UCL Careers


Building an Academic Career in China

Sol gained his PhD in Social and Lifecourse Epidemiology from UCL, and is Assistant Professor in Global Public Health at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Read about his life as an academic in Beijing.

A portrait of Dr Sol Richardson.

13 December 2022

What are you up to now?

I started working at the Tsinghua Vanke School of Public Health in April. It was quite a big move, but I’ve been here a few months now and I’m getting into my stride. I’m an Assistant Professor, which means I’m on the tenure track, and my role involves research and teaching.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

My contract says my work should be 45% research, 25% teaching, which includes running courses, but also supervising Masters and PhD students, and 30% community involvement, which could be sitting on a university committee, or being on journal editorial boards or external expert committees. Any given day might involve some or all of these elements, and the proportions will vary based on the time of year.

With research, so far I’ve been trying to get established. This has meant writing up and submitting papers arising from previous collaborations, setting up new projects, and speaking with potential collaborators, such as the CDC in the US who are looking to better utilise their malaria data from Burkina Faso. I’ve been hiring recently too, for a research assistant who will be starting at the end of the month. I’ve also been applying for grants, and I recently won a bid for a consultancy project on identifying research priorities for malaria interventions in Africa, so I’m turning that into research funding, and have hired a research assistant for that too.

Regarding teaching, because of when I started, my teaching has so far been on short Epidemiology courses over the summer, and on English writing workshops for Masters students. Come September, I will be teaching the Introductory Epidemiology and Biostatistics course for first-year Masters students. In American terms, I have a 1:1 teaching load, which means teaching one course per semester/term (I gather a regular teaching load in the US for a new lecturer is often 2:1 or 2:2).

And for the community contribution, it will be quite difficult for me to sit on university boards because of the language barrier, so instead my time will be spent on wider community activities, like contributing to the Seasonal Malaria Chemoprevention (SMC) Alliance, and being a grant assessor for the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Tell us about the journey you’ve taken to reach your current position.

The end of the PhD can be a tough time for getting jobs and making a transition. After my PhD, I worked as a Research Associate at King’s College London for about a year and a half, but during that time I also took on external consultancy work, as I was looking to move out of academia and do something more practical. After making a few unsuccessful applications, I secured a position at the NGO, Malaria Consortium, as a Senior Epidemiologist on their SMC programme. My role involved setting up surveys, providing epidemiological advice, designing research studies, and helping to build capacity in country staff. Alongside that role, I was still collaborating with KCL, and conducting external consultancy work, such as with the WHO, which involved writing papers.

For personal reasons, I decided I wanted to move to China. But any international candidate wanting to move to China, or any other Asian country, is competing with local people in the job market, and unless you want to be something foreigner-specific, like a language teacher, it’s quite a tough sell for an employer to hire a foreigner when there are lots of extremely skilled people locally. Academia is one of the few places where being from overseas, with overseas academic experience, can be seen as an advantage. This is for two reasons 1) Chinese universities could be said to be “credentialist”, really valuing experience at and collaborations with elite universities, and so a UCL brand on your PhD can certainly be an advantage in academia in China. And 2) Chinese universities typically value international experience.

Academia was one of the best ways for me to get a visa and be employed in China, and it lets me continue to work on many of the things I would have been working on in the UK outside of academia. I applied online by sending in a CV and covering letter, and then went through three interviews to get the role; one where I had to deliver a teaching presentation, one a research presentation, and the third being a general interview with faculty members.

Was your time spent outside of academia an obstacle?

That hasn’t been a problem overall, no, but I’ve found reactions to non-academic experience can vary greatly between individuals and departments. The nature of my current department (and perhaps Public Health more widely) is we have a lot of academics who also have external practical experience, so that didn’t worry them. I would say China is probably more flexible in general in terms of assessing you and your work and experience, maybe putting slightly less emphasis on the work fitting exactly with what else is going on in the department. And because this is a brand new Public Health school, they haven’t yet built an identity I would have to fit in with, so that probably worked in my favour.

My previous supervisor at KCL had also worked outside of academia for several years including in the civil service and NHS, and then returned and become a high-profile professor, so she understood my external experience. However, I did have one interview with another university in London a while back (not UCL), where they reacted fairly negatively to me continuing my external consulting, and it was a pretty bad interview as a result! So it could pose a barrier in some scenarios.

The fact my NGO work involved conducting research and continuing to publish papers and collaborate with academics made it conceptually easier for people to see the link to academia.

What are the best things about your job?

The autonomy is one of the most appealing things about academia in general, and I think that’s especially true in China, where there may not always be the same level of structure as in some other countries, like the US. There’s a great freedom in that; I can work on what I want and collaborate with whomever I want, and undertake consultancy whenever I like. No one will mind what time of day I’m working, and as so many of my meetings may be with people overseas, I may be having meetings quite late because of time differences. This flexible way of working suits me, but it can be a double-edged sword, as some people may dislike the lack of structure in academia.

What are the biggest challenges?

As a foreigner coming into China, it does feel very much like a sink or swim environment. Colleagues may not be able to help in the same way as if I spoke the language, and so dealing with bureaucracy can be difficult. My university is really making an effort to be a place where an international researcher can work completely in English, and I would say that in most of the main areas they’ve done a great job. But there are still lots of small things that aren’t terribly user-friendly for a foreigner.

I’d say anyone looking to make a move to China should expect things to take a while with the initial bureaucracy to get settled. Setting up a mobile phone number and WeChat and all of the essential ‘super apps’ they use here, which is really important for daily living in a way that it isn’t in the UK, can be difficult.

And in China in general, quite often systems and processes aren’t as clear as I might have been used to. For example, when I’m hiring people there are a few rules, but not as many as I might have been used in the UK, where we have clear HR processes people are supposed to follow. In a way, that gives you lots of freedom in how you select the right candidates, but there isn’t quite the same support system for someone like me who might have been doing this for the first time ever at this university. I used the methods I was used to in the UK in the end, but it’s quite daunting to have to come up with your own recruitment tools, and to work out how to reach the right candidates without an equivalent of jobs.ac.uk or insidehighered.com like in the UK or US.

What’s the progression like?

There is a much clearer progression timeline in Chinese academia compared to the UK; it’s far more similar to the US tenure system. Once you’re on the tenure-track, there are established milestones where they will assess you. Some people don’t like these systems, perhaps because of the concern about not meeting certain deadlines. While I personally prefer having timelines to work towards, I would say the performance indicators on which you’ll be assessed aren’t always totally clear, or might differ by department, and that’s something I’ve been trying to get my head around by talking to colleagues, to establish exactly what my KPIs will be.

In terms of the timeline where I work, on the tenure-track there’s a 6-8 month probation period, where the criteria will likely be wanting to see some progress in your research, and not messing up any teaching you’ve done at that stage! Around the 2-year mark is the first assessment instance for getting promoted. Typically, you will be promoted to Associate Professor before you can apply for tenure. So at the 2-ish year mark you either get promoted, or you wait another year to be assessed again. Then one year after that you can apply for tenure.

To get tenure, normally you would have led a course successfully and completed or nearly completed supervision of at least one PhD student. On the research side, assessors will value you winning peer-reviewed funds, typically a China National Science Foundation grant, so that would set you up well for getting tenure. I submitted an application to this when I first started here and am waiting to hear back. For international researchers there is a separate National Science Foundation funding scheme, which is hopefully more accessible for foreigners.

When you have tenure, I’m not sure there is an explicit number of years, but at some point, once you fit the criteria, you could apply for a full professorship.

Are there any other differences in research culture compared with the UK?

I’m sure each university will have its own culture, but in general Chinese culture has a sort of informality to work requests, and less of a separation between work and personal life. If you want something done, you can start immediately and get it done speedily, by going into WeChat and asking a colleague. Again, this is a double-edged sword though; yes, you can ask colleagues to get things done quickly, but it also means your colleagues can ask you to get things done quickly too, and at all hours.

I think there’s more freedom to pursue multiple research directions here, so I don’t feel constrained in any way by my department. For example, I am working on both malaria and tobacco, and I think if I were in a UK department that might raise eyebrows, but here it’s fine to follow my interests.

Another difference is in winning funds, as the system for grants here can seem a little different. In the UK and US, sometimes people joke you’re almost applying for money retrospectively; that you should have already done a bit of the research and yielded promising results before applying, like a pilot to build upon. Whereas in China, they’re looking at the project in a more general sense. You don’t need to already have had outputs or results, or the data source or even a very specific hypothesis, it’s more about how good the project is itself, so the fields on the application form are very open. For a UK researcher that will feel quite different, but it can be quite freeing, as it’s possible to put in a good grant proposal without as much previous work on the project.

Compared to somewhere like UCL, I would say that the faculty is less international. That’s not to say foreign faculty are so rare that people don’t understand my presence or feel I’m a novelty, but it’s still also not common. As an example, while nearly all of the 15 faculty members in my department have some sort of overseas study background - maybe having studied for a PhD overseas – there are only two people who are not originally from China, and the one who isn’t me is ethnic Chinese, so although he grew up in the US, he is at least able to speak the language.

Do you have to speak the language?

I don’t speak Chinese, so no, it’s not a prerequisite. I’m sort of learning, but I’m busy with other things and currently getting by fine in English, so I must say that at the moment I’m perhaps not trying hard enough.

Although one can get by fine in English, it is worth noting that not speaking Chinese can present barriers. All the faculty speak great English, but sometimes the faculty meetings are entirely in Chinese. This means I can’t contribute to minor faculty administrative issues, which some people may not mind, but it’s also possible I might miss something important, so I often need to ask people for clarification.

I teach my students in English, and their written and comprehension skills are great. But there can be barriers here too, as sometimes shyness about speaking English can present an obstacle to class participation.

Looking ahead, if someone did want to build a long-term career here, where they see themselves progressing to become a director of a department, for instance, they would probably need to speak the language pretty well.

What top tips would you pass on to researchers interested in this type of work?

If you want to go to China and work in academia, but you do not speak the language, I would advise you arrive as an independent researcher with existing external collaborations, as the collaborations within China may not come very quickly.

If you are thinking of changing country, whether to China or anywhere else in the world, I would recommend you visit the country you’re moving to first, as it may be different to what you’d expect. At the same time, don’t be scared to look and try things.

And for those who have left academia and are trying to come back, or are thinking of leaving but want to hedge their bets and keep the door open for returning, I would advise you maintain collaborations with academics, and try to keep up publishing, or help supervise a student. In other words, try to stay in the loop, which is far easier if you have a job that is somehow still related to research or your subject.

Are there any specific tips you would give to people graduating into an uncertain employment landscape?

Try to develop one, two, or even three specific skills you’re really good at, and people know you for being good at, and that you can leverage in a range of career paths. I don’t like the term “personal brand” in a sort of marketing sense, but if you have one or two skills you are known to be really good at, you will be more employable. One thing I’ve become known for is being a good writer, being able to turn dumps of information into a paper or article. That skill can be useful in so many ways, and in several different careers, so it gives me flexibility and confidence.