The Value of a Master’s degree——Why more Chinese students are turning to graduate school 硕士学位的价值——为什么越来越多的中国学生选择考研

By Ziyan Zhang 张子琰

NANJING, CHINA — On April 30, 2021, China’s unified graduate entrance examinations (kaoyan) officially came to a close. First administered in 1951 and briefly suspended during the Cultural Revolution, kaoyan is the country’s last annual national examination jointly administered by the Ministry of Education.

2021年4月30日,全国硕士研究生招生考试网上调剂系统正式关闭。起始于1951年,在“文革”期间短暂中止的“考研”,是中国每年最后一次由教育部组织开展的全国性考试。

The number of kaoyan candidates has been rising exponentially in recent years, and kaoyan is drawing greater degrees of attention in society. According to official data, a record 3.77 million fresh graduates and working adults participated in kaoyan in 2021. Only one million candidates are expected to succeed.

近年来,考研报名人数持续增长,考研正引起社会的高度关注。官方数据显示,2021年考研报名人数再创新高,有近377万高校应届毕业生和在职人员报名考试,而他们中只有约100万人可以被顺利录取。

The number of kaoyan candidates in recent years

Source: Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China

近年考研人数变化情况

数据来源:中华人民共和国教育部

Kaoyan has become the only way for most people to do get accepted into master’s programs. Exemptions from the exam are only available to a small minority of students. In addition, China has no direct PhD programs, meaning students without special recommendations must first obtain their master’s.

考研已经成为大多数人进入硕士阶段学习的唯一方式,因为只有极少数人可以通过本科学校的推荐免试而读研。除了推免,中国没有可以直接考取的博士项目,博士申请者必须先获得硕士学位。

Kaoyan is divided into two stages. The first entails a written preliminary test (chushi) held in the last weekend of December. Candidates who score above the national qualifying score will proceed to the second stage, known as the reexamination (fushi). Organized by individual universities, the fushi is comprised of a written test and an interview, conducted between March and May. However, 34 elite universities have their own independent qualifying scores that far exceed the national benchmark.

考研分为两个阶段,其一是在每年12月的最后一个周末进行的初试,成绩高于考研国家线的考生将进入第二阶段的复试,复试由各招生院校组织开展,将在3-5月进行笔试和面试。34所自主划线院校通常有远高于考研国家线的复试分数线。

As a result, it is common for candidates to retake the kaoyan several times. One such candidate is Qin, a 24-year-old girl based in Hainan, who will be sitting for the kaoyan for the third time this winter. She aspires to gain admission into a prestigious university to study Chinese Language and Literature, obtain a doctorate and enter academia. Last year, Qin’s preliminary examination score was 34 points higher than the national qualifying score, but she failed the reexamination. “The national qualifying score has no bearing on my application process, because the school [that I am applying to] has its own independent qualifying score.”

因此,考生多次参加考研的情况屡见不鲜。24岁的海南女孩秦正是这样一位考生,今年冬天她将第三次参加考研。秦立志考入一所名牌大学学习汉语言文学,并获得博士学位以进入学术界。去年,她的考试成绩高出考研国家线34分,但是没有顺利通过复试。她说:“考研国家线对我来说没有参考价值,因为我想上的学校是自划线学校。”

Qualifying scores aside, candidates may also be rejected by universities if they are not alumni of similarly reputable undergraduate institutions. Chinese academic circles normally refer to first-tier “985” universities and second-tier “211” universities. Several universities have a preference for students from top schools, and tend to reject “non-elite” applicants during the interview round.

除考试分数外,本科学校如何也可能影响考生的录取。中国的名校通常指“985”大学和“211”大学。部分学校偏爱来自这些名校的考生,会在面试中刷掉普通学校的考生。

Given the intense preparation required and competitive admission rates, why is China witnessing an increase in graduate school applications? Practical reasons come to mind. Graduate study may be a way for some to gain a competitive edge and find better jobs. According to Li, a 28-year-old mother of one who obtained her undergraduate degree six years ago, “Take a look at the recent job ads. Are there any great positions that do not require a master’s degree? No.” Indeed, professional graduate programs are becoming increasingly popular amongst fresh graduates and working adults alike.

面对高强度的考试准备和激烈的竞争,为什么中国的考研人数还在增加?一个实际的原因是,研究生学位可能可以获得竞争优势、找到更好的工作。“看看现在的招聘广告,有没有不需要硕士学位的好职位?”28岁的李说,她六年前大学毕业,现在是一个孩子的妈妈。目前,专业型硕士在应届毕业生和在职人员中越来越受欢迎。

Candidates targeting “lucrative” majors such as computer engineering, finance, and accounting face fiercer competition. Two years ago, Li took part in kaoyan for the first time, having self-studied for a finance exam from scratch. In the recent round of kaoyan, she remained unsuccessful. “I know I have less time for revision and that has not been effective, but I won’t give up before I am admitted into a postgraduate school. I have a family to feed and the cost is too high. My plan is to take part in kaoyan ‘til I am 30. If I don’t pass the exam by then, I will admit that I am not really cut out for it.” Li said.

报考以计算机、金融和会计为代表的“有钱途”的专业的考生面临着更加激烈的竞争。两年前,李第一次参加考研,从零开始自学金融知识,在最近一次的考研中,她仍然没有成功。“我知道我的复习时间太少,而且复习效果不够好,但是在考上之前我不会辞职的,因为我还要养家糊口,辞职的成本太高了。我的计划是一直考到30岁,如果到时候还没考上,那说明我真不是这块料。”李说。

Indeed, only a few candidates will keep taking part in kaoyan until they gain admission to their dream schools. Most have to consider factors such as time, money and age. For instance, Qin made two friends during this kaoyan period. One entered a university that was not her top choice, whereas the other chose to find a job after two unsuccessful attempts. Qin decided to persevere. “In many people’s eyes, I’m unrealistic, overconfident, a loser and a parasite to my parents,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s sad to think about these words, but as long as I study, I’ll forget about them. I don’t know if it’s a kind of obsession, but it’s really the only dream I want to realize.” Fortunately, Qin’s family has always supported and encouraged her, but many other repeat examinees face pressure from their families to give up.

实际上,坚持考研直到考上理想学校的考生是极少数。大多数人都会考虑时间成本、金钱投入和年龄等因素。比如秦在考研期间结识的两个研友,一个选择了去上并非她的首选的学校,另一个在两次考研失败后选择工作,而秦决定坚持下去。“在很多人眼里我不切实际、过分自信,是个失败者,是父母的寄生虫。这些话很伤人。但是只要我投入学习,我就可以暂时忘掉这些。我不知道考研是不是我的执念,但是这真的是我长这么大唯一想要实现的梦想。”幸运的是,秦的家人一直支持和鼓励着她,而有很多考研失败的的人,因为面临着家庭给予的压力选择了放弃再次考研。

Apart from career advancement, the pandemic could also be driving the surge in the number of people sitting for kaoyan in 2021. On one hand, the education ministry has expanded graduate school enrollment in light of gloomy job prospects in the pandemic-stricken economy. On the other hand, the pandemic’s travel restrictions have also led many students who originally planned to study abroad to pursue a domestic master’s degree instead. “I got an offer from one of the G5 schools in the UK, and I was very satisfied with the application results,” said Yuan, an undergraduate student in his senior year who was initially bound for the UK this August, before the pandemic changed his plan. “I couldn’t get a visa, and even if I could, I dare not go.”

除了职业发展的需要,疫情也可能推动了2021年考研报名人数的激增。一方面,由于新冠疫情导致的就业和经济前景黯淡,教育部扩大了研究生招生规模。另一方面,疫情带来的出行限制也导致本来计划出国留学的学生转而攻读国内硕士学位。“我收到了英国一个G5学校的offer,这个申请结果我非常满意。”袁说,他是一名大四的本科生,本来计划今年8月前往英国,但是疫情改变了他的计划。“我申请不到签证,不过就算能申到,我也不敢去了。”

Yuan took part in kaoyan just in case the overseas option does not work out. However, he worries about his lack of preparation, and plans to try again. “I’ve been set on applying to go abroad since I was a sophomore, but I am a total beginner when it comes to kaoyan. Beyond exam preparation, I also need to gather information to select target colleges. This is very important too. Several months ago, many people began revising ten hours a day.”  

袁因为担心无法出国留学而选择参加考研。不过,他担心自己缺乏准备,并准备再考一次。“我从大二开始就准备申请出国,但对于考研,我完全是个新手。除了准备考试,你还需要收集信息来确定目标院校,这个也特别重要。有很多人几个月前就已经开始每天十个小时这样复习了。”

A final reason for the growth in graduate school applications boils down to a personal sense of achievement. Many participate in kaoyan because they did poorly on their college entrance examination, and seek to “prove themselves” in another national exam. Others feel like they must have a graduate degree for the sake of it. Liu, a physics undergraduate from a fourth-tier university, successfully gained admission to a 211 university this year. “I was a top student in my high school, but I failed my college entrance examination.” said Liu. “I was very depressed, and I have been aiming to take the postgraduate entrance examination since my first day of undergrad. I believe that I deserved to attend a better school.” As such, Liu spent four years striving for his goal, without thinking too much about the purpose behind attending a better school. Liu admitted that he could be driven by his “famous school dream,” or the prevailing conventional wisdom to pursue a master’s.

考研人数增长的最后一个原因可能源于获得个人成就感。一些人参加考研是因为高考失利,他们需要在另一次全国性的考试中“证明自己”。另一些人觉得他们“必须”获得硕士学位。刘是一名普通二本的物理系学生,今年的考研中他成功被一所211大学录取。“我高中是学校的尖子生,但是高考考砸了。”刘说,“我特别郁闷,所以从我上大学的第一天开始,我就决定考研,我觉得我值得一所更好的学校。”为此,他四年来一直为自己的目标奋斗,没有过多考虑过为什么要上一所“更好的大学”。刘坦言,自己可能是有“名校情结”,但也有可能是被“要读研”的主流观点所影响。

Driven by various specific reasons, kaoyan candidates aim to change their present situation via further study. In addition to fresh graduates, China is seeing a growing number of experienced working adults who view graduate school as a means to realize a career switch. Hence, the number of kaoyan candidates in 2022 may continue to break records.  

在各种因素的影响下,考研者的目标是通过进一步的学习来改变自己的现状。除了应届毕业生,中国也有越来越多的具有工作经验的职场人士将考研视作转换职业的一种方式。因此,2022年考研人数仍有可能继续增加。

Will these candidates realize their dreams after entering graduate school? While no one can give a definite answer, kaoyan will take place year after year; its candidates, successful or otherwise, will continue to write their own stories.

考研成功就会实现自己的梦想吗?没有人能给出确切的回答。但是考研仍将年复一年地进行着,考研人无论成功与否,也都将继续书写着自己的故事。

Ziyan Zhang is reporting from Nanjing, China.

张子琰,报道于中国南京。

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