When Expat Chinese Academics Return Home

Those educated in the West are more likely than others to eventually be promoted to full professors. But those who earned Ph.D.s in China are more likely than others to land top administrative jobs.

October 20, 2016

Academics who return to China after studying abroad are more likely to be promoted to full professor than those who stay at home for their Ph.D., a study suggests.

But overseas returnees are less likely to secure senior positions above the rank of professor than China-educated Ph.D.s, who are more trusted and have more time to work their way into social and professional networks that can lead to high-level promotions, the new analysis suggests.

Described as the first study of the impact of guanxi networks of Chinese social ties on academic promotion, the paper, published in Science Direct, analyzed the career trajectory of 116 overseas-trained Ph.D.s who started their first academic jobs in China between 2000 and 2010.

In looking at the CVs of these staff, all based in the mathematics and sociology departments of the top 100 universities selected for extra funding as part of a multibillion-dollar Chinese excellence initiative, researchers found a “positive significant effect for overseas returnees in advanced academic promotion to full professor.”

Foreign-educated Ph.D.s were also more likely than domestic Ph.D. graduates to get a job in the first place, as they could fill “structural holes” in a university’s workforce and tended to get promoted quicker to assistant professor.

However, that advantage ran out when it came to being promoted to top administrative posts, found the study, “Is It Better to ‘Stand on Two Boats’ or ‘Sit on the Chinese Lap’? Examining the Cultural Contingency of Network Structures in the Contemporary Chinese Academic Labor Market.”

There are “significant career advantages for overseas returnees for academic promotion to full professor in both regular and tenure tracks,” state the authors, Xiao Lu, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institutes of Science and Development, and Paul-Brian McInerney, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

But “overseas returnees lose this advantage when it comes to promotion to administrative positions,” the authors state.

“In other words, while ‘standing on two boats’ helps a returnee secure their first position, ‘sitting on the Chinese lap’ provides greater advantages for career advancement,” it concludes.

That finding appears to corroborate evidence of widespread “academic inbreeding” historically found in China, Japan and countries in Southeast Asia, it says. For instance, a 2008 study found that 48 percent of faculty hires in Beijing were internal -- something the study attributes to China’s highly developed guanxi networks.

Locally based scholars benefited from access to these closed-off networks, as well as from “deeply rooted trust and embeddedness within the institution [which] leads to faster promotion to administrative positions.”

It adds that although “domestically trained scientists and those aiming for more advanced promotions benefit more from network closure,” this may change as the growing number of expatriate scholars returning to China makes such preferment practices less acceptable.

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