Passion is the Key to Success for Research Students

Professor Richard M. Walker, explains how the Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) can train PhD students for higher performances.

Samuel Adjorlolo, PhD student from Ghana

Andrea Gudmundsdottir, PhD student from Iceland.

Knowing how to choose the right university and supervisor is key to the happiness and future success of PhD students, but it all starts with being really interested in their research topic and sure of what they want to achieve, according to CityU students of graduate studies.

“Have a clear idea of what you want to do. It is a boring journey if you do not have a deep interest in your topic and you will leave school with regrets. Passion is key,” says Samuel ADJORLOLO, now in his third year.

The second most important step is to find the right supervisor, who has the same or similar research interest.

“Your entire PhD depends on your supervisor, it is as important as choosing a husband or a wife,” says Andrea GUDMUNDSDOTTIR, PhD student from Iceland, who joined CityU this academic year.

She learnt about the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (CLASS) from her Master’s thesis supervisor in the Netherlands. She was excited about CityU because her supervisor had the same research interest and CityU was the first one to confirm her acceptance. She is also pleased with the generous Hong Kong PhD Fellowship grant.

Adjorlolo chose Hong Kong over Switzerland, as he felt a deep trust for his supervisor who had the same research interests and always promptly and enthusiastically replied to his enquires.

“I have received some awards, attended three conferences and I could post research papers in a good number of publications – all because of the amazing support by my supervisor,” says the Ghanaian student.

Finally, it is also important to understand the university’s characteristics and what it can offer to its PhD students.

CityU emphasises professional education, which gives the school a slightly unique brand positioning. Much of the focus is on the applications of research results to real-life problems.

CLASS encompasses seven departments, with excellent cooperation and interdisciplinary structures, which may not be so readily available at other universities with a more traditional set-up.

“We can bring together a stronger set of skills to advise the students and provide them with a range of insights,” says Professor Richard M. WALKER, Associate Dean (Research and Postgraduate Studies), CLASS, and Chair Professor, Department of Public Policy.

Demonstrating the high standards of its knowledgeable faculty members, CLASS research also stands out in Hong Kong with its high quality and large volume of output. For example, 11 research monographs and 107 chapters were published, faculty members gave 217 refereed conference papers and were invited to present papers on 76 occasions in the 2015/16 academic year.

The University also coaches and grooms PhD students for higher performance. One example is the Three Minute Thesis (3MT®), a competition where students explain their research topic in three minutes in a plain, nonacademic language.

“You will learn to take a complex topic, distill it and summarise the main issues. It can help at a job interview, or talking to a professor at a conference. It is similar to the elevator pitch or start-up pitch for funding,” says Professor Walker.

He advises students to watch some videos on the 3MT website in preparation to the competition, practise with their supervisor and colleagues, and take this as an opportunity to really think about what research they have done. Professor Walker says 2nd and 3rd year PhD students would be better able to present their topics, but all MPhil and PhD students are welcome. The non-winners can always try again the following year.

Studying at CLASS, students can receive support to fund their studies by two ways. The majority of students apply for funding from CityU (with resources provided by University Grants Committee), where they receive a monthly stipend covering the fees and living expenses. They can also apply for support in conference attendance and field work. Others receive their grant from the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme, where about 51 per cent of CityU applicants were successful in 2016.

CLASS’s close to 200 PhD students are engaged in a wide range of research fields, including political science researching corruption, applied ethics researching the place of Confucianism in Korean democracy, environmental policy, Chinese studies and many other.

Adjorlolo’s research project is riding over three disciplines, psychology, law and criminology, with the topic of how law influences behaviour and behaviour influences law, including how to predict the likelihood of an offender becoming repeat offender.

“The findings and the research process have been amazing,” Adjorlolo says enthusiastically. “It is very practical, it has policy implications and can change society in a good way.”

He eventually hopes to bring the Ghanaian government to understand the importance of empirical research to support policy formulation and systematic evaluation of the policy’s success or failure.

Gudmundsdottir’s research interest is to find out the effect of fashion and lifestyle blogs on people’s materialism, taking a step further her supervisor’s research which was on the influence of advertising on people.

“It is a very important topic as bloggers are getting more and more exposure and a bigger slice of advertising money. Do young people consider bloggers real or do they know that it is also advertising?” she says, adding that she would like to examine a blogger from China and one from a western country.

While Gudmundsdottir enjoys Hong Kong – which she describes as an intense environment – very much and sometimes wishes she had chosen a boring place to do her PhD, Adjorlolo cautions her.

He is already teaching two classes, one of them with close to 200 students and the other with 80 students, assesses student papers, sets questions, and prepares for conferences in addition to his research. In 2016, he even ran for student representative on the University Council and missed the chance by only 17 votes.

“A PhD student’s life is quite isolated, we are always so busy. There is very limited time for social life. I meet my cohort once in a while for lunch,” he says but both agree that the student halls excel in organising programmes and bringing the students together.