October 7th, 2011
That’s Hong Kong U, you see in the picture, at least the part where old meets new, or the colony of Great Britain meets the new China. I visited the campus and the thriving city it is nestled in for the first time a few weeks ago. I was fortunate enough to be part of a Strategic Leaders Global Summit, a gathering of about 35 deans and senior admin types from a dozen countries. Four deans from Canada were invited, and so how could I possibly not attend? The event was organized by the Washington-based Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and Hong Kong U. This was the 5th Summit, and my first participating in it. Every year another university somewhere in the world co-hosts the event with CGS. It started out as a modest proposal and has now turned into a high-level gathering, a benchmark of global cooperation and a model of best collaborative practice.
Yes, the trip was fantastic and I am still dreaming about the spectacularly yummy food, but it was definitely a working session. We all had to submit papers well in advance of the Summit, and these were in turn circulated so that we could all discuss and question each other about the topic at hand.
What do 12 nations have in common? We all turned our attention to “Career Outcomes for Graduate Students: Tracking and Building Pathways,” the Summit theme. Consider who was represented: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Hungary, India, South Africa, South Korea, United States. It is always interesting to acknowledge some of the glaring differences between us—from chopsticks to forks, from developed to developing economies, from communism to capitalism–but it is way more reassuring to note the greater amount of similarities. With the possible exception of France, none of us is even remotely good at tracking career outcomes for our graduate students. Exit surveys really don’t cut it, since what we all require is a longitudinal study some five-ten years following the completion of graduate programs. What are our students doing by then? How many jobs will they have had in the decade following graduation?
The academic market seems no better or looser in any of the countries mentioned above. Almost every higher ed institution on the planet is dealing with the retirement situation—that is, too many faculty hanging around past their shelf dates, taking up space, salaries, and all necessary resources, thereby inhibiting new hires. PhDs are currently entering the academy at about the rate of 30-35%. We need to know where the other 65-70% are working, what they are making, if they are happy, and how they are contributing to society at large. So much of what we do know is anecdotal. How do we get departments and programs to track more rigorously? I will be asking this question of our own units here very shortly at our annual graduate officer information session.
Tracking is a key challenge.
One of the commonly shared observations at the Summit was the need to change the mindset of current faculty, especially supervisors who simply must stop labeling their own students as losers if they do not get academic jobs. Further, we all agreed that we really need to build professional pathway conversations directly into our programs, and not assume that students will somehow pick up the necessary information along the way to getting their degrees. We exchanged some creative ways of doing this, by providing workshops, bringing in successful workplace PhDs, and so on.
By the end of the Summit we had drafted a set of principles with the aim of cementing our consensus and ultimately circulating the message far and wide to senior administrators and graduate programs everywhere. These are currently being formatted and I will make sure to post them once they harden into final form.
Naturally, I returned from the Summit a bit jet lagged, but also well stimulated by the rapidly developed camaraderie, the opportunity to meet so many smart and charming leaders of graduate programs, and the chance to do a little exploring of the gorgeously bustling city of Hong Kong itself. Anyone who has been there knows immediately what I liked about it. Urban planning is obviously at the top of the game. Hong Kong is and is not like the rest of the China, not yet, anyway. Some nine plus million people inhabit a set of islands comprising the city, and one navigates back and forth between them by every conceivable method of transportation. The subway, the bridges, boats, buses, and streetcars are clean, efficient, and amazingly cheap. The famously wide open Victoria Harbour is ringed with magnificently designed hi rises, almost all of which display a pyrotechnical LED display every evening. The ferry that shuttles you from one island to the other usually stops at 8pm nightly mid way in the South China Sea to allow travelers to gawk at the emerging lightshow as the sun goes down. I don’t think I have ever witnessed such a ritual celebration of urban life as this.
Of course, for a Canadian it doesn’t hurt to walk through the incredibly hot and heavy air of a Hong Kong evening in October, the skies thick with moisture. That’s why they call the climate tropical. I suppose it would make you a bit claustrophobic after a while, but for a visitor the soft winds felt like silk and the thick air was delicious to amble through.
I’ll be back.