The journeys of two professors show how to survive and thrive in the different academic systems of the US and China.
Guest contributors Zhiyong Jason Ren and Defeng Xing
Once upon a time, we worked in the same lab. Ten years later, we both lead big research labs – in Boulder, USA, and Harbin, China. We have similar backgrounds and research interests, but our journeys were very different. After reading Turning Point: Chinese Science in Transition and Nature’s How to build a better Ph.D, we want to share our stories with young researchers in the hope it might help them navigate their own science adventure.
How did we start?
It was 2006 when we first met at Penn State and became lab mates and close friends. When it became time to decide on a career path, Ren chose to become an assistant professor in the U.S., while Xing returned to his Alma Mater in China. In an “ever-lasting” U.S. tenure track system, Ren was handed a well-structured guideline for new principal investigators (PIs), while Xing got a pile of applications on his desk, so he could recruit from various young talent programs.
For Ren, winning the position meant he started the job as decision-making group leader, though he didn’t receive much training. For Xing, it meant joining a big group with an established platform and shifting gradually from a team player to team lead.
How did we grow?
For Ren, everything started from scratch – hiring students, building up the lab, writing proposals, and preparing classes. Today those scenes still revisit Ren’s nightmares – he says there are certainly routes that can be avoided.
Firstly, submit your unpublished research work as soon as possible, so you avoid a publication gap while building up your own research base. Secondly, start writing the first funding proposal as soon as possible, ideally with a senior colleague, so you can gain experience. Teaching a class in the first semester isn’t a bad idea, because there’s not much lab work that can be done before your first postdoc or student is hired and instruments are installed.
Use your start-up fund very carefully, because it can drain quickly. For an experimentalist, funding is your bread and butter: without funding, you won’t get a student, and without students, you can’t collect data. Without data, it’s unlikely you’ll find more funding. Many agencies have Young Investigator programs, and you should consider them seriously. With a more challenging funding environment in the US, keeping a lab afloat was the main thing keeping Ren up at night. However, the academic freedom made it all worth it.
For Xing, things couldn’t have been more different. Xing was at the centre of China’s Turning Point in Science, where young scientists with good records and potential started to receive support from government-funded “young talent” platforms. These enable great flexibility and independence – in stark contrast to traditional Chinese systems.
Unlike the PI system, young faculty in China are not traditionally eligible to advise Ph.D. students or receive sizable start-up funds, and have to join an established group for 5-10 years to gain a professorship. While this may protect young faculty and reduce risk, it significantly limits the opportunities available and disincentives innovation. Xing would have been in that system if he returned to China from studying in America before 2009, but he was instead a direct beneficiary of the new system designed to promote young and independent PIs.
He was able to advise Ph.D. students, was fast-tracked to full professor in three years after vigorous evaluation, and received significant financial support in grants from the university and funding agencies. Young Chinese scientists should take advantage of this golden age – the current hybrid system in China presents an unprecedented opportunity to receive mentoring and resources at the start of your career, and gain independence later to grow your own research. The diverse funding opportunities, improved research infrastructure, and new international standards of academic valuation means that the younger generation have more confidence and can grow quickly. Nothing like this happened in the past generation, and because of this improved climate, much more competition will be present in the next.
What did we learn?
The first thing we learnt, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin learnt much earlier.
“The reward of the young scientist is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something. Nothing can compare with that experience.”
The whitepaper from Nature offers comprehensive suggestions on how to create a fairer and more transparent research ecosystem in China, and we agree that the research environment has never been better. Your talent, luck, and connections will all contribute to accomplishing your goals, but remember, your success is ultimately in your own hands.
Zhiyong Jason Ren is an associate professor in Environmental Engineering at University of Colorado Boulder. He obtained his Ph.D at Penn State University.
Defeng Xing is a professor in Environmental Engineering at Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT). He obtained his Ph.D at HIT and received postdoctoral training at Penn State University.