Career Advice Job Market Trend Report

Brain drain versus job gains

As a leading institution providing scientific education, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) collaborates with mainland universities and research facilities to offer valuable learning opportunities for Hong Kong students to broaden their knowledge and experience.

Henry Wong, professor of chemistry, pro-vice chancellor and vice-president at CUHK, says partnership and exchange agreements with the mainland, Taiwan and institutions in other countries, play a fundamental role in advancing scientific knowledge.

"It is not only the different approach of carrying out research that benefits students. Their ability to work as part of a team and appreciate cultural differences is also developed," Wong says.

For instance, the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment project, which aims to discover more about these elementary particles, involves more than 200 scientists from 39 international institutes, including CUHK [Editor: See accompanying story "CUHK glows with global research role"].

Wong says this collaboration is just one example and such joint efforts cover diverse scientific disciplines, from oncology and agrobiotechnology to synthetic chemistry and phytochemistry. CUHK has 27 partnerships with mainland and Taiwanese groups, with more in the pipeline.

Students can spend from a few weeks to more than a month and summer holidays, carrying out research in other universities. Meanwhile, students from China, Taiwan and other universities, including Cambridge in Britain, can join CUHK research projects.

Wong says while the university's science students excel in their studies, employment opportunities in Hong Kong remain limited, particularly for chemistry graduates. For example, with the exception of jobs with companies based in the Hong Kong Science Park, chemistry students may have to look to the mainland or overseas for career opportunities. He says the thriving Shanghai and Beijing pharmaceutical and materials science sectors provide a rich source of jobs for qualified chemists and researchers.

"More than 10 of my Hong Kong former chemistry students hold good positions with Shanghai companies," says Wong.

To create awareness of the importance of science, CUHK has developed a summer programme that allows five to 10 secondary school students to carry out research with professors, doctorate and undergraduate students.

Students can apply individually or through their teachers.

"Because science, such as chemistry, plays an integral part in everyday life, we would like to increase public appreciation and interest in science," says Wong.

Each year, CUHK takes in about 65 chemistry students from a list that is oversubscribed.

"Our programmes are well recognised and attract top students," says Wong.

He hopes the 2011 International Year of Chemistry will highlight the achievements of chemistry and its contributions to the development and well-being of mankind.

In addition to research and teaching as a career, Wong says a science degree could be a stepping stone to a wide range of career options. For instance, scientific training in logical and creative thinking can be applied to developing environmental solutions, computer science or analysis.

Wong says that as science education continues its own evolution - with physics, biology and chemistry becoming interdisciplinary subjects - new career opportunities are created. "Scientific education can be looked at as a broad-based platform to launch a career in engineering to becoming an economic analyst," says Wong.

He adds that for those who stay in the chemistry field, there is the prospect of becoming involved in research to find replacements for antibiotics that are no longer effective. Material science is also becoming a hot topic, which can involve discovering and creating new types of materials using scientific understanding of how they are put together. 

Despite CUHK's contribution to scientific education and development, Corinna Lee, assistant director of personnel at the university, says attracting and retaining top-calibre faculty remains a challenge.

"Compared with many other places, Hong Kong spends very little [of its gross domestic product] on research, which can be a challenge when recruiting for senior positions," she says. "We need to hire top people so we can lead in specific areas of research."

According to CUHK, Hong Kong spends 0.79 per cent of its GDP on research, compared with about 2 per cent in Singapore.