How different are the graduate schools in China and US?

Today, I’m going to talk about the graduate schools in China and US.

I was an undergraduate student for 4 years, and a graduate student for 3 years in mid 1980s in China.  Fortunately, I also got chance to study MBA for one year in mid 1990s in US (I didn’t graduate).  Then attended an engineering graduate school in US for another year, and graduated.

Yeah, I used to be a bookworm.

Please keep in mind that, this may not reflect the current situations, as both education systems have evolved since then.

It took longer to get the master degree in China:

It took me 3 years to get my 1st master degree in China.  And 1 year to get the 2nd master in US.  The majors were similar: Electrical and Computer Engineering.

I was a graduate student full time in China.  Most of my classmates (including me) never worked a single hour outside of the school stuff.  So, in terms of the school load, it was much heavier in China.

In US, I was a full-time student, too.  But, I also worked 20 hours per week.  It means that, much less time was left to study.

Everyone’s situation is different in US.  Some might choose a little bit longer to finish the degree.  Usually it doesn’t take 3 years for a master degree, unless the major is totally different from the undergraduate.

The graduate school in China was much cheaper:

In mid 1980s in China, the tuition and room were free for both undergraduates and graduates.  The only expenses I had to pay were: food, textbooks, clothes, and other miscellaneous expenses.

The stipends for graduate students were very generous, and were available to every one.  I only had to spend half of the stipends to cover my expenses.  For the other half, I just saved it, and sent to my parents to pay off the personal loans (the loan my parents got to cover the college expenses for my brother and me earlier).

For most of my classmates, their parents were well of financially.  They spent all of the stipends.  Some even got more money from their parents.  I was used to the simple lifestyle early on.

Even for undergraduates at that time in China, each student got some stipends, too.  It was not that much as for graduate students.  But, it still covered most of the food expenses.

It’s well known that, the US undergraduate and graduate schools are very expensive.  Except for a full scholarship, students usually have to work part time.  Many have to get student loans, in additions to the financial support from the parents.

As an MBA student, I had to pay everything from my pocket.  Working 20 hours with the minimum wage $4.75/hour, it was really not that much.  So, after 1 year, I decided to change the school, and switched back to the engineering major.

Luckily, I got a teaching assistantship position.  The tuition was waived.  The stipends were enough to cover all my expenses.  I worked 20 hours a week as a teaching assistant.  In 1 year, I got the 2nd master degree.  Thank you, my alma mater, I love you!

Courses in China were much deeper, and the ones in US were broader:

In China, I spent the first two years studying the courses, and the last year on the thesis.

The courses were narrowly focused on the professional field I chose: optical fiber communications.  It was way deep in theories, and was tedious, boring, and not useful.

The same was true for my 4-year undergraduates.

The graduate thesis was not fun, and involved a lot of lab work.  It was deep enough, but not practical or useful.  Once graduated, I never touched that major again.  I switched to computer engineering.

The 3-year graduate work helped me to improve my English, and land a job in Beijing.  Other than that, it was pretty much wasting the time and resources to me.

In the graduate school in US, I had two choices:  either courses only, or some courses plus thesis.  I chose the first one, as it was easier.

Probably half of the courses were useful to my later jobs.  Some courses were really fun.  It helped me professionally, and assisted me on the team work and creative thinking.  A few courses were really boring, and made me doze off.

More courses were offered in US.  Students got more flexibility to select based on their own interests.  The technical seminars were very interesting.  Professionals from other colleges and corporations came to talk about different subjects.  Plus no exams for seminars, yeah!

Most of the professors in China were scholars only, while many in US were scholars and mentors:

My academic advisor in China was a typical scholar, who didn’t care much about what was going on outside of his domains.

One year, on the Teachers’ Day (September 10), a group of students decided to visit him.  We brought over a small holiday gift.

At that time, students didn’t have phones to make an appointment.  That evening, we just stopped by at our advisor’s house.  His wife told us that, the professor was in the library.

Then we chased him down to the library.  He was surrounded by those piled-up technical journals.  He smiled, and told us:  he never realized that, the day was Teachers’ Day.

The advisor was a very good person.  He worked hard, and was very nice and patient to us.  Unfortunately, not long after my graduation, he passed away due to cardiac arrest.  I miss him.

In the US graduate school I attended, the professors were scholars to their peers and the world.  But they were more like mentors to students.

They were teaching, and doing labs and research.  But they were also well connected to the outside world.  They got grants from corporations or government.  Some even had industry experience, which was very valuable to share with us.

They were involved in our career planning, too.  They advised students on how to look for jobs, prepare for interviews, etc.  It helped us a lot to get ready to launch the career.

Good humors from some faculties and staff in US:

When I was on the MBA program, all the classes were scheduled to the evenings, to accommodate the students who had day jobs.  After a day of work, we were tired and sleepy.

Many of us got a can of pop from the vending machine to keep awake.  It only cost a quarter, which was cheap.

The Economics professor teased about the low price:  “A quarter for a pop?  That creates and feeds the pop addictions.”  He knew too well about the supply and demand.  We all laughed except him.

Before my kid started his college in US, the school arranged the orientation, for the new students,  and parents as well.  It was a huge transition for parents, too.  Like “an open heart surgery”?  Maybe.

The parents sat in one big room, while the kids were summoned to different places.  We were sort of in a paranoid mode:  can my kid figure out where he/she is without getting lost?  Does he/she need my help when choosing the courses?  On and on ..

Then, the staff assured us in a friendly tone:  calm down, the kids will be just fine.  They advised us:  when taking off and leaving the kids to the campus, don’t be sad, and don’t cry.  And, don’t laugh loud either, or celebrate the freedom too early.

Thank you, all the faculties and staff, both in China and US.  You are the best.

In summary, each education system has its pros and cons.  I was lucky to experience both.  They helped me a lot in my life journey, and I appreciate it.

Did you, or anyone you know of, have studied abroad?  If yes, how do you feel about the different education systems?  Is it worth studying abroad for a while?

Take a look at my eBook, a mini-memoir on Amazon: “DAD’S BICYCLE: Journey of A Chinese Family”.

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4 Responses

  1. Steve says:

    Hi Helen

    I have little knowledge of studying abroad, my sons are both in University locally but I have encouraged them to look into studying abroad. They both have traveled extensively but living and going to school in a different country /culture would be a great experience. I guess living at home free room and board is too good for them.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Yeah, it’s nice your kids attend the school locally, and enjoy the free room and board. Traveling is great experience. It should be a lot of fun. Looking back, I remembered those long summer breaks while in the school, which were really cool.
      – Helen

  2. GYM says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Helen! I would have loved to study abroad but it’s a bit late now. Interesting that the studies in China were more in depth and the studies in the US were less in depth.

    Have a great Internet break!! We will miss you!

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