Internationally unrecognised

On the guilt and incompatibility of an international student taking her degree back home.

I have always been interest-oriented when making important decisions with my life. For the past 24 years, I’ve been drawn to humanities and social sciences, not interested in the business world, and really bad at STEM subjects.

Naturally, when it came to the choices regarding my higher education, I decided to follow my interests by taking a bachelor’s degree in history in China, and pursuing a journalism-related master’s degree in Sydney.

Neither of these degrees seemed assuring enough for my family, who are heavily occupation-oriented and deemed humanities and social science degrees as “not useful” – a common theme influencing Chinese students. I was very determined, so they compromised both times.

“But what kind of job do you want to do when you graduate?” they asked me before I took the flight to Sydney. I couldn’t come up with a detailed answer then, but I thought it was pointless to worry about something that was so far away, and that things would figure themselves out by then.

…the more I learned about the media industry in Australia, the more I realised that there is a huge gap between it and its counterpart in China.

That, of course, did not happen. After I finished my master’s degree in Sydney, I ended up even more unsure about my potential career path.

I took a Master of Media Practice degree at the University of Sydney, which was composed of media related courses such as journalism, public relations and publication design. I interned at Channel Nine and two public relations agencies in Sydney.

I enjoyed studying this degree and its professional experience component, but the more I learned about the media industry in Australia, the more I realised that there is a huge gap between it and its counterpart in China.

The code of professional conduct, the situation of the whole industry, the relationship between media, government and society is totally different. I decided not to work as a journalist in China because I knew I wouldn’t be able to utilise what I learned in Australia to a full extent there.

I couldn’t adapt to the media environment in China. I also couldn’t manage to get a working visa with my degree and work in the news or PR industry in Australia. And even if I did, these industries reasonably require their practitioners to have impeccable English skills, a criterion I couldn’t meet.

Additionally, getting a job after my expensive master’s degree seemed more like an issue of what I should do rather than what I want to do, because of the money that I had spent on education.

As an international student in Australia, I spent more on higher education than local students did, and more than my Chinese peers who took their degrees back home. I worked part time to cover my living expenses in Sydney, but the tuition fees and rent still added up to a huge amount of money, which my family spent years accumulating.

Despite my down-to-earth family members not having been fully satisfied with my degree choice, they trusted me enough and supported me financially. Although I personally found my experience in Sydney rewarding, the thought that I built my happiness and growth on their sacrifices still makes me feel guilty, and it has become a significant factor that has influenced my mentality.

I felt the need to earn a considerable income to justify my expensive study choice, to prove to my loved ones that their investment in me was worthwhile

Upon graduation, financial consideration stood out and became a priority when I was picturing my potential career. I felt the need to earn a considerable income to justify my expensive study choice, to prove to my loved ones that their investment in me was worthwhile, and, if I could, to pay back some of the money to them.

But the painful reality is that they were right about the fact that a degree in social science gained in a world-class university doesn’t qualify me for the most well-paid jobs. These positions belong to students who have graduated from business or IT schools. It doesn’t even necessarily bring me an income higher than my domestic peers who never studied overseas.

Many of my Chinese friends who are also studying social science degrees here have similar feelings. My friend Amber, who studied a Master of Public Policy and Management at the University of Melbourne, also found that the frameworks and skills she learned from class are rooted in the Western democratic system and have limits when applied to issues in China.

One of her core subjects was on public policy lobbying strategies – something that simply isn’t practiced within China’s political environment. The confusion of international students from China was well understood by the lecturer, who emphasised that lobbying is a skill commonly used in every area of life, as long as convincing someone is necessary.

Amber finds the strategies learned from this course extremely beneficial, but considers it a pity that she isn’t able to practice them professionally.

Unlike my situation, Amber’s parents were more supportive of her study choice, so she feels less financial pressure now than I do. But when it comes to her future career, she’s also uncertain about whether she will ever get the chance to work in government. However, she feels the lessons from her degree will have a lifelong impact on her way of thinking.

Another friend of mine, Amanda, who recently finished her master’s degree in Museum Studies in the United States, finds herself in a bizarre situation. She has always been interested in museums and wanted to use this degree as a stepping stone into working in the field.

However, as public institutions, museums are usually heavily connected to government and thus have strict standards for employees. Amanda told me that one must be a citizen of the United States to formally work in a federal government-funded museum there, unless they are willing to compromise and apply for a contractor position.

Knowing that she didn’t have a shot at working in the US, she turned to opportunities back in China, only to find that she couldn’t meet the criteria there either.

Amanda applied for her “dream” workplace, Shanghai Museum, but was told that she needed to have a one-year residence record in Shanghai to apply, and that they only take students who graduate next year. As she had spent the last two years in Washington DC and had already graduated from her master’s degree, Amanda could not be considered for this position.

This kind of prerequisite might sound ridiculous but it affects most Chinese graduates who have studied overseas, as hiring a year before graduation is a convention in China.

Companies who are looking to hire graduates usually release the positions collectively during a period known as ‘Autumn Hiring’, which takes place during September and November annually, targeting students who graduate the following June. It’s relatively difficult for a graduate or graduate-to-be to find a job if they miss Autumn Hiring.

This is a huge disadvantage for international students, as we don’t graduate in synch with our peers back home, and simply don’t have enough time or energy during a semester abroad – when many of us are employed casually around our full-time study schedule – to focus on seeking jobs back home. We certainly can’t afford the time or money to fly back to China just for an interview.

…the painful reality is that they were right about the fact that a degree in social science gained in a world-class university doesn’t qualify me for the most well-paid jobs.

Amanda also enjoyed her education and experience in the US, but is disappointed with her rejection from Shanghai Museum. She also points out that what she learned in the US doesn’t perfectly align with the system in China’s museums.

“I think it’s actually better to study in Shanghai if you want to work in a Shanghai Museum. You get the residence record in Shanghai, network resources such as teacher and alumni references, and the curriculum in China’s universities corresponds better with how China’s museums function,” said Amanda.

Despite the struggles and disappointments I have been through, I still don’t regret coming to Australia to study. But this isn’t the case for all international students, and I would urge anyone who wants to study their degree overseas to properly consider their decision.

The incompatibility between the courses learned in class and the actual practice back in a student’s mother country, the heightened expectation and pressure of one’s career due to the financial investment, and the extra efforts and extra risks of securing jobs, are all significant factors that one should take into account.

I just wish I would have known earlier.

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