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I have applied for an assistant professorship at a top-tier Chinese university. After interviewing with them, they are now offering me a position: an associate professorship!

I find this very surprising. It’s not that I don’t think I deserve it: I have been a postdoc for seven years, and my publication record is significantly better than that of the average Chinese associate professor in my field. But I have never heard of anyone completely skipping the assistant professor level.

I have two questions:

(1) What do you make of this?

(2) How will this unusual feature of my future CV be perceived by universities in the west, if I later try to get back?

  • 1
    Why do you consider this an "unusual feature", which would be unheard of? – user151413 Sep 14 at 16:17
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    Actually I think this isn't that uncommon in China and Japan. – Mehta Sep 14 at 16:21
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    Well, for instance in Germany (and many other places in Europe), this used to be the normal, in fact the only way to become a professor: You go from postdoc right away to a tenured job. (Note that this also refers to your question (2), "in the west": In many countries in Europe, this would be seen as an unusual feature to start with.) – user151413 Sep 14 at 16:46
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    In my field and Europe, it's definitely common go from post-doc to associate-prof level. – lighthouse keeper Sep 14 at 17:23
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    Chinese universities have a set of criteria that vary between different universities. For example, I know of a university where you get promoted to Assoc Prof. once you have one top tier publication, two second tier publications, a set amount of funding and you are responsible for teaching a subject. In terms of perception, similar to papers, you have to look at a person's CV or content to judge quality, not via titles or publication venues. – Prof. Santa Claus Sep 14 at 19:22
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UK perspective

(1) What do you make of this?

They think you are good enough to be recruited directly to the higher-ranking grade. It sounds reasonable in light of your seven years' postdoc experience plus having publications commensurate with the grade. They obviously think you are an outstanding candidate, and may be offering you the higher-ranking grade to make the prospect of international relocation as enticing as possible. Congratulations!

(2) How will this unusual feature of my future CV be perceived by universities in the west, if I later try to get back?

To be honest, I can never remember the difference between "associate professor" and "assistant professor" -- most UK universities do not use these terms and the whole concept of "tenure track" does not really exist in the UK (although some UK universities have very long probation periods for more junior staff dressed up as fancy schemes -- here is an example that involves up to 8 years' probation). A UK academic reading your CV would, once he/she has familiarised itself with the relative seniority of the grades, be impressed that you skipped straight to the more senior grade. In the UK, an academic who reaches the equivalent of "associate professor" level (probably "senior lecturer") within seven years of getting a PhD will have done very well, but it is not extraordinarily unusual. Definitely, it would work to your advantage.

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    >To be honest, I can never remember the difference between "associate professor" and "assistant professor" At the US at least, assistant professor usually means tenure-track (the first rank after postdoc) and associate professor means you got tenure. – Mehta Sep 14 at 22:34
  • @Mehta In the UK even entry-level academic position (Lecturer, equivalent to Assistant Professor) is tenured. It's a bit hard to map UK positions to EU (Associate Professor/Assistant Professor/Full Professor) as there's 4 "levels" in the UK (Lecturer/Senior Lecturer/Reader/Professor), but I would maybe disagree with anon and say that both Lecturer and Senior Lecturer are closer to Associate Professor, and Reader maps to Associate as the progression from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer is automatic but you have to apply to progress to Reader. – penelope Sep 16 at 9:21
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In China academic positions are filled on the basis of publication record. If your total points (dependent on the impact factor of your published works) is higher than a particular number, you can directly be appointed to an associate or professor rank. I don't know if there's any document to back my claim, but I know this from my researcher friends from China. I know of one instance where a graduating PhD student was offered a full professor position because they had three extremely high impact factor publications, (two in science). Chinese academia is different than western counterparts.

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  • Wouldn't someone get a professor position in the west as well when publishing top papers? I only know three people I could keep track by becoming a professor. Two were a junior professor (and very smart, especially the one is just insane..) and the third just worked long enough at the university and became a professor finally after.. 15-20 years(?). – Ben Sep 15 at 5:52
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    Yes, you are correct. But as far as I know, in Chinese academia system, there is a points system. If you have the points, you can get a senior position. So, it's not about teaching experience, grants or academic experience but about metrics and quantity of papers. What I have seen, in West, the progression is assistant to associate and in few instances professor. One can surely skip directly to associate position with prior experience and papers, but the journey from associate to full professor takes time and consistent efforts. – argmt Sep 15 at 13:15
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Different countries have different systems, and job titles do not always translate well across borders. I suspect most people looking at your (future) CV will not read too much into the fact that your title is said to be 'Associate Professor'. They will judge you based on their perception of your achievements and stature, and mentally classify you within whichever system they are familiar with.

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Not exactly comparable, but my first tenure-line job was at University X as an Associate Professor without tenure, although I had applied for their advertised assistant professorship. The reason is that I also received an offer of a position at University Y, and matching University Y's salary offer meant that my salary would be outside University X's assistant professor salary scale. Hence the offer was "salary = starting associate professor" but "tenure status = tenure-track assistant professor". My official title was Associate Professor* (* = without tenure).

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  • All else (specifically pay) being equal, it's actually better to start at the lower rank, since that way you get two guaranteed raises when you are promoted, rather than just one. – Buzz Sep 15 at 22:31
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    @Buzz You're absolutely correct. However, I was assured that I would receive the usual salary bump on being promoted from "Associate Professor with asterisk" to "Associate Professor without asterisk"! However, if they'd offered to hire me immediately with tenure, it would have been hard to say no, even with the salary issue, since there's so much stress during the tenure process, even if one is pretty sure it will all be okay! – Joe Silverman Sep 15 at 22:51
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Since other users have already answered on the basis that this offer is made in good faith, I'll address the elephant in the room. This is China, they have a history of intellectual property theft, buttering up to univeristy professors and other academics to gain access to their work or simply a foot hold in academic institutions.

There is a real possibility, however small, that this promotion is simply a way of increasing their soft power.

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  • 3
    Isn't that true for any university - that they hire also based on whether this increases their "soft power"? – user151413 Sep 15 at 13:57
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    @user151413 Except this isn't about the university. This is about the chinese communist party. – Subbies Sep 15 at 14:30
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    Very well, but the reason why they offered the OP tenure right away is likely the same as in every other place: They want to increase their chances of getting/keeping them, to improve their standing. (Overall, I don't think the points you raise have anything to do with the question, whether valid or not.) – user151413 Sep 15 at 14:48
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    @user151413 That's way I said it was a possibility, not a certainty. I am simply adding to already existing answers with a possiblity that is fairly unique to China. – Subbies Sep 15 at 14:53
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    I think it's not relevant to suggest that OP might be contributing to intellectual theft by accepting the position. Given what the OP has said about their achievements, and there doesn't seem to be any red flags in the offer, what you suggest seems highly unlikely. – The Hagen Sep 15 at 16:11

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