Managing time is vital
A master's level qualification is fast becoming essential for anyone with hopes of reaching the highest rungs of their profession. The choices available continue to multiply, as institutions respond to demand and see the chance to boost Hong Kong as a regional centre for postgraduate education.
For prospective students, committing to a programme is still a decision not to take lightly. It requires close consideration of course content, attendant costs and relevance to the workplace.
And far more than in undergraduate days, it is also vital to factor in the time management aspect. The extra hours of study, group work and classroom teaching inevitably impinge on other activities and, for the duration of the course, give a whole new dimension to the concept of work-life balance.
'We provide a teaching schedule for the year ahead, so students can arrange their work and other commitments around that,' says Thomas Sun, programme leader for the MBA offered by Polytechnic University's School of Professional Education and Executive Development in partnership with the University of Birmingham in Britain.
He highlights the importance of understanding the study mode and what it entails. Some part-time courses, for example, have regular classes, perhaps two evenings a week over 14 weeks for a specific module. Alternatively, or in addition, there may be all-day sessions at weekends, stretching over a similar period.
'This may not suit busy students who have changing work schedules and need to travel for business,' Sun says. 'Therefore, what we have is an intensive teaching mode with 10 consecutive days on one subject.'
It involves three-hour evening classes and eight-hour days at weekends, providing a total of about 45 contact hours. There are also assignments and a final exam for each module.
'It works well,' Sun says. 'Most of our current students see the teaching mode as a big attraction. Otherwise it can be almost impossible for them to come to class.'
When interviewing candidates, he makes a point of asking them about the level of support from their company and their family. Without that, no matter how organised and determined an individual is, the challenge of juggling diverse commitments becomes much tougher.
'Study at night and weekends will obviously influence normal family life,' Sun says. 'And whatever kind of business you are in, it is important that the boss supports you for a programme lasting 21/2 years.'
Noting the trend for course providers to emphasise the international perspective by offering modules overseas, Sun suggests Hong Kong applicants don't yet see this as a priority. When choosing a programme, they are more concerned about its relative ranking, ease of communication with professors outside the classroom, and having close supervision, if required, for the final thesis.
If studying a course taught in Hong Kong by an overseas university, they also look for good local support with things such as logistics, access to libraries and a certain amount of flexibility. 'We have a policy that anyone who has problems finishing within the usual time can defer for three to six months,' Sun says. 'And, because the dissertation is not easy for some people, we organise workshops to explain how to start and structure research and present ideas effectively.'
Vincent Cheung, head of postgraduate studies administration at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), stresses that the key to getting the most out of a master's programme is to know exactly what you are getting into.
The starting point is to be clear about one's main purpose: career advancement in the same field, opening the door to a career change, or acquiring knowledge more for interest and personal development. That leads logically to further consideration of the mode of study, course duration and, in practical terms, how to maintain a reasonable balance between study, work and family, or social life.
'Cost is also an important factor, as the tuition fees and other related expenses for postgraduate programmes may vary greatly,' Cheung says. 'If students prefer a part-time option, they should prepare well.' To help assess the pros and cons, HKUST encourages aspiring applicants to consult the respective programme office for advice on study plans.
The website of the university's Office of Continuing and Professional Education provides all the basic information, but it always makes sense to get personalised advice from teachers, administrative staff, present students and alumni, who have insights and experience of where the real pressure points occur.
'In order to make the most of a programme, students must be committed to the coursework,' Cheung says. '[We also want] them to participate fully in all course-related activities.'
Depending on the choices made, this could involve everything from in-house workshops and corporate presentations to company visits, international exchanges, language enhancement courses and student counselling. All of these might be in addition to regular classes.
'Most part-time programmes are designed with a flexible structure, so students can follow a different course sequence and study at their own pace,' Cheung says. 'This allows for unanticipated changes in work, family or personal situations.'