Xue Yifan posted a picture of herself online. In the picture, she stands alone in front of the Peking University's massive library in her graduation attire, looking solemnly into the camera. The photo would have been unremarkable were it not for one detail: She was the only graduate of the paleontology program at the Yuanpei College of Peking University this year.
Although seeing only one student study a major is a novelty to many, it is not unfamiliar to people with knowledge of the state of paleontology education in China.
Lu Xiaodong, deputy chief of the Yuanpei College, revealed that the paleontology program only has one student in each grade since its foundation in 2008.
The loneliest major
Paleontology was popular in China more than 50 years ago. Liu Jianbo, a professor at the College of Earth Sciences of Peking University, said that back then, thousands of students graduated with degrees in geosciences and an army of geologists and paleontologists were trained to survey the country's natural resources.
Faced with uncertain prospects in the current job market, students are inclined to choose majors that lead to more lucrative careers. "Geology in general and paleontology in particular can be perceived as having a difficult job market," a group of Chinese academics wrote in Paleontologia Electronica, a digital paleontological journal, in 2010.
"The most serious threat to the sustainable development of Chinese paleontology is the decline of undergraduate education programs at Chinese universities," the scientists stated.
Paleontology courses were even cancelled in China in the 1990s. However, with the science being developed globally, a handful of universities—including Peking University, Nanjing University in Jiangsu Province and China University of Geosciences—reintroduced the major in the late 2000s. Peking University set up its paleontology course 2008 at its Yuanpei College.
The Yuanpei College is actually an elementary undergraduate program. Students enrolled in the school do not choose specific majors but are instead divided into two groups focusing on the humanities or science. After one or two years of fundamental education, they can freely choose their major.
Xue enrolled in the Yuanpei College in 2009 and chose to study paleontology in 2010, the only student to do so that year.
"Actually paleontology was one of the reasons why I chose Peking University," Xue said.