Doctoral Studies at National Taiwan Normal University (國立臺灣師範大學)

This fall, I will be entering the doctoral program in Educational Psychology at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU 國立臺灣師範大學). This program is a Chinese-taught program and all the other students in the program have been educated in Taiwan. The program has two areas of specialization: counseling and testing, and I will be studying educational testing.

I am frequently asked about doctoral studies in Taiwan. I have never written anyone back about this because it is far too complex an issue to get into in e-mail. This post is aimed at answering questions about studying in Taiwan from citizens of advanced industrial nations, such as the USA or Canada, who are contemplating graduate studies in a Chinese-taught program.


Frankly, I do not think graduate studies in a regular Chinese-taught program is a good choice for most people educated only in advanced industrial nations. Language is not really the issue. In fact, my Chinese is not really strong enough to do this program without special consideration from the department. I will be able to complete the degree only because many of the professors speak English and almost all the readings are in English. Despite being a top national school, none of the Taiwanese students in the program speak English well enough to make a difference.

The major problems that Anglo-Americans will face in these programs is related to style. Education in Taiwan has evolved under different historical and cultural forces than in the West. As such, learning in the class is structured very differently. Perhaps the best way to explain this is with an example.

The Strange Case of William Terry Alred

A while back, there was some commotion concerning the application to a Taiwan university by William Alred. Mr. Alred, an American, registered in a doctoral program at National Chung Cheng University. He ran into all kinds of problems that eventually found their way into the local English-language world. This is the original China Post article on the incident, the discussion and my own post that followed. Mr. Alred’s problems with the school have even found their way onto the school’s Wikipedia entry.

Briefly, Mr. Alred applied to the Department of Political Science where he made no secret that his Chinese proficiency was very poor. When the department accepted him, he found that none of the faculty would cooperate with him in deciphering the material explained in class. Eventually, he dropped out of the program.

In fact, the details of Mr. Alred’s problems with the department are quite disturbing. All of this seems to me to have been easily avoided. His demand for supplementary instruction in English lead to a number of confrontations with local faculty members.  Regardless of who is at fault, it seems to me that the program was perfectly manageable for him and that while he presumed language to be the most significant barrier, it is not the serious concern for most Western citizens.

The China Post article cites Ministry of Education figures that “3,935 hopefuls have officially enrolled in bachelor, master or Ph.D. programs.” Many of these people would be enrolled in the special English-taught programs, like the ones offered by my school’s International College. Some would also be overseas Chinese, like one of my classmates next year, who is a Malaysian citizen raised in Taiwan. A further group would be like the Chinese-fluent international students accepted into the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Culture,Languages & Literature where Dr. Ann Heylen teaches. Despite this, my guess is that the majority of international students at Taiwan universities are deficient in Chinese-language proficiency. I expect the program I will enter is pretty much the same as the one Mr. Alred was involved with.

And one final point. The vast majority of international students in Taiwan are not passport holders of advanced industrial nations. This article from the MOE’s own website states that of the 17, 500 foreign students in Taiwan, 9135 are studying in a university language center. Of the remainder more than 2000 are exchange students and finally,

…foreign students in Taiwan come from 117 countries and the top five nations are Vietnam (806), Malaysia (700), Indonesia (425), Japan (409), and the USA (348).

That is, most of them come from economically underdeveloped nations.

Why My Situation is Different

My situation is very different from Mr. Alred’s. I selected the program at NTNU because I had researched it completely, was sure it would be a great program, and am certain I can finish it. To begin with, I have a great deal of knowledge about this department. A colleague of mine was the first non-Chinese fluent Ph.D. candidate ever accepted into the program. I have meet his supervisor socially and talked with him about the program. More significantly, I audited the class on Modern Mental Testing (現代心理測試) that he offered last term and am currently auditing the class Applied Electronic Calculation (電子計算機之應用). Both of these courses are compulsory in the doctoral program I will enter and I will have to take them again for credit in the upcoming 2 years.

I know exactly what is going to happen to me in this program. In fact, I can go so far as to say I picked this program because I am sure it will not be a waste of time for me. I have a third colleague enrolled in a Chinese-taught Ph.D. program at another school. He has absolutely no Chinese-language proficiency at all. This is not important to him and he is much more concerned with the certification his program will give him. I could also have enrolled in this and other programs, but I did not feel it would give me the same results.

The material in the course is directly related to my job. I am heavily involved in the evaluation of student English proficiency at Ming Chuan University. The department at NTNU is one of the key players in the construction of the ROC Basic Competency Test used to place students in senior high schools. That’s why these tests are on the NTNU website.

While I said that language proficiency is not a barrier to completion of the program, this does not mean it is not an issue. In class, it is very difficult for me to follow what’s going on. The Taiwanese students are only marginally helpful because their English is not really good enough. The class I mentioned above called Modern Mental Testing concerns a family of statistics used in test construction called Item Response Theory (IRT). The class readings were all in English. I found the professor to be very approachable outside of class, but I think this is partly because I work in a large high stakes testing program, and as a result, have a lot of professional experience and meaningful opinions to offer. In addition, I read widely outside the course material. Our conversations were rarely related directly to course materials.

During the class, I did an oral presentation, which was a compulsory requirement for the registered students. I spoke in English and prepared handouts and a reading that were all written in English. My presentation was drawn from authentic material used in my school’s testing program and was a discussion of questions we actually placed on an examination and analyzed with IRT. It was very successful.

The Lessons of My Application

There are a few basic points I think every person from one of those first world-type countries should be thinking about if they have an interest in graduate studies at a Taiwan university.

1. Why do you want to do this?

Is it because you are an English teacher in a buxiban and feel trapped in a meaningless world filled with small children who barely speak English? A Chinese-taught program will almost certainly not help you. The China Post article on Mr. Alred stated that he had planed to teach at the university-level in the United States. As I have mentioned before, this is not an altogether realistic goal anymore – if it ever was. I think it’s naive that Mr. Alred could think a PhD from a Taiwan school would allow him to teach at a Western school. There are many Taiwanese teaching in other countries. Virtually all of them have advanced degrees from schools in these countries. In fact, very few people are teaching at Western universities that do not have advanced degrees from Western schools. Those educated completely outside the West are generally internationally renowned scholars with extensive research expertise in their field.

2. How much do you really know about the subject?

One of the very strange things I consistently hear from people suggesting graduate studies in Taiwan concerns their proposed field of study. These are graduate degrees we’re talking about. You’re supposed to have advanced knowledge of the field before you enter. Certainly the local students all do. In fact, they have passed through extremely competitive evaluations to ensure this. And while some departments – as in Mr. Alred’s case – will let you in with no background at all, what do you think you’ll get out of the degree? After all, there’s already a language barrier. If you don’t have the background to make sense of what’s going on, what could you possibly get out of the education?

Graduate degrees are supposed to make people experts. With no background in a subject and limited Mandarin, what is this thing you’re supposed to become an expert in at a Taiwan university? I have been asked by people about degrees they have no background in whatsoever. I have had marginally Mandarin-proficient people suggest to me research topics that would demand complete fluency in several Chinese languages, on top of English.

This is a very serious point. If you don’t know anything about the subject, what makes you think you could become an expert – in a Chinese-language program?

3. How much do you know about the program?

There are many programs in Taiwan that are outstanding. There are many that are not. Are you sure the program is going to give you anything that you want or need?

Taiwanese schools are extremely strong in quantitative methods. I suppose this has to do with an historical emphasis on science and technology. Many of the professors today would have been educated in a much more competitive system. Students who wanted to enter an Engineering or Mathematics department would have found it very difficult. Likewise, students who insisted on entering a top university might not have been able to enter the Science department they wanted. I imagine many such students ended up in departments like Psychology or Education. As a result, there are excellent people to study quantitative methods with in these departments.

The converse is also true. Theoretical subjects have historically found leadership in European languages. The language gap has not always been successfully crossed. In addition, for most of Taiwan’s modern history there has been huge control over freedom of speech. Many of the topics that would facilitate the development of theoretical competency in Social Sciences have been illegal to discuss and punished with prison or death. The result has been that Taiwan universities do not provide a strong venue for studies in theoretical subjects.

4. Are you sure you can handle the difference in learning style?

From my point of view, perhaps the biggest problem that Mr. Alred had at Chung Cheng University was one of learning style. Taiwanese students and teachers work in a system where classroom activity has historically played a background role in preparation for the major decision making that takes place during examination. The idea that Mr. Alred would not get a lot out of what’s happening in class might not necessarily be seen as a problem.

Class here lacks the feeling of desperation I remember it having in Canada. It is not a forum to show off how clever you are or how much reading you did outside class. It is not at all unusual to see students in class during a lecture with their lap tops flipped open, as if they were taking notes, doing homework for other classes, playing games, or working on other unrelated material.

Student presentations are a large part of class work in Taiwan. Most of what happens during these presentations involves detailed review of assigned readings. It is not unusual to see students with Power Points that contain the English text of readings and then a Chinese translation. They will then explain their understanding of the English text, sometimes line by line. This may seem redundant, but I have seen similar situations in Canada. More important is the fact that much of reading is in a foreign language (English) of which students may not have a strong grasp. Student presentations are often taken as an opportunity to make sure the assigned readings were properly understood.

As I pointed out above, the presentation I did was not a translation or explanation of the text. But I work in testing and have real data to draw from. I was able to bring to the class examples of the material we had studied and how it worked in real life. It would be unreasonable to expect 25 year olds who have never worked in their field to be able to do this. As a result, they translate the texts and make sure they know what was really said.


I just want to conclude that problems like the kind experienced by Mr. Alred are perfectly avoidable. It takes careful planning and patience, but if you expect to get as much out your PhD as you would at a Western school where instruction is in a language in which you are fluent, you’re going to have to do a lot of planning. But I think this is just common sense.


17 thoughts on “Doctoral Studies at National Taiwan Normal University (國立臺灣師範大學)

  1. Good luck with the new adventure. Having experienced a PhD program in Taiwan (and in English!) I can fully appreciate the challenges you’re facing. Hang in there…

  2. Interesting post! Just it !

    Despite the strong interest I already had in Taiwan and the greater Chinese world, I chosen to experience a MBA at NCCU mainly for financial reason (due to some scholarships and agreements with my former B-School back in France), it was hell cheap and I couldn’t skip an oportunity like this.

    Indeed it’ll be real challenging experience, I learnt a LOT whilst having some memorable moment with my fellow classmates. The only thing which may differ with your experience is that this (english-taugh) program was quite US style (Harvard Prof, Harvard Cases, Harvard Style room…etc..etc) I have not had any (large) cultural differences.

  3. I graduated from the American University in Dubai, and one of my professors went on to teach in a university in Hong Kong. He constantly suggested to me that I do my graduate studies there in Hong Kong, especially since he said that Hong Kong was one of the most important research centers for accounting. (As far as I know, it’s an English-taught program, not Chinese-taught.) Regardless of that, I expected to face issues in being a graduate student there, probably similar to yours, in teaching style and other things.

    I’ve yet to make the decision despite all of that.

  4. I assume you’re planning to stay in Taiwan, because a Ph.d from a Taiwanese university has no credibility outside of the country. Most Taiwanese Ph.d candidates study overseas for their doctorate, realizing that a Ph.d – or even an MA – from a Taiwanese university won’t get them anywhere academically.

  5. Anonymous Michael,

    This is one of these strange comments that I get from time to time. Sometimes, I delete them. I think the best response to this point is to ask you to read the post again completely. I think that should answer any of the points raised in your comment.

    1. Well said. I am at NTNU, and taking my masters program in special education (entirely in Chinese). All of my professors are well trained in the US, and not one of them would consider my degree as “useless outside of the country”.

  6. Interesting post.

    I am preparing for a masters program in a Chinese language department. Because of my preparation, I believe I can offer another perspective regarding background knowledge for those will be required to read Mandarin.

    I think preparatory graduate-level reading in Chinese is a must. I believe this for two general reasons; reading is a clear indication of how your Chinese ability relates to your proposed area of research, and reading will better prepare you for class work in Chinese.

  7. In the case of the student you mentioned above, it seems pretty clear that he shouldn’t have been in the program to begin with. It just isn’t reasonable to expect a teacher to spend significant chunks of class time speaking in a foreign language for the benefit of a foreigner who can’t understand the lecture. It’s equally unreasonable to expect one-on-one help outside of class to catch up on each individual lecture. The fact that the program was marketed towards non-Chinese speakers is pretty surprising.

    In your case, it sounds like you have a school that will let you squeak through, but I’m still surprised you’re doing it. Aside from the many things you’ve written about the Taiwanese educational system’s failings on your blog, don’t you feel it will be a waste to sit through class after class that you can’t understand? You’ve been in Taiwan for quite a while and I’d bet that with some effort and focus, you could get your Mandarin skills to where they need to be. Then you could participate more fully and get more out of your class time!

    I realize this is a bit late to make any difference for the beginning of your term, but late is better than never.

  8. Of course I should thank you for your comment, but I should also point out that I did post directly to this point. You might want to take another look at part 4, “Are you sure you can handle the difference in learning style?”. I point out that in Taiwan, what goes on in class is not very important to the degree process here.

    The point of the post was supposed to be that university studies are organzied very differently here. In fact, I am quite sure I got more out of the class I audited than any of the local students who would have understood what went on in class more completely. I guess I need to put it more directly – university education in Taiwan is structured such that what goes on in class is really not very important for student learning regardless of your background. Most of the important stuff is not what goes on in the lecture and if you’re not positioned to handle it, you won’t get anything out of the education.

    But thanks for the advice anyway.

  9. Thanks for the clarification. I didn’t take it too personally, anyway. But my point is still true. Not much goes on in class that’s worth that much trouble at this point. One of my points was that most class time is taken up dealing with translations of English textbooks. Students trade Power Point slides from previous classes and other things to make this less work.

    In fact, last year in the class I audited, I spoke with the prof almost every week. I found them qute approachable. There are almost no older students here and profs almost never have the opportunity for students more their age and experience. But the idea that you can muscle them into translating the class for you won’t work.

  10. Hi,

    I need some wisdom. I have been teaching Chinese laguage and Asian Cultural Tradition at CSUSB for almost twenty years. I also teach one evening class at UCR. For my professional advancement, I need a PhD in Chinese lanugage. Can you provide some info at Taiwan Normal University for a doctoral program? Thank you.

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