Why I am changing my research direction: a look back into past experiences

It’s (kind of) official: I am changing the direction of my research area from political science into innovation and entrepreneurship studies.

Within the last three years of my undergraduate studies in HKUST in particular – and more than 10 years in general, I assume – I have been personally very interested in the studies of international relations, political economy, and political science. Throughout my undergraduate life thus far, I have been involved in over 4 research projects that deal primarily within these areas. I have done research on China-Africa relations, comparative analysis of hybrid regimes (or semi-democracies, or to plainly explain it, countries that have both mixed democratic and autocratic features), China’s Belt and Road initiative, as well as China’s anti-corruption campaign. Much of my research – for now – has been focusing on transnational relations between various government units, co-national communities, private firms, and civil-society organizations, or on features of domestic politics of various countries, and compiling databases relating to those projects – such as list of Chinese enterprises based in African countries (in total over 800 data entries), list of projects (possibly) associated with Belt and Road initiative (somewhere like 900), list of officials apprehended under the most recent anti-corruption campaign in China (above 300), and database on election results in several countries.

Indeed, doing research on innovation and entrepreneurship was – until somewhere this year – probably the last thing I have ever conceived about when you asked me about my research priorities. Reflecting back to my prior experiences, I can tell you – very honestly – that even having been involved in many of these projects, I actually did not know precisely what kind of research direction, or specialization, I am delving into. My participation in research projects, to draw an analogy, is like jumping from one stone into another in a river. I have research interest in numerous areas, but I can hardly explain – especially to my fellow friends and family members – what exactly I am interested in. I do not have a firm standing on what I want to specialize into. It is perfectly fine to do research in multiple disciplinary areas; but constantly being involved in simply doing everything is hardly a wise idea. I am learning that lesson the hard way.

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When I was in my first year of my undergraduate life, I completely had no qualms about what I was planning to do in my future life – other than doing research. Having been a bookworm for a lifetime, my only big interest is to ‘gotta be able to do something that relates to the stuff I’ve read’. Thereafter, I looked into a full list of projects offered by Undergraduate Research Opportunities Office (UROP) in HKUST, and the project about China-Africa economic relations aroused my curiosity. Back then, it was like July 2014. UROP registration has been closed since the end of June, but I decided to give a go. I contacted the project’s principal investigator, Prof. Barry Sautman, telling him that I would volunteer for this project for research experience. Thus, it became the first research experience in my life. All research papers relating to China-Africa relations, be it economics, bilateral relations, historical analysis, or community relations, are given first priority. That commitment continued all the way for 3 years; even my final-year thesis relates to the studies of China-Africa relations.

Consider that as my first ‘stone’. The second ‘stone’ took place in 2015, as I also participated in another research project about hybrid regimes and semi-democratic countries. I emailed the principal investigator, Prof. Sing Ming, and here came my so-called ‘historical sojourn from one paper to another’. Within that project – in addition to the existing China-Africa one – I delved from studying the political history of Thailand in 20th century to a comparative analysis of political histories of Malaysia and Venezuela, what made them ‘similar’, what made them ‘different’, and to a lesser extent, also ventured into studying political histories of other countries, ranging from Taiwan to South Korea to Indonesia to Mexico to Spain. One of my professors even dubbed me a ‘walking Wikipedia’ given the knowledge I had accumulated. Again, knowledge and expertise are two different concepts: knowledge means one simply knows something; expertise is what – and how – you are trying to deal with regarding the knowledge already accumulated.

The third ‘stone’ was in the following year, 2016. China has been busily touting its Belt and Road initiative, having claimed that over 70 countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe have signed up to the initiative thus far. Imagine trillions of dollars of Chinese money to be poured into building infrastructure, industrial parks, and everything else you can imagine what Chinese enterprises can – and will do – across those three continents. The attention being paid to anything related to Belt and Road is so high that it feels like a person smoking the highest-quality weed. And nope, I am not going to use such colloquial language in my research papers. Despite numerous debates about the initiative (even on the question whether One Belt One Road is actually an initiative or a slogan, given tremendous ambiguities surrounding the term), there has been much ‘research’ interest in it. There, I initiated an independent-study project by my own, being completely clueless about what actually is to be researched about it.

Simultaneously, it was also in the same year that the word ‘startup’ became a buzzword in my mind, my personal metaphorical buzzing bee. As almost everyone I knew was very hyped into startups, I was – to some extent – quite involved in it. I had kept myself occupied with three different research projects (China-Africa relations, hybrid regimes, and Belt and Road Initiative), and added to these lollipops were my informal work with a close friend of mine, Christine, in researching about blockchain, enrollment in a new minor program, entrepreneurship, and working on my final-year thesis. ‘Blockchain’ was the name of the second bee in my head, and although Christine and I had many ideas but no fixed ideas on what we can research on nor do about blockchain, we were still kind of ‘working on it’. Call it an organized mess: although I divided my schedule regularly, my attention remained disorganized and scattered elsewhere. I have shown a side interest in blockchain and startups, and that partially motivated me to enroll in Entrepreneurship minor, simply to see ‘what’s up there’.

2016 was also an uneasy year for me (not primarily because of Brexit and Donald Trump); at that time, I simply did not want to imagine what 2017 would look like for me. My another focus, in addition to the two things mentioned above, was to prepare for postgraduate studies, particularly to the US. To be honest, even after more than 2 years of research experience, in spite of numerous research interests, I am still unsure about what I actually want to specialize during my postgraduate studies. I did not even want to know what the odds are for me in terms of applying for political science PhD programs; I decided to apply for 9 universites in the US, all top-tier (including most Ivy League schools, Berkeley, MIT, NYU, and Chicago), and for a ‘safe bet’, including MPhil program in HKUST and 1 MSc program in NTU, Singapore. My expenses became swollen as I had to pay tremendous fees for GRE test, TOEFL test, delivery fees for both certificates to each school, as well as the application fees for each university. All these moves taking place when my standing on those stones remains unstable.

And there came 2017. In anticipation of all-out rejection from all universities I have applied, I began to apply for various job positions. I would say it’s all pretty last-moment job submissions, as many people had submitted their job applications for 2017 positions before the end of 2016. I applied to over 20 companies, only to receive no responses in the end (despite my research experiences and academic achievements). The first three months of this year were intense for me as I am completely clueless of what post-graduation life I will go into. I dropped my minor program due to repeatedly receiving bad grades that pushed my CGA downward; the ‘blockchain’ bee died, and the ‘startup’ bee had stopped buzzing. PhD application results were out, and one by one, I was rejected. Once, on a Saturday morning, right after I woke up, I received 3 consecutive rejection emails from MIT, Cornell, and Stanford. I wanted to cry, but immediately I went to shower, had breakfast, and ran to library to continue working on my final-year thesis. Even receiving Master’s offers from NYU and Chicago was not a delightful alternative for me, either. My primary interest was research postgraduate, not taught postgraduate; moreover, NYU did not give me scholarship, and I could not afford the fees; Chicago offered 50% scholarship, but covering the other 50% had given me enough headache. I initially thought about applying for student loans, but eventually ditched it given my personal fear of ‘unknown unknowns’. And the question about my research interest? That is the last question I ever wanted to answer. My last alternative is to apply as a research assistant, but again, this position is subject to the funding size of those projects.

At that time, I had already no longer worked for my independent-study project on Belt and Road initiative (having concluded, after 95 pages of text and appendix, that there remains no conclusive definition on what on earth that initiative is) and the hybrid-regime project. In order to minimize my paranoid tendencies by keeping myself busy, I decided to look into one ‘last’ research project for my undergraduate period. The project, led by Prof. Franziska Keller, was about the most recent anti-corruption campaign in China. I wasn’t sure about what precisely research questions that I aimed to answer in the research project, but anyway, I decided to give it the so-called ‘last chance’.

By the end of March 2017, my personal uncertainty (kind of) came to an end with a 2-year MPhil offer issued for me by Department of Social Science in my current university. I would consider it as the best deal compared to the other two offers from NYU and Chicago. To be honest, reason number one why I considered it the best deal was the research studentship (not salary) package provided to the students: I have personally estimated that if I end up on this track, I could afford to save up to one-third of my studentship monthly for the next 2 years, instead of accumulating student debt and constantly running in the red on the other two tracks. Reason number two relates to a piece of advice I received from one of my seniors, who is currently pursuing a PhD program in economic research in UK: look for the faculty you want to work together with, not solely the school’s brand. He told me he personally regretted taking a Master’s degree in London School of Economics (LSE), and would rather do an MPhil in HKUST instead with an economics professor he has long acquainted with.

An offer from NYU and Chicago (and lastly from NTU) is a very attractive one, but I end up accepting an MPhil offer here. And there comes reason number three: I could continue staying in touch with my close friends here, and in particular with my family within Asia, at least for two more years.

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Okay, I haven’t written precisely why I am changing my research direction. Now that I have accepted the MPhil offer, the next challenge is to identify what kind of research project and/or topic I will be working on. I was already unsure if I wanted to continue working on, be it China-Africa relations, or hybrid regimes, or anti-corruption campaign in China. Therefore I began to browse into the websites of some HKUST-affiliated research institutes. I stumbled upon the website of Institute of Emerging Market Studies (IEMS), while partially expressing regret for not taking up opportunities in relation to some of the research projects offered there. Until one project title suddenly caught my attention:

“THE PEARL RIVER DELTA: AN EMERGING SILICON VALLEY?”

My reaction upon looking at that project title – proposed by Prof. Naubahar Sharif – was like falling in love with somebody at the first sight (I had numerous such experiences, and they were all bad). It may sound hyperbolic and even weird, but I had a deep ‘crush’ on the idea embodied in this project: startups sound so cool once again, why not moving into this area instead? Not long after accepting the MPhil offer, I immediately contacted Prof. Sharif, and we immediately had our first meeting in early April. He gave me a list of readings I could refer to for literature review, and from those readings, I referred to their citations and references for further review. For the next four months (until today), I have read nearly 30 journal articles, think-tank reports, book chapters, working papers, and various other research works, the topics by which deal with startup ecosystem, science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship policies, why certain cities demonstrate very lively dynamics while others are stagnant or even declining, university spinoffs, triple-helix (government-industry-academia) dynamics, and finally, startups themselves.

Discovering this new research field gives me a completely different feeling and perspective when compared to the previous research projects I had committed in the past. I don’t know anyone else who switched from political science to innovation and entrepreneurship studies, but if you ask for my subjective interpretation of these two fields, I would personally opine that doing research in the latter – at least during the literature review – is much ‘livelier’ compared to the former. Innovation studies, based on my merely four-month-old comprehension, always talk about new possibilities, constant dynamics of interaction between the academia, research institutions, new technologies, government policies and regulations, industrial actors, as well as cultural and social norms and perception, and ideas to improve societies. Don’t get me wrong, I have learned and acquired a tremendous amount of information and insight from research in political economy and political science, too, nor have ever I expressed the slightest bit of regret ever taking these projects. Indeed, these projects were the precise reason why I end up undertaking research on innovation and entrepreneurship studies; it was only by looking back that I could draw a line among these dots. I simply feel that constantly doing research surrounding these disciplinary fields does not give me a fresh spark of inspiration. I acknowledge that many of the academicians in these fields are well-read scholars, but there tends to be a predisposition where the notion of political correctness is overly emphasized, as I have perceived upon reading dozens of journal articles in the past projects.

For me, getting involved in these four projects has been such a priceless experience for me throughout my university life. First, I learned to acquire further knowledge, but that was insufficient, which led me to the second point: what to do with the knowledge gained. And this led to the third aspect: which areas of knowledge – having been acquired and categorized – we aim to specialize further.

Finally, my piece of advice for those who are still in undergraduate education, but are already deep into research: explore as many areas you are interested as possible. Just giving examples: if you are into computer science but  unsure of what you are trying to do, try projects in, say, big-data analysis. If at some point you feel bored with it and want to move on, you can go to another area, say, cybersecurity, or machine learning, or something that is not necessarily related to your area of specialization, say, 3D printing, or robotics. If you like economics but not sure of what you want to precisely do, try, let’s say, a marketing research project, or a behavioral-economics study, or learned to do big-data analysis through large datasets of macroeconomic indicators (I have recently spent some time learning programming in R in the last 2 months), or even read some philosophy books to understand concepts like constructivism and epistemology, which maybe you can use to understand how on earth these economists shaped the theories we are now familiar with (that was the approach I used in my final-year thesis on the studies of China-Africa relations). If you are still interested to do research in political science, you are more than welcome to explore this field, as there remain a plethora of unanswered research questions out there waiting to be explored. Is democracy declining? Does it not matter whether we live in democracies or autocracies? Are we even on the same page in defining what is ‘democracy’ and what is ‘dictatorship’, and what not, their mechanisms, characteristics, and flaws altogether? My personal belief, in this regard, is that it matters to become not only professional in one confined area of expertise, but also to acquire an interdisciplinary understanding of knowledge.

There is no guarantee, however, if my method works on everybody else; I am simply giving suggestions based on my own personal experiences. In the end, it is up to everyone to decide what kinds of trajectories in life, especially in research, one is to undertake.

Don’t be shocked when there are buzzing bees inside your head; deal with it, and good luck exploring!

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