Saturday, June 27, 2009

Strong wings, deep roots?

MORE than one in five of the top students from the 1996-1999 A level graduating cohorts are not working in Singapore today. And of those from the same batches who went on to universities overseas without a scholarship bond, more than one in three are today carving out careers outside the country.

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong gave these statistics on Saturday to illustrate the urgency of getting young Singaporeans to sink roots here even as they become more entrepreneurial and break out into the global economy.

'If more and more of our bright students do not return, this begs the question whether our success in giving them wings to fly far and high will result in our eventual decline as a nation, especially as we are not even reproducing ourselves.

'No nation will be able to sustain its growth and prosperity without sufficient talent, much less a small country like Singapore without natural resources,' said Mr Goh.

He was speaking to more than 1,000 guests at the 70th anniversary dinner of Chung Cheng High School last night. He urged schools to help students retain their emotional bonds to Singapore, 'so that they think of Singapore as the home which nurtured them, and want to contribute in some ways to the country of their birth'.

To do this, he suggested that schools inculcate in the young certain values, such as being appreciative of those who help them advance in life; and not taking for granted the academic, sports and arts programmes they can enjoy here and abroad, when many children elsewhere cannot.

Mr Goh hoped that the end result of such teaching would be students who have strong links with their schools, close ties with their friends and a strong sense of responsibility to their families - even if they choose to live, work and even settle down overseas.

Switching to Mandarin, Mr Goh said: 'I hope Chung Cheng and our schools will give two lasting bequests to our children. One is strong wings; the other, deep roots.

'Like wild geese that migrate each fall, young Singaporeans should be equipped with the courage, strength and adaptability to venture to distant lands in search of opportunities. But when spring returns, they will come back, as this is their home.'

Indeed, Mr Goh further argued in English, helping young Singaporeans stay rooted here was the most important challenge facing the Education Ministry. This is because the number of young Singaporeans working overseas will grow, given that the education system is producing more and more students equipped with the right skills to go global. - Goh Chin Lian, Straits Times, 28 June 2009

Goh Chok Tong is at it again. These guys at the top still have yet to get it, haven't they? To digress a little, it is nice to see my batch being one of the highlighted ones. LOL.

In addition to the numerous comments posted elsewhere on this issue, I have another one for the Men-in-White. Tell your underlings in the Civil Service/TLCs there has been a mis-communication between the top and middle management levels.

Some overseas Singaporeans are invited to apply for positions back home. Apparently one has to apply at that particular time 'cos the head honchos who are on the campus visit team will be collecting the resumes personally and then passing them on to their HR staffs for priority processing. If you apply outside of this particular time window, your resume goes to a black hole and nobody knows anything about the status of your application.

Meanwhile, the persons in question get offers from the overseas companies/universities which offer much, much better opportunities for their personal growth and career development (even in the current difficult economic conditions).

I can already provide a few real-life examples - Google vs. NUS; Microsoft vs. NUS/A-star; UC-Berkeley vs. NUS/A-star. (A-star in these cases refers to their RIs)

Talent appreciation? Phui! Go on, continue bringing in your planeloads of Indians and PRCs; most of whom see Singapore anyway as a stepping stone to the West and I daresay not exactly 'foreign talents'.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Choosing a Graduate School/Postdoc Advisor

A friend of mine, M., went to see his graduate faculty adviser regarding the search for a postdoc position. Like many of his fellow competitive overachievers coming out of that group, he wanted to go on to an equally 'hot' lab and suggested several possible names to his adviser.

A few names on the list were immediately crossed out. Not because they are doing bad science, but rather they are well known to be lousy mentors. The adviser then listed out two well-known examples (in chemistry) of how choosing the wrong type of adviser (no matter how eminent in the field he/she is) can potentially lead to devastating consequences - Hellinga at Duke and E.J. Corey of Harvard.

And we should know better. Last fall, one of our classmates hanged himself. His death was a shock to everyone in the department ("shock" is an understatement), and his adviser later sent out an email to the department graduate student body:

Dear Graduate Students,

You have already received the sad news regarding the death of our colleague and friend C. I was informed last night, and this morning the department chair informed the graduate students, staff, and faculty.

I wanted to follow up further with you, since many of you have expressed your kind sympathies and concern in this regard.

This tragedy occurred at C’s home most likely over the weekend but was only discovered yesterday. I will let you know any additional information if his family feels it appropriate to do so.

As you may be aware, C was doing well in our group. He successfully defended his PhD proposal last year and became a PhD Candidate. He had just returned from the [subfield] symposium in Michigan, and was getting ready to present his latest results at the [national conference] in November. This tragedy therefore cuts short a promising career.

We should all keep C and his family in our thoughts and prayers. I will be in touch with C’s family after I receive information from the Dean of Students. We shall inform you of memorial services, as well as how we may express condolences to his family. We are already planning to do so both as a department and through my research group.


C got his BS from MIT, and like Jason Altom, he was "bright, outgoing, likably confident, intellectually mature, and with an inner reserve of self-reliance that is indispensable to any researcher working on the cutting edge." Another friend A. who was in the same group as C but who has since graduated and now a postdoc elsewhere recalled crying almost every week in her first two years and feeling depressed after the group meetings. Apparently getting called 'stupid', 'idiot' and screamed at during such meetings was to be expected.

...And the fundamental inequality in power between an adviser and a student requires responsibility and even psychological astuteness on both sides. The graduate student is agreeing to be pushed to his intellectual and physical limits by someone he barely knows.

A paragraph in the NYT piece puts it so succinctly:

Graduate study in the sciences, however, is a very unsentimental education. It requires the intellectual evolution from undergrad who can ace tests of textbook knowledge to original thinker who can initiate and execute research about which the textbooks have yet to be written. What is less often acknowledged is that this intense education involves an equally arduous psychological transition, almost a second rebellious adolescence. The passage from callow, eager-to-please first-year student in awe of an often-famous faculty adviser to confident, independent-minded researcher willing to challenge, and sometimes defy, a mentor is a requisite part of the journey.