Doctoral Students, ‘Publish or Perish’ and Academic Recruitment Criteria: Implications for the Future of Academia and Science in China

Authors: Dr Hugo Horta, Associate Professor, The University of Hong Kong
Mr. Huan Li

Our current research project aims to explore the decision-making of PhD students and PhD holders concerning their past and future career trajectories in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Comprehending decisions from a reflective perspective concerning expected and experienced educational and career trajectories is important because they are linked to a confluence of critical elements determining the advancement of the knowledge society. In many advanced higher education systems, the fast expansion of doctoral education and the constrained academic labor markets have driven over half of the PhD holders to find employment outside of academia, sometimes leading to underutilization of competencies and skills mismatch (e.g., Haapakorpi, 2017) and others to some levels of precarity for the highly qualified (Sarrico, 2022). In China, and partly due to a still expanding higher education system, the doctoral employment landscape seems comparatively optimistic, with the majority (61.7%) of new doctoral graduates still employed in higher education and research institutions in 2021. However, there is evidence showing that both this percentage and their employment satisfaction are in decline, which has increasingly aroused concerns among academics, university leaders, and policymakers alike (e.g., Xu, Shen, & Chen, 2022).

Mainland Chinese PhD students studying in Macau and Hong Kong have their career prospects focused on the mainland labor market, particularly the academic labor market. For this reason, our research focus started with an analytical focus on them, and the findings we present here do not report to the Taiwanese case, which is still being analyzed. For the findings reported here, we focus on mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau as research sites. Mainland Chinese students are the largest group of the doctoral student population in the three systems; they are influenced by a similar culture and the vast majority have the labor market (in or out of academia) in mainland China on the horizon for their future careers.

In close collaboration with Professor Rui Martins (University of Macau), Dr. Wenqin Shen (Peking University), and Dr. Gaoming Zheng (Tongji University), we conducted 137 interviews, 101 of which to PhD students and 36 to PhD holders in ten top universities (eight in mainland China, one in Hong Kong, and one in Macau). This vast qualitative data complemented the knowledge from existing statistics and survey results. The following three major findings of our two recent publications (Horta & Li, 2022; Li, Jung, & Horta, 2022) highlight the influence of academic involution, which largely results from the growing competition in the academic labour market, on students’ doctoral journey and planned career trajectories.

First, PhD-pursuing students already develop their academic identity during their research-based master’s programmes. Doctoral students with a master’s degree tend to accumulate more research expertise, publication profile, and academic networks than those without. In addition, as a preparatory stage for one’s PhD studies, master’s studies familiarize students with the academic profession and leave them with more time before moving on to a PhD program to think about whether they want to embark on an academic career or not. Thus, not having a master’s degree before a PhD may result in losing some competitiveness in the academic labor market.

Second, the use of publications as credentials in academic recruitment and evaluation in Chinese universities has prompted PhD students to see publishing as an overriding goal for their doctoral journey, affecting their learning, socialization, and understanding of knowledge creation and dissemination processes. The credentialization of publications and the ever-fiercer competition in the academic labor market highlights one’s doctoral publication profile, with many students equating it with doctoral success and deciding on their post-PhD career paths primarily based on it. This credentialization and obsession with publishing stems essentially from the student’s understanding that publications and related metrics are what matters the most for one to be recruited for an academic position in a reputable university in China.

Third, feeling obliged to publish above anything else has reduced many students’ doctoral journey to an academic tournament with publications being the central goal. The almost single-minded pursuit of publication causes students to lose sight of their ultimate mission as scholars to advance knowledge for the society and devalue activities that have traditionally been considered valuable in doctoral education, such as coursework, conference participation, teaching assistantships, and engagement with external stakeholders. Also, it has somewhat changed students’ perceptions of some salient roles in doctoral education. For example, many students conceptualize their supervisors as publishing facilitators, use peers primarily as a benchmark, and dismiss peer-to-peer collaboration during the doctorate – as many universities only recognize applicants’ contributions as the first author.

In conclusion, our findings so far point towards the need for a reform of academic recruiting and evaluation of candidates for academic positions in mainland Chinese universities. This is something that the Chinese government seemed to have recognized as well, as it passed in 2020 a reform to ‘reverse the one-sided, excessive, and distorted use of [journal-based] indicators in research evaluation’ (MOE & MOST 2020). The effectiveness of this reform remains to be seen, but our research reinforces its premises and further urges the need to rectify arguably short-sighted evaluation practices and a reductionist publication-dominant culture that is impacting doctoral education at universities in Hong Kong, Macau, and mainland China. Furthermore, these practices will eventually endanger the future of academia in mainland China and distort established criteria associated with scientific rigor and relevance.

The papers published for this project so far can be found here:

Factors influencing PhD students’ intentions to pursue careers in the government and nonprofit sectors: evidence from a global survey (2022), by Huan Li and Hugo Horta published in Higher Education Research and Development;

The same starting line? The effect of a master’s degree on PhD students’ career trajectories (2022), by Huan Li, Jisun Jung, and Hugo Horta, published in Studies in Continuing Education;

Nothing but publishing: the overriding goal of PhD students in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau (2022), by Hugo Horta and Huan Li, published at Studies in Higher Education


Haapakorpi, A. (2017). Doctorate holders outside the academy in Finland: academic engagement and industry-specific competence. Journal of Education and Work, 30(1), 53-68. doi:10.1080/13639080.2015.1119257

Horta, H., & Li, H. (2022). Nothing but publishing: the overriding goal of PhD students in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau. Studies in Higher Education. doi:10.1080/03075079.2022.2131764

Li, H., Jung, J., & Horta, H. (2022). The same starting line? The effect of a master’s degree on PhD students’ career trajectories. Studies in Continuing Education. doi:10.1080/0158037X.2022.2117148

Ministry of Education & Ministry of Science and Technology (MOE and MOST). (2020). Opinions on Standardizing the Use of Relevant Indicators of SCI Papers in Higher Education Institutions and Establishing Correct Evaluation Guidance. (In Chinese).

Sarrico, C. (2022). The expansion of doctoral education and the changing nature and purpose of the doctorate. Higher Education.

Xu, D., Shen, W., & Chen, H. (2022). Employment Destination and Job-Seeking Mentality of PhD Graduates: A Comparative Analysis Based on Two National Surveys. China Higher Education Research, (7): 69-75. (In Chinese)

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