Young researcher salaries top those in US, UK, Australia
Some top universities are even offering lucrative packages that surpass universities in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.
Social media in China was ablaze recently over universities in Shenzhen and Suzhou in Southern China offering salaries of over CNY1 million (US$154,000) to newly minted PhDs to carry out postdoctoral research on a short-term non-tenured basis.
Some universities are offering “super high salaries”, well above normal levels and higher than comparable postdoctoral positions in the United States in order to attract researchers, particularly in science and technology fields, according to posts on Sina Weibo social media.
The average annual salary for a postdoctoral researcher two years ago, just before the pandemic, was around CNY86,000 for China as a whole, although in cities like Beijing and Shanghai the norm was CNY250,000 (US$38,000).
In March 2020 China’s Ministry of Science and Technology issued a directive requiring universities to expand the number of postdoctoral positions in projects supported by the national Science and Technology Plan – its 15-year plan for the medium- to long-term development of science and technology, and increased funding became available to universities to hire additional postdocs.
Postdoctoral positions are intended to provide additional research training of around two years to researchers with new PhDs, for the acquisition of additional research skills before starting a permanent or tenure-track university job.
Different awards available
While the CNY1 million salary is rare, according to an advertisement put out by one university in Guangzhou, in addition to a basic salary of CNY200,000 (US$31,000) to CNY300,000 (US$46,000) a year, postdoctoral fellows could receive ‘scientific achievement awards’, ‘research achievement awards’ and ‘multiple project funding’, pushing the salary above international levels.
A top university in Jiangsu province noted that in addition to salary, the university would pay a performance-based bonus based on the researcher’s publications, particularly if published in prestigious journals, which could push the total remuneration over CNY1 million.
Just five years ago, in 2015, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the Ministry of Finance issued a document raising the level of remuneration for postdocs from CNY50,000 to CNY80,000 per year. And just before the COVID-19 pandemic, salaries of up to CNY600,000 were already attracting comment on Chinese social media as ‘superhigh’.
But experts note that competition for young research talent has increased in certain fields such as artificial intelligence.
According to some reports, the competition for postdocs in some fields within China is so fierce that at some top universities their pay exceeds salaries of ordinary associate professors.
And experts in Guangdong province noted that it was fuelling the return of many Chinese newly minted PhD students from abroad, particularly from the US where Chinese have been feeling less welcome, as postdoc salaries for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines were now comparable to, and in some cases, surpassing the US.
“If China wants to retain the best doctoral students, it not only has to have outstanding scientists and scientific facilities, it will also have to be competitive by providing better working conditions, including salary,” said Gerard Postiglione, emeritus professor of higher education at the University of Hong Kong.
“China has decided that part of its five-year plan is to become more self-sufficient in science and technology, and that would mean spending more money on upgrading the doctoral and postdoctoral programmes in science and technology, and especially trying to attract the best students in a very competitive international marketplace,” Postiglione added.
China has also set up its own ‘international’ academic journals in English as well as Chinese, as part of its drive for self-sufficiency in research and technology, but is finding it difficult to attract research papers from top researchers overseas.
“China is trying to build up the global reputation of these new journals,” Postiglione noted, saying there was a growing demand for quality research papers within China.
The emergence of new journals in China has also put pressure on universities to provide good research papers for them and typically calls on postdoctoral fellows to do this.
However, researchers complain that they are being used to churn out papers rather than being provided with mentoring and support for career development.
“In many Chinese colleges and universities, postdoc training is focused only on generating publishable papers that can quickly improve the university’s academic rankings,” said Guo-Qian Yang a postdoctoral researcher at the School of Agriculture and Biology at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, writing in the journal Science this month.
In addition, “for most colleges and universities in China, overseas education is a prerequisite for permanent positions, making it difficult or impossible for their own postdocs to obtain a tenure-track position,” Yang said, adding: “The country should formulate more effective policies to protect the interests of postdoctoral fellows.”
But despite the increased research funding, support for postdocs in China is low. One postdoc with a PhD in genetics from a UK university who spoke to University World News on condition of anonymity said she worked very long hours seven days a week to produce the research output demanded of her university in Guangzhou. “It very much feels like a production line,” she said.
She noted that China was currently “number two in the world” for the publication of science papers in international journals “and wants to reach number one”.