So I was recently offered a math postdoc position in China for 2 years. A bit of additional background:

  • I am a US citizen and have never left the US; I've hardly left my home state (except for grad school).
  • I intend to go into industry. It's been a good several months since I graduated with my PhD and I am getting wary that my resume is becoming more and more stale as time passes.

I had a few questions for those who know better than me:

  • Given that I've never left the US, how big of a culture shock with this be? The postdoc is in Shenzhen, so I'm told that it's a pretty international city. I am just concerned with coming home for Christmas and having enough time to visit my family during vacations (as I did when I was a grad student). How different would this be from working at a US university?
  • Given that I'm planning to spend at least part of my time on buffing up my resume for industry (particularly data science and software engineering), what does a PhD from a top US school and a postdoc at a Chinese university look like to employers (I know this is the academia stackexchange, but I just wanted to fish for some advice on this).
  • Lastly, do you think my plan is doable? Do you think that I will have enough free time to work on industry skills, conduct small math research projects and fulfill my postdoc responsibilities?

Some clarifications:

  • I have not been successful in finding an industry job; hence, my plan to pursue the post-doc so I can pay the bills while I gain some industry-relevant skills
  • There are no other international post-docs at this school, hence I cannot ask them about their experiences
  • 20
    Please read the question Postdoc in China: what are the possible difficulties and disadvantages?. I am a native Chinese speaker living in Taiwan. In my opinion, this question is extremely important to you.
    – Nobody
    Mar 12, 2021 at 7:32
  • Comments are not for extended discussion nor for answers; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Mar 13, 2021 at 0:45
  • 3
    Condensing a few of the outstanding questions for OP: (1) Can you speak Chinese? (2) Do you have any particular interest in Chinese history, culture, or language? (3) Would you be interested in staying in China long term?
    – cag51
    Mar 13, 2021 at 0:52
  • 2
    If the core of your answer is whether a Chinese PD would help you find a data science job, Academia is maybe not the best and most reliable place to ask. Also why do you think a PD would be industry relevant?
    – Greg
    Mar 13, 2021 at 5:30
  • 5
    i am from Shenzhen. It is an extremely cosmopolitan city with a very large American expat community. You can get by without speaking Chinese; people are used to foreigners. If you really, really don't want to adapt (though I wouldn't understand why), you can pretty much get by with an American lifestyle. For further discussion, I can continue in chat.
    – xuq01
    Mar 14, 2021 at 15:10

6 Answers 6


As someone from England who did postdocs in Thailand (for 4 years) and then taught in high schools in Shanghai (for 3 years), not so recent, but within the last ten years:

Working conditions depend a lot on the people you happen to be around, and Shenzhen is not Shanghai (although in terms of "internationalisation", they are similar), but based on my experience (the following was all TRUE for me, although everyone's experience is different):

Another factor which is sadly crucial but you haven't mentioned, is your ethnicity. If you are white then people will stare at you and you will be a target for rip off/con artists/people trying to sell you junk everywhere you go. The violent crime rate is zero (although, there are pickpockets; and the official train ticket seller in a railway station tried to overcharge me once), but you will have to have your guard up at all times.

If you have darker skin then you might have a hard time. I have heard Chinese friends say things about Africans and non-Chinese Asians which would be unbelievably racist in most western countries. However, I don't know what practical differences in behaviour/treatment might arise from this.

If you look Chinese then people will assume that you are, which means you will get pushed around more on crowded public transport, etc.

(I myself am white, but my Korean-American friend was always complaining about being shoved around on the trains, even more than me - this is just how people behave towards each other in China, and queuing is nonexistent).

Culture shock: You will find it hard to buy certain basic things you are used to in the US (although you will not know which until you are there). You will find that many products are of much lower quality than in the US, that you cannot obtain higher quality products at all.

You will also find a lot of people hawking up phlegm and spitting on the street, dropping litter, and smoking indoors (even in restaurants, even where there are non smoking signs).

Food: someone on the street tried to sell a live hedgehog to me to eat. Even in large supermarkets you will find live frogs and very strange animal meat on sale. If you do not eat such things, you will find it surprisingly hard to find restaurants which sell edible food (I don't regard KFC or McDonald's as edible either). Some people in the comments think this is an exaggeration. I have seen dog carcasses hanging outside restaurants in Shenzhen. OK, I suppose you are not likely to get served something like this accidentally, but that doesn't mean it's not there and cooked in the same kitchen, with questionable hygiene standards (food inspectors are routinely bribed). China is notoriously bad for animal rights. Remember also the poisoned baby milk powder scandal ten years ago.

Language barrier: Very few signs will be in English (let alone people who speak English). For getting on buses etc., you really should have your address or road name written down IN CHINESE CHARACTERS to check. (By English I really mean "Roman script" - if something is written in Polish or Swedish, or some other European language I don't know, at least I can read, copy and memorise things. This is also a problem in Thailand of course, although at least Thai is alphabetic).

Working conditions: make sure EVERYTHING is written down and agreed in GREAT detail. You should expect your employers to lie and cheat about everything. Do not expect any reasonable behaviour or holidays from them. Maybe you will be pleasantly surprised, but plan for the worst. "We missed Monday due to a public holiday, so therefore we will all work on Saturday". One time, both Monday AND Tuesday were Chinese public holidays, so we had to work over Saturday and Sunday (and still work the following Monday - Friday as normal). So, we were forced to work 10 days in a row!

Prices: China is nowhere near as cheap as Thailand, say, nowadays. A good meal in a restaurant will cost you >10 US dollars, easily, unless you are willing to eat strange and/or low quality food. China is fine for buying cheap, low quality junk, but even expensive products will still be low quality, you just cannot escape it. (E.g., I have had DVD players, washing machines, etc. break down within a few months).

"International" cities: absolute nonsense. People say the same about Shanghai, and it is not international at all. All the ways in which it is "international" are very superficial. Nowhere in mainland China is "international" in the proper sense of the word. Only Hong Kong is international (although I don't know about Macau).

Money/exchange: you will find it very easy to change US dollars to yuan, but very hard (within China) to go the other way when you finally leave (and international bank transfers will be very hard). China discourages you from taking foreign currency out of the country. (Yes, even staff in the Bank of China will blatantly lie and pretend not to have foreign money). For cash exchange, by far the best option is to go to Hong Kong. You will have to pay for almost everything in cash.

Freedom/internet: yes, China really does spy on you, block websites, block Hong Kong TV news broadcasts, etc. etc. You need to show your ID at internet cafes, to buy petrol for cars/motorbikes, to buy long distance bus/train tickets, etc. etc. When you first arrive, someone from your apartment building will speak to you and be very friendly. That is the communist party representative who lives in your neighbourhood (EVERY neighbourhood has at least one, who reports back everything they see, especially regarding foreigners). There really are undercover spies everywhere watching you and reporting back to the Communist party.

General evilness/legal problems: if relations go bad between you and your employer, do not expect any kind of fair treatment. They might, e.g., collude with your apartment owner to have you thrown out or overcharged; they might forge documents and try to charge you money for false compensation/refuse to pay salaries owed, etc. etc. Even though the law theoretically protects you, in practice very few people will help you (and even if you take them on and win, you will not be compensated the amount you deserve). Always have your passport handy and be prepared to run if things start to go badly downhill.

At least you are not actually at risk of imprisonment unless you do something really bad.

Shenzhen does have one advantage, that you can easily go to Hong Kong for brief escapes (unless the border is closed due to Covid etc.); if you are working in Shenzhen then you will get a multientry Chinese visa, and Hong Kong I believe allows US passport holders to enter frequently for short tourist visits without fuss.

Shenzhen is newer and less polluted than Shanghai, although it still seems about the same as London to me, which I think of as quite polluted. To be fair, I think Shenzhen is the nicest large Chinese city I've been to (and I have been to quite a few), although there is no history (unlike Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing and even Hong Kong).

Make sure you are not the only foreigner who works there! At least they will have dedicated staff members who will help you to find an apartment, get visas/work permits/etc. etc., because they know that most of these are basically impossible if you don't speak Chinese.

Health: they WILL test for diseases like HIV, Hepatitis, Tuberculosis, etc. etc. I don't know where to find the full list of diseases, but if you have anything like this, you might find yourself stuck in China abandoned by your employer (with hefty medical bills) if you fail the medical test. Also, doctors in China are NOT TRUSTWORTHY; some WILL overcharge, recommend dubious or unnecessary treatment, etc. (Of course this may also be true in other countries). Also, what actually will happen if you catch Covid-19 or some other disease? Make sure you ask in advance and have it written into the contract what they will do in this case.

  • 21
    > "If you do not eat such things, you will find it surprisingly hard to find restaurants which sell edible food (or, run a high risk of being served such food if you make a mistake with the menu)." This is a total overreaction. "Standard" protein options (pork, chicken, beef, lamb) are, well, standard, even in China. I guarantee that you will not accidentally order hedgehog, or bat, or cat, at ordinary restaurants.
    – jogloran
    Mar 12, 2021 at 22:52
  • 8
    I am a frequent visitor to Shenzhen, and I don't think staring or spitting is a thing anymore and has not been for many years. It's a bit difficult to get around without some of the language though (subway is easy, taxis and Uber-like transport less so). Food is absolutely not a problem, lots of fast food, nice restaurants etc. and even easier once set set up with Wechat payments. Walmart and Carrefour department stores, nice malls such as MixC, even a Sam's Club. Mar 13, 2021 at 7:16
  • 20
    While some parts of this answer seem accurate to me, some are just downright ridiculous. I have been living in Shenzhen for a year. If you eat noodles and rice, it is completely trivial to find good food for at most 5$ everywhere around you. That's not even including dumplings, bread etc. Regarding ethnicity, yes you will stand out, but almost always people will treat you with respect and curiosity, not disdain.
    – Vincent
    Mar 13, 2021 at 8:49
  • 7
    There's a weird obsession amongst Western countries that everyone should have English available everywhere for the convenience of Western tourists. If we go by the number of total native speakers, Chinese and Spanish should also be served on every restaurant menu and road signs. I have been to China multiple times and most of the items mentioned are either no longer applicable or have been greatly exaggerated. I do notice that Western people tend to aggregate in KFC and McDonald chains instead of trying the more local cuisine. I think that they're missing out due to their bias.
    – Babyburger
    Mar 14, 2021 at 0:32
  • 3
    The not being able to buy basic food items is certainly not true in Shenzen. You can even get things like proper German bread or fancy French pastries that are impossible to get in the US outside of some major international cities. The will cost what they cost in the US, if not slightly more and you will have trouble finding some Western food outside of the major cities but in Shenzen you could eat a pure Western diet if you wanted to.
    – quarague
    Mar 14, 2021 at 8:39

A math postdoc typically has no formal responsibilities (except teaching if the postdoc is also a teaching position). That makes it a bad idea for anyone who isn’t at least seriously considering an academic career to do such a postdoc: the problem for such a person is that the incentives for doing research are not aligned with their personal career goals. Any postdoc I know who decided to leave academia, essentially stopped doing research the moment they made that decision, as from that moment on they had every reason to spend all their time on other things.

So, it seems to me that the question you need to answer first is why you want to do a postdoc, since if it’s just a temporary slot to fall into while you work on learning to code for two years and prepare for the move to industry, that’d probably be cheating your employer, and largely a waste of time for you.

Once you answer that question, there’s still the China issue to consider, but I don’t know what to say about that. For some people living abroad for two years in a country with a vastly different culture from where they’re from is their idea of a good time, for others it isn’t. If you don’t know which of those groups you belong to since you’ve never experienced that, I don’t see how you can realistically expect strangers on the internet to know any better than you. Anyway, it’s certainly an interesting opportunity - good luck!

  • I mean, I was hoping someone has had a similar experience that could inform my decision.
    – Harry Reed
    Mar 12, 2021 at 2:40
  • 3
    @HarryReed well, the living abroad part isn’t specific to academia, so you can try asking about that on travel.stackexchange.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 12, 2021 at 2:46
  • 2
    @HarryReed there is someone who might be able to answer (academia.stackexchange.com/questions/104541/…) but I wouldn't know how to contact them.
    – Allure
    Mar 12, 2021 at 2:52
  • 3
    @HarryReed: I'd say that if you have never lived before in China for at least few months, you should not even think of going there, unless you want to personally experience the sunk cost fallacy.
    – user21820
    Mar 12, 2021 at 13:42
  • 9
    @HarryReed building on this answer, there are industrial positions that are happy to train mathematicians to be engineers (my organization is one). Also, if you intend on joining certain US government agencies or research labs after the two years, your time in China could complicate this.
    – kjacks21
    Mar 12, 2021 at 15:09

Maybe you should be aware there is a new coldish war between five eyes (US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Eyes) and China. [Plus Japan, India, and the EU].

If your area of expertise is in any area of strategic interest to any of the above six nations you may run into future security problems.

EG. Two days ago the boss of ASIO (like FBI counter intelligence) made this warning -

Australian security agencies will give universities an expanded list of emerging technologies that should be protected from foreign interference as concern grows about local academics giving China access to their critical research.

The list will go beyond the military or “dual-use” technologies that Australian universities have traditionally been told to protect from foreign governments.

From https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/asio-boss-says-foreign-governments-using-deceptive-means-to-obtain-australian-research-20210311-p579qq.html

This is a list of some technologies as defined by China -

  • Information Technology - AI, IoT, smart appliances

  • Robotics - AI, machine learning

  • Green energy and green vehicles energy efficiency, electric vehicles

  • Aerospace equipment

  • Ocean engineering and high tech ships

  • Railway equipment

  • Power equipment

  • New materials

  • Medicine and medical devices

  • Agriculture machinery

From Made in China 2025 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Made_in_China_2025

China also engages in hostage diplomacy, maybe you'll be the next one -

Australia has joined an international coalition of 57 countries condemning hostage diplomacy, in a move designed to ramp up diplomatic pressure on China and other nations which have arbitrarily detained foreigners.

Signatories include Japan, the UK, US and the vast majority of members in the European Union

The declaration does not specifically mention any nation

It is reportedly sparked by concern over arrests of foreigners by China, Iran, Russia and North Korea

The declaration has been led by Canada,(external link) which has been caught in a protracted diplomatic battle with China over the jailing of two Canadian citizens, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and consultant Michael Spavor.

China has made it clear the move is in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in 2018.


Also war is expected by some US military commanders within 6 years - you don't want to be there when/if that happens. See -

China could invade Taiwan within the next six years as Beijing accelerates its moves to supplant American military power in Asia, a top US commander has warned.

Democratic and self-ruled Taiwan lives under constant threat of invasion by China, whose leaders view the island as part of their territory and which they have vowed to one day take back.

“I worry that they’re [China] accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order... by 2050,” said Washington’s top military officer in Asia-Pacific, Admiral Philip Davidson, on Tuesday.

“Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before that. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years,” he told a US Senate armed services committee hearing.



I’m English, and I lived and worked in Shanghai for 9 years. I had some contact with Chinese universities, but not a lot.

I would have two concerns about your plan:

(1) Some Chinese academics treat grad students and post docs as indentured servants, to be used for their personal profit. Don’t be surprised if you end up doing work for which some senior prof gets paid. This might be less prevalent in mathematics, but it’s common in computer science and engineering. Maybe this is not unique to China, but that’s where I have observed it most.

(2) The culture shock will be considerable. The answer from @english_mathematician has some examples, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. EVERYTHING is going to be a frustrating confrontational battle, and you will almost always lose. It’s utterly exhausting. I’d suggest you go spend a few weeks in Shenzhen before you commit. And don’t stay in a fancy international hotel. Go try to rent an apartment, get a mobile phone, open a bank account, or visit a doctor. You might well find that this experience alone is sufficient to discourage you.

The major Chinese cities have large ex-pat communities. Within these, you will find people who speak English and are happy to provide you with certain services. The reason they’re happy is that they get to charge exorbitant rates. The foreigner often doesn’t care because the bills are being paid by some big corporation back home. On a Chinese post-doc salary, you won’t be able to afford any of this. So, as mentioned above, you can forget the “international city” idea.

  • 1
    "EVERYTHING is going to be a frustrating confrontational battle, and you will almost always lose" -- this sounds like hyperbole -- could you clarify? When OP loses the "battle" for food and housing, does that mean he will be starving and homeless?
    – nanoman
    Mar 14, 2021 at 8:09
  • 1
    No, it means he (or she) will often be overcharged. If lacking sufficient funds, it means settling for low quality food and housing. The “EVERYTHING” is an exaggeration; breathing and urination probably won’t be a battle, for example.
    – bubba
    Apr 14, 2021 at 11:35

what does a PhD from a top US school and a postdoc at a Chinese university look like to employers

It looks like a PhD.

This is very dependent on the countries (I can speak for France, Germany and Italy - and overall EU) but a PhD (not a postdoc) is a nice to have, but not much more. Germany is a bit special as PhDs are very much recognized as a social position (broadly speaking).

My PhD helped me in my jobs because it is a mark of seriousness but the actual topic is not really relevant (provided it is more or less science). I work in IT and have a PhD in physics, as an example.

If you intend to work in Data Science and you have a PhD in Data Science then fine, but you will be only a notch above someone with a Masters in that subject. An employer wants someone who will be able to work on a problem, from a practical aspect. If your PhD is about an esoteric part of DS, then it does not count at all. Even if it is applicable to the job do not expect someone to really realize that.

So a PhD is nice.

Now the postdoc. (putting myself in the shoes of an interviewer)

As someone working in industry, I do not know what a postdoc is. Or I have a faint idea that it is an extra PhD. Or maybe som extra work in research you had to do after your PhD? Some kind of internship?

Anyway, it does not matter because I have questions about how to address a problem of classifying something based on something. Pouf! the postdoc part is gone from my mind, and the PhD is slowly drifting away as well.

Of course YMMV. You may get into an industrial research job, your interviewer may have aa PhD and understand what a postdoc is (but still, it does not make much difference), etc.

If you want to go to China to get some international experience - great. This may count as an international experience, not a postdoc. What you did there is irrelevant if you did not work in industry.


In terms of culture shock it goes something like this for you:

US < Canada < Other English-native-countries (UK, Australia) < Western Europe < Eastern Europe, South America < Middle East/Asia/Africa.

So you are going right in at the deep end moving to China.

Why don't you try out travelling to a closer country first to see if you like it? Try Mexico, say Mexico City or a smaller town where people are less likely to speak English. Try to eat in local restaurants etc, buy a train ticket etc. You'll either love the experience of being somewhere very different, or hate it. If you hate it, forget China, which will be as different again as Mexico is from the US, and you just saved yourself a lot of time and money.

I am from the UK but spent quite a bit of my childhood in Africa and holidaying in Europe, so I'm familiar with non-home-countries. More recently I lived in Malaysia for several years, quite a big culture shock compared to Europe but relatively painless because my wife is from there.

We visited China for a few weeks - it was much harder than being in Malaysia because (for a start) almost all the signs are in Chinese script and you can't pronounce them in your head, unlike a country where they use Roman script.

  • Nice image of the cultural shock (+1). I think however it is more US ~ Canada ~ Other English-native-countries (UK, Australia) ~ Western Europe ~ Eastern Europe < South America << Middle-East/Asia << Africa (except south and NW/NE).
    – WoJ
    Mar 15, 2021 at 7:51
  • Canada is way more like US than UK is, they even copied things like the daylight savings when US changed. You might be right about Africa, I only know SA, Morocco, Tunisia. I grew up in Zambia but don't remember it well. Mar 20, 2021 at 0:59

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