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In every endeavor or profession, to rise to the top involves competition through formal methods such as examination or informal method such as peer evaluation. In the current globalized world, this competition is in fact on world wide basis since talent do not respect national boundaries. The most recent example of a Tsinghua professor being recruited by Princeton University in the US fully illustrates this phenomena. Speaking from the viewpoint of a returning student after receiving a ph.d degree from abroad, s/he faces and immediate decision that may significantly effect his/her career for the rest of his/her life. This is the problem:
Let us say, you received your ph.d from a reputable first tier US university and you wish to pursue an academic career in China.
1. You can aim for the best, say Tsinghua or Baida. These two university have recently adopted basically the US academic ladder system. For a beginning but promising ph.d or a post doc returning from abroad, you must start at the bottom ladder of assistant professorship. Through performance you rise to associate professor and full professor via competition. . Promotion is not automatic and tenure is "up or out" . In other words, if you do not perform to expectation, you may have to leave. You are expected to perform at world class level in whatever endeavor you choose to do. For such high pressure job environment the ultimate reward is membership in the National academy of your country. In China the financial reward of this honor can be very substantial.
2. You apply for a job in perhaps a second tier Chinese university where your foreign ph.d is more valued. you may be offered immediate tenure and full professorship. Locally you may even become a celebrity and certainly a position of power in the university. life can be very comfortable without the need for high pressure competition on world wide level. If you don't have high ambition in life, this can be an attractive choice.
Now let me briefly analyze these two life choices:
In a world class university, the pressure to compete does not stop with tenure. You own pride in your world wide reputation will keep up the competition. Thus, don't think you can "retire or go to sleep" after gaining tenure. You are expected to continue to add luster to the university. I have written about this pressure before and won't repeated them here. Basically you have selected a life of constant competition at a high level until you retire.
In a lesser university, you may be rewarded with immediate high position when you return from abroad because your foreign ph.d has PR (public relation) value. But a second tier university may have ambition to become a first tier university. In such case, subtle pressure and expectation will exist for you to perform and help with this ambition. Life will not a bed of roses always if you just "retire or go to sleep".
While the competition in place like Baida or Tsinghua may be brutal, one advantage is that the name of Tsinghua or Bada often opens more doors and thus more opportunities. This advantage may not be apparent when you choose to go with a second tier university because of higher pay and position.
Finally, it is no disgrace if you have to leave a place like Tsinghua or Baida. Statistically, only one in four on the average survive the Harvard tenure evaluation process. I know of people who went onto very successful careers after leaving Harvard including being elected academicians. But if you did not perform to expectation and are forced to leave a second tier institution, the chance of returning to Tsinghua or Baida will be near zero. Thus, be careful as to what are the true expectation of the University that is hiring you.
While the above analysis applies to academic life only and is basically my life experience, I think the basic approach to analyzing your life opportunities are the same regardless of the profession. The difference is only in the criteria and details of how successes are measured. There are no free lunches in life. And there will always be cost for ambitions.