Registry of Ph.Ds – how it could be best administered

The establishment of the Registry of Ph.D Holders will have one very clear “side-effect”. It will go a long way in separating the wheat from the chaff but since not all accredited overseas institutions award Ph.Ds, the list of institutions in the Registry may not fully represent all accredited overseas institutions but it does provide at least the first list of institutions where their Ph.D awards are recognised in Malaysia.

Commentary: (April 11, 2017):
On Apirl 03, 2017,  Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Dr. Mary Yap Kain Ching reported that her ministry will roll out a registry of Ph.Ds soon. But this will be confined to Ph.D holders from local institutions. This is a step in the right direction indeed. However one major problem area, those using fake Ph.Ds from foreign institutions or from degree mills are not covered. Based on my own gut feeling, the bulk of the pretenders are in the latter crowd. So this Ph.D registry may only catch the tip of the ice-berg.

I would like, if one of my readers forward my suggestions below to the power that be to tackle the issue still hiding below the ice-berg!

One comment in the above news report that caught my eyes was what Datuk Dr. Mary Yap said, “We all know those who said they finished their PhD within 10 months are fake PhD holders,”

In fact, the good Datuk took 5 years to complete her Ph.D and my learned beautiful and multi-talented friend (from our Doctorate Support Group in Facebook), Dr. Soo Wincci (#drsoowincci) took 6 years to complete hers proved that there is no short cut!

There has been a lot of news for the past few weeks on the need to set up a registry of Ph.D holders in Malaysia. These calls have been brought about by the increasingly serious issue of bogus Ph.Ds and people claiming to have honorary doctorates etc. which was proven to be bogus. I have also made references to this matter in an earlier post and there is a commentary on this issue recently.

In October 2016, the National Council of Professors (NCP) in Malaysia called for the setting up of this registry and hinted that they be given this task by the power that be. However, since not all Ph.D holders are members of this council, and by that, not many Ph.D holders actually are professors (and not all professors in Malaysian universities hold Ph.D or professional doctorates), this body may not be the best representation of the nation’s academic-intellectual power. The NCP further suggested that some charges be levied for the administration of this registry which implies that there may be some monetary gain by the said organisation should they be granted this task.

It was reported that the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) would be working on setting up a Registry of Ph.Ds for Malaysia where all Ph.D holders from local universities (both public and private) would automatically be added to this Registry. It was mentioned that Malaysian Ph. D holders with their doctoral degrees awarded overseas will have to seek verification of their doctorate degrees. So far I have not been able to find the mechanism for such a verification process. Needless to say, this verification process will have to be effective, efficient, fair and transparent. There is also (as mentioned earlier) the need to sort out a cost effective way of administering this Registry.

I think perhaps the following suggestions might be considered by the power that be before deciding on how this Registry is to be administered.

  1. Ownership:
    The MoHE should be the custodian of this Registry which should be “owned” by the Malaysian Government. This will ensure that no parties can gain any financial advantage for owning the data the Registry so contained or make monetary gains for the administration of the Registry. The MoHE’s Registrar General and his/her staff is the right team to handle this since they have ample experience handling the registration of around 500 active private colleges and universities where many of the Ph.D holders are already in the MoHE’s databases. This will make cross checking of data and verifications work more effectively accomplished.
  2. Criteria of admission:
    There must be a clear, but simple to use set of criteria for admission to the Registry. The admission of a Ph. D holder should be done once all the criteria have been met. There should not be any hint of any “approval” step or steps in the process. Anyone with a bone fide Ph.D (that is verifiable) shall be admitted to the Registry. No one should be denied a place in the Registry because of his/her colour, creed, ethnicity, religion or political affiliation. Getting on the Registry should be considered the same as getting on to the electoral roll –  it is a right and not a privilege. Thus the cost of registration should be made as low as possible where I would suggest that the MoHE be granted a yearly budget by the Treasury for the administration of the Registry. We need to stress the fact that not all Ph.Ds are earning big bucks. There are the freshly minted ones who may not have a job or the senior ones who have already retired. Thus the cost to register in this Registry shall not be made a deterrent to those who may not be so financially endowed. RM10 – RM50 should be the the range for the registration fees for  the administration of this Registry.
  3. Transparency & Peers Review:
    The entire process of registration should be fully transparent to give the Ph.D holders and the other stakeholders confidence in the entire system. Perhaps the transparency can be extended to the data held such that each registrant will be having a “page” where her/his expertise, papers published etc. (but not personal details) will be listed. This will serve one further purpose: anyone who have slipped through the filtering process may be “caught” at this stage as the page will be open to anyone on the internet. Peers review is a very powerful tool for the Registry administrator to use. The power that be should take a leave from the career/job/hiring social medium platform, Linkedin where few of the members have (or dared) to put in false credentials as these could be easily “discovered”. Perhaps for more senior Ph.D holders, the need to verify their credentials may not be that stringent as many would have Linkedin profiles where their respective “contacts” would have studied and scrutinized their credentials before accepting them as “contacts”.My Linkedin profile is more credible not because of my own data but the “contacts” that I have who are more established scientists, entrepreneurs etc. than yours truly had verified my credentials and are willing “to be seen” as a part of my network. This philosophy is actually the key success factor of Linkedin. “I am credible because my many contacts have verified my credentials directly by linking with me”. It is not the same as Facebook! Thus the Registry may have features that mirror that of Linkedin to allow senior, established Ph.D holders to help in the verification process in the “Linkedin” way. In fact, I would risk saying that the MoHE should discuss with Linkedin to find a way to maximize the “social verification” features of this platform and the MoHE may be well advised to considering “putting” the Registry on this platform.
  4. Leverage on Foreign Universities:
    All bone fide institutions of higher learning worldwide will want their academic awards be recognized. This should therefore be the key to getting foreign institutions to contribute to the work needed to administer the Registry. However there are key questions that the power that be needs to have answer to, namely:
  • Is there a way to make sure that overseas universities submit themselves to be included in the Registry?
  • Can we make it simple and accept all universities that are accredited in their home countries?
  • Can we make use of the diplomatic missions in Malaysia to be responsible for keeping this list updated for their respective countries?
  • What about those countries without representation in Malaysia? Can we use some international association like The Association of Commonwealth Universities … even the listing for Malaysia is not complete with only 21 institutions (with many Malaysian public universities not listed the organization)…

MoHE can also leverage on the foreign universities to shoulder a big part of the burden in verifying their own graduates’ credentials. It is after all, to the very institution’s advantage to make sure that their graduates are fully recognized. Thus the MoHE could in fact make a “standard” arrangement with the education authorities of each of these nations so that the list of new Ph.D holders (with verifiable details provided) each year (and that of previous years) could be supplied to the MoHE by each interested institution. My son’s alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA even has a website that provides verified details of its graduates principally for the benefits of prospective employers. Thus giving them confidence of the data held at the website and a way to cross check the resume of UNL’s graduates readily. Perhaps MoHE can tap into this sort of databases to make the verification process a lot faster and effective.

The establishment of the Registry of Ph.D Holders will have one very clear “side-effect”. It will go a long way in separating the wheat from the chaff but since not all accredited overseas institutions award Ph.Ds, the list of institutions in the Registry may not fully represent all accredited overseas institutions but it does provide at least the first list of institutions where their Ph.D awards are recognized in Malaysia. What the Registry also need is a “compliant” segment where if anyone’s credential is challenged, there is a fast-track way for the complaint to be studied and verified. There must also be a heavy penalty for the supply of false information by the registrants. Thus I suggested that the Registrar General’s office shall be the best authority to deal with this as there are already some provisions in ACT 555 and related acts of parliament that have penalty clauses which can be used.

When the Registry is ready, I shall be one of the first to want my name to be on it!

Pursuing just a single PhD is tough enough!

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”!

My time at Queen’s University of Belfast

I was contacted by Dr. Gerry Power, an old friend and the man responsible for keeping tab on alumni relations at Queen’s University, my alma mater to contribute to “My Time at Queen’s” in 2015. MT@Qub is in fact a series of visits down memory lane by former students, ‘old and young’. Here I detailed a new chapter of my life’s journey as a university student, one which took me close to 9 years to complete! I am one of the few living individuals who have earned not one but three degrees from Queen’s and this is my story.

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I was contacted by Dr. Gerry Power, an old friend and the man responsible for keeping tab on alumni relations at Queen’s University, my alma mater to contribute to “My Time at Queen’s” a few months back. MT@Qub is in fact a series of visits down memory lane by former students, ‘old and young’.

It took me a few hours to write and edit the original version which is quite long and detailed. An abridged version was published in The Graduate (page 37) in Oct 2015.

Here is the original contribution.

Until I met Clarence Ko (Civil Engineering, Class of 1984) in that fateful day in Dublin around late September 1982, I had not heard of Queen’s University of Belfast (QUB). In fact it was a coincidence that I ended up at Queen’s as I could not afford the high tuition fees of the universities in England and resorted to Plan B: study in University College Dublin. Clarence persuaded me to follow him on a visit to Belfast to try my luck at QUB. I have no regrets and am greatly indebted to Clarence’s kind gesture. As an “Accidental Queen’s Man”, I often wonder why I stayed as a student of QUB for almost 3 times longer than most people and perhaps ending up being one of the few living individuals who have earned three degrees from Queen’s.  I graduated with a Bachelor of Agriculture degree from Queen’s in 1985, followed by a M.Sc in Biotechnology in 1987 and finally a PhD in plant tissue culture in 1990.

Life as an undergraduate in agriculture was tough for me as I had never been near a cow or a sheep until I read agriculture at QUB. My classmates were mainly from farming background and they had an upper hand when it came to understanding what our lecturers were teaching us. I had to content with the many different accents of my classmates but the generosity of some of them helped me cope and I blended in. There were only 3 foreign students (all were Malaysians) in the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Science during my time. Lim Wui Phen (B. Agr, Class of 1984) was my senior and free tutor. I also inherited a lot of books and notes from Lim. Having to be on field trips almost every week visiting different farms gave me a better insight to life in rural Northern Ireland than most Malaysian students would have and these were the occasions that I got to learn at first hand what was covered in class.

In 1983 I was elected as the President of Malaysian Students’ Society of Northern Ireland (MSSNI) more as a compromise candidate (there were two groups  of Malaysians which could not agree on most things and as the ‘outsider’ not allied to either, I won!). I learned about the meaning of democracy truly when we were courted by candidates vying our votes for the post of QUB Student Union President. The low turnout at the Student Union AGM meant that Malaysian students, even if we had only 10 persons attending would be the kingmakers!

As a student who did not come from a farm, I needed to gain some farming experience in order to graduate. I spent the summer of 1984 working at the experimental farm of Agriculture Research Institute of Northern Ireland, Hillsborough. I was the general farm hand and it was the first time I played the role of a sheep dog! Marshalling sheep, as I found out was a very skillful and physically demanding activity, especially for the “sheep dog”. It was during this time that I took the first driving lesson: on a farm tractor!

Organising the annual Merdeka Ball for MSSNI in 1984 took a toll on my studies. I received a sharp warning from my director of studies that if I did not work hard for the final year, I would have problems graduating. That made me worked on a tight regime of studies during my final year. But despite this, all of us living in the self-catered house (I forgot the name, it was the biggest house with the rugby team captain as the sub-warden) took time off studying for our  final examinations in late April to watch Dennis Taylor defeat Steve Davis at World Snooker championship in 1985.

My postgraduate years at Queen’s were very “quiet” as the laboratory work was a lot more taxing than the undergraduate years. Yet I still found time to attend most of the MSSNI’s functions and as one of the “oldest” Malaysians, I was appointed the Chairman for MSSNI’s AGM twice. I came closest to the “troubles” on the eve of my Master’s graduation. After collecting my graduation gown, I took a lift back to the laboratory at Newforge Lane from Sean D’Arcy (PhD, 1987). We were on Sean’s Morris Minor driving on Malone Road when we were diverted by the police. As we were turning onto a side road, a car bomb went off in the next street. Neither Sean and I nor his beloved Morris Minor suffered any damages, but it was shocking nevertheless to be so close to a car bomb!

I think because of my years being a student at Queen’s (and my faculty), the selection committee awarded me the McGeough Bond Studentship / Harold Barbour Scholarship in 1987 for my doctoral studies thinking that I was a “local” student. In the end, my overseas student tuition fees almost bankrupted the trust funds! I had a “guardian angel”, Ms Audrey Griffiths who was the Faculty’s Secretary coming to my rescue when the Dean had an idea of cutting my stipend to pay for the additional tuition fees!

I found a great casual job during the final part of my doctoral studies: I was manning the security desk of one of Queen’s examination halls and earned a good sum during the 1990 May – June examination session. On top of that, I wrote about 70% of the first draft of my PhD thesis while sitting at the security desk helping to invigilate examinations! I could not afford a laptop computer then but bought a Sinclair Z88 computer instead. The now spoilt Z88 is still lying somewhere in my house.

Z88 – an idea of PDA/tablet computer that was 25 years ahead of its time!