Newton Fund experiences in China

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One of the many programmes we promote via the Euraxess portal is the Newton Fund.

The Newton Fund promotes the economic development and welfare in partnering countries, through science and innovation partnerships. It aims to strengthen science and innovation capacity and unlock further funding to support poverty alleviation. It is managed by UK’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and delivered through 15 UK delivery partners in collaboration with 16 partner countries.

We spoke to two Newton Fund PhD scholarship holders, Emma and Kathryn, who talk about their personal experiences of studying in China. 

Emma Williams

Tell us about yourself?

Hello, I’m Emma Williams, a PhD student from Lancaster University. I’ve recently returned to the UK after a three-month research visit to Renmin (People) University in Beijing, as I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship from the Newton PhD Placement Programme.

What sort of research do you do?

I’m a social scientist; my PhD combines anthropology with international relations.  

Tell us about your impression of China?

China was a juxtaposition, where wonderful, unexpected surprises were common. Each day would present a clash between a traditional and a modern China; like walking through Hutongs and emerging in front of modern skyscrapers with rickshaws contrasting above the sleek, clean Metro.

What struck me the most was the eagerness of all generations to engage in current global political debates.  I had numerous discussions over meals on ‘Brexit’, the U.S. presidential campaign, relations with North Korea, and claims over the South China Sea.

I found that the acceptance of the need for hard work in order for China to adapt and modernise was present at many levels, with traditional Chinese philosophy being applied to capitalist ideologies.

Do you think the visit has benefited you, and if yes, how?

Overwhelmingly, yes! I’ve done quite a bit despite my relatively short stay in China. I learnt so much and gained a fresh perspective on the social and cultural aspects in modern-day Beijing. Not only has my PhD benefitted greatly, but so has my CV.

I think the greatest benefit is networking. Finding a post-doctoral position in the UK is increasingly difficult. Spending time overseas on a placement has broadened my networks, and hopefully increased my post-PhD opportunities for employment.

Secondly, I think being exposed to different perspectives is vital to any researcher.  Working with the same people, in the same group, and only attending conferences within your country of study can blinker you from the real world.

Finally, the world is increasingly becoming interconnected. No matter what career we go into after a PhD, there will always be some level of internationality, especially in research. An overseas placement during the PhD is the perfect means of furthering a skill set for working within an international environment.

How did you find studying at an overseas university?

The degree classes I joined had far fewer students than I was used to in the UK, and they lasted for three hours - something I was definitely not used to!

The classes were a mix of lecture and seminar styles of teaching, with much more student involvement and participation than in my own experiences within the UK. They had a very informal approach with excellent working relationships between the staff and the students.

How would you describe the people you met?

Friendly, funny, enthusiastic, independent and intelligent. I would describe my social experiences as varied, grounded, adapting, growing and vibrant.

Without a shadow of doubt, I adored my time in China and I have made friends for life.  I found every Chinese person I talked to had a great sense of humour, and were accommodating, kind and interested in learning more about me and my thoughts.

Do you plan to return to China in the future?

I am already planning my return, as are many of the European friends I made there! As a young Brit, living within a slowing European market, the need for people like me to better understand and engage with China increases day-by-day.  I would strongly recommend any student, graduate or post-doctoral researcher to spend time in China as it can only be a benefit. The Newton Fund has a number of funding and studying opportunities to spend time in China – take a look through them and start planning your own China visit – you will not regret it!


Kathryn Maher

Tell us about yourself?

My name is Kathryn Maher. I am a PhD student at the Department of Biology and Biochemistry and the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath. My research is focused on the evolution of mating systems and the molecular basis of complex behaviour.

Has it been a worthwhile study tour to China?

I was awarded a scholarship from the British Council in China as part of the Newton Fund PhD Placement Programme for me and my PhD supervisor to visit Beijing Normal University.

Getting to visit and study in China was an amazing opportunity which greatly benefitted my PhD research. During my visit I was able to visit Qinghai Lake, which is an incredibly beautiful place, to collect data for collaborative projects. I also had the opportunity to present an invited talk at Beijing Normal University. This was an amazing opportunity, which allowed me to gain additional experience presenting my research to research peers in China, and receive valuable feedback on my results. I am really pleased that I was able to form long-lasting collaborations between myself and our partners at Beijing Normal University, as well as connections with Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. These partnerships will be beneficial to my PhD research as they provide expertise, knowledge, and equipment supplementary to those offered at my own institution.

All of these benefits would not have been possible without the support of the Newton Fund and the links that have been established as part of this.

I would definitely recommend to everyone to apply to spend some time in China during their PhD studies.

What’s it like to study in a Chinese university?

I was struck by the community feeling of Beijing Normal University. Most of the staff and students live in accommodation on campus and eat meals together at the university canteens. This is a very different feeling to most UK universities where people tend to live further away. Living close to the department meant that less time is wasted commuting so most people stayed late in the office. Spending so much time working together creates strong friendships and promotes good working relationships.

What are the people like?

Everyone I met was extremely welcoming and friendly. It is a huge change to move to another country to live for several months, especially a place as different to the UK as China. It could easily have been very isolating to live somewhere where you do not speak the language but I never felt lonely. I made some amazing friends who made sure my stay was never boring and who were as interested in learning about how things are in the UK as I was about China.

Tell us about your research?

I am an evolutionary biologist. I mainly study plovers, which are small wading birds, using genetic techniques to understand their behaviour and how they adapt to their environment. During my time in China I worked on projects monitoring Kentish plovers and lesser sand plovers in Qinghai lake.

Do you plan to return to China in the future?

Although I have no immediate plans to return to China until I have finished my PhD, I hope I will get the opportunity to return. I am still in contact with academics and students. We have also had people visit us in Bath in return, which promises that the ties we have made between our research groups will be long lived. I am really proud of my role in fostering these links.

Tell us your overall impression of China?

Beautiful, busy and brilliant. China is an excellent mix of the familiar and the curious. Walking along a seemingly modern shopping street in Beijing you can stumble into a street market full of colourful fish for sale or a food market with a diversity of strange and delicious foods. Walk a little further and you might find the ancient walls of the imperial palace of the Forbidden City. It is a city that never sleeps, with shops, cafes and restaurants open until the early hours.

This contrasted with the peace and tranquillity of visiting the stunningly beautiful Qinghai province. During fieldwork, we could spend a day by the lakeside with no more company than a couple of shepherds driving their large flocks of sheep and of course the charismatic birds we were there to find.