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For high school seniors, choosing a college program is a battle between interest, family expectation, and career

Zhong Fangrong has been celebrating her sky-high results on the college entrance exams this week, but some netizens refused to cheer on the Hunan student’s choice of a major at the top-ranked Peking University: archeology.

“With her family background, she should study something that leads to a high-paying job, like financial management,” one Weibo user opined of Zhong, who was raised by her grandparents in a village while her parents worked in the city, and studied hard to earn a score of 676 in the gaokao, the fourth highest in her province.

Zhong’s decision has sparked a public debate over whether personal interest or practical application should matter more in choosing college majors, and whether students from humble backgrounds risk throwing away a bright future by pursuing non-mainstream studies. Some have jumped to Zhong’s defense, with a number of provincial museums announcing their support and promising to provide Zhong with free study materials. “We hope you’ll find a lifelong love for archeology at Peking University,” wrote Zhong’s new school on Weibo.

Zhong’s relatively niche choice of major is not unprecedented, and may even represent an emerging trend among high school graduates born after 2000. According to a report published in 2019 by the Examination and Evaluation Center of Beijing Normal University, the top three liberal arts majors favored by this generation are history, museology, and archeology. Psychology, forensic medicine, and applied mathematics were the favorite science majors.

The report suggests a shift away from traditionally popular majors, often those considered more practical and therefore favored by parents, such as accounting and financial management. The choice of majors also varied by province and socio-economic background. Students from highly developed Guangdong and Jiangsu preferred majors related to pharmaceuticals, ecology, chemistry, and environmental engineering, perhaps because these are the key sectors in their respective provinces.

Students participate in a job fair in Huaian, Jiangsu province (VCG)

Though study interest are changing, future career prospects are still important to many students. “Personal interests don’t necessarily match with a future career,” Zhu Haomin, a postgraduate student in legal translation from the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) in Beijing, tells TWOC.

Further complicating matters, it is notoriously difficult to transfer between academic programs and departments in Chinese universities, meaning most high school seniors have just one chance to make the right decision—or at least, avoid the wrong one. “Few students know where their true interest lies, so career prospects can be a guide in choosing majors,” says Zhu, whose undergraduate major was Business English—not the subject he was most interested in, but one which he felt would lead to career benefits. He chose a law-related major as a postgraduate with the aim of becoming a lawyer, a high-paying occupation.

Statistics from the “Employment Report of Chinese College Students in 2020” published by Mycos, a Chengdu-based higher education data management and consultancy company, suggest popular majors related to computer science like information security and software engineering offer good career prospects, inluding low unemployment rate, high satisfaction with salaries, and relevance of studies to job skills. The average monthly income for undergraduates in that industry, 6,858 RMB, is much higher than the 5,440 RMB earned by all surveyed undergraduates on average.

Majors with highest unemployment rate, lowest salary, and least job satisfaction are painting, music performance, and theory of law for undergraduates at four-year universities, according to the report; legal consultancy service, Chinese education, and cooking ranked the lowest among students at vocational college.

Graduates also value job stability and future adaptability. Increasing numbers of graduates are favoring the education sector, as it promises stable “iron rice bowl” employment. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the annual average income in the education industry was 97,681 RMB, ranking seventh among all industries, with 5.7 percent year-on-year growth from 2018 to 2019.

Cui Jingjing, a linguistics graduate from Nanjing University of Finance and Economics, is now a teacher in a middle school. “Teaching can protect me from risks like unemployment and the salary is satisfactory,” says Cui, who tells TWOC linguistics was a perfect compromise between her personal interests, her career goals, and her parents’ wishes.

On the other hand, traditionally favored majors may not lead to as many lucrative offers as students and parents hope. Yi Lin, a business interpreting postgraduate student at UIBE, tells TWOC that finance and economics-related majors were popular when he was an undergraduate, but when it came to signing up for graduate school, “I abandoned my undergraduate finance major, as the industry is becoming over-saturated; only a few graduates will earn a high salary.”

Yi says he chose to study interpreting as a postgraduate for the chance to learn a greater “range of skills.” According to Beijing-based job-seeking website Boss Zhipin, demand is skyrocketing from corporations for inter-disciplinary talents in a range of roles, from public relations to corporate management.

Some education experts believe parents and teachers are putting too much pressure on students to choose. “It is common for collee graduates to take jobs with no relevance to their majors,” wrote Chen Zhiwen, a member of the gaokao‘s steering committee, in the Guangming Daily after this year’s college entrance exams. Chen points out that an 18-year-old’s interests will change over time, and so will the job market. “I’m sorry, but there is no major or profession in the world that is going to continue to be hot forever.”

Referencing Zhong, the Beijing Youth Daily encouraged high school graduates not to blindly follow the herd, and instead follow their own hearts. “Only when you are interested in a subject can you put in the necessary investment and efforts,” the paper declared. Other netizens point out that a bright and hardworking student is likely to succeed at whatever she tries. “Did you know PKU has the top archeology program in the country?” one Weibo user demanded.

Cover Image from VCG


author Aaron Hsueh

Aaron Hsueh is a Chinese editor at China News Service and a former intern at The World of Chinese. He graduated from the University of International Business and Economics in July of 2021. Being a travel and culture enthusiast and a sports fanatic, he writes mainly on Chinese culture and language.

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