Brave new world of academia

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am


Traditionally, programmes leading to a Master of Philosophy or Doctor of Philosophy have been regarded as the pathway to an academic career, but growing competition means academic positions are harder to come by. Instead, graduates are advised to look to a wider array of options.

Other options, however, may require good interpersonal skills from these academically inclined individuals. Nirmala Rao, executive graduate dean of the University of Hong Kong Graduate School, believes mere knowledge of research methodologies is not enough.

'The world has changed; not all graduates may go into academic jobs,' the professor says. 'Students should learn about communication, working in teams, soft skills, and managing difficulties in relationships. These skills are very important but not really covered in our PhD programmes.'

To prepare for the global trend, HKU has been offering a voluntary course since 2009 for its doctoral students centring on communication and interpersonal skills.

The Research Skills Development course began as a four-day summer residential programme held jointly with London's Imperial College to improve the research and personal effectiveness of doctoral candidates. The first batch comprised about 60 students from the college, HKU and Tsinghua University.

The course was later made available twice a year, honing skills in project management, networking and collaboration - broader communication skills, in short. Tutors for the course were trained at Imperial College.

HKU admits about 600 PhD students a year. Because of limited places, just about 100 students can undergo the training every year. The school plans to make it available to all students within a decade.

A developmental psychologist in her own right, Rao stresses the importance of communication in today's world, even within academia. On top of spending long hours in a lab or poring over raw data, academics can also expect to work in teams.

'People collaborate. Interpersonal communication skills have become even more important, even though we have Facebook and Twitter. It is still important to communicate effectively in person and in writing,' she says.

'Today we are much more likely to be exposed to people from different countries and backgrounds. Cross-cultural communication is the other thing students learn in our course, where there may be people of 15 different nationalities and they can get to understand different people's perspectives.'

Another part of the training covers the handling of emotions. 'The way you convey a message is as important as the message itself. A section of the course is about dealing with your supervisor,' Rao notes.

Transferable skills received much recognition at the 2011 Strategic Leaders Global Summit hosted by HKU and the US-based Council of Graduate Schools in Hong Kong in September.

Council president Debra Stewart says: 'We have to assume our graduates will be employed around the world ... individuals who will be on a lifelong basis making a significant contribution to the global knowledge community; to make that contribution they need depth in their field, and breadth in the sense that they need to be project managers, leaders, communicators, deeply ethical and responsible, globally oriented and competent.'

At HKU, 87 per cent of its 2010 PhD graduates found employment that year, compared with 77 per cent of the university's MPhil and PhD research postgraduates.

HKU found in a survey last year that PhD graduates earned an average basic salary of HK$22,234 and MPhil graduates earned HK$19,713. The maximum for both groups is HK$80,000.

There are many more opportunities to enter academia on the mainland, where higher education is expanding rapidly, Rao says. In Hong Kong, a trend has emerged of PhD holders becoming postdoctoral fellows - carrying out research - as a stepping stone to getting an academic job such as assistant professor.

'The academic world has become very competitive,' Rao says.

'Having a PhD does not mean you will get a job because you need to have publications, so what many people in the lab-based disciplines do is after they have done a PhD they will do a post-doc to generate more publications, which makes them more competitive for an assistant professor position.'

But for the academically oriented, job opportunities remain, Rao adds. 'In Hong Kong, we have more private universities coming up and these places will be looking for people.'

Financial help for postgrad study

Croucher scholarships for doctoral study and fellowships for post-doctoral research

(A Croucher scholarship normally comprises an annual maintenance allowance and assistance towards fares and tuition fees. Apply to the Croucher Foundation online. For the 2012-13 selection exercise, applications should be submitted by 5pm on November 15 this year.)

Research Grants Council's PhD fellowship scheme

Hong Kong government scholarships

Australia's Endeavour research fellowships

British Chevening scholarships

Scholarships for studying in Germany

Financial aid for studying in the US