Research Career


A Glimpse of Reality: Academic Careers in Hong Kong

Q: Where are MPhil and PhD graduates heading to?

According to the faculty interviewed, approximately 30%-50% of MPhil graduates at the CUHK continue in higher education and pursue a PhD degree (the exact numbers vary among the various schools), while the remainder normally go into different industries. Professor Joseph Bosco from the Faculty of Arts said that their (MPhil graduates’) careers are extremely diverse. “Some of them become school teachers; whereas others go on to marketing and market research, or PR (public relations)… all sorts of different areas.” In contrast, the majority of PhD graduates normally stay in research at one of the universities. “Most PhD students, probably over 85%, continue with their research career,” said Professor Yu Huang from the Faculty of Medicine. According to Professor Xiang Zhou from the Faculty of Business Administration, whose recent PhD students are almost all from mainland China, “Most of them will find an academic job at a university back in the mainland. Some of them find teaching jobs in Hong Kong schools, such as Hang Seng Management College, and a few of them may go into another profession, for example to work for a foreign bank as an analyst or consultant.”


Q: How difficult it is for a PhD graduate to find a tenured position?

Professor Yu Huang said that, to his knowledge, “only a few percentage of top graduates” are able to get a tenured position as “it is very competitive everywhere.” In addition, according to Professor Wei-Hsin Liao from the Faculty of Engineering, PhD graduates “may not be able to get (such a position) immediately.” Professor Joseph Bosco shared his opinion, saying that “we have a few recent graduates who are from Hong Kong are still looking for academic jobs.” Indeed, it is quite common for a doctoral graduate to take a few years to land a tenured position.

Professor Joseph Bosco attributed this delay to the fact that, “academia is adding more and more rungs to the bottom of the ladder; these positions are therefore occupied by a lot more people, which makes the path up the ladder even slower than before. What ends up happening is that there is a larger pool of people who are looking for permanent jobs, and so it becomes even more difficult for new graduates to find employment. As a result, they tend to ‘bounce around’ from one temporary position to another.”


Q: Is there any frustration for doctoral graduates who may not end up in a (permanent) research job?

Professor Tony Tam from the Faculty of Social Science frankly pointed out that, “it is natural to get frustrated…but there is no way out. The only solution is to be well informed before getting into this type of profession. Frustration is most prevalent in PhD candidates who foolishly and blindly get into this situation and only realize their unsuitability for such as career when they fail. They say: ‘Teachers and peers recommended that I should pursue this career, but it turns out that I am not suitable.’ In this case, the best solution for tackling the problem is quite straightforward: Quit. Quit as soon as possible. The later you quit, the higher the price.”

Professor Hoi Ying Wong from the Faculty of Science offered some advice on how to handle the frustration of finding a permanent job: “Pure frustration is not helpful. Some people might quit their career completely and go to work in another sector, due to the constant frustration of searching for work. But graduates who have thought about it and can accept the possible consequences, will also understand that some frustration is inevitable. Everyone has to go through it. Rather than letting your frustrations take over your life, it is much better to think about the next step."

Professor Tony Tam also said that graduates should not think “that they are losers if they cannot get a permanent research job or that other types of employment are somehow inferior.” He declared that such a hierarchy of career choice is not proper. On the other hand, while acknowledging that those who aspire to get a job in research might certainly be frustrated if it does not happen, Professor Wei-Hsin Liao suggested that students today have a rather liberal mindset and are open to different career options. He mentioned one graduate from his department who rejected the offer of a Professorship and started his own company instead. “It is more a matter of choice,” said Professor Liao.


Q: Do doctoral students have a narrower job prospect than master’s students?

The majority of the faculty interviewed answered ‘yes’ to this question. Professor Xiang Zhou also suggested several reasons why this might be so. “Number one, it’s often the case that PhD students focus on small problems; so they are very knowledgeable about their own area of research, but sometimes they cannot see the ‘big picture’. The second reason is that, as a PhD student, you have high expectations in terms of jobs, in terms of compensation, and in terms of a career path. So you may not be willing to do a lower level job, right? At the same time, potential employers think that a PhD graduate will expect a higher salary and a better package. Also, many employers do not require somebody with a PhD, especially in Hong Kong. Indeed, in jobs where a post-graduate degree is required at all, it tends to be a master’s rather than PhD that is most desirable. Employers may not need a PhD graduate because in Hong Kong there are not many research positions.” Professor Joseph Bosco added that, “there is also the fact that they (PhD graduates) are older and more set in their ways and so they may be harder to train.”

Professor Hoi Ying Wong provided another explanation: “The industry is very practical. In reality, while you spend years on research work for your PhD, you don’t usually have any substantial work experience. Employers worry that if they give you a job then you will not stay long in that position, and that you are simply using it as a springboard to something better.” While acknowledging the disadvantages of being a PhD graduate in the job market, Professor Wong advised that they should not feel too gloomy. “I believe that PhD candidates are usually very competent. I think they should not be too concerned of such disadvantages at the outset, even though they probably have to suffer for another two or three years. In addition, looking at the situation in another way, when graduates are using three or four years in pursuit of a PhD, their classmates are accumulating three or four years’ worth of social experience. However, those who are most capable, can spend the following three/ four years in acquiring the social connections they need, and if they can outdo their peers, who by this time have about seven years’ experience, then they have done a great job. This is the price they have to pay.” Professor Wong concluded, “it might not be a bad or a sad thing; it depends on your perception.”


Supervisor’s Counsel on Pursuing a Research Career 

Q: What advice can you give to students who aspire to get a job in academia?

The general consensus among the faculty interviewed is that the publication record is of primary importance to the success of getting a tenured research position at a university. Both Professor Xiang Zhou from the Business School and Professor Wei-Hsin Liao from the Faculty of Engineering explicitly stated that, “having a good publication record is very important for getting a job in academia.” Furthermore, though Professor Joseph Bosco from the Faculty of Arts indicated that he does "not believe that impact factor is a valid measure of quality in the humanities”, he agreed that “publishing in reputable journals and becoming recognized in a particular area is important for tenure.” He suggested that this is a way for job applicants to “make a name” for themselves. For this reason, Professor Bosco always encourages his students to apply for grants and scholarships, “because this gives them practice in promoting themselves….it is an exercise in branding. (If) you can get a grant to pay for your fieldwork, or for your PhD research, then you have branded yourself successfully. Your grant application has gone through the peer review process, and your project has met with approval.”

Another way for PhD graduates to gain experience in writing, while at the same time expand their list of publications, is to co-author publications.  Professor Tony Tam said that he promotes the idea of “learning by doing,” and he maintains that students learn best this way. He suggests coaching students through the publication process: “Try to engage your students to work with you, and by this I mean co-authorship. I consider this to be a key form of internship. In addition to applying the ‘learning by doing’ strategy, you show the student the entire professional process, inside and out, not just the final form in print....and it is not only the learning process that is valuable, but also the end-product, the published paper. This also has a direct impact on a student’s curriculum vitae or résumé, and thus their future career. When you are able to establish your name, things become a lot smoother. For this reason, I believe this is an extremely important and valuable skill to develop.”

Professor Xiang Zhou also asserted that, “if a student really wants to work in academia in Hong Kong, then it is really important for him or her to have some overseas experience to improve their competitiveness.” He tries to provide opportunities for his students to interact with overseas scholars, in particular those who are well-known in their field. “The format might be to invite scholars to come to CUHK to give a seminar, or talk to students and give them suggestions and advice. I also try to provide opportunities for my students to go overseas, for example to attend international conferences, or to work during the summer as research assistants for overseas scholars who I collaborate with. In this way, students acquire some essential overseas experience and thus gain a better idea of what is happening in their research field internationally. Offering opportunities for the PhD graduates to work as post-doctoral fellows with overseas scholars is another option. Of course, a supervisor needs to carefully assess each student's potential and how helpful it would be to encourage this type of research experience, because it would mean that they might be living and working overseas for two years or more. A decision has to be made as to whether this time abroad would benefit their career (and lead to more publications), or not.” The point, Professor Xiang Zhou reminded us, is not the “overseas exposure” per se, but what the student can ultimately gain from spending time working abroad. Students have to take the initiative and try to “make an impact with the research they do when they work with internationally-renowned scholars overseas.” Professor Hoi Ying Wong echoed this point, and he said that he tries to emphasize the benefits of having a proactive attitude to promote a successful research career when he encourages his students to attend academic conferences: “You have to go to every conference with clear goals: first, present your research; second, try to attract others to pay attention to your research; third, pay attention to other scholars’ research and seek opportunities to collaborate with them. If you do not have such conscious goals in mind, but just go to present a paper, or go to a foreign place to have some fun, I think the conference serves very little purpose and the resources are wasted.”


Q: How do you regard a contract academic position?

Most of the interviewed faculty consider that a contract teaching job is not a good option for graduates who aspire to have a career in research. Professor Wei-Hsin Liao said that in this position, “people may have much less time to work on research. As a lecturer, the teaching load in general is relatively heavy and so with this kind of job, it is hard to publish good papers.” Professor Joseph Bosco added that teaching positions might not be conducive to having a successful research career: “I think that PhD graduates who spend a lot of time teaching are wasting their time. I mean, you get a job based on your publication record, not on your teaching ability. Also, frequently these contract positions don’t offer the resources for conducting fieldwork or research, or for attending conferences and the like.” Whereas most of the faculty interviewed had a negative attitude about the idea of contract teaching positions, Professor Hoi Ying Wong did offer a possible solution for lecturers who also want to do research. He proposed that, “when there is a break between their busiest teaching periods, or after the first year when they have become more familiar with their teaching responsibilities and they probably don’t need to teach new courses, then they can pick up their research again.” He maintains the belief that “giving up research for the time being, does not equate to giving it up completely.”

Whereas a contract teaching job might be less beneficial in terms of a research career, the faculty interviewed agreed that research apprenticeship positions are a useful way to prepare graduates for a career in academia.  Such positions are also on contract basis and take various forms, including research assistants, research associates, research fellowship positions, and post-doctoral research fellows.

Professor Hoi Ying Wong listed three features of a contract research position:  “First, you have a mentor. While the relationship is not the same as a supervisor and supervisee, or professor and student, the mentor is normally an experienced senior researcher who can guide you through your research. Second, this is a real job (not a studentship) and as such it helps you to make a living, albeit a modest one. Third, academic research requires immersion, and even though you are on a contract, which is usually short-term, you are nevertheless provided with an environment to get thoroughly engaged with your research project. However, it can take time to become immersed; but even novice researchers will eventually understand the fundamental knowledge base, and the core theories of the discipline, as well as what sustainable knowledge that needs to be kept up to date.” Similarly, Professor Joseph Bosco agreed that “research apprentice positions can be a great opportunity as you usually have a low teaching load, and you can apply to do different research projects. You have colleagues to exchange ideas with, and that can be a wonderful way to begin your career. [Spending] two or three years concentrating on building your list of publications can also be very useful.”

Nevertheless, approximately half of those interviewed indicated that graduates should not stay for too long in a contract research position. Professor Wei-Hsin Liao said, “I mean five years is okay, in general, after they finish their PhD study. It’s still quite normal. But if a student stays for more than five years, then I do feel that they will have a lower chance [of getting a tenured job].” Professor Xiang Zhou was also concerned that graduates will become more anxious if they experience too much uncertainty imposed by a contract job. He considers that a contract research position “is just for a transition period (between the end of your education and a permanent job), so you cannot be in such a transient position for too long. You need to know when to stop. In the long run, you probably want to get married and have a family, and you have to raise your family. If there are too many uncertainties in your job as a researcher, then I don't think it's helpful.”


The Future Trends in Academia and
the Implications for Young Faculty

Q: What are the most significant changes that you think will occur in academia in the near future?

There are two main trends that the interviewed faculty anticipate will occur in academia in the near future: an increase in the use of technology and more collaborative research.

Technology is exerting a major influence and reshaping the landscape of university life. Professor Xiang Zhou stated that he perceives, “more and more new technologies will be brought into the classroom, and the classroom will become more interactive.” Professor Joseph Bosco, however, indicated that he has some concerns regarding this tendency: “There is an increasing emphasis on the use of technology but I am not entirely sure how this is going to develop. I know that administrators are interested in video-taping lectures, and that more and more online courses are being developed, because it is very economical. This means that there is more pressure on the university to initiate this type of system because they can save money by reducing the number of teachers; a lot of students can thus be taught with relatively few resources. However, I don’t think that education works very well this way. Education works better when there is face-to-face contact between the teachers and their students. So while there are distinct advantages for bringing information technology into education because it is an inexpensive way to provide knowledge to a large number of people, I suspect that some elite universities will continue to use traditional teaching methods and they will offer a better product. In this way the gap between, say the private Harvard University types in the United States and the state universities may actually become greater.”

Collaborative research is also predicted to become a more dominant and influential mode of conducting research in the near future. Professor Hoi Ying Wong was just one of the faculty members interviewed with this forecast. “What I suspect is that fewer researchers will conduct their own research, as more collaborative research projects start to occur. An increasing number of inter-disciplinary research projects will also be observed. I think that this is due to the diversification of knowledge. It might not be enough for you to focus just on one field. The best way to cope with such diversification is to collaborate with others.” Professor Tony Tam had a similar prediction and illustrated what the end result might be: “I mean another trend will be team work in research. There will be higher expectations and thus even more pressure for the Government and the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong, and also the university to provide incentives to reward large-scale, cross-disciplinary, collaborative research. Those who are not in a big research team might end up being marginalized. A few years ago, this would not have been imaginable, but now, it is more difficult to get funding if you are not in a research team. You might have to fight very hard and still end up with a small amount of money. However, if you can successfully obtain a significant level of funding with a large-scale collaboration, then a group of people will benefit. Usually, such projects are not on a one-year basis, but might last for three to five years. Those who can make it and those who don’t will live in two completely different worlds. I foresee that this situation will only become more dominating and unbalanced. This has happened already in the natural sciences, and it is now starting to occur in social science. I think it might even extend to humanities in the next ten years.”

Other countries in Asia are now also starting to emerge and gain influence in academia. Professor Xiang Zhou observed that, “Indian and Chinese scholars are catching up. I think that most of the good universities in China nowadays are focusing more on research, and focusing specifically on high quality research in order to obtain high quality publications. I don’t know whether Chinese researchers are as good as scholars in Hong Kong and the US, but if they aren’t yet, then they soon will be.” Professor Yu Huang thinks that our near neighbors are already there: “Nowadays, in this region, we are facing competition from Singapore, Korea and Japan, as well as mainland China obviously. Japan and Singapore are already very good, and Korea is catching up very quickly, while mainland China is developing incredibly fast.”

While the rest of Asia is growing, the faculty are not optimistic about Hong Kong’s circumstances. Speaking about the state of local academia, they suggested that the research environment is changing in a way that prevents substantial academic growth. This is thus detrimental to the research achievements of the faculty in Hong Kong’s universities. Professor Joseph Bosco has identified the “audit culture” in academia as being a very significant change: “In the audit culture, you are constantly being measured and assessed, such that your productivity doesn’t count unless it is in some way measurable. People don’t realize the degree to which academics are now constantly being monitored and evaluated. Now, more than ever, academics are being controlled by the university administration.” Professor Tony Tam also compared the situation now with that from a few years ago: “In the past you could still survive even if you didn’t do any research. Today, this is no longer possible as the University is now dual track. When the department recruits faculty, they expect people to do research. Therefore, everyone tries to obtain research funding. From one year to the next, the budget invested in research might increase a little, but by the time you include inflation, and the increasing number of qualified research proposals being submitted, the chances of actually being funded are becoming slimmer and slimmer. This results in a higher level of pressure for the faculty. If your proposal fails and you do not get funding, then this results in the whole department being collectively punished, as well as you being punished as an individual. I do not think this is a good trend and I hope that it does not continue in the future. This depends, however, on the whole budget planning by the Government; even the head of the RGC cannot give a final call. This is a structural issue.” As a result, it is widely perceived that the academic market in Hong Kong can only become more and more competitive.

Professor Yu Huang also suspects that “competition will become more intense, which might put some people off choosing this type of career.  It is too tough.” Professor Wei-Hsin Liao, has also observed this same tendency in Taiwan: “Now, universities face an issue for PhD admission, with fewer and fewer people now applying to do a PhD degree when compared with before. The majority of students are interested in having a faculty position at university, but when they consider the job market, they now feel their chances are really, really low. So even at a top university such as the National Taiwan University, you can see that they might want to recruit, for instance, 1000 PhD students, but only 500 people apply. In the past, this didn’t happen but now you can see it happens more often.”


Q: What are the implications of these future trends for young faculty?

If these anticipated changes are imminent then it seems that it is the young faculty who will be affected most acutely. Furthermore, young faculty who have to supervise students may suffer more, struggling between keeping a secured position in academia and playing an educator’s role. Professor Tony Tam conveyed his reservations in this matter: “The interests of the new generation of faculty are not compatible with those of the students. I am in this sort of environment daily, and I can feel the tension and pressure. There are very few incentives for junior faculty to be student-centered; there are only disincentives. They have to fulfill certain requirements set by the department and the University, such as publishing a defined number of journal articles or attaining research funding in order to stay on. However, all the additional time spent trying to accomplish these goals result in less time being available for supervising students. When you give one minute to a student, you have lost one minute for yourself. Even if you are willing to work longer hours, it is at a high cost. I believe that young faculty today are under tremendous pressure, and they do not have our advantages (as senior faculty) to fight against such disincentives and demands. They suffer, or more likely the students suffer. As it stands, this type of work environment is set to continue in this unpromising direction, and get ever more competitive. I can hardly see a good way out, but we cannot pretend that nothing is happening; someone is paying the price.”

Professor Hoi Ying Wong suggested that junior faculty should exercise discretion when deciding whether to take a PhD student: “The junior faculty should be clearly aware of their main goals early in their career. These include how to collaborate with other senior faculty and how to develop their expertise. There is not the same need to supervise students. It is already very demanding if you want to survive the first six years.” He cautioned that, “it is better not to take a PhD student just for the sake of taking a PhD student. ‘I hope to have some experience in supervising PhDs, so I am going to take some students.’ This is not how it works. When I decide to take on a PhD student, I first decide if there are mutual benefits. As a junior faculty, you have to do the same. You have a lot of work to do, but you might notice there is something new in your field that is worthy of attention. If there is a competent and well-motivated student who would like to pursue a PhD, and you foresee that he/she might become a good research partner, then in this case, I think you can take him/her on. Of course, the student has to be proactive, because he/she will be responsible for most of the research tasks, with you, the supervisor providing the vision and direction. You still have to invest some of your time, but there are also obvious benefits, and in this way you might achieve equilibrium.”