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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A farewell to 2016, and welcoming an uncertain future

welcoming-2017

 

A close friend of mine posted on our Whatsapp chat group that our ‘366 days’ are finally closing today. He specifically referred to ‘366 days’, because of all days in this year, there is one special day in which his birthday befalls: February 29. With officially his age being ‘5 years old’ (he’s actually 20, de facto), he will need to wait until 2020 to celebrate his 6th birthday, or by the time when he’s already 24 years old.

To some extent, I quite pitied him given his unusual birth date. But it’s okay; one great thing I will remember is the friendship that we have long forged, together with the rest of the chat group members, for quite some time. As I am currently on my final year of study at HKUST, this may probably be the first – and the last – time I can directly celebrate his birthday. Again, it’s okay; his once-in-four-years birthday will forever be remembered.

My friend’s ‘birthday story’ is not the primary theme for this post; you can call it an ‘opening anecdote’.

This is my last blog post for 2016. Compared to previous years, this is also the time when I made the least number of posts. In 2015, I published 21 blog posts, already a massively huge drop compared to 2014 (when I posted, I guess, over 300 blog posts). This year, it is only 15 (including this one). The number of viewers has also dropped in the last two years, which I think is quite expected given the reduced time I have spent curating this WordPress blog. But it’s okay; I don’t care if the total number of this 5.5-year-old blog is comparatively lower than those on a typical Youtube video, because I am not seeking publicity. The aim of this blog is very simple: to share my thoughts, and nothing else. My commitment is that as long as I am still alive, I will continue updating this blog, all the while sharing my thoughts about issues which I think – and believe – are worth seriously addressing.

If I could sum up how 2016 has been for me, I can say that it, in some way, sucks. My sentiment may be a bit different compared to how others denigrated the year of 2016; I didn’t really blame ‘2016’ itself in causing problems (because problems can always occur regardless what year it is), but rather how some ‘misfortunes’ happen somewhat more frequently compared to previous years. And it’s particularly personal. To begin with, I did not manage to get any single Dean’s List awards this year, which are actually important in determining my scholarship amount. There have also been excessive bureaucratic logjams with regard to salary processing of my research internship. A huge rise in expenditures as I am applying for PhD and Master’s programs (to tell you the fact, a normal PhD application fee, in case for a US school, can cost between US$75 and US$125). My application for a research trip to Zambia was also rejected for ‘quite unclear reasons’. Anxiety related to finding jobs, especially when I remember the tremendous amount of ‘investment’ already incurred by my family in paying for my tuition, in addition to my own scholarships. There is also a similar anxiety about my younger brother, as he is currently waiting for the news from any universities he has been applying for (including the school I am currently enrolled in).

Returning back to my friend’s ‘birthday’ story, the anxiety is cyclical, this time perhaps with a larger scope in mind. Perhaps I can call it a ‘once-in-a-few-years’ cycle of anxiety. Back in 2009-2010 period, the primary ‘worry’ was about getting selected for a high school scholarship in Singapore. Then in 2012-2013 period, the major anxiety was about me in choosing universities. Now, in 2016, and later in 2017, the major worries will be about which schools my younger brother will be in, whether I will be accepted for PhD or Master’s programs, or whether I end up taking a job. As I am hoping to pursue further studies in the United States, there have been serious discussions with my parents. My mom is more supportive of me than my dad does in this regard; my dad has been truly ‘scared’ by a Donald Trump presidency, half-jokingly and half-not-jokingly.

Perhaps this is the reason I can say why this last winter vacation for me as an undergraduate student feels so different compared to previous vacations. Most of my friends and I didn’t worry too much about looking for jobs, finishing final-year projects, or waiting for confirmation about postgraduate application. All we cared about was simply about having a nice time during vacation. And this is particularly strongly felt for me, personally. I only return to my hometown once in a year as I make every summer in the last three years occupied with research-related jobs or courses. And this time, the vacation feels different; it’s hard for me to describe it, and you will understand that kind of moment of uncertainty when you start to ponder into the future, especially with only one remaining semester left.

That’s why I feel particularly anxious; from 2017 onward, both my younger brother and I will most likely have spent most of our time studying, or working, overseas. All the while he’s applying for scholarships, my parents will still need to continue supporting his education. And with them expected to continue working, there may be even less time for us to frequently interact with each other. It is inevitable, oftentimes, that it takes some sacrifices to achieve something. Obviously, life in 2017 will be vastly different from in this year.

That said, all I can do in the last day of 2016 is to bid farewell to this year, and learn from these experiences. It’s true that some setbacks have occurred, but again, let bygones be bygones. We may choose to be defensive and ‘victimize’ ourselves in the face of these misfortunes and become overly reactionary; indeed, some emotional expression may be quite necessary. But, we can also choose to ‘let go’, learn from our mistakes, and continue to persevere. Again, as I always repeatedly tried to reassure myself, it is not always the ‘years’ themselves that choose the calamities. There may be such cyclical-like patterns, but we may opt not to let them defeat our spirits. Come 2017, the time for another life transition, and as much different – and difficult – it is as the life transition in 2013 was (previously from high school to overseas university education, now from university to either a postgraduate study or employment), that persevering spirit matters a lot. I have still yet to bring ‘the best’ in me and to my family, and that has always been the mantra I stick in to my mind whenever that moment begins to tick into my mindset.

And here is my message for my juniors who are still yet to graduate: if you are in for your winter vacation, enjoy it to the fullest. When it comes to this pre-transition moment, you will begin to deeply appreciate how meaningful every time you spend with your beloved ones is. The current era is vastly different from previous ones, as there are now an almost endless array of high-tech wonders that make our lives easier, but still, none of them can replace the values of direct, face-to-face interaction, especially with close friends and family members. If you agree with me that 2016 sucks, let’s bid it – say the least – an honorable farewell (you don’t have to follow in John Oliver’s way of saying goodbye to 2016). Welcoming 2017, we will expect riddles, mysteries, tragedies, and other unexpected shocks. But, let’s also anticipate any unexpected virtues or moments of ‘luck’, because after all, these are the dual characteristics of our human nature.

Goodbye, 2016. I will promise to keep you updated with future blog posts next year. Happy new year in advance!