Yan Liu

McKelvey School of Engineering: Biomedical Engineering | PhD


Cohort 2010


Graduated 2016

Partner University:

Tsinghua University


Career: Postdoctoral Fellow | California Institute of Technology | Pasadena, California, USA

Scholar Highlights

The Brain Drain of China

The prestigious journal Science published an interesting result from a survey done by the National Science Foundation (NSF). It shows that the most likely undergraduate alma mater for those who earned a PhD in 2006 from a U.S. university was Tsinghua University. Peking University, its neighbor in Beijing, ranked second. University of California, Berkeley was third. South Korea’s Seoul National University occupied fourth place, followed by Cornell University and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Isn’t this a surprising result? Someone may argue that China has a large population and maybe the two Chinese universities have far more undergrad students. However, this is not the case and, actually, the top two Chinese universities have fewer students than the other four universities mentioned above.

As an undergraduate from Tsinghua University who came to the United States for PhD training, I have witnessed a trend that an increasing number of Chinese students hope to come to the United States for higher degrees after college. Though many of them choose to complete only a master’s, a great number of them are interested in doing a PhD in the field of science and engineering (S&E). What are the reasons behind this?

Firstly, the United States is a developed country with the most top universities and research institutions. The United States has produced the most Nobel Prize winners and has created many innovative companies whose inventions have changed people’s lives. Students like me in China believe that if they want to do research or find a job in the field of S&E, the United States is the best choice for them.

Secondly, U.S. education is different from Chinese education and has its own advantages. China’s education system focuses on testing. Opportunity for students is based on test scores, which is a relatively fair and easy way to deal with lots of people. As there are so many students, the competition is very fierce. This peer pressure cultivates the virtue of a hard-work ethic. For example, students will try to do as many problems as possible to prepare for an exam to earn a better a score, and they know if they don’t work hard, they will fall behind others and may be replaced.

However, Chinese education doesn’t emphasize creative thinking enough. This is again due to the difficulty of processing so many people through an education system. This characteristic also is due to a culture of deep respect for elders that often overrides critical thinking. In China, there is a saying: “The protruding nail gets hammered down.” In America, people tend to give awards for protruding nails. Years of study in China have prepared good foundations for students interested in S&E, and they hope to come to the United States to be better trained in an environment that encourages them to think critically, to challenge authority and to be innovative in research across disciplines.

Thirdly, for a regular Chinese student like me whose family is not rich enough to pay the tuition of an undergraduate or master’s degree in the United States, doing a PhD is the only way to come here because of the scholarships provided. In the meantime, as the economy keeps steadily growing, more families in China are able to send their children abroad for bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

Why aren’t most Americans interested in pursuing a higher degree in S&E? According to the data from the National Science Foundation, in the United States, about 4 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2008 were in engineering. This compares with about 19 percent throughout Asia and 31 percent in China specifically (China has 4.3 times as many people as America). In China, S&E is highly regarded because people know that in a knowledge economy, mastering technologies will provide them with better jobs. In contrast, America has a cultural problem with science and math. These subjects are difficult pursuits requiring hard work and years of practice, yet socially they are vilified and are not paid well, especially for people working in academia. In China, people who are smart and excel are encouraged to be scientists, engineers or entrepreneurs. While in the United States, the best people are encouraged to be lawyers, businessmen and doctors, careers that offer better compensation.

As more and more Chinese students are going abroad to study, China has suffered one of the worst brain drains ever recorded. According to statistics by the Chinese government, for every four students who have left in the past decade, only one has returned to develop his career in China.

Those who obtain doctorates in S&E from American universities are among the least likely to return and the five-year stay rate is above 90 percent. This is mainly because it is easier for a Chinese student to lead a decent life in the United States considering the ever-increasing living expenses in China and other factors such as the scientific culture of cronyism and, furthermore, the culture of mediocrity, as well as censorship in China.

However, China is fighting the brain drain and starting to lure top talent home.

Programs such as the Yangtze River Scholar Scheme and the one-thousand-talents program promise top salaries and attractive funding to elite researchers who are working overseas and willing to return to the country. The schemes have lured more than 5,000 researchers. Yigong Shi, the youngest full professor in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, won the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator award with a $10 million grant and then rejected it, resigning his position at Princeton University to pursue his career at Tsinghua University. He then became dean of Tsinghua’s School of Life Sciences and has recruited 20 more faculty since his return. The return of Dr. Shi and some other high-profile scientists is a sign that China is succeeding quickly at narrowing the gap that separates it from technologically advanced developed countries.

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