When Zhang Ying obtained her master's degree three years ago, she had an enviable job offer in hand and a bonus in her arms - her newborn.
The aspiring Beijing architect gave birth to a boy just before she graduated from the three-year programme, two years after she was married.
For Zhang, having a son before she started her career was not just about starting a family, but a shrewd job move.
Under mainland law, mothers are entitled to fully paid maternity leave for up to six months after they give birth. Under the one-child policy, employers hiring a young mother are spared that cost.
"I went for job interviews while my waistline was bulging," said Zhang, who clinched a job at a local company when she was six months pregnant.
She said employment concerns were part of the reason she considered having a child during her postgraduate studies.
"Some companies do consider an employee who has had a child to be an advantage," she said. "Now that I have my son, I will have no need for maternity leave, unlike many of my fellow graduates."
While official figures on postgraduate mothers are unavailable, family planning offices at 10 leading universities that agreed to be interviewed for a survey said it was not uncommon to have between 30 to 60 such students each year in total across all programmes.
"Many students are having children with a view to landing a job more easily," said a woman in charge of the family planning office at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, who preferred not to give her full name.
"It's a good idea. They get a diploma, a child, plus a job more easily when they graduate."
Some schools said the number of postgraduate mothers had risen in recent years.
"We used to have only about a dozen student mothers when the state first allowed university students to have children. We now have more than 40 every year," said the head of the family planning office at the Beijing Forestry University, referring to a national policy introduced in 2007 that banned schools from expelling students for being pregnant if they were married.
A record 1.8 million students across the mainland spent the first weekend in January sitting for national entrance examinations for postgraduate programmes, about 40,000 more than last year, state media reported. About a third of students taking the exam find spots in the nearly 500 postgraduate schools on the mainland every year.
A final-year law student in Shanghai, who preferred not to be identified, said she wanted to have a child before she finished her postgraduate studies at Peking University, which she will start in September.
"Not having given birth is a big minus point for woman graduates trying to land a job," said Tao, who is currently in his last year of college in Shanghai.
She said employers took maternity leave into account when hiring woman who were in their mid-20s, an "awkward age" according to Tao.
The legal age for women to get married on the mainland is 20, yet most students graduate around 22. Society expectations still require they start their family between the ages of 25 and 30, when most postgraduates complete their studies.
By the same token, prospects are relatively better for recent graduates who probably won't have a child in their 20s. So they would most likely work at least three to four years without taking time off for a pregnancy.
In an online survey conducted by the People's Daily late last year, nearly 2,000 internet users who took part said the main reason employers' preferred male job applicants was because of the additional costs the company incurs with providing maternity leave.
Another survey conducted by the China Youth Daily in 2010 showed that 38 per cent of more than 6,000 respondents considered that having children during postgraduate studies was the best way to start a family without hampering employment, the newspaper reports.
A third-year college student in Hebei province said she was thinking of having a child while simultaneously pursuing a master's degree in order to boost her chances of finding a job.
"My cousin told me her company always felt reluctant to hire woman postgraduates because they would soon leave to have babies," she said.
Cai Di, a marketing director for the Human Resources Association for Chinese and Foreign Enterprises said childbirth would be a major concern for foreign firms in recruiting staff but less so for state-owned enterprises, which offers positions that are the most-sought after by fresh graduates.
"At foreign companies, unlike state-owned ones, each employee usually has unique duties," Cai said. "So if one is on maternity leave, the job duties she is responsible for will definitely be affected. That's why chances are very high that woman jobseekers will be asked whether they are married and have already had children if they apply to foreign companies."
Finding a job upon graduation has become a luxury for school-leavers amid the mainland's tight job market. Figures from the Ministry of Education show a record 7.27 million graduates were expected to enter the job market by the end of this year, 280,000 more than last year.
State media have called 2013 "the hardest year for finding a job" and President Xi Jinping put employment at the top of the government's agenda last May. The move came as economic growth eased to about 7.7 per cent during the first quarter last year, the lowest in many years, a slowing that wiped out millions of jobs according to official estimates.
A report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released late last year said 17.6 per cent of 2013's graduates remained unemployed as of the end of September, although this was an improvement over the 24 per cent reported in 2012, according to state media.
But information from MyCOS Data, a higher education consulting firm based in Beijing, showed that last year, only 26 per cent of postgraduates found jobs upon graduation, 9 per cent fewer than in 2012.
For Tao, her postgraduate studies are the optimal time to have a baby. "If I don't to have a baby during this time, I will just postpone it to after I'm 35, when I've been focusing on my work for years and have become more financially stable," she said.
President Xi Jinping told party leaders in November to relax the 30-year-old one-child policy by allowing couples in which one parent was a single child to have a second child. Provinces are responsible for coming up with the necessary policy changes and passing the required legislation.