Is It a Waste for China’s PhDs to Teach in High Schools?

Ever since teaching secondary education became a plum job in China, some PhDs have pivoted towards it, veering away from universities and academia

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12:12 AM HKT, Wed March 30, 2022 4 mins read

When the education bureau of Hangzhou, a city in affluent East China, released a list of newly-employed teachers in the city’s public high schools in February, some were surprised to note that four teachers have PhDs from prestigious Chinese universities, including the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences and Zhejiang University.

Among them, Dr. Jia Ke, who previously researched computer chips for the Institute of Computing Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is now teaching information technology at Xuejun High School, a top-ranking public institution in Hangzhou.

“Why do PhD graduates have to become professors or do something big? I don’t necessarily agree [that they have to],” said the academic in an interview.

“I will transfer what I learned during my PhD — learning methods, cutting-edge research in IT — to my students, who might go into the computer chip sector in the future,” she continued, adding, “It’s worth it.”

It’s no secret that public high schools in China’s first-tier cities are keen to recruit people who hold doctorates. In 2020, half of the newly employed teachers at Shanghai High School had PhD degrees under their belts, according to Shanghai’s human resources bureau.

High schools in Shenzhen, the tech hub of South China, have also become destinations for those with ‘Dr.’ titles.

Shenzhen Middle School

More than 80 of Shenzhen Middle School’s faculty have PhD degrees, reports the school’s website. Image via Wikipedia

Last year, a list that was widely circulated — first on social media before being picked up by state media in China — revealed that of the 66 newly employed teachers at Shenzhen Middle School, 27 had PhDs from some of the top schools worldwide.

What’s more, six of them previously held postdoctoral positions.

Considered one of the first Class-One Schools of Guangdong Province, the public high school requires educators to hold a master’s degree, at the very least, according to its 2021 recruitment notice.

A Surplus of Bright Minds

On China’s Quora-like Q&A platform Zhihu, a post with 800 upvotes points out that the phenomenon of people holding doctorates pursuing K-12 education can be attributed to the oversupply of PhD graduates in recent years.

The proliferation of doctoral graduates is partly due to China scaling up admission numbers for grad schools to remedy the increasingly competitive job market for college graduates.

Research on PhD students in China presents a side-by-side look at the number of PhD graduates and job vacancies in higher ed, revealing that a “surplus of doctorate holders in academia made good jobs shadowy.”

On his video channel, Yin Chu, professor of public administration at the University of International Relations, says that choosing to teach at Shenzhen’s high schools can actually be wonderful for those holding PhDs.

“To be honest, those high schools in Shenzhen pay much more generously than many universities,” Dr. Chu says. “For a young scholar, climbing the ladder step by step is grueling.”

“You’re gonna research your ass off,” he continues.

Besides, many university positions now are non-tenured, which produces so-called ‘teaching post-docs.’ Plus, the percentage of contract renewals is very low, Chu explains.

The phenomenon in question is not unique to China.

In the U.S., publications such as Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The New York Times have highlighted a “job crisis” for PhDs, especially in the humanities disciplines.

Michael Richardson Wing, a doctorate holder teaching at a public high school in California, shares his personal experiences in an article titled High School Teaching Is the New Tenure-Track Job.’

With more accessible access to grants for research, better earnings, and more robust job security, Wing regards himself as “living proof that a tenured faculty position at a major university isn’t the only path to fulfillment for a PhD scientist.”

“The world needs curious, engaged scientists everywhere — not just in academia.”

— Michael Richardson Wing

Longing for Stability

In recent years, Chinese graduates have flocked to stable government jobs, with a record-high of 2.1 million applicants attending the 2021 cycle of the national civil service exam, reported South China Morning Post. The number doesn’t even include those applying for civil service positions at the provincial or municipal level.

Since China has tightened its regulations on private companies and the pandemic has led to layoffs, civil service jobs in China are considered more stable and well-paid. Such positions have long been associated with the term “iron rice bowl,” which suggests security and reasonable compensation.

Chinese examinees review textbooks

Chinese examinees review textbooks or use mobile phones outside a teaching building at Nanjing Forestry University before taking the national civil service exam in Nanjing city, in East China’s Jiangsu province, on November 29, 2015. Image via Depositphotos

Additionally, most civil service jobs have reasonable working hours, setting them apart from many Chinese tech companies’ notorious ‘996 culture.’

As China’s youth try to cut themselves loose from this incredibly tense workplace culture, K-12 teaching proves to be a reliable escape ladder.

In 2019, 9 million individuals signed up for the national teacher certification exam for primary and secondary education, and the numbers increased to 10 million in 2020, reports Bingqi Xiong, head of the think tank 21st Century Education Research Institute. The rush to register for the exam allegedly led to an outage on the exam’s website.

However, commentator Ligeng Chen said in an interview with China Education Network Television that it’s one thing to know that teacher certificates are all the rage, but quite another to discover if all the candidates actually end up teaching.

Chen observes that obtaining teaching certificates is part of a strategy adopted by young Chinese people to diversify their career opportunities amid high competition.

Talent Wasted?

Dr. Mingzhu Long, 29, teaches math at another public high school in Shenzhen. After receiving her PhD in electronic science and technology from Tsinghua, she turned down offers with handsome salaries from tech giants such as Huawei.

She writes in an autobiographical essay for a blog on WeChat that her family disparaged her career choice as “talent gone to waste.”

But for her, “Thinking of spending the whole day coding and pinpointing bugs, I feel like my future would have dimmed a lot.”

She adds that it’s not unpopular for highly educated, intelligent people to be involved in “basic-level” education, and it’s a good trend.

Mingzhu Long speaks in an interview with Pear Video. Screengrab via Weibo

But Long’s parents’ concern definitely resonates with many in China, and the topic is fiercely debated among social media users.

Some describe it as no more than a “misuse of manpower,” attributing the phenomenon to the ‘involution’ — a buzzword on social media — in many spheres of contemporary Chinese society.

Yet, some challenge this ‘talent-gone-to-waste theory’ by emphasizing that PhDs are by no means overqualified to teach in high schools, because K-12 education demands a certain logic and level of scientific knowledge.

For Tengfei Zheng, an MIT chemistry PhD, devoting her career to primary and secondary education is about educating the next generation with a clear mission.

In a video interview, she described her first year of studying chemistry at Peking University for her undergrad as a “blow to her confidence,” as her peers had already acquired college-level chemistry knowledge at their high schools.

Despite doubts about her career development, she continued to pursue her doctoral studies at MIT, but realized being married to labs and research was a “struggle.”

Now the principal of Shanghai Little Bridge School, a private primary institution, Zheng sees the situation in a new light.

She says, “As educators, we are responsible for making our kids adhere to the so-called social morality. It’s also important for us to translate the trends of development or the ‘big future’ into something tangible for our kids to understand.”

Cover photo designed by Haedi Yue

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