Tackling brain drain at Chinese CDCs: understanding job preferences of public health doctoral students using a discrete choice experiment survey

Shimeng Liu, Yuanyuan Gu*, Yi Yang, Elizabeth Schroeder, Yingyao Chen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
9 Downloads (Pure)


Background: Given the demands for public health and infectious disease management skills during COVID-19, a shortage of the public health workforce, particularly with skills and competencies in epidemiology and biostatistics, has emerged at the Centers for Disease Controls (CDCs) in China. This study aims to investigate the employment preferences of doctoral students majoring in epidemiology and biostatistics, to inform policy-makers and future employers to address recruitment and retention requirements at CDCs across China.

Methods: A convenience sampling approach for recruitment, and an online discrete choice experiment (DCE) survey instrument to elicit future employee profiles, and self-report of their employment and aspirational preferences during October 20 and November 12, 2020. Attributes included monthly income, employment location, housing benefits, children’s education opportunities, working environment, career promotion speed and bianzhi (formally established post).

Results: A total of 106 doctoral epidemiology and biostatistics students from 28 universities completed the online survey. Monthly income, employment location and bianzhi was of highest concern in the seven attributes measured, though all attributes were statistically significant and presented in the expected direction, demonstrating preference heterogeneity. Work environment was of least concern. For the subgroup analysis, employment located in a first-tier city was more likely to lead to a higher utility value for PhD students who were women, married, from an urban area and had a high annual family income. Unsurprisingly, when compared to single students, married students were willing to forgo more for good educational opportunities for their children. The simulation results suggest that, given our base case, increasing only monthly income from 10,000 ($ 1449.1) to 25,000 CNY ($ 3622.7) the probability of choosing the job in the third-tier city would increase from 18.1 to 53.8% (i.e., the location choice is changed).

Conclusion: Monthly income and employment location were the preferred attributes across the cohort, with other attributes then clearly ranked and delineated. A wider use of DCEs could inform both recruitment and retention of a public health workforce, especially for CDCs in third-tier cities where resource constraints preclude all the strategies discussed here.
Original languageEnglish
Article number46
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalHuman Resources for Health
Publication statusPublished - 23 May 2022

Bibliographical note

© The Author(s) 2022. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • Epidemiology and biostatistics
  • Doctoral students
  • Job preferences
  • Discrete choice experiment


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