This post is part of a series on what goes into getting a PhD around the world. In this post, Zheng Fu talks about getting a PhD in China.

Zheng Fu
Zheng Fu

Where are you getting your PhD?

I recently finished my PhD at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS). UCAS consist of more than 100 institutes and I am at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, in the city of Beijing. My institute is near to the Beijing Olympic Forest Park, which served for the 29th Olympic Games and has been giving the city a green lung.

How long does a typical PhD take where you are located?

Usually a PhD takes 3-5 years in China, but this could vary depending on the research progress. After graduation from college in 2014, I started to pursue a 5-years PhD degree. For the first year, I not only took classes in the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences but also keep reading papers and collecting data. Then I refined my research questions, designed my study, wrote the thesis proposal and started doing analysis in the second year. I kept working on data analysis, paper writing and responding to reviewers’ comments during the third and fourth years. Meanwhile, I took an active part in domestic and international academic exchanges and made oral or poster presentation at academic conferences. I visited Montana State University in 2016 and attended to the AGU Fall meeting 2017 in New Orleans. Workshop and training in Land Carbon Cycle Modeling brought me to Northern Arizona University in 2018. In the fifth year, I wrote my thesis and discussed it with my supervisor many times, while revising it continuously. 

Tell us about the process of completing your degree. How “important” or “weighted” is your defense for your graduation?

It is a very formal defense and I must stand in front of a panel. My thesis was peer reviewed by 3 reviewers two months ago and then I started the doctoral dissertation defense. Each reviewer gave lots of comments and suggestions and scored the thesis. According to the rules, I will be not allowed to start my PhD defense if my mean score is less than 75 (out of 100 points). If that happens, I will have a chance to respond to the comments and increase the score if the thesis improves greatly. The defense is public and the parents are welcomed to come to see it if they want to. There are at least 5 professors in the panel and three professors of them must be from different institutes or universities that the PhD candidate. My supervisor attended as a nonvoting delegate without the right to vote. Generally, the PhD candidates should dress formally, not casually. The Thesis Supervisory Committee discussed my defense and thesis and then made a decision if I can pass the defense. Only if I pass my defense, I can graduate and earn a PhD degree.

Aside from research, what else are you expected to do as part of your PhD?

Demonstrating lab work to undergrads or giving seminars to other students is a good experience and it is common for PhD students in China. However, the time on this work should be limited properly because we should focus on our research. In addition, and specifically for myself, I expect to develop good habits to balance work and life, which help me working smart and spending more time with family. Moreover, I would like to learn more about how to write proposals to apply for fellowships or funding, which is very important for a scientist. Finally, yet importantly, I want to often take part in physical exercise and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Tell us about your research.

My research interests focus on ecosystem ecology, particularly on carbon cycle in terrestrial ecosystems. Carbon dioxide has been presented as one of the major drivers of global warming, and the large year‐to‐year variation in the growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide is due primarily to the inter-annual variability (IAV) of the terrestrial carbon cycle rather than the oceanic carbon cycle. However, the causes for the IAV of terrestrial carbon cycle differ across different global regions and scales of observation, and models have difficulty replicating it, indicating a fundamental gap in our understanding. I work on the IAV and long term trends of the surface-atmosphere exchange of carbon dioxide, using existing observations from eddy covariance measurement sites and global datasets. These datasets include atmospheric CO2 inversion products (top–down exchange), FLUXCOM products (bottom–up exchange) and model outputs. I focus on quantifying the role of climate on terrestrial carbon metabolism, particularly in the processes and mechanisms of terrestrial ecosystem carbon cycle. I am very interested in exploring hypotheses related to climate and disturbance impacts on ecosystem carbon cycle using both measurements and models.

I worked at global scale using multi-source datasets, and I evaluate if this data is robust to observations at local scale. Among other, I mostly used decomposition method and perturbation analysis in my study. During the growing season, I went to the field experimental station and conducted global change experiments and measured many variables associated with ecosystem carbon and water cycles.

What are some challenges you’d like to share associated with getting a PhD in China?

In general, our supervisor will provide enough funding for our research and travel. The basic challenges with getting a PhD in China are doing experiments, analyzing data and publishing the findings. Publishing at least one paper is required for most of universities in China before starting PhD thesis defense. The published journal is either SCI indexed or Chinese core journals and the paper must be peer-reviewed. I think publishing or presenting in English is very helpful to promote international academic exchanges and it should be encouraged.

Personally, my first challenge was writing the first manuscript. It felt hard to write at the beginning, but later I read some related papers published in good journals that were a good way to help my writing. The second challenge was double-checking my data because wrong inputs for the analysis will get wrong outputs. Thus, I had to check and recheck my data and make sure it was correct. Double-checking the data before analysis also helped us to avoid pseudo-work and gain efficiency. The last one I would like to say was learning to self-discipline. Time goes fast, and I think setting a schedule for myself was a great way to maintaining the discipline.

What do you like about your PhD and the PhD process?

I felt very happy to work with my colleagues and friends and we helped each other and made great progress together. There are about 20 members in our lab and we have lab meeting every week to discuss papers and asking for and giving advices. I enjoyed the process of exploring and analyzing data to see what will happen, and what can I know from the results. Of course, I was also very happy to see how my manuscript was constantly becoming better and better after multiple rejections, and being finally accepted.

Why did you want to get a PhD, what are you hoping to do with it, and what did you not realise going in?

I am curious to understand Nature and eager for learning more from the PhD study. To be a scientist is the dream I’d had since I was young. My PhD experience helped me to keep reading and studying, and has brought me to many places in the world where I made more friends. I was born in a small village but my PhD brought me to Chinese Academy of Sciences, in the city of Beijing, which had a nice academic atmosphere and benefited me a lot. During my PhD, I was also lucky enough to travel to USA several times (Montana State University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Northern Arizona University), where I enjoyed the attractive scenes and the academic research. I hope to look for a professor position in the near future and keep doing research. The competition for jobs in academia both in China and the rest of the world is intense and the postdoc experiences is usually required.

You can learn more about Zheng’s research looking to his most recent publication in Global Change Biology or any other of his publications.

Read more posts in this series here.