Pursuing just a single PhD is tough enough!

Posted on: November 2, 2016, by :

The achievements of former beauty queen, singer, actress, producer, successful business woman, Soo Wincci have now debunked the negative notion about beautiful women. Dr. Soo is the first Malaysian beauty queen (dare I say, Malaysian actress/singer too!) who has earned her Doctor of Philosophy in business administration from the Open University Malaysia. Even someone as capable as Soo Wincci took 6 years of part-time studies to complete her doctorate studies. “Earn” is the key word here as those of us who have been through the PhD journey will tell you that you have to have what it takes to earn your PhDs!

Dr. Soo Wincci, the first Malaysian beauty queen, singer, actress to earn her PhD (This image was taken from Dr. Soo Wincci’s Facebook page)
Dr. Soo Wincci, the first Malaysian beauty queen, singer, actress to earn her PhD (This image was taken from Dr. Soo Wincci’s Facebook page)

December 17 this year marks the 26th year of my being conferred a Doctorate degree by my alma mater, the Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Everyone who has completed his/her PhD journey will have a story to tell. Each and every one of us who, I have often jokingly call ourselves, “the permanently head damaged”, has a unique PhD journey.

My full-time PhD journey took me just about three years during which I worked long hours in the laboratory or in the greenhouse. My PhD journey was shorter than many because my Master’s degree required me to embark on a one year research project where I had horned in many of the basic skills required of a PhD students and my scholarship would only support me for 36 months! My PhD journey is a “typical” of all who are lucky to have secured scholarships / sponsorships to make the journey as full-time researchers. The first six months of my PhD journey was one for soul-searching. I read copiously, made plenty of notes (it was in the late 1980s… we had no internet and the PC was a luxury that all research students and staff had to share) and tried my best to figure out what I should be doing for my PhD. In my case, I was helped greatly by some of my former lecturers and I was lucky to have my main objective very clearly: to find a way to clone Narcissus (daffodils) bulbs using plant tissue culture technology. A travelling scholarship from the British Royal Society which partially financed a one-week study visit allowed me to learn from experts in bulb science in the Netherlands. Dr. Piet van der Linde (of the Flower Bulb Research Institute at Lisse) selflessly taught me the key laboratory technique to obtain healthy and microbial-contaminants-free cultures. I thought then my work could be easily mapped out.

How wrong I was! For over 18 months after the visit (i.e 2 years into my PhD studies), I was not progressing well and I could not make the cloning process produce sufficient number of cultures. Even if I could do the magic in cloning masses of shoots, the end products required were bulbs. I was in great distress to say the least and at times my PhD degree seemed like a pipedream. Then, I happened to “mistreat” some of my cultures on a gloomy wintry Friday night in late 1989 mainly due to frustration. I did not know then that this “mistreatment” (I was brutal in the way I chopped the culture down) was the first turning point of my PhD journey. I had another turning point shortly after which allowed me to “make” bulbs out of shoots. The end of the tunnel was insight by early 1990 and I completed my work (actually was “barred” from the laboratory by my supervisors so that I could concentrate on writing my thesis) within 6 months and was awarded my PhD in December 1990.

The “brand new” Dr. Chow Yong Neng on December 17, 1990 with his late mother, Mdam Wan Sim Then and late father Mr. Chow Kong Yong by his sides, taken on the lawn behind the Lanyon Building, Queen’s University of Belfast.
The “brand new” Dr. Chow Yong Neng on December 17, 1990 with his late mother, Mdm Wan Sim Then and late father Mr. Chow Kong Yong by his sides, taken on the lawn behind the Lanyon Building, Queen’s University of Belfast.

I happen to belong to  a closed Facebook group, “Doctorate Support Group” which I think Dr. Soo is also a member. This is a mutual support group of those pursuing doctoral studies as well as some “oldies” like yours truly whose main aims for being in the Group are to (a) give moral support to fellow PhD aspirants (b) to receive and provide information on research, jobs, learning etc. All those who belong to this Group, especially those who have completed their PhD journeys have at least 3 things in common:
(a) being through “hell” is inadequate to describe the kind of hardships that all have been through;  (b) everyone has been through a period of soul searching, self-doubt and in severe cases, depression during the course of this PhD journey; and (c) everyone has to sacrifice some sort of family or personal life in order to pursue her/his PhD dream.

Having a PhD does not show that you are smarter than those without these 3 little letters behind your name. Instead it shows that the PhD holder has the kind of tenacity, the ability to apply knowledge and skills to work on a complicated problem, and to communicate her/his new found knowledge in an effective manner. Each and every one of us who has been awarded a PhD has one thing in common regardless of our fields of studies, be it social sciences, engineering, computer science, physical, chemical or biological sciences, we all have created a new piece of knowledge for the betterment of mankind. It is this new piece of knowledge that ultimately earned us our PhDs! By “permanently head damaged” it means that all who been through the tough process of working on their PhDs would have successfully endured the challenges, which at times created great nightmares, anxieties, sense of helplessness, dejection etc. which may affect the PhD students’ psychological well-being to the extent that some “damage” could result. I can assure my readers that (and I hope that other PhDs agree with me) all these “damages” are worth every single effort that we had to put in and all these “damages” are transient in nature!

I have met my fair share of “pretenders” –  those who hold dubious or fake PhDs. In most cases, those of us who have actually earned our PhDs like Dr. Soo just did would have little difficulties in figuring out the “dubiousness” of these so-called PhDs by asking 3 – 4 simple questions relating to these people’s PhD journeys. You cannot earn your PhD because of your “life experiences”, this is especially so if one is very young. There is no shortcut.

In 2003, when I first met Professor William Purcell (then of University of Newcastle, Australia and now the Deputy Vice Chancellor of University Technology Sydney) and mentioned to him about an individual who was an active Chinese educationist having laid claim to not one but three doctoral degrees. To this, Professor Bill Purcell’s response was a classic, “What’s wrong with the first one?”

I can understand someone with lots of determination, time and resources, after earning a PhD in one field (say engineering, or biological science) could then went on to study up to doctoral level in another different field such as management. These sort of people are very rare indeed as we can see from Dr. Soo’s example, it would take someone with a job and not working on the doctoral studies full time, around 6 years to complete their doctoral studies. Incidentally there is at the time of writing of this article (Nov 02, 2016) a Hong Kong TVB drama series where a very attractive actress was playing a boffin with not one, two but eight PhDs… we all know that in reality this is not possible!

Honorary doctorate degrees are another kettle of fish. These are awards often given out to people in recognition of their having made great contributions to society, to the community or to the awarding university. People holding honorary doctorates are, by tradition not supposed to call themselves “Doctor” but rather they should put their titles in parenthesis i.e. (Dr). It is very rare for an “average” person to be honoured with even one honorary doctorate as one might imagine the magnitude of contributions to society etc. that this person must have made to warrant the said honorary doctorate. Thus I read with great amusement (the story was picked up by the mainstream and online press) about a sort of “marketing whiz kid” cum motivational speaker who claimed to have not one but three honorary doctorates. These claims were resoundingly refuted by the institutions in which this gentleman claimed to have given him such awards. The tell-tale sign of this person’s dubiousness was the fact that he insisted on addressing himself as “Dr” XXX! No honorary doctorate degree holder worth her/his salt will want to show his/her ignorance by calling himself/herself “Dr So & so”!

To those who are working tirelessly on their PhD studies, do take Dr. Soo as a role model and do get yourselves into the closed “Doctorate Support Group” where people like me (the oldies) and some “youngster” (I dare say Dr. Soo and a whole cohort of recent fellow “permanently head damaged” people ) will be there to cheer you on. To those who aspire to come on board, do not wait. You do not need to be a genius to pursue your PhD studies, but what you do need to have is a strong will to succeed. Pursuing your PhD studies is a tough job but as the saying goes, “when the going gets tough, the tough gets going”!

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