A research mentor should also guide a candidate towards becoming an independent researcher.

THE drive towards a high-income, knowledge-based economy requires Malaysia to ramp up its human capital development in many high technology fields. Increasing human capital in high-technology fields necessitate an increase in the number of postgraduates being trained at the Master’s (MSc) and Doctorate (PhD) levels. This has in fact been in progress, and among the supporting efforts that have been implemented are the scholarship schemes under the MyBrain programme. The Higher Education Ministry has also been driving universities towards more high quality and internationally competitive research.

In general, expert human capital in science and technology fields would mean personnel holding advanced degrees that are usually earned via research activities. This route to earning a degree differs from the method usually employed for bachelor’s degree. Research degree, as the name suggests, require that the candidates undertake a research project in fulfilment or as a partial requirement towards earning their qualifications. The research is usually carried out under the supervision of a faculty member, and is usually a project that the supervising academic has a vested interest in.

Academic staff of universities usually have a component of their job scope allocated for research activities. For research universities, a big chunk of the academic’s time is spent on activities related to research that include writing grant proposals to apply for funding and the associated reports, publishing (research articles in journals, books and other papers), supervising research staff (who are mainly post-graduate students) and, of course, doing their own hands-on research. Because of this system, many academics will, therefore, have their own research programmes and interests.

I am certain that there are many out there who may be contemplating continuing their studies at the post-graduate level. The question that, perhaps, first comes to mind is in what area of research should one go into at the MSc and PhD levels, and how should one choose the research adviser. Despite what the title of this article may have implied, there is no clear one-size-fits-all answer to those questions.

There are many factors that may dictate what area of research to go into. For students who have scholarships, there are times when the sponsors will determine what area of research that the scholarship holder is to venture into. These are determined generally by the needs of the sponsoring organisation. Another factor to consider is whether the area of research is of interest personally and something that the candidate can grow to be passionate about, especially if it was not the original area of interest. This may seem like a trivial concern, but one must keep in mind that a research candidate, especially those undertaking PhDs will be spending at least three years, and for some, the better part of half a decade of their lives doing the research, on a daily basis, at time the problems in the lab even manages to make its way back home.

For me, having passion about the research means that the research is not a burden, be it intellectually, emotionally or physically. Not being a burden does not mean that the work is not hard or challenging or even physically and mentally exhausting. Instead, it means that you have the drive to solve that problem or find the answers to a particular question, either out of curiosity or an almost innate desire to get things done. To have such passion and for the work to not be a burden means that the research becomes second nature — it becomes a part of your lifestyle in the same way daily activities like eating, drinking and sleeping are.

Once the research subject has been decided, the next step is to find the right research adviser to guide one through the whole experience. One method of finding the “right” supervisor to fit your research interests is simply to look for one based on publication records. Perhaps, the easiest way of doing this, is by searching for the subject of interest on Google Scholar. Then, from the list of papers in the search results, identify potential advisers to contact and make enquiries. The last name in the list of authors for a research paper is usually the senior or corresponding author, and thus, the individual who had led the research. The first names would usually be that of graduate students, followed by those of collaborators. For many disciplines, multiple authors in a research paper is common practice due to the collaborative, resource intensive and complex multidisciplinary nature of modern research.

Because the intention of a PhD is to do good research, the postgraduate supervisor must, therefore, be a good scientist or researcher. Although publications is one way to gauge this factor, there are also many academics who may ultimately make excellent advisers but are still at the early stages of their careers with less established publication records. So, another way is to look at university websites. Find those who list their research interests that overlap your intended research area, make contact and request further discussions.

Another consideration in choosing a supervisor is whether he is well-funded for research. Having a well-funded research group implies that the academic may also be a good scientist. Well-funded labs also mean that they are able to pay a stipend or salary to post-graduate students (as research assistants) and should be able to sustain the research without resource problems or disruptions.

The ability of the research supervisor as a mentor is, perhaps, of equal importance to his capabilities as a researcher. This is where the difference of undergraduate level studies and post-graduate studies are clear. A research mentor’s role extends to much more than just supervising a project from start to completion. It should also involve guiding the candidate towards becoming an independent researcher —one who will one day be able to formulate good questions and solve them in various settings, ranging from an academic research environment to industrial research labs.

A good mentor spends a significant amount of time imparting the philosophy of research, discussing science and advising the candidate on various aspects of research communication, such as developing writing skills, reviewing and critiquing other research, designing experiments in addition to providing the leeway for students to learn from mistakes and, of course, also providing general career guidance. In order for this to proceed smoothly, the candidate and supervisor must be a good fit. The supervisor is not there to crack the whip, checking on work attendance and gauging how hard a student is working. The adviser’s role is to provide scientific inspiration and motivation. Should that be done right, the student will have the necessary internal self-motivation and drive to complete their studies.

I have often heard remarks that you have not really done a PhD until you’ve shed some tears of despair or until you’ve reached a point that supervisors and students hate each other and are only getting things done to reach the completion of the degree. If that were the case, then the supervisor has at some point failed in ensuring a conducive environment — one that should have been intellectually stimulating, instilled with a sense of purpose and perhaps, even a fun place to be at.

As I had forewarned, I can present the factors of how one can go about selecting a supervisor, but it is the compatibility between the mentor and mentee that will ultimately lead to the success of the PhD. Different individuals may have different factors that make them compatible. I can only reiterate the advice I was given by a few colleagues and mentors prior to setting out on my PhD: “Have fun, it will be some of the most enjoyable moments of your career.”

It was an advice that worked well for me. I felt that my PhD was indeed an enjoyable and rewarding time.

The writer is a bioinformatician and molecular biologist with the Faculty of Science and Technology and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Systems Biology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Email him at education@nst.com.my

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