zhang Feng says, “I don’t know what to say.”
The mentoring relation between supervisors and students has dissimilated. Nine PhD candidates in Shanghai Jiaotong University “fired” their supervisor Wang Yongcheng in 2003; since they were required to work long hours with projects in his company for poor pay but received little guidance.
“In some second-tier cities like Wuhan, Xi’an and Nanjing, professors in universities run their own companies and shovel up money like crazy. They just purchase nice cars and houses.” Some student complained.
Some even described such unequal employment relation as “bonded laborer”.
Zhou Guangli, author of “Research on China’s PhD quality” considered that the quality of education depends on supervisor’s scholarly attainments and academic morality to a significant extent, as long as students just follow one supervisor.
According to Zhou’s research, some “employed” student complained, “As I am doing a lot of projects and having frequent travel, what difference does it make from work? I may as well go out to work.”
“Paper Publishing Agent” and “Diploma Vending Machine”
PhD candidates gamble for the first round of selecting supervisors and they have to go through another, to pursue scientific research.
Publishing papers in academic journal is on the list of requirements for PhD degree. Consequently, PhD candidates take risks on thesis and think over carefully that which research direction is more possible to publish papers.
Generally, PhD candidates of science must publish SCI papers. However it is not easy in some applied fields. “Having no way out, some students can only change research directions in order to have papers published. As a result, their graduation thesis turns out neither fish nor flesh.” says Zhang Feng.
The action of tampering with data seems more common as well. “Although required replicating the experiments, few students would do so. Instead, they juggle data to achieve ideal state.” Zhang Feng says.
PhD students bear most ponderous burden of publishing papers. On lack of academic guidance and limit of lab conditions, nobody knows clearly when he or she can score achievement. Zhang Feng has ever kept busy working in lab till midnight for a whole month. He couldn’t fall asleep until two or three in the morning, assailed by anxiety.
For PhD candidates of arts, it is easier but not that unalloyed to publish papers in domestic core periodicals. Xu Jia, a PhD candidate in arts in North China is about to accomplish three papers with requirements, but he has to pay ten thousand Yuan as publication fees.
It is no longer a secret that students pay for publishing paper. On one hand, PhD candidates’ demands of paper publication stay robust. On the other hand, magazines seek for economic source due to its own responsibilities for profits and losses. A special intermediary agent in campus then emerged, pulling wires for students and magazines. Many PhD candidates are engaged in the business to earn living expenses.
As a rule, every single paper costs three to four thousand Yuan to publish in national core journals, 10% of which flows in agents’ purse. Agents would placard the campus with advertisements to canvass business orders. Once known well, they need no worry about business. What’s more, they maintain liaison with multifarious periodicals. “Money might smooth away problems no matter how difficult they are.” A student who used to be agent says.
Xu Jia found it too demanding to publish papers. “It is OK to write one high quality paper, but three? Just rush through.” Xu says.
To many, doctorial education in China has existed as enormous “diploma vending machine”. According to Mr. Liu Daoyu, former president of Wuhan University, there are 365 academic institutions granting PhD degrees in China while just 253 in U.S., where locate most and best research universities in the world.
Nevertheless, it is the 253 academic institutions that play the role of talents harvester, unfailingly attracting talents from all over the world. A significant portion comes from China.
The greatest risk PhD candidates have to take is that they don’t know whether their hardworking would be rewarded.
Xu Jia just gets 289 Yuan (about 44 US dollars) as subsidy every month, which could only be a drop in the ocean. Out of the list of “Project 211″ university, allowance standard in Xu’s university hasn’t changed since 1990s. As ordinary provincial universities take the majority of newly added PhD degree conferring institutions, more and more doctorial students’ income is even lower than low-income families.
Meanwhile, PhD candidates in “Project 211″ universities just get about a thousand Yuan (about 152 US dollars) based on new standard announced in September 2009. It contrasts sharply with the condition of their peers with jobs. “The poorest must be the doctorial students when old classmates meet. As time passes, I would avoid such meetings.” Some PhD candidate posted these words on BBS.
Xu Jia felt ashamed to ask parents for supplies. Thus he augments his income by teaching in training center every weekend, which brings him 2000 Yuan a month, a comfortable income for students.
However, students in science and engineering keep working in labs days and nights and have no time to do extra work. Zhang Feng has ever stayed in lab for two weeks, not to mention make money outside. “Actually, to conduct scientific research, PhD candidates must fill their stomachs first.” Zhang Feng says.
PhD candidate Lin Jianmin lives on 200 Yuan subsidy and 400 Yuan allowance from his supervisor. It is almost impossible to keep income abreast of the rising living cost in his coastal city. He once earned money as translator and ghostwriter, but finally found it hard to hang on while undertaking huge workloads of lab.
Lin hasn’t been in a relationship since doctorial term began. He even voluntarily throw away several chances. He says, “If I were 18, it would be romantic to share meals in roadside stands and present her gifts with low cost. But when I am 28 now, it is a big loss of face to do so, even if she may not really care.”
Lin felt that he is living an undignified life. Students might mull it over whether to watch 3D “Avatar” in the cinema. They check account again and again, waiting for the pitiful allowance at the beginning of every month. Once the allowance arrived one or two days late, students would ask for it on BBS lest it should miss out.
Hu Yang, PhD candidate in a university of South China has started his family, but now he left his 7 year-old son and wife in the north and led tedious life in campus, regularly staying in library, dormitory and canteen.
PhD candidates also have to face up a harsher reality. The number of PhDs in China has leaped to the first place in the world while the value of PhD sinks down. As teaching posts in universities are trending saturated, more and more PhDs switch to government and enterprise, instead of scientific research institutions. Wu Anping also took a gloomy view that “colleges would not hire local PhDs but returnees after some years.”
After all, this gamble, working for a PhD could only paid off to those intelligent, diligent and lucky guys.
Before receiving doctorial education, Ye Ming had great longing for future. Things changed six years later. Ye says he just obtains “worthless degree, elapsed youth and distorted attitude.”
Wu Anping felt the same. He wouldn’t pursue PhD studies if he could do it over again. He is unwilling to get into academic circle any more. “It has deteriorated.” Wu says.
At first, Wu intended to teach in university. However he came to realize later that teachers in such circumstance would only hinder students’ progress. “You can just follow such cultivating model, even if you don’t want to. When you take the different way, you will find yourself isolated from the academic circle.”(Originally printed in Southern Weekly [in Chinese], September 9th, 2010. Written by Fang Kecheng, translated by Rita Wu and Fang Kecheng. Su Ling and Li Xiuqing contributed reporting.)