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PhD returnees land top jobs based on publications abroad




Realising the growing importance of internationalising its economy in a highly globalised world, the Chinese government has rolled out different strategic plans pledging to become an ‘Industrial Superpower’ by 2049. The said plans call for an industrial upgrade through the ‘Made in China 2025’ strategy and aim for the full digitalisation of the Chinese economy.

All these newly adopted economic strategies suggest that the Chinese regime is trying to shift from labour-intensive industries to internationally competitive private and state-owned enterprises.

However, to make the shift successful, China will require a strong labour force with appropriate knowledge, adaptive skills and relevant experience in supporting future economic re-engineering. Against the political economy context outlined above, what impact can PhDs who have studied abroad make with their international learning?

Pre-employment academic productivity

Drawing on a national survey of government-funded Chinese PhD returnees, it is clear there is no significant ‘pure prestige’ effect of returnees’ doctoral university independent of the PhD’s individual merits. Instead, pre-employment academic productivity plays an important role in determining PhD returnees’ job placement in a top university in China.

By merging the PhD returnee survey data with publication information from the Scopus database, we can examine the effect of pre-employment publication productivity on returnees’ employment. The results show that pre-employment academic productivity (measured by the number of international publications during returnees’ doctoral study) plays a crucial role in their employment prospects.

Compared to those without any publications, PhD returnees with a larger number of publications (ie, between four and nine publications or 10+ publications) are more likely to gain an academic position in a top university in China.

In addition, the key findings on academic productivity and the ‘inbreeding’ effect suggest that returnees with high academic productivity are more likely to be able to return to their home universities after PhD graduation and thus work at a top university.

Since around 95% of the home universities that overseas PhD degree holders choose to return to are top universities in China, this study further examines whether academic productivity can positively predict the likelihood that PhD graduates return to their home universities.

The results support the argument about the importance of academic productivity. The likelihood of working at a home university for PhD graduates with four to nine publications is two and a half times the rate of those without any publications and the likelihood of PhD graduates with 10 or more publications is 3.1 times that of those without any publications.

The results suggest that returnees with higher research productivity are more likely to work in their home university, which is usually an elite university.

Taking all of this into account, the study finds that whether the returnees return to their home university may not imply favouritism (for instance, in the form of previous social relations with the alma mater influencing hiring), but it may signify their loyalty and commitment to the university where they obtained their academic degree before doctoral study. Further studies are needed in this area.

Research productivity, which implies universalism given its emphasis on the merit of academic contribution, plays a more important role in determining whether returnees are able to work at their home university. To investigate the effect of academic productivity, we also studied returnees who do not work at their home university.

The results suggest that academic productivity during doctoral study has a positive effect on returnees’ employment at a top university. Compared with returnees with no publications to their name during their doctoral study, overseas PhD degree holders with 10 or more publications are more likely to obtain an academic position at a top university after they return to China.

The quest for world-class university status and research productivity

The importance of international publications in determining returnees’ academic job success at elite universities could be better understood in the broader context of recent Chinese policy changes with regard to higher education.

In October 2015, China’s State Council issued the ‘Overall Plan for Coordinating and Advancing the Construction of World First-Class Universities and First-class Disciplines’. As a national strategy, this ‘double first-class’ initiative aims to turn several Chinese elite research universities and university departments into world-class universities and disciplines.

Since the ‘double first-class’ initiative was launched, the international performance indicator of publications in international academic journals has been gaining greater emphasis and is regarded as one of the quick ways to enhance universities’ performance.

Research productivity, which is usually measured by the number of international publications, is an important recruitment criterion for elite universities. In addition, elite universities have incentives to recruit PhD returnees, as the returnees have overseas learning experience and are familiar with international academic norms, which are seen as advantages when seeking to get published in international journals.

Job prospects

The findings of this study clearly show the job prospects of PhD graduates from overseas universities are better if they can demonstrate how their international learning or work experience enabled them to produce international publications. Most important of all, studying abroad is becoming a necessary, if not sole, condition for PhD returnees to secure a job.

Our findings demonstrate strong links between publication and the academic job market, which is also consistent with other international research related to academic job acquisition and research productivity.

Despite the government’s latest announcement on reducing the emphasis on quantity of publications, performance assessments of Chinese universities are likely to remain heavily influenced by international publications, particularly those top-tier journals with higher ranking in their respective areas.

The call for moving away from reliance on international publications might reduce the number of publications institutions consider, but the emphasis on internationalisation will remain as an important criterion for assessment in line with the ‘double first-class university’ project.

Professor Joshua Mok Ka-ho is vice-president and concurrently chair professor of comparative policy of Lingnan University, Hong Kong.

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