With many of the world's countries gravitating towards knowledge-based economies, PhD graduates are proving their worth in ever-growing numbers. They are fast shaking off the traditional perception of being out of touch with the real world and showing how their wealth of transferable skills can add value to businesses. What ultimately distinguishes PhD graduates from others with postgraduate qualifications is not the fact that there are a greater number of letters behind their names, but the way in which a PhD qualification can shape a person's skill set, sensibility and perspective. The depth of independent research in a PhD programme requires candidates to demonstrate a level of self-motivation and creativity that far exceeds the expectations in a taught programme at the master level. 'Self-motivation and creativity are transferable skills PhD graduates can take into the workplace. In this regard, there is a difference between hiring someone with a master's degree versus a PhD,' explained Wong Wing-shing, dean of Chinese University's graduate school. 'The PhD graduate will have gone through a deeper level of training and will be able to lead projects more easily.' Neale O'Connor, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong business school, says the depth of research also lays the groundwork for the development of critical skills such as measurement and analysis, data mining and interpersonal capabilities, particularly if the candidate has chosen to conduct fieldwork. 'For example, one PhD candidate I know had to place 3,000 telephone calls in order to conduct his research. That sort of exercise takes both persistence and determination and presents an opportunity to develop strong communication and negotiation skills,' said Professor O'Connor. But where a PhD does run slightly contrary to the world of business is in the programme's set-up. 'The biggest challenge for students is in the feedback process. Unlike in an organisation where you might get immediate feedback from your boss, colleagues or customers every day, feedback to these candidates can take a very long time once they are in the thesis stage of the programme,' said Professor O'Connor. Inevitably, fewer transferable skills will be picked up along the way, given the narrower focus of a PhD in contrast to a master's level qualification that tends to concentrate on developing practical strategies for the individual to apply directly to the workplace. In Hong Kong, the majority of PhD candidates are from outside the city, most notably the mainland, according to university professors. Local students have traditionally not been big on PhDs, opting for professional qualifications due to Hongkongers' emphasis on the practical. The situation has been compounded by the fact that the Hong Kong economy has been unable to absorb PhD graduates into the job market. 'The inability to absorb PhD graduates into the job market is expected to change, however, with Hong Kong's education reform to expand university programmes from three years to four. This is expected to increase the demand for teachers in higher education in the coming years,' said Pong Ting-chuen, associate vice president for academic affairs (postgraduate studies and academic research) at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Despite the gamut of opportunities available, PhD graduates know they cannot depend solely on their technical expertise if they are to remain relevant to the real world. 'It is really the responsibility of PhD students to market their skills regardless of the subject their PhD is in. No matter how much of an expert they are, graduates need to take a proactive approach in being career-aware and think carefully about how they will use their expertise to provide value to the community,' said Professor O'Connor. Philip Wixon, general manager at Hewitt Associates in Hong Kong, says it is critical for PhD graduates looking for work in the commercial sector to strike a balance between practical experience and academic learning. 'It is important for the PhD graduate to be as practical as possible. They can do that through internships or work experience so long as they demonstrate their ability to understand both the theory and the practical,' he said. Individuals weighing up the pros and cons of a PhD need to take a practical view when making the decision due to the time commitment and cost involved, he added. Considering PhDs typically take three to five years to complete, mere interest in a subject or a passion for learning cannot be the only sustaining force behind the decision to embark on one, say academics. 'Other postgraduate degrees are much more structured through coursework and exams, but a PhD, in its purest sense, is like an apprenticeship to research. It is an opportunity for an individual to research and analyse the world in which you live,' said Professor O'Connor. 'A PhD is a never-ending quest to learn about the phenomenon you are studying, and that can be a great source of frustration to normal people. You are basically married to the research for five years and have to think about it 24 hours a day.'