Why China for Grad School?
23 Feb 2010
I chose to earn my master’s in applied linguistics here in Shanghai, through a Chinese-language program at East China Normal University (华东师范大学). While I’m certainly not the only foreigner to ever do this, I get a lot of inquiries about it, as more and more non-Chinese focus on China. Although I’ve written a bit about different aspects of grad school in China in the past, I find it difficult to offer a very useful comparison simply because I’ve never attended any graduate courses in my home country of the United States; I’ve only ever done it in China. Still, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on one big question: why would an American choose to do graduate studies in China?
The question implies that there are good reasons not to pursue higher education in China. Indeed there are, so I’d like to get them out in the open right away. I obviously can’t cover the issues for every school and every program in China, but these are the big ones I personally encountered:
– You have to have the Chinese level for it. Remember, this whole post is about earning a degree all in Chinese, not through an English language program. To be fair, it’s not as hard as you might imagine; most Chinese programs welcome foreigners with the minimum Chinese language skills to handle the curriculum. The entrance test you’ll be given is not the same one the Chinese students must take, and the selection criteria tend to be far more lenient. Still, you’re going to need an HSK score of 6 or better, and you’re going to need to be able to write Chinese (yes, by hand) if you want to get into one of these programs.
– Inferior instruction. Ouch. Yes, I said it. In many cases, you’re simply not going to be getting a great education (by international standards) at a Chinese university. Many programs are not up to date on the latest theory in the field. Do your research.
– No strong emphasis on originality. When it comes time for term papers, teachers actually stress: don’t download your paper from the internet. Yes, they have to say it.
– Much less wilingness to experiment. As a master’s student at ECNU, I was repeatedly discouraged from doing an experiment, urged instead to rehash some grammatical topic from a slightly different angle (keep in mind the field is applied linguistics). I gather from anecdotal evidence that in many fields, the academics most interested in research go abroad (and often don’t come back).
– Less academic freedom. Your advisor makes a huge difference. I know of multiple cases where an advisor would not allow his student to pursue her own academic interests because the advisor didn’t know enough about that topic to be helpful (or perhaps the advisor wanted the student to research something else for his own reasons). Students often have no choice of advisors, which can sometimes mean that a student has very limited input on his own thesis topic.
– The “extended undergrad” experience. It’s a tough time to be a young Chinese graduate. The job market is not good. As a result, many undergraduates are continuing on to grad school to delay their job search and to try to improve their qualifications for the jobs they do eventually compete for. The result is an overall dilution of the academic passion and initiative you might expect in a graduate program.
– Boring teacher-centric teaching model. In my case, in four semesters of courses, only two placed any emphasis on discussion. (Those were my two favorites.) For most classes, the professor simply stood at the front of the class and lectured.
Then why China?
Aside from reduced cost, there is one main reason a westerner might choose to go to grad school in China over a western country: because one’s object of study is inherently Chinese. This includes Chinese history, Chinese art, Chinese language, etc.
A reader once wrote me for advice on graduate level studies, saying:
> I want to do field research on speech patterns of Chinese-Mongolian bilingual speakers in Inner Mongolia, specifically how their exposure to Chinese affects their command and use of Mongolian.
In this case, it appears studying at a Chinese university makes sense, although she shouldn’t rule out the possibility of completing coursework in the States, but going to China for the field research. But she’ll have to dig for programs like that.
In my case, because I intended to stay in China long-term, it made sense to study in China both for career reasons and for Chinese study reasons. This does not mean that I found the master’s degree a “perfect match” however. I was fortunate enough to have a great advisor, but I really struggled to stay motivated when encountering some of the issues above. And although I was in a good location to conduct the experiment I wanted to do, I received little to no guidance in its execution. There were definitely times when I wondered if doing the degree in China was worth it.
By going through it, I did gain a deeper understanding into Chinese academia, even if what I experienced as a foreigner was “Chinese academia lite.” We did take the same courses, have the same professors, and get forced to attend the same student meetings. One question I cannot yet answer, however, is if those insights are worth some of the other aspects of my education which I sacrificed.
As I mentioned above, I can only speak from my own limited experience, but I would love to hear from those of you that can add to the picture.