What's it like studying for a PhD in China?

Tell us about yourself?

Hello, I’m Emma Williams, a PhD student from Lancaster University. I’ve recently returned to the UK after a 3-month research visit to Renmin (People) University in Beijing, because I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship from the Newton PhD Placement Programme. 

What sort of research do you do?

I’m a social scientist; my PhD combines anthropology with international relations.  

I think the greatest benefit is networking. Finding a post-doctoral position in the UK is increasingly difficult. Spending time overseas on a placement has broadened my networks, and hopefully increased my post-PhD opportunities for employment. 

What were your impressions of China?

China is juxtaposition and wonderful unexpected surprises were common. Each day would present a clash between a traditional and a modern China, like walking through Hutongs and emerging in front of modern skyscrapers, Rickshaws above the sleek, clean Metro.

What struck me the most was the eagerness of all generations to engage in current global political debates.  I had numerous discussions over meals on ‘Brexit’, the U.S. presidential campaign, relations with North Korea, and claims over the South China Sea. 

I found that the acceptance of the need for hard work for China to adapt and modernise was present at many levels, with traditional Chinese philosophy being applied to capitalist ideologies. 

Do you think the visit has benefited you, and if yes, how? 

Overwhelming yes - my PhD has benefitted greatly, but so has my CV. 

I think the greatest benefit is networking. Finding a post-doctoral position in the UK is increasingly difficult. Spending time overseas on a placement has broadened my networks, and hopefully increased my post-PhD opportunities for employment. 

Secondly, I think being exposed to different perspectives is vital to any researcher.  Working with the same people, in the same group, and only attending conferences within your country of study can blinker you  from the real world. 

Finally, the world is increasingly interconnected. No matter what career we go on to after a PhD, there will always be some level of internationality, especially in research. An overseas placement during the PhD is the perfect means of furthering a skill set for working within an international environment. 

How did you find the language barrier?

Within my first 24 hours upon arrival, with my very basic Mandarin, I was able to: register myself in China and as a student at Renmin University of China (Renda), be assigned a room, open a bank account, collect my student card, create my IT account and introduce myself to the department with ease. Everyone I spoke to was extremely friendly and my requests were processed quickly

How did you find studying at an overseas university?

The degree classes I joined had far fewer students than I was used to in the UK, and they lasted for 3 hours - something I was definitely not used to! 

The classes were a mix of lecture and seminar styles of teaching, with much more student involvement and participation than in my own experiences within the UK. They had a very informal approach with excellent working relationship between the staff and the students. 

How would you describe the people you met?

Friendly, funny, enthusiastic, independent and intelligent - I have made friends for life. And I would my social experiences as varied, grounded, adapting, growing and vibrant. 

I found every Chinese person I talked to had a great sense of humour, and were accommodating, kind and interested to learn more about me and my thoughts. 

Do you plan to return to China in the future?

I am already planning my return, as are many of the European friends I made there! As a young Brit, living within a slowing European market, the need for people like me to better understand and engage with China increases day-by-day.  I would strongly recommend any student, graduate or post-doctoral researcher to spend time in China as it can only be a benefit. The Newton Fund (and British Council) has a number of funding and studying opportunities to spend time in China – take a look through them and start planning your own China visit – you will not regret it!