Unraveling the Career Maze: How Labor Market Conditions Shape the Paths of PhD Students and Graduates in China 揭开职业迷宫的面纱:劳动力市场如何塑造中国博士的职业道路

Huan Li, PhD candidate, The University of Hong Kong

Globally, there is a growing disconnect between the increasing number of doctoral graduates and the decrease in available academic positions, triggering a ‘PhD crisis’ discourse and a challenge to the value of doctoral education to society. This crisis initially broke out in the higher education systems of major Western countries, and gradually become a problem for other countries including China, which has witnessed a marked growth in enrollment in doctoral education over the past two decades and a decreasing proportion of PhD graduates employed in academia. Whereas non-academic employment has almost invariably become the dominant choice for most PhD graduates in Western Europe and North America, the career trajectories of Chinese PhD graduates appear to be more academic-oriented but increasingly diversified. That is because Chinese higher education institutions can accommodate a significant number of PhD graduates but, on the other hand, their working conditions seem to be deteriorating.

Given that both the role of labor market conditions in career trajectories and the Chinese context are still understudied, in my doctoral thesis I sought to explore further how labor market conditions influence the career trajectories of PhD students in China. I tried to incorporate the dynamics in career development at multiple stages of their doctoral studies (namely before, during, and after the doctoral journey), highlighting the progressive and changing nature of careers. With the help of my doctoral supervisor, Professor Hugo Horta, and his colleagues in mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan, I managed to interview over one hundred PhD students and graduates, listening to their career-related life stories and co-constructing their narratives on their careers with them.

The research findings reveal a significant impact of labor market conditions on various aspects of PhD students’ career trajectories, including their decision to pursue a doctoral degree, career preparation during their studies, career decision-making, and transition into the workforce. Specifically, prior to embarking on their doctoral journey, labor market conditions had already played a crucial role in shaping students’ motivation to pursue a PhD by informing them about job prospects. In higher education systems where the job prospects in academia are still promising, such as mainland China, the competition for enrollment in PhD programs was relatively intense, with many students expecting to secure an academic position and therefore attain a certain social status. In contrast, in higher education systems where the academic labor market appears bleak, such as Taiwan, students showed a declining willingness to enroll in PhD programs, as they were already aware that obtaining a PhD degree alone would no longer guarantee graduates an academic position. As such, the difficulty in enrolling in PhD programs has been lowered, and compared with those enrolled earlier, the PhD students became characterized by somewhat different demographics and different motives for embarking on a PhD – primarily for career advantages in non-academic fields and personal growth. These findings suggest that the competitive employment landscape, whether inside or outside academia, prompts students to formulate a realistic post-PhD career plan and actively gain more knowledge of their target labor market.

Throughout their doctoral journey, PhD students were continuously exposed to information concerning labor market conditions through interactions with peers and supervisors. The findings show that this updated information prompts students to adjust their career decisions and adapt the preparation accordingly. Perceptions of unfavorable academic working conditions often discourage students from pursuing an academic career. Yet, the extent varies with individuals’ social origins and personal attributes, which engender different horizons for action and perception of person-organization fit in career decision-making (Li & Horta, 2023a). These findings somewhat contradict the prior literature, which seems to have overestimated the role of intrinsic interest in driving PhD students to choose a career in academia (e.g., Le, 2023). The findings suggest that the deteriorating working conditions in academia, especially job insecurity, seem to push PhD students to regard the academic position more as a job than as a mission to fulfill (Li & Horta, 2023a).

Upon entering the labor market, whereas they had generally known the difficulty in job-seeking in academia, many graduates were still shocked by the actual difficulty and were compelled to seek jobs outside academia (usually non-research-intensive positions due to the industrial structure in China). Due to substantial changes in working conditions, these graduates often encountered difficulties in adapting to labor market changes and faced challenges during the role transition process. Yet, notably, rather than supporting structural determinism, the findings capture the role of human agency in such transitions and the positive role of doctoral training: the graduates who transitioned to non-research-intensive positions, especially those who transitioned voluntarily, tended to exercise more agency in their daily work compared with their colleagues without a doctoral degree (Li & Horta, 2023b).

The career trajectories of PhD graduates are associated not only with their well-being but also with knowledge innovation and socio-economic development. Joining the recently emerging literature (see the review by Yang & Fumasoli, 2024), my thesis highlights the labor market conditions that constrain the career development of PhD graduates and calls for more attention to improving conditions for academics to engage in creative, reflective, and impactful activities.

My thesis also sheds light on the role of individual agency in career development. A key recommendation for doctoral students is to develop an awareness of career self-authorship and establish clear career goals before deciding to pursue a doctorate. Engaging in conversations with alumni is beneficial, as it can help them dispel unrealistic expectations and reflect on their motivation for pursuing a PhD. As the doctoral journey commences, alongside focusing on their academic research, students may explore how their research can appeal to non-academic employers, or ideally, seek opportunities to gather feedback from them. Given the current employment landscape, solely targeting an academic career has become increasingly risky. Thinking entrepreneurially will not only help doctoral students with their research but also with their career development.


I gratefully acknowledge the invaluable guidance and collaboration of my supervisor, Prof. Hugo Horta, in the development of this work.



劳动力市场状况会对职业道路的选择产生影响,但在中国背景下,该方面的研究尚不充分。鉴于此,我的博士论文旨在进一步探索劳动力市场状况如何影响中国博士生的职业道路。我试图将职业发展在博士学习的不同阶段(比如读博之前、读博期间和博士毕业之后)的动态变化考虑在内,强调职业生涯是不断发展和变化的。在我的博士导师Hugo Horta教授及其在中国内地、澳门和台湾的同事的帮助下,我采访了百余名博士生和博士毕业生,倾听了他们的职业相关的生命故事,并与他们共同构建他们的职业生涯叙事。


在博士学习过程中,与同学和导师的互动能帮助博士生不断接触到有关劳动力市场状况的信息。我们的研究结果表明,这些信息会促使学生调整职业决策,并相应地调整准备工作。对学术界工作条件的负面看法往往会阻止学生进一步追求学术职业。然而,阻碍程度因个体的社会背景和个人特质而有所不同,这些使得学生在择业时有不同的行动视野和与组织适配度的感知(Li & Horta, 2023a)。这些发现在一定程度上与先前的文献存在矛盾,先前的研究似乎过高地估计了内在兴趣对推动博士生选择学术职业所起到的作用(例如, Le, 2023)。我们的研究结果表明,学术界日益恶化的工作条件,尤其是职业不稳定性,似乎使得博士生将学术职位更多地视为一份工作,而非一项使命 (Li & Horta, 2023a)。

当进入劳动力市场时,尽管他们对在学术界求职的难度已经有所了解,但许多毕业生仍然对实际的难度感到震惊,并被迫在非学术界求职(由于中国的产业结构,通常是非研究密集型岗位)。由于工作条件的巨大变化,这些毕业生经常会在适应劳动力市场变化和角色过渡的过程中,遇到一些挑战。然而,值得注意的是,我们的研究结果并未支持结构决定论,而是捕捉到了主体性在这一过渡过程中发挥的作用以及博士培训所产生的积极作用——当博士毕业生选择非研究密集型的职位时,尤其是自愿转型的毕业生,跟没有读博的同事们相比,他们在日常工作中往往更能发挥主体性(Li & Horta, 2023b)。

博士职业轨迹不仅与他们个人的幸福感有关,还与知识创新和社会经济发展密切相关。与最近的文献(详见综述 Yang & Fumasoli, 2024)相一致,我的博士论文突出强调了制约博士职业发展的劳动力市场状况,并呼吁改善学术人员的工作条件,以促使他们从事创造性、反思性和有影响力活动。



衷心感谢我的导师Hugo Horta教授在本研究的发展和写作过程中给予的宝贵意见。

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