Published in the SCMP January 2007
With business and industry becoming more competitive, people are increasingly looking towards post-graduate degrees to secure an advantage for themselves.
However, while it is not always the case that a masters or a PhD degree will open doors in the working world, a postgrad degree, if chosen with care, can further equip the holder with useful skills and knowledge and stand him in better stead work-wise.
But getting a postgraduate degree is no trivial matter. Besides costing a lot of money, it requires a tremendous amount for time and effort on the part of the candidate. However, just those three elements alone are not enough to guarantee success.
A positive attitude towards learning is highly prized by those in charge of selecting postgraduate candidates. “The student must have a strong sense of curiosity, an understanding of how and why things work,” describes Prof Wong Wing Shing, dean of the Graduate School at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“They need the urge to be innovative, to invent and create something that is their own because they have to do original work, and they have to do this well,” he adds.
Over at the University of Hong Kong’s Centre on Behavioural Health, centre director Prof Cecilia Chan Lai Wan values enthusiasm, a diverse skill set and passion. “In our programme, we look for people who are enthusiastic in their profession,” she says.
“They should also be interested in innovation and be good in different things like art, dancing and singing,” Prof Chan adds.
The centre’s Master of Social Science in Behavioural Health is a new and pioneering programme that targets healthcare and social service professionals and adopts a holistic approach towards promoting health, including the use of alternative techniques like artwork, dance therapy and meditation.
With research a big part of many postgraduate courses, especially the research-based MPhil and PhD programs, admission directors look for candidates who are able to demonstrate the ability to do research independently.
“They should have some kind of research talent, a desire for research, for a deeper understanding of the nature of their subject so that they can make a deeper contribution to the area,” says Prof Tang Tao, director of the Graduate School at the Hong Kong Baptist University.
“The motivation and genuine love for research is very important. This type of work can be quite boring, but if they really like it they can really contribute to society by writing books and high-quality papers,” he adds.
“They have to be very passionate about their topic. They should know this quite well and bring with them their own experience and research interest,” agrees Prof Chan.
Maturity, creativity and intelligence are other criteria that admission boards look for. Candidates, especially research candidates, are often required to write a research proposal detailing the scope of their research topic.
“This is an opportunity for the student to show how much they know about their area of research. The (admission) panel uses this as a way to test their suitability,” explains Prof Wong.
Admission boards also rely on prior academic results, interviews as well as academic reference letters from the candidate’s previous professors as ways to determine if they are suitable material for the grueling postgraduate work ahead.
English language proficiency is another important prerequisite for postgraduate degree candidates because postgraduate theses in Hong Kong are mostly written in English. Only in certain cases are students allowed to write in Chinese, an example being the Chinese Literature postgrad course at CUHK.
“When you do research, you need to read extensively. A lot of the time you need to read English language papers and research documents,” explains CUHK’s Prof Wong.
Candidates generally need to show TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores or those of some other basic English test, although, for Prof Wong a basic degree from HKU is regarded as fulfilling the English language requirement.
Work experience, while not necessary, is valued by admissions directors. “For research students, I would prefer students to be experienced in their own professions,” declares HKU’s Prof Chan.
Students join postgraduate programmes not just to learn from us but also to learn from each other, she adds. “They participate in the team and become contributors.
“We facilitate them to borrow and learn from other people’s model but with an in-depth consolidation of their own strength. We encourage them to come up with something that is directly relevant to their own setting, to understand themselves much more,” Prof Chan says.
Dr Alan Au, associate professor at the Open University of Hong Kong, agrees. “When people with diverse backgrounds engage in academic dialogue, they can stimulate each other,” he says, referring to the MBA programme at the Open U which attracts working people from all walks of life.
“They can explore, discuss openly and learn from each other. They can see how people working in other disciplines think, and be exposed to different environments,” he adds. “This is more beneficial than just getting the piece of paper. This is more than just a paper chase.”
The Open University was set up by the Hong Kong government in 1989 with the aim to provide quality education for working adults, and is a full university that runs bachelors to doctoral level programmes.
Its philosophy is to provide the opportunity to get a degree to as many people as possible. Student numbers are not governed by quotas, unlike the other universities in Hong Kong. “But this doesn’t mean that everyone will graduate,” cautions Dr Au, alluding to the standards which the university upholds.
With more and more people doing a postgraduate degree, Dr Au urges those who have the opportunity, to grab it. “Hong Kong is a very competitive city. In the past ten years, there have been so many opportunities for studies and now a lot of people have got MBAs.
“If you are in the business world and you do not have a masters degree, you start off immediately at a disadvantage,” he says.