What drives the STEM Chinese graduate students here?

By Jingmin Feng



For most Chinese students, when they were young, they were told, “Once you learn enough in math, physics and chemistry, you can go all over the world and not be afraid.” When they grow up, they start to put these words into practice not just in China, but also in the U.S.

The Institute of International Education reports that 49.9 percent of the Chinese students studying in the U.S in the 2011-2012 academic year are in STEM(science, technology, engineering and math) majors, while only 26.6 percent of the South Korean students are STEM students.

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Many Chinese STEM students say that one of the most important reasons that drives them here is that science and technology in the U.S. are still the most advanced in the world.

Wen Zhu is spending her third year in MIT for a PhD in mathematics. She came from Beijing University where one third of her classmates continued their education in the U.S. colleges. Zhu said that at MIT, she can get more extensive education than in China.

“The whole academic environment is much better than that in China,” said Zhu. “Here, I have more chances to meet world-famous mathematicians. I can attend more high-level lectures. That’s not what I can get from Beijing University.”

Panchao Yang agrees. Yang graduated from Northeastern University with a master’s degree in computer science and now works at a software company in Boston.

“As you can see, two of the most popular social media platforms in China—Renren and Weibo—are all copied from Facebook and Twitter.” said Yang. “The computer industry in America is much more advanced than that in China. So I think the experience of studying and working here is very valuable.”

As an example, Yang explains that when he did programming assignments in his undergraduate university in China, no one would check if someone plagiarized other people’s code. It was quite easy and quick for him to finish his homework. However, he said when he came to Northeastern, he finally learned what programming really entailed.

“Writing the code by yourself is just the basic and normal rule of the class,” said Yang. “We also need to learn how to write it well and shorter. By the end of the first semester, I was able to code my own game. That’s a great improvement.”

An interesting thing is that although more Chinese STEM students are flocking to the U.S. campuses, the schools’ admissions don’t take this increase as a big deal.

“I even didn’t notice there is an increase until you asked me,” said Janet E. Fisher, the graduate administrator of the Department of Electronic Engineering & Computer Science in MIT. “I think MIT has been used to work with foreign students so the increase of Chinese students doesn’t affect our teaching.”

Besides achieving a top academic level, Chinese students flock to STEM because of the high-income possibilities after graduation.

The  National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey in 2011 showed that almost all of the Top-10 post-graduate salary offers went to engineering and computer science graduates. NACE reported average starting salaries ranging from $56,868 to $66,886. The average annual salary offer for 2011 computer science graduates was $63,017, ranked second among those Top 10 fields. But, back in China, a programmer earns much less. A 2011 Chinese Software Develop Net survey suggested that the average annual salary for the computer science graduate in China is around $15,000, although the cost of living is much lower than that in America.

“The income gap between Chinese and American in computer industry is huge.” said Yuezong Kong, a project manager of E5 System, an outsourced software company in Jinan, China.

Kong has been working in the computer industry for 14 years. He thinks that although the Chinese computer industry is developing rapidly, working in the U.S. after graduation is still a better choice for the computer science Chinese students because they can earn much more money under the same amount of work.

“As team leader, I was only paid as much as a first-year programmer in an American company,” said Kong. “Usually American team leaders earn at least twice as much as the first-year programmers, not to mention other benefits.”

Kong says that not just in computer science industry, students who study other STEM majors in the US can have better personal development than domestic students because after all the development of science and technology in America is the most advanced in worldwide.

“It’s not just about money,” said Kong. “Right now in China, many modern technologies are introduced from America. Studying in US colleges would allow you to get in touch with the most advanced mentalities and technologies and those learning or working experience would definitely be helpful no matter where you want to work after graduation. ”

For Panchao Yang, he still wants to go back to China after a few years working in the US. He said as a Chinese, it’s very hard to get promoted to a higher position. However in China, with a rich studying and working experience here, he could be easily hired as a team leader for some companies who are looking for bigger improvements.

“Money is not the only concern for my career in the future,” said Yang. “I’m thinking more on long-term personal development. ”

About Jingmin Feng 4 Articles
Jingmin Feng is a print and multimedia journalism graduate student in Emerson College. She enjoys being a journalist as she can share people's stories with her readers. She came from China, working very hard to get involved both in and outside of the class. She's not afraid of challenge, because she thinks challenge is the way to success.