PhD Study in China – A Guide for 2021 |
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PhD Study in China – A Guide for 2021

As the world’s second largest economy, it’s no surprise that China also possesses a rapidly developing higher education system. This is reflected in excellent opportunities for international PhD students.

China is a key member of the BRICS group of countries with fast-growing economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and is home to some of the group’s leading research universities. These offer excellent platforms for collaboration with experts and academics as well as international educational projects.

This page explains what it’s like to study a PhD in China, what opportunities are available, how to apply and how to access research funding as an international student.

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PhD opportunities in China – what’s on offer for 2021?

The Chinese higher education system is growing rapidly, with an increase in enrolment of 170% between 1998-2010.

Because of this the Government are investing more money into the country’s universities through flagship schemes such as Project-958 and the Double First Class University Plan. These initiatives aim to produce world-class universities further increasing the prestige of Chinese institutions and recruiting great PhD students is a key part of that ambition.

Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to take part in some great extra-curricular activities, whether that means walking the Great Wall of China or participating in dragon and lion dances at the Chinese New Year festivals.

Here are a few reasons you should consider studying a PhD in China this year:

  • Highest rated BRICS country: The top four universities in the 2019 Times Higher Education Brics Rankings are located within China and six of its universities reside within the top 10.
  • Globally ranked and rapidly growing education system: Chinese universities are also rising up global league tables, supported by generous Government funding initiatives.
  • Government seeking to attract international postgraduates: The Chinese Government values the contribution of international students, with generous funding available to the best PhD applicants.
  • Increasingly popular with international students: China is on course to become the second most popular country for study abroad, with plans to host 500,000 international students by 2020.
  • Multiple sightseeing opportunities: Whether or not it informs your research, there’s plenty to see and do during a PhD in China: including The Potala Palace, The Terracotta Army, The Great Wall and The Forbidden City. Not forgetting the Giant Panda, or course.

PhD Study in China - Key Details
Universities 2,596
Nobel Prizes 8
Oldest University Peking University (1898)
International Students 201,177
PhD Length 3-4 years
Typical Fees Yuan 17,000-54,000 (USD $2,462-7,822)
Academic Year March to January

Coronavirus updates for international students at Chinese universities

For the latest information on the impact of coronavirus on studying a PhD in China, please check government guidlines and with your chosen university for updates.

Chinese Universities

The Chinese higher education system is similar to the UK, where a Bachelors degree must be obtained before proceeding on to postgraduate study.

There are many post-secondary institutions within China, but only around 100 of them are research universities. These carry out research in all major academic fields, with many supported by government funding.

Both types of university are very likely to provide opportunities for PhD research – and welcome international students.

Public and private institutions

Higher education institutions (HEIs), can be divided into two categories depending on how they are governed and funded.

The higher education system in China works slightly differently to the United Kingdom. Instead of providing a parallel option to public universities, private institutions offer an alternative qualification route.

  • State/government owned: being government funded, these institutions receive public (government) funding and set policy standards. A wide range of institutions fall into this category including the regular HEIs where most PhD programmes are carried out.
  • Non-government/private: these are not administered by the government; they retain the right to select their students and are typically funded by student tuition. These generally are for students that can’t attend public universities (having failed to meet admission/entrance exam requirements).

Therefore, the majority of PhD opportunities will be at government institutions.

The C9 League

Much like the UK's Russell Group, Canada's Group of 13 and the United States' IVY league, China has its own alliance of prestigious universities.

The nine Government-selected institutions make up the China 9 (C9) League. As recipients of large amounts of Government funding, they all offer international PhD opportunities and rank within the top universities in the world. In addition, some C9 institutions have initiated plans with Russell Group Universities for collaborative funding- enhancing PhD research prospects.

The C9 league of institutions are: Tsinghua University, Peking University, Zhejiang University, Harbin Institute of Technology, Fudan University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Nanjing University, University of Science and Technology of China and Xi’an Jiatong University.

Besides the C9 League there are many PhD opportunities at the other universities within China.

The future of Chinese higher education

China is actively seeking a position at the forefront of international research (and postgraduate training). Key to this are two ongoing Government strategies:

  • Project 958: Initially this was an initiative to fund and develop nine elite world ranked institutions: the C9 league. By 2011 the scheme incorporated 39 institutions.
  • The Double First Class University Plan: The success of Project 958 resulted in the Government launching a new initiative to create 42 world class universities and 140 world class disciplines by 2050.

Projects like this demonstrate China’s investment in postgraduate research and the creation of more international PhD opportunities.

Chinese university ranking

Seven of Chinas universities are within the first 200 of the current QS and Times Higher Education rankings. The Government hope to increase this number with the help of the Double First-Class University Plan.

Top 10 Chinese Universities in 2021
University THE 2021 QS 2021 ARWU 2020
Tsinghua University=201529
Peking University232349
Fudan University=7034100
University of Science and Technology of China=87=9373
Zhejiang University=945358
Shanghai Jiao Tong University1004763
Nanjing University=111=124101-150
Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech)251-300=323301-400
Sun Yat-sen University251-300263101-150
Beijing Normal University301-350=279201-300
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

Do ranking matter for PhD study?

University rankings can help you choose a PhD project or programme, provided you know what to look at. Our guide explains how to use rankings as a prospective postgraduate.

Chinese university cities

China is a massive country, 9.596 million square kilometres to be exact. Within mainland China the majority of leading universities lie within the North (9) and East (11).

The main university cities within China are:

PhD structure

China is equipped with 5,000 years of culture and history, making it one of the most popular destinations for travellers in the world. Its welcoming culture makes it very easy for international students to settle down for a long term stay.

The core component of a Chinese PhD programme is similar that of the UK and other countries. You will research in detail a novel topic in your field with the support of your chosen supervisor. Upon completion you will submit a thesis detailing your significant findings.

Programme length

The majority of Chinese doctoral programmes give three or four years for research if you are registered full-time. Part-time opportunities for PhD students are available, however these aren’t applicable to international students. This is because the X1-Visa is only valid for five years.

Some institutions will give the thesis defence completion a five-year time frame, with others requiring it to be completed in four.

The full-time academic year consists of two semesters: spring (March-mid July) and fall (mid-September-January). A number of institutions will offer international students the opportunity to defer their start date to the end of September, complying with the traditional UK term dates.

Assessment and examination

The content of PhD degrees in China may vary depending upon the institution and chosen subject-area. However, many programmes include more formal teaching and assessment than is common in countries like the UK.

As a PhD student you may be required to complete a programme of training and study during the first two or three years of a research degree, adhering to the teaching plan set by your supervisor. This will include classroom lectures and examinations on the courses must be passed to complete your doctorate degree.

Alongside this you will have to complete your research project. A full doctoral thesis must be written on the research. Your will have to defend your thesis in an oral examination. (graduation defence) in front of a panel of experts within the research topic's field. (This is slightly different to the more private viva format in countries like the UK).

Fees and funding

In China there is no standard tuition fee cap; your fees will vary depending upon the chosen discipline and institution.

As with the UK and other countries there are scholarships available to fund your studies, making China an affordable option for PhD study abroad.

PhD fees

Universities are free to set their own fees; however, they follow a similar pattern. Arts and Humanities subjects often have significantly lower fees than other disciplines.

Most universities will charge the following tuition fees per year for each faculty:

  • Liberal Arts: 10,755-25,940 Yuan (USD $1,550-3,750)
  • Science and Engineering: 18,347-33,532 Yuan (USD $2,650-4,850)
  • Medicine, Sports and Arts: 25,307-51,879 Yuan (USD $3,650-7,500)

You can check fees for specific PhDs in China by looking at the opportunities listed here on FindAPhD. These may be pre-funded projects or may require the student to apply for external funding.

Living costs

The cost of living is relatively low in China in comparison to other countries. As a rough guide an international student will need between 1,900-5,000 Yuan (USD $275-725) per month, this will vary depending upon the location.

International students are not permitted to work during their PhD, so sufficient funds must be ensured prior to starting your studies.

The Chinese Government Scholarship Programme

The Chinese Government has created a student scholarship scheme for international students.

This scholarship is available to international students who apply to study for a doctoral degree for up to three years. Applications must have a Masters degree and excellent academic records. They must not be in receipt of any other scholarships.

There are two types of scholarship partial and full. The full scholarship includes:

  • Costs of tuition, registration, experiment, accommodation and consumable fees are covered.
  • The same as Chinese student’s, recipients receive provision of out-patient medical fees and Chinese Government Scholarship Foreign Medical Insurance 600 Yuan (USD $85) per year.
  • Travel fees will be arranged for international students for entry into the city from their own.
  • A one-off resettlement allowance of 600 Yuan (USD $85) when the school opens.

You should apply for the scholarship in your own country at either the government department in charge of overseas study, related organisation or the Chinese embassy. Applications care open between February and April.

University scholarship programmes

If you are unsuccessful in securing the Government Scholarship, you will have to opportunity to apply for university scholarships.

Applications generally open in March after the Government Scholarship Programme, with the results announced in July. Check university websites for specific deadlines and further information.

Applications require the same documents as the Government Scholarship.

Applying for a PhD in China

As there are so many universities (and PhD projects!) available in China the country operates two centralised application services. These are there to help you with the application process:

  • The China University Application Centre (CUAC): This is a directed service to help international students find universities and courses within China.
  • China's University and College Admission System (CUCAS): An official online portal for international students applying to universities within China.

Alternatively, you can also apply directly to your university of choice

Admission requirements

Different institutions will have their own requirements for admission to their programmes, but there are a couple of key things most will require:

  • A Masters degree: you must hold a Masters degree or equivalent in a relevant discipline
  • Examinations: you may need to pass your university’s entrance and language examinations
  • A project supervisor: you must have spoken to a supervisor agreed upon a project and your suitability to that project
  • Academic references: you must have at least two recommendation letters by your professors

If you are applying to major disciplines in the arts, you must offer a portfolio of: pictures, recordings and audio-visual material of their own work.

Choosing a PhD supervisor

Choosing the right supervisor is essential for a PhD. Not sure how to pick a potential supervisor for your PhD, or how to approach them once you have? We have a guide to help you.

Language requirements

Some PhD programmes for international students are taught in Chinese and others are taught in English. Depending on the programme you choose there may be a language requirement.

Most universities will require you to hold a Chinese Proficiency Test (HSK) level 5-8 certificate, the HSK test can be taken at multiple venues across the United Kingdom.

Those who do not meet the language requirements must successfully complete a one-year full-time Chinese language programme as a pre-sessional course.

Applications for English taught courses, do not require the student to speak Chinese, however you may have to submit English proficiency results such as IELTS.

The application processes

Prior to submitting your application, you must email a prospective supervisor. After discussing the research with them you should send a request to supervise your thesis.

There are a number of application steps you must then complete:

  • Provide academic transcripts - universities may request a full transcript of your academic work. You can obtain this from your previous university.
  • Provide references - you must supply at least two letters of recommendation from your previous professors
  • Complete application form - you must complete the university’s application form, naming the supervisor you have contacted
  • Other - you must submit a health check-up record in accordance with the Chinese health quarantine departments, and self-financed students must submit a financial guarantee with evidence

The closing date for applications is usually April or May of the entrance year. The majority of institutions charge an application fee which on average is about 810 Yuan (USD $117).


Some universities may wish to discuss your application with you; if this is the case they may ask you for an interview. Don’t worry though: they won’t expect you to fly over to China for an hour. Instead interviews will usually be conducted through a web-chat or video-conferencing channel.

If your application included a research proposal, they will probably want to discuss these ideas with you. If it was directed at a specific project they may want to know what skills you can bring to it.

What happens during a PhD interview?

Your interview for a PhD in China will follow a fairly standard format (apart from the fact in may take place online). Our guides give advice on what happens at a PhD interview and an overview of some questions you might be asked

Student visas

Note that there are two Student Visas in China the X2 Visa is issued for study periods of less than 6 months. For PhD study you will require the X1 Visa which costs 649 Yuan (USD $94).

The X1 is valid for multiple entries within 5 years. The holder must register at the local public security bureau within 30 days, where they will be given a China Residence Permit to replace the X1 visa.

When applying for your X-Visa you will need to present the following original documents and one photocopied set:

  • University admission notice confirming your student status
  • Submission of your HIV status
  • X1-Visa application form
  • Foreigner physical examination form
  • Your actual, valid passport with at least 2 blank visa pages
  • A photocopy of your passport name page, and a recent passport photograph

You should obtain the X-Visa from your countries Chinese Embassy or Consulate-General prior to arrival in China.

Working in China as an international student

International students are forbidden to work alongside their studies. Therefore, self-financed students should ensure they can afford their living and tuition costs, prior to beginning a PhD in China. However, with the university’s permission you are allowed to undertake an internship during your studies.

Health insurance

International students must purchase medical insurance and personal accidental death and injury insurance, before or after arrival in China, cost 800 Yuan a year (USD $115).

In addition, if you will remain in China for over a year (doctoral students) must purchase health insurance for the entirety of their stay. On top of this they must undergo a physical examination in a public hospital one month before departure. Physical examination cost 600 Yuan (USD $85).

Next steps

China is highly popular with international students, and for good reason, so you will definitely enjoy your PhD experience there. But where will you go next?

Can I work in China after my PhD

International graduates can work in China but will require an additional visa in order to do so. This Z-visa provides a post-study work route for international Masters or PhD graduates. To obtain one you must have found a position with an employer in a field related to your qualifications.

Find a PhD in China

Ready to start browsing some current PhD opportunities in China. Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 23/10/2020

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