Wednesday, September 7, 2011

[thoughts] [prustrations] Catch-22?

Peyups -- i.e. UP. UP naming mahal. (The UP that we love.) There is an on-going internal effort there to help "UP to regain its role as a top university in the Asia-Pacific region." Take note the word "regain." Here are my thoughts on the matter.

First, if I'm not mistaken, I think it is research output that gets schools to the top of lists of top schools such as the one mentioned. Likewise, I think that research output is measured by, say, number of scholarly articles published - i.e. journal papers, but maybe also including published books and conference papers, and so on. I am not sure if number of published works is enough measure, or should it be number of cited works. In any case, research I think is priority. Whenever I read journal articles, nowadays, I notice there's a lot of output from Chinese. There's no surprise then that 6 out of the top 10 universities in Asia for 2011 are universities in China.

Second, to carry out research, funding is necessary. You can imagine how much money China has and so this is why they are able to carry out plenty of research. But additionally, sufficiently capable research people are necessary. For example, some people might be willing researchers but unfortunately have too much teaching or administrative load, and almost no time for research. Some people might be available to do research, but they do not have funding to carry out the research. Or, there might not be enough capable research supervisors. For example, it used to take 5 years for people to finish their master's degree in civil engineering (with a thesis), because of a lack of advisors, or of the availability thereof. So, most people choose to just take the non-thesis route, which they can finish in 2.5 to 3 years; i.e. no research output! But just so you know, I've met plenty of people in research - they're not great. But they get work done. They get output done. Not all of the output are groundbreaking. But there is output. Quantity is necessary. There goes one problem: many Filipinos think that for research to be worthwhile is that it has to be groundbreaking. Nothing could be more wrong!

And so I think one very unfortunate thing happening in the Philippines is that research work is becoming more and more expected to be voluntary, and hence low priority. It should not be the case. It should be treated as work and it should be treated as a priority for some people to help get research moving forward. For example, I used to work in a private engineering consulting firm in the Philippines, where research is (supposedly) valued. I was one of the people there recognized to be capable of doing research work. But for the long duration of time I was with them, I never did any amount of research work, mainly because I was busy with doing non-research-related, income-generating projects. When I had to attend a scientific/academic conference, it was difficult to justify reimbursing the costs of attendance including my days off (I had to deduct from my vacation leaves). If research was indeed a priority, I should not have been assigned to those projects, and I should have been made to do research, or at least primarily to do research. Then again, there was also the thinking that we Filipinos are the work horses; that it is the job of other nationalities to carry out the research.

Therein lies another problem. Research is viewed, at least in industry in the Philippines but becoming more and more so I believe in the academe today, as non-income generating, hence another reason why it is not top priority. As opposed to teaching or school administrative work (i.e. students pay tuition) or other work (i.e. engineering projects in the case of an engineering consulting firm), research can only possibly increase future income, and so there is uncertainty and it only has an indirect effect on income. If I were, say, an associate professor in a university, I could not devote time to research work most specially when there is no funding or any significant additional income for me; I would rather just take additional teaching load (i.e. additional income), or take consulting work outside of school. I saw this by the way, in one university where I once taught, where the teachers take as much as 30 units (i.e. 30 hours a week) of teaching load! They were becoming expert teachers, and not necessarily experts in the field they were teaching and not doing any research on.

So in summary, I think we need more research output, and for that we need sufficient research funding, and sufficiently capable people to carry out that work. Then we should carefully identify who will receive and use these grants and so on, so that these are not put to waste. There should be targets associated with each research grant; i.e. at least one published journal paper a year or so, and so on, so that we are sure there is output, which is the most important. And lastly, as I said, it doesn't matter which field. We should do research in all fields of study in UP. It doesn't have to be only in robotics or computers or physics or chemistry and so on; it can be in literature, or language, or civil engineering, or in any other field where people generally think there's no more research that can be done. What really matters is quantity of research output. All these will quietly put UP back up to the top, in due time.

I think this is the only long-term solution. 

I did think of another "solution," though: Brainwash students so that indeed they will recognize that after getting very good quality and yet very low cost education from UP, they should serve in the country or better yet, in UP, after graduation. Personally I think this will not ever work. It's a lose-lose situation.

Anyway. From now I will start to sound like I have an ulterior motive in all this, and it maybe so. But anyway, I will tell you now my story.

I first became interested in this "wind engineering" field which is not so well known in the Philippines. One day, I decided I would like to pursue a PhD in wind engineering, and hopefully carry out research in that same field in the future because it is very relevant in the Philippine setting. While a course in wind engineering itself is not offered, there are probably one or two people in the country who are familiar with the topic. In fact, my master's thesis in UP was related to wind engineering. Now, I needed to decide where to take my PhD. I could technically go for the new PhD programme in civil engineering in UP, but considering my experience during my master's (took me 5 years to complete), I thought it might take me 7 years to finish it there. Plus, generally speaking, the expertise is not really available in the Philippines. So I looked to pursuing my PhD here in Japan, where I should be able to obtain my degree in 3 years. Plus, I get exposed to a plethora of different top experts in the field, my current PhD supervisor included. Anyway, so here I am now in Japan, halfway through my PhD study.

After my PhD, of course I am already planning what is my next move. I have these options:
1. work in an engineering consulting firm in the Philippines
2. work in UP as maybe assistant professor and/or researcher
3. work in an engineering consulting firm outside the Philippines
4. work in a university outside the Philippines maybe as an assistant professor and/or researcher

If you ask me, if money was not an issue, my first choice is #2. My second choice would be #1 or #4. Basically, if money was not an issue, my priority is to do research work in the Philippines. If I can't do research work, I don't mind as long as I'm in the Philippines. If I can do research work, I won't mind if I'm not in the Philippines. 

But then, to tell you the truth, money is an important priority. Maybe it's being exposed to all those well-off people while studying in UP? I want to be in their position! I guess there's another solution: Let UP be only for those who truly cannot afford. So that money and wealth does not creep in to UP students' ambitions. I doubt how any of this can happen, though. That's not how it works either in other countries' state universities that are in the list of top universities in the world.

Anyway, while doing #1 prior to coming to Japan for my PhD, I was not doing bad in terms of income and benefits, but for my personal goals, it still was not enough. It would take me years before I can marry my then-girlfriend, to buy my own car, and to buy a decent home. Is the problem in me? I don't think so. And I needed to do #1 because doing #2 is even worse, financially.

Actually, my other reason for pursuing PhD in Japan is also money. Here, from my allowance as part of the scholarship I got, I am able to save the same amount of money I earn while doing #1 in the Philippines! I'm doing what I really like to do - research work - and I'm getting paid for it.

So actually, for my next move, I am more inclined to look for #3 or #4; i.e. outside the Philippines. I want first to earn enough money to be able to buy my own sufficiently-sized house and lot in Metro Manila and to have enough to invest in a business, and then I will come back and teach and do research work in UP or any other school in the Philippines. Of course, #3 could get me there faster than #4, but you know, all else considered, I prefer #4. I would only take the #3 route if I can't find any #4 opportunities, which is a little scarce these days.

So I guess, in that sense, it's not UP, it's the country. But we need good people from UP to lift the country from the mess it has been in for the past few decades. So I guess in that sense, it's a Catch-22

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. I have so far received three reactions to this blog article. One felt compelled to share the link to all ~5000 of his contacts. One said she couldn't agree more to all points. A third one said she doesn't believe "there's no way out," and that there is always a way, there is always a solution and that she would think of one. The last eventually saw one opportunity, a marketing research contest for students which she suggested we join so as to put UP back on the map, so to speak. Just to clarify...

    I meant it as a Catch-22 but only if things stay the same and nothing radically changes. Someone or a group of people have got to start to light a fire, and then that flame has to be nurtured so that it keeps burning. Otherwise, we can win contests such as these but we can never make even the Top 100 universities in Asia in lists such as in

    Nothing wrong with winning in contests and what not - but those are just small battles in a long-term, uphill "war" we are in. The good thing is, I have seen some good initiatives toward the right path from those in UP during the past few years. And this very evident desire, from yourself as well as from others, for the same goals as most of us here is likewise a good thing. But as I said, all these efforts have to be sustained, and UP and whoever else is doing something about this can only do so much. Administration changes and all other external factors should not actually factor in at all. Everyone should have an eye for the same prize. It's up to all our individual efforts now but basically if there are more of us doing his or her own little best for UP or for the country, then yes, there is a way.

    Anyway, the "it's a Catch-22" sentence that capped off my blog article was meant as a challenge. Who else is willing to keep the fire burning? To muscle his/her way out of the hole and pull all others inside out? As individuals, what are we doing to make UP regain its foothold on the top spots, at least in Asia?