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Thirst for knowledge

Published on Thursday, 08 Apr 2010
Simon Shen is head of The Roundtable.
Photo: May Tse

Dr Simon Shen Xuhui is an international relations (IR) scholar who is an associate professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education and an adjunct associate professor at Chinese University. He is founding chancellor of The Roundtable, a think tank that researches policy issues and encourages young people to engage in society. 

Why did you become an academic?

I've always been interested in observing the hidden rules behind socio-political structures, from running a club to organising a society. Also, I want to strike a balance between "traditional intellectuals" who are mainly involved in publishing journal articles and teaching, and "public intellectuals" who help the public understand the academic discourse and its application in daily life. 

What was your career path? 

I obtained a BA and an MA from Yale University and a DPhil from the University of Oxford. I formally started my career when I was a graduate student, as a visiting scholar at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. I was also recruited by the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute for two years. Gradually, I moved on to the current positions. 

Would you say you are a good academic? 

In Hong Kong, a good academic is expected to publish extensively in academic journals, secure research funding, satisfy teaching tasks and engage in publicity and administrative duties for the university. Judging by these criteria, I'm confident in being a good academic. But it isn't easy to focus on researching topics I'm really into without concerning their practicality and implications on my career prospects. So I'm always longing for a sabbatical where I can devote myself to serious research. 

What was the major challenge in your career? 

In hindsight, no challenge was really major. But when you were experiencing it, everything can seem to go wrong. When The Roundtable was set up, we had one part-time staff and it looked as if we would not survive. Thanks to the hard work of my colleagues, who came up with effective funding strategies, we now have 10 staff and new branches have been formed. 

What's your advice for young people who want to be academics? 

Being interested in researching or studying isn't the same as being a professional academic, which is not any different from being an administrator or a businessman. You need the basic skills, such as communication and organisational skills, the ability to handle administrative tasks and do financial budgeting.

Without a sense of mission to bring changes to the society - mine being to make IR research more influential in Hong Kong - being an academic can be frustrating. The pay isn't high, job security is dwindling, and the academic environment in Hong Kong is worse than in the West. But if you enjoy the academic way of life and make use of the flexibilities that the academia grants you, being an academic can be the best job in the world.

Fact file 

  • Founding chancellor of local think tank The Roundtable
  • Director of the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute
  • Visiting fellow of Brookings Institution's Centre for Northeast Asian Policy Studies
  • Adjunct researcher of the Development Research Centre of the State Council, China

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