Why I left Canada to work as a University Professor in China

One year and a half ago, I was working as a professor at a university in Canada. But I took the decision to not renew my contract and move to China. At that time, some people may have thought that I was crazy to leave my job in Canada since it was an excellent job, and I also had a house and a car. Thus, why going somewhere else? However, as of today, I can tell you that moving to China has been one of the best decision that I ever took for my career. In this blog post, I will tell you my story an explain why I moved there. I will also compare the working conditions that I had in Canada with those that I have now in China.

China flag

Before moving to China

After finishing my Ph.D in 2010, I have worked as a post-doctoral researcher in Taiwan for a year. Then, I came back to Canada and worked as a faculty member for about 4 years there. However, in Canada, the faculty positions are very rare.  When I was in Canada, I was hoping to move to another faculty position closer to my hometown to be closer to my family but it has been almost impossible since there are about only five faculty positions that I could apply related to my research area in computer science, every year, for the whole country!  Thus, getting a faculty position in Canada is extremely difficult and competitive. There are tons of people applying and very few positions available.

I had several interviews at various universities in Canada. But getting a faculty position in another university in Canada was hard because of various reasons. Sometimes a job can be announced but the committee can already have someone in mind or may prefer some other candidates for various strange reasons. For example, the last interview that I had in Canada about two years ago was at a university in Quebec, and basically they hired someone else that had almost no research experience due to some “political reasons”. Just to give you a sense of how biased that hiring process was, here is a comparison of the candidate that was hired and me:

Total number of citations:    < 150 (the selected candidate)  1031 (me)
Number of citations (most cited paper):    < 20  (the selected candidate)    134 (me)
Number of citations (last year):  < 30 (the selected candidate)      >300  (me)
Number of papers (this year):   4 (the selected candidate)   >40  (me)

So who would you hire? But anyway, I just show this as an example to show that the hiring process is not always fair. Actually, this could have happened anywhere in the world. But when there are very few jobs available, as in Canada, it makes it even harder to find a position. But, it does not bother me, since this has led me to try something else and move to China, which has been one of the best decision  for my career!

Before explaining what happened after this, let me make it clear that I did not leave my previous job in Canada because I did not like it. Actually, I had the chance to work at a great university in Canada and I made many friends there, and had also had some wonderful students. I had my first opportunity to work as a professor there and it was a hard decision to leave. However, to go further in my career as a researcher, I wanted to move to a bigger university.

Moving to China

Thus, at the end of June 2015, I decided to apply for a faculty position at a top university in China.  I quickly passed the interview and started to work there a few months later after quickly selling my house and my car in Canada.  So now let’s talk about what you probably want to know: how my current job in China is compared to my previous position in Canada?

Well, I must first say that I moved to one of the top 10 university in China, which is also one of the top 100 university in the world for computer science. Thus, the level of the students there is quite high and it is also an excellent research environment.  But let’s analyse this in more details.

In terms of research funding:

  • In Canada, it has become extremely difficult to receive research funding due to budget cuts in research and the lack of major investment in education by the government. To give you an idea, the main research funding association called NSERC could only give me 100,000$ CAD for five years, and I was considered lucky to have this funding. But this is barely enough to pay one graduate student and attend one or two conference per year.
  • In China, on the other hand, the Chinese government offers incredible research funding opportunities.  Of course, not everyone is equally funded. The smaller universities do not receive as much funding as the top universities. But there is some very good research program to support researchers, and especially the top researchers. In my case, I applied for a special program to recruit young talents called the Youth 1000 talent program by the  NSFC (National Science Fundation of China). I was awarded 4,000,000 RMB in research funding (about 800,000 $ CAD), for five years. Thus I now receives about eight times more funding than what I received in Canada for my research. This of course now make a huge difference for my research. I can thus buy expensive equipment that I needed such as a big data cluster, hire a post-doc, pay many students, and perhaps even hire a profesionnal programmer eventually to support my research.  Besides, after getting this grant for young talents, I was automatically promoted to Full Professor, and will soon become the director of a research center, and will get my own lab. This is a huge improvement for my career compared to what I had in Canada.

Now let’s compare the salary:

  • In Canada, I had a decent salary for a university professor.
  • In China, my base salary is already about 15% higher  than what I received in Canada. This is partly due to the fact that I work in a top university, located in a rich city (Shenzhen) and that I also received a major pay increase after receiving the young talent funding. However, besides the salary, it is possible to receive many bonuses in China that can increase your salary through various program. Just to give you an example, in the city of Shenzhen, there is a program called the Peackock program that can provide more than 2,000,000 RMB (about 400,000 CAD $) for living expenses for excellent researchers working in that city, on five years.  I will not say how much I earn. But by including these special program(s), I can say that my salary is now about twice what I earned in Canada.

In terms of living expenses, living in China is of course much less expensive than living in Canada. And the income tax is more or less similar, depending on the provinces in Canada. In the bigger cities in China, renting an apartment can be expensive. However, everything else is cheap. Thus, the overall living cost is much lower than Canada.

In terms of life in general, of course, the life is different in China than in Canada, in many different ways. There are always some advantages and disadvantages to live in any country around the world, as nothing is perfect anywhere. But I really enjoy my life in China. And since I greatly enjoy the Chinese culture (and speak some Chinese), this is great for me. The city where I work is a very modern city that is very safe (I would never be worried about walking late at night). In terms of work environment, I am also very satisfied. I have great colleagues and everyone is friendly. It is on overall very exciting to work there and I expect that it will greatly improve my research in the next few years.

Also, it is quite inspiring to work and contribute to a top university and a city that are currently very quickly expanding. To give you an idea, the population of that city has almost doubled in the last fifteen year, reaching more than 10 million persons, and 18 millions when including the surrounding areas. There are also many possibilities for projects with the industry and  the government in such a large city.

Conclusion

In this blog post, I wanted to discuss a little bit about the reasons why I decided to move to China, and why I consider that it is one of the best decisions that I ever took for my career, as I think that it would be interesting for other researchers.

By the way, if you are a data mining researcher and are looking for a faculty position in China, you may leave me a message. My research center is looking to hire at least one professor with a data mining background.

==
Philippe Fournier-Viger is a full professor and also the founder of the open-source data mining software SPMF, offering more than 110 data mining algorithms. If you like this blog, you can tweet about it and/or subscribe to my twitter account @philfv to get notified about new posts.

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19 Responses to Why I left Canada to work as a University Professor in China

  1. Javier Enciso says:

    Dear Prof. Fournier-Viger.

    Thank you for sharing. Very useful information!
    –Javier

  2. Shichang says:

    Hope you enjoy your days in China. Best wishes for you from a Chinese student of data mining.

  3. George says:

    Excellent post. How many days of vacation time do you get as a professor in China and what about sabbaticals?

    • Thanks. For vacation, there is more or less 1 month in February (for the Spring Festival) and about 1 month in August where professors are not physically expected to be at university. But of course, as professor, research never stops completely so I spend time working for my own research even in these times. So I think that for that it is quite reasonable. For sabbatical, there is no particular plan for that at my university unlike in some universities in Canada where after X years you can apply for a sabbatical (e.g X = 7 or 10). There is some national contest in China where one could apply to get funding to do a sabbatical abroad. I know at least one Chinese professor who did that (spent a year in US). However, I am not sure if this program is available for foreigners. Best regards,

  4. Johnson says:

    Thank you for the detailed and informative blog. I was wondering general salary range in top universities China. Universities like Harbin Tech University, Sun Yat-Sen University or Zhejiang University. Their faculty announcement just say “internationally competitive.” Does it mean that their salaries are comparable to the US universities (Research I universities)?

    • Hello, Thanks for reading. Glad the post is useful. Generally, the salary offered by different universities depends on a few things:
      – Well-known universities can offer relatively good salary in general. But it depends on the rank. In my university which is famous, if you start as assistant professor, the base salary is lower than what I had in Canada before. However, it can be argued that the purchase power is still good because life is very cheap here. For example, at university, I can eat outside something ok for 2 USD. The only thing that is expensive in bigger cities is the rent fee, but universities will often let you rent an apartment for very cheap if you work there. But if you get a higher rank or special title, your salary can become greater than Canada. Now, my base salary is about 20% greater than my salary in Canada.
      – Besides famous universities, some not famous universities in China can have comparable salaries with the top universities in China. This is the case for the universities that belong to the richer cities. For example, in Shenzhen, the city is quite rich. As a result, some local universities that are not famous have competitive or better salaries and facilities than some famous universities in that same city. So how famous a university is may not always be related to the salary.
      – If you work in a richer city, you may get some special bonuses. For example, in the city of Shenzhen, they have a very good program called Peackock to try to bring talents to that city, since they are quite rich. This program has three levels (A,B,C) and if you meet the requirements of one of the levels, you get some extra money. For example, the level C requires about 3 papers in top 20% journals in your field if I remember, or to graduate from a top university. For this, you get about 1.6 million RMB divided by 5 years, without paying tax, directly to your bank account. This is not your salary. It is just a bonus. That means about 240,000 $ USD without tax directly given to you if you have a few good journal papers and finished your PhD in the last five years. If meet other criteria and you are a Level B talent, you can get 2 million RMB instead. If you have a nobel prize or something like that, you can get Level A and get about 3 million RMB bonus.

      Personally, I am level B of the Peackock Talent program. Besides that, my base salary is already better than the one I had in Canada by about 20%. Thus, if I compare this and the tax that I paid in Canada and China, and my salary + bonus from the city, I earn two to three times more money than in Canada. After five years, I will not receive the bonus from the city anymore, so my salary will decrease. But right now, it is very good. Working 5 years here, I can earn as much as working maybe 10 to 15 years in Canada. So yes, it can be very competitive or better than working in US or Canada, especially if you can get the special bonuses or work in famous or richer universities. But if you have no bonus, start as the lowest rank and work in a more poor university, maybe you don’t earn so much. I think it is something to talk with the university if you are applying for a position. But also, working in China can be a good experience culturally if you like travelling and trying something different, and this is not just about the money. Personally, I did not come here for the money but because I wanted to try something different and I like the Chinese culture. Besides, if you are applying in China, you should also know that some cities have better conditions such as better weather, better air, etc. In Shenzhen, I think it is quite good, with the good weather. This is why I chose that city. By the way, some universities are expanding currently and there are many positions available. For example, in my department, we hire several new professors every year. In Canada and US, there are some universities that pay very very well by the way (some rich universities), but the number of positions offered in Canada for example, is very low.

      Best regards,

  5. Johnson says:

    Dear Philippe,

    Thank you for your kind reply. I appreciate it. If I come to China, I hope to see you.

  6. Anthony Narramua says:

    This is a good post. I wonder if you could advise me as I am seriously considering to move to China. I am a non-Chinese national and I have applied for the university position in China through 100 Talent Program. My application is accepted and the university gave me an offer. The offer is good in terms of salary, funds, and allowances. But the offer 5 year contract base. Curently I am a tenure track professor in the US. They told me the position is 5 year contract base. In China, are the university positions are all contract-based or do they have tenure system like US/Canada? They said all the positions in the university pretty much contract-based that once you become a professor you will be almost automatically renewed your contract. I am not Chinese national so being foreign professor in China I feel little insecure about the contract-base mechanism. Do you think the offer is worthwhile to consider? I would appreciate your advice. Thanks.

    • Glad the post is useful. It is good that you have an offer. Congratulations. Yes, I think it is mostly contract-based. At least, I only know people who are under contracts. At my university for example, young professors may be on a 3 year contract, while after a first contract, the young professors will get a 5 year contract. And there is a rule at my university that if an assistant professor does not become an associate professor within X years, he must be kicked out. However, after obtaining the level of associate professor or full professor, I heard that one is safe and will always get his contract renewed (just like what they told you). To give you an example, I know some full professor who recently retired and was still on a five year contract, even after working there for 30 years, and having reached a high level within the university with many responsibilities. Hence, it seems quite normal. But I understand your worries related to that. However, with the title of 1000 talent, if you have this, you do not need to worry. This kind of title is very highly regarded in China. Just based on this, you become automatically a full professor, may get an offer that is considerably better than other full professors, and it will change a lot of things on how you are treated in general. For example, based on that title, you can easily negotiate to have a small teaching load and many other things, and people will also want to put your name on their grant applications because of that title. And if you would have to move to another university, that title would help you a lot (within China). By the way, as you probably know when some professors move to another university, they will ask a one year leave from their tenure track position to first try the job at the new university, and keep some possibility open to come back just in case. This may be a good idea, just in case if you have some doubts and want to give yourself a bit more safety. So globally, I think the offer is worth considering, especially if you get the 1000 talent title, it will change a lot of things and makes it much better.

  7. Anthony Narramua says:

    Dear Philippe,
    Thanks so much for your quick response. I appreciate the detailed explanation. Just correct the point, my award is One Hundred Talent (by the province/university) not One Thousand Talent (by National). So my award is less prestigious than 1000 Talent. Is Hundred Talent Program also considered high regard in China?

    Thanks for the clarification of Chinese contract-based system. I appreciate your advice and hope to collaborate with you in future.

    • Dear Anthony, You are welcome. In my opinion, it should be less prestigious than the national talent. But it is still a talent program so it should have some value and bring you some benefits in one way or another. It gives you some special title aand having some special title is always good. I did a quick search and it seems that there are a few plans called 100-plans, so I could not check the details about the benefits. In my province (Guangdong), there is some talent program offered by the city (Shenzhen) and also the province, and also there is the national level. There are different benefits. For example, as a talent from the city, it is possible to more easily get a free car plate (which is otherwise expensive in that city – about 10,000 $), get bonus money from the city, and some other benefits like for example if you eventually send a kid to school or some other things. Actually, the value of a title is related to how many people have it. In my university, the national level is harder than the city which many people have so the national level is better. But, there are some higher level class of talents I think both from the city and province…. so I think it all depends. I think that in the ends, it depends whether you are satisfied by what they offer you in terms of money, salary, cheap appartment for rent? and other things. Best regards

  8. Anthony Narramua says:

    Dear Philippe,
    Thank you. I was wondering if I could ask a few more questions. I am about to receive a formal offer from Chinese univeristies. I am curious about the followings:

    1. Are the Chinese offer (faculty) have some room for neogtation in terms of salary and other perks or is it “take or leave” mechanism?
    2. What are the normal teaching loads in China (top 10 universties in China)?
    3. I have children who are American. Are the Chinese universities support the international schools for the international faculty’s children?
    4. Are there any financial incentives publishing top journals (SCI/SSCI journals)?
    5. What about the pension for foreign faculty in China?

    I am sorry asking too many questions. Your help will be very helpful for me.

    • Hi Antony.

      Yes sure.
      1. I think there is there is some room for negotiation but how much depends on the university. For example, whereI work, there is a payscale based on the rank (lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, etc.) with a margin for negotiation that is small (maybe 10 %). But indirectly, if one has a good CV, he can perhaps negotiate to be appointed at a higher rank (associate professor instead of assistant professor, and then get a better salary). That is another way of increasing the salary.
      2. I am not sure for other universities. And even at my university, it depends on the school (deparment) whithin the university. But for a lecturer, I would say perhaps about 200-300 hours. For an assistant professor, perhaps 150- 200 hours, and maybe a full professor 100 hours or less (for example if someone has some other responsibilities or other reasons). This is some very rough estimate.
      3. I don’t think so. And this is a very good question because international school is very expensive. Basically, there are three possibilities for schooling in China: (1) private Chinese school, (2) public Chinese school and (3) international school. International school is by far the most expensive. In some cities like Shenzhen\Guangzhou, it cost about 100,000- 160,000 RMB for 1 year or international school, which is perhaps around 20,000 USD. If you r kids can speak Chinese, they can go private school which is very cheap… maybe 20,000 RMB a year. And generally the kids of foreigners cannot go to public school, which would be free (I think it can possible but in some very special cases). So yes, It is definitely something to think about for schooling. Personally, I have a five years old kid who speak Chinese at the Chinese daycare, so my plan is to send him to the Chinese school and avoid paying the international school.
      4) Some universities have incentives. For example, if you have a paper in Nature at my university, I heard that one can get 100,000 RMB as bonus. However, this is obviously hard to obtain. Some other universities may give some bonus for SCI papers but not mine. But generally, if you have many SCI\SSCI papers you may be able to obtain more funding or maybe get some allowance for talents or other things…
      5) This is another good question. When working in China, we pay for different services where we accumulate money. For example, there is the health insurance where you can accumulate some money over the years to use when you go to hospital or to buy medicine, and so on with a health insurance card. If you leave China, I have heard that you can claim the money on this card back. In the city where I work (Shenzhen), there is also a program to accumulate money to help you buy an apartment where you put some money and the university or city also add some money. Then, from my understanding, if you leave China, then whatever money that you did not use from these types of program, you can claim it back. But I don’t think that I pay for any pension program…. Actually, as a foreigner, you are in China on a work visa. If you would spent your whole career in China, I am not sure that you could retire there anyway. Typically, the work visa is always 1 or 2 years but after a while, you could perhaps obtain a 10 years green card, but it is very hard to get.

  9. TC says:

    Dear Philippe,
    I am interested in working at the universities in China. As information on the Chinese universities are limited, I have much hesitations to make decisions. I have emailed you for my inquries as they are rather personal. I would appreciate if you could advice me. Thank you.

  10. infi says:

    hi dr viger,
    how about funding for foreigners because most proposal for funds need to be in chinese i guess. do they accept english written esp for national funding thanks

    • Hello,
      There are different levels of funding: National / Provincial / City / University Level. All the funding applications that I have submitted had to be in Chinese, except at the university level. In particular:
      – June 2015: I Applied for the Youth 1000 Grant for the National Science Fundation. The project description had to be written in Chinese. Some colleague translated it for me.
      – April 2017: I applied for the National Science Fundation Funding for individual researchers. At that time, only half of the online form had English descriptions. But in any case, all the content of the form had to be filled in Chinese. I wrote it in English and then found some people to translate it for me.

      Thus, in my opinion, most of the funding applications are in Chinese. But it is not a big deal. Actually, you can write it in English and ask someone to translate it such as colleagues, Ph.D. students, or pay someone, in the worst case.

      Best regards,

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