On the job market in China: Where do humanities PhD students find work?

Spring is the cruelest season for young academics. For those lucky enough to make it through months of interviews, over the phone, at conferences and on campus, March and April often bring unfortunate news: someone else got the job. For others, without interviews or other prospects, the question becomes: What is next for you?

It is hard to keep up with all the writing about the job market for PhD students in the humanities. There is plenty of advice about how to navigate it; there are more and more goodbye letters to academia from those who decide to pursue other careers; there is advice about how to get other job once you have left; there is discussion about whether PhD students are victims; finally, there are plenty of proposals about how to change PhD programs so that students are equipped for jobs outside the academia.

The dicey prospects of American PhD students in the humanities come as a surprise for many Chinese students.  Their unfamiliarity breeds an idealization of American academic life. Surely, they think, job-hunting for American PhDs must be easier than it is for them. After all, the reasoning goes, America is a developed country.

In fact, there might be an argument that Chinese PhD students in the humanities, thanks to the strength and reach of the Chinese state and to the idea that a PhD student does not have to prove or signal any particular ability in publishing or museum studies to get a job, actually have more immediate options than American PhD students.

Of course, after spending years working to become a professor many students want to continue down that path, they just can’t do it in the Beijing or Shanghai. In the 1980s and 1990s it was much easier for PhD students to become a professor (讲师 jiangshi) at their degree-granting university. Now it is very, very rare. It is equally difficult to find an academic job in first-tier cities.  That means returning to your home province or venturing somewhere new. But, after many years living in studying in Beijing or Shanghai, some students don’t really want to go back to Liaoning.

Hoping to stay in the big city, students have several choices: the publishing industry, research organizations, and the catch-all category of shiye danwei. In one way or another, all have links to the government and, this being China, all of them have entrance exams. It also helps to be a party member.

The publishing industry holds written and oral tests in March and April to find entry-level editors. Some, like the People’s Press, (人民出版社 Renmin chubanshe) , have more intimate relations with the party while others, like the Social Science Academic Press (社会科学院出版社 Shehui kexueyuan chubanshe) , are a bit more independent. In the former you  need to be a party member but at the latter you don’t.  If a student makes it past the written test and oral interview, there might be a unique form of reference checking. After one acquaintance recently passed the written and oral exam, a representative of the Renmin Chubanshe came to interview, as a group, five of the student’s teachers, and three classmates.

A similar process awaits applicants at the plethora of research organizations. In this case, though, party membership might be more vital. It would be hard, for instance, to become a researcher in the Institute of Research on Socialism (社会主义研究院 shehuizhuiyi yanjiu yuan) if, as the saying goes, you were not a card-carrying member of the communist party. And even if you are a party member the competition is stiff. About two hundred people recently took the exam to enter the Institute of Research on Socialism. They were only looking to hire one person.

The category of shiye danwei (事业单位) is a bit harder to describe but includes some places the might be surprising: the National Museum and the National Palace Museum. Party membership is not as stringent a requirement in this case but there is still an exam.

Though the number of options appears more numerous, the compressed time period of job hunting season, its scattershot nature and lack of institutional flexibility means that students might have to run around the country or forgo an opportunity because of a timing conflict. One acquaintance had bought train tickets to interview at a university in Jiangsu but was then informed that the interview for the Renmin Chubanshe would be held the same day. Neither the press nor the university would change their schedule. After thinking it over, the student decided to remain in Beijing to interview with the publishing house.

What type of salary do these positions bring? The consensus among graduate students seems to be that a job at a publishing house, research organization or shiye danwei will come with a salary around three to four thousand yuan each month. That is not a lot, but is a big increase over their monthly stipend as a graduate student.

The biggest difference between pursuing these alternative paths in China and the United States seems to be that  American PhD students have to lay the foundations for alternative careers at the same time as completing their degree. You have to develop, skills, connections and an ability to market yourself to those outside academia. At least that is what most of the advice columns and blogs tell students to do.  In China, you just have to show up and do well on a test that is not particularly domain specific. Connections help, of course.

Just because there are more immediate options for Chinese PhD students does not mean it is easier, less competitive or less emotionally trying to find a job than it is in the U.S. As one colleague recently confided after a number of setbacks, “I am not sure why I have studied for more and twenty years.” For many American PhD students, that is a familiar feeling.

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