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The loneliest graduate

While other graduates suited up or put on high heels for their graduation photos, Xue Yifan donned a simple cap and gown as she posed in front of her school library with a serious expression. But among the country's 7 million college graduates in 2014, she stood out as the sole paleontology graduate in Peking University.


"I might be the fourth and only undergraduate student of paleontology at Yuanpei College of Peking University, if excluding the other who transferred from other colleges or majors," read Xue's online journals, which were deleted after her graduation photo caught wide attention.


Yuanpai College is a pilot program within Peking University for educational reform.


Speculation poured in regarding the so-called loneliest major in university. Many joked that Xue must be the top student and win all scholarships. "She cannot skip any classes," wrote others. Some were unfamiliar with the subject, an unpopular choice at a time when most students are scrambling for business-related majors.


But Xue's decision was widely recognized as a pursuit of a genuine life goal instead of just bandwagon jumping like so many others. While it comes with a price, experts noted that more students like Xue should be encouraged.


Different but not alone


"The paleontology course was set up at Yuanpei College in 2008. It is an advanced interdisciplinary study combining geology and biology. Xue was not alone in class as people assumed. She took courses on biological and geological sciences with others," Liu Jianbo, Xue's supervisor and a professor at the School of Earth and Space Sciences of Peking University, said.


Zhang Boran, the first student enrolled in the course, said that they would attend courses of other colleges and the number of classmates could reach 100 at times. "Photobiology was studied at the School of Life Sciences; ecology at College of Urban and Environmental Studies," Zhang was quoted as saying by the Beijing Youth Daily.


Some school rules certainly kept giving them headaches. Laboratory apparatus can be kept for a long time by geology students, but Xue could not enjoy the privilege.


Meanwhile, as the sole paleontology major, Xue naturally got full support from the school when she applied to the annual meeting of Society of Vertebrate Paleontology of North America in 2012.


Qiao Dai (pseudonym), a paleontology PhD candidate at the China University of Geosciences, said that the public holds little knowledge about paleontology and it is only connected with dinosaurs, "which then only reminds people of their kids' toys."


"It is actually a key science that studies the origin, evolution and distinction of life. For example, you get to find out how a dinosaur grew its first feather, acquired the ability to fly and eventually evolved into a bird," said Qiao.


It is rare to major in paleontology at the undergraduate level, while more may choose the major after getting a BA in biology or geology, Qiao said. "The disadvantage of studying paleontology at the undergraduate level is that you might not have a full base of knowledge in either biology or geology. Still, it is good that Xue can go for what she likes."


According to the university, Xue has accepted an offer from Carnegie Mellon University in the US and she is leaving for postgraduate study on computational biology in July. Xue, a paleontology enthusiast since high school, may go on pursuing her interdisciplinary studies at the PhD level in the future.


Qiao added that while Xue theoretically was kept away from field research during undergraduate studies, she may be expecting more opportunities to work outside the laboratory and face the challenges of the wild.


An untaken road


"As long as students go for what they want, paleontology is only one of the many so-called dull subjects," Qiao said. The PhD student did not officially enrol for paleontology study until postgraduate when he could counter his parents' opposition as an adult.


However even during his four-year major in finance, Qiao volunteered to work on fieldwork with research fellows even if the work was mere "soil-scraping."


Chen Tianlu, an undergraduate student of cultural heritage and museum studies in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, also made a concession for her dream. "My parents disagreed with my major decision in archaeology. They think there is too much labor for a girl. They want me to have a more stable and decent job than being a 'graverobber.' We both agreed on my present major in the end," she told the Global Times.



The 21-year-old girl acknowledged the concern that haunts her when she thinks about her uniqueness among her friends, most of whom are studying economics or English. "They will be office ladies in the future, while I work on graves. Plus I would be completely on my own after graduation. My parents might help me seek a job if I studied finance. But this is my decision. I will stick it out," Chen said.


The job market may not be promising for PhD students either,  according to Qiao, as it takes at least a PhD to apply for a research fellow position in the very limited number of institutes nationwide.


"Job requirements are always on the rise, but the number of available positions seems to stay and the payment may not come close to other majors. Such pressure has driven many to quit halfway," Qiao said.


Liu Jianbo said that there are also many job opportunities in museums and magazines. The Ministry of Land and Resources and oil companies could also seeks geology talent, as some courses could help locate oil deposits.


"The so-called dull subjects are actually among the most easily employed majors. Some subjects have always kept themselves away from public attention as they do not have a huge market demand unlike economics and computer science. People have put too much attention on these majors, but they cannot absorb so many graduates," Liu said.


He added that it also reflected the flaws in elementary education with poor general science knowledge and career development design.



Reported by: Jiang Jie

Source: Global Times

Edited by: Arthars