Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Quality of Postgraduates

Kian Ming wrote on the additional grants to our four of our leading universities to promote research, development and postgraduate studies as well as the implications of more postgraduates at Universiti Malaya (UM). It has obviously stirred some interest (I can only say that many of you are actually related to the academia in one way or another), so I thought I'll add my two sen here, particularly with regards to some comments made on the post.

I'd just like to comment on the quality of the postgraduate students who has made applications to positions within my company. My recruitment advertisements are usually for fresh graduates, but I do receive the occasional postgraduates applying for the positions. They do not however, receive any preferential treatment over the typical fresh graduates. Before I proceed with my two sen, I do want to emphasize that my experience is pretty much anecdotal and I've not done a thorough study which will prove or "rubbish" the findings :)

I find the quality of the local postgraduate programmes extremely unreliable. I'm not familiar with the local postgraduate quality control and entry requirements, but the impression I get is that they are either absent or very low. When I review the results obtained by the postgraduates, there usually is a huge disparity between the results obtained from the Masters and their undergraduate studies.

As an example, I will get a candidate who received a CGPA of 2.6 for their undergraduate studies, receiving a score of 3.7 a year later for their Masters. And I get these cases pretty often. I find the disparity in results just unbelievable. It almost appears as if, the Masters programmes are tailored specifically for students who did poorly for the undergraduate programmes to achieve a better score for themselves!

Hence my concern with the idea that the local research universities seek to substantially increase their future postgraduate intakes. I'm not familiar with the entry mechanisms and criteria for postgraduate studies, but I certainly think that they need to be set much higher than it is at the moment. Maybe Kian Ming can share his application process to Duke, and that can be compared against the typical application process to a local institution.

Certainly it will be a self-defeating policy of increasing research and development funds but then throwing them to a larger number of unqualified candidates. And these are the very candidates who may decide to remain in the academia to teach and pursue their PhDs.

18 comments:

chenchow said...

Thanks Tony for bringing up this issue on the quality of post-graduate qualities.

It is quite surprising for me to see the trend that you manage to see, i.e. CGPA increases significantly when a student goes from undergraduate to graduate studies. Could it be that these people show greater improvement towards the course of their studies? Do they do poorly in their first two years of undergrads, and then they buck up? Do you think their grades in post-graduate studies measure to their academic results.

Do those students that go for master's studies matured students, i.e. those who have graduated and then worked for a few years, before continuing their graduate studies? or they go straight to graduate studies immediately upon graduation.

Do they often resit courses, that they fail to do well? May be further questions or surveys could help us reveal what is the grading curve in these IPTAs?

Or could it be only those who managed to do well in their Master's CGPA apply to Tony's company?

Tony, what is your personal observation of these students? As in how do they fare in interview? If you happen to hire some of them, how is their performance compared to those with bachelor's degree?

I know that my post is full of questions, rather than answers, but I guess with what I know, I can't offer any answer to this topic, so I just pose some questions to get fellow educationmalaysia blog readers to share their thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Hmm....that's a very interesting trend. I always thought that the higher the level ,the harder to score but the instance you gave proofed me wrong. In that case i think i can go for PhD program now ;D

Tony P said...

That's a pretty long list of questions, Chen Chow! :)

Here are some answers:

Could it be that these people show greater improvement towards the course of their studies?

Unlikely. I can understand 1 or 2 students making it. But the number of such studnets which I receive don't back that up. Also, I also look at SPM/STPM results, and most of the time, they are quite consistent with their undergrad CGPAs.

Do you think their grades in post-graduate studies measure to their academic results.

My best guess is, the syllabus for postgrads are poorly worked out and the quality control weak. Hence it's significantly easier to score in local postgrads.

Do those students that go for master's studies matured students, i.e. those who have graduated and then worked for a few years, before continuing their graduate studies? or they go straight to graduate studies immediately upon graduation.

These are candidates who pursued postgrad after graduation.

Tony, what is your personal observation of these students? As in how do they fare in interview? If you happen to hire some of them, how is their performance compared to those with bachelor's degree?

I've not interview any of the candidates with skewed results like the above. As mentioned, the postgrad certification is irrelevant in my shortlisting process. If a postgrad gets shortlisted, it's purely because of his or her undergrad and secondary school performance and I've hired some of these. Their postgrad studies make good discussion during interviews, but they play little role in their selection. If hired however, they do get a little bit more than a typical fresh grad, for their efforts. :)

Tony

michelle said...

Hi Tony,
just quick question, are those 3.7 CGPA master degree students belong to course-work based or research based? As far as i know, research-based students do not get any CGPA but just ABCDE grading. And do you expect any difference between the course-work based and research-based students?

nerd said...

I think it's a bit unfair to prejudge a candidate with a master degree based on the previous CGPA he/she obtained in bachelor degree. We should have understood that when you further your studies in postgraduate level, you go on to take more specific subjects and courses that may or may not relate to other parts to the whole syllabus in bachelor level. For example, a medical specialist in orthopedics may not understand fully how the gynaecology affects the women health. In other example, an undergraduate majors in Computer Science may not comprehend how the electronic circuitry works in order to well, produce a program? That's where a master or Phd comes in handy. They have the specific knowledge that bachelor degree holders don't have. Moreover, their research skill and experience will probably help in a project handling.

Besides, since the master level study spans between 1-2 years, the students tend to focus on a few subjects and thus, become more adept in them. In bachelor level, the students need to juggle between related and non-related subjects and then taking final exams, which mostly need only good memory to regurgitate them back in order to get good grades. But in reality, applications of the concepts will do.

Finally, do you guys still remember what'd been studied in your SPM/O Level sciences and history? :)

chenchow said...

Thanks Tony for your prompt and detailed replies. It answers quite a bit of my questions.

Some other thoughts surface in my mind. If a technology company like yours are focused mainly on students with bachelor's degree, and I know that my current consultancy firm does quite similar like what you are doing (not much advantage given to those with postgrad degrees, perhaps a little extra for the efforts), I am just wondering whether our country would have an oversupply of PhD/Master degree holders, if the efforts to produce a lot of them is taken. Would our industry appreciates such graduates, or a lot of these graduates are going to be left demotivated, and eventually the younger batches would gradually lose interest to pursue post-graduate studies.

Of course, many of such post-grad students would have greater tendency towards research, especially if they are taking research-based Master. With that, it would be the companies/agencies/universities that are doing more R&D, would appreciate them. Is this the case in Malaysia? Do we have enough demand for such graduates? Would our companies/agencies/unis be willing to pay premium for such graduates? Do such graduates deliver more added value compared to an undergraduates?

I would like to ask the same question as nerd asks. Are they mainly doing course-based master's or research-based master's? And I agree with nerd's explanation on perhaps some students might be more focused on certain subjects.

Taking the example from Cornell. A lot of those Americans do not really do well in their first two years of studies, especially, those more theoretical based courses and fundamental courses like Maths and Sciences. Some of them do get Bs and Cs, but when it comes to take courses in the field of their interest, they excel in it. Some are just programming geeks, who do well purely on programming courses. Of course, we can argue that all-rounders would be better, but if we were to analyse Malaysians who get into Ivy League universities over the past few years, there are many who don't score straight A1s in SPM. In fact, some don't even score straight As in SPM (up to having a few Bs). So, is our SPM a good measure?

I would also relate a personal experience on results. I majored in electrical and computer engineering, yet my interest is not in it at all. Luckily, Cornell allowed me a lot of chances to take courses outside of my field of studies. 70-80% of my courses in Cornell were not from engineering. And for every semester, my best grade in electrical and computer engineering-related courses was worse than my worst grade in non-ECE courses, particular those business related courses. And many of those non-ECE courses are at graduate school levels (M.Sc. as well as MBA), whereas my ECE courses are at undergrad level.

Just my two cents.

YT Kuah said...

well, this one anecdotal retelling should not produce generalizations carried as far as what the above have commented. As I read it, it is for a specific company in a specific industry, probably just for an entry level position? (Because I find it hard to believe that only undergraduate would be considered for say, an intermediate developer/analyst).

Therefore, just because some postgraduates have some problems with impressing an employer, this does not carry forward to saying we should not increase university postgraduate intakes.

I leave with a final note that, usually, students who go straight on to post-graduate studies are perceived as those who want to research, not look for jobs in the industry....

YT Kuah said...

*undergraduate qualifications*

sorry.

Anonymous said...

Maybe there's something that we need to take note of here. Tony is hiring "fresh graduates". Therefore, I presume that those that applies are those without working experiences. Which only means they went straight into postgrad after undergrad. So we can't really conclude that all local postgrads are not of good quality. It could be that those of better quality would not bother applying for jobs that are meant for fresh graduates.

Nevertheless, the question of the CGPA is still very much left unanswered. Personally for myself, I do my postgrad in private college on a part time basis and despite having some work experiences I still feel that postgrad is much much tougher than my undergrad days where I had no trouble getting through them easily.

Tony, do you have any applicants with postgrad from private colleges instead? How are they? Maybe you can shed some lights on this.

coleong said...

I am totally agree with chenchow in the previous post about quality of potgrad.

The postgraduate education provide training for student to be a critical analyst and thinker. The concept is totally different from undergrad where most of the work is to "learn" the knowledge. In postgrad training, learning is only part of the equation. Indeed the major part of postgrad training to about analysis, problem solving and management. It's a multidisciplinary and yet a very focus training.

Also, unlike undergrad where most of the courses are rather irrelevant (i.e tamadun Islam and etc). Postgrad training are very focus. I'm that surprise that there is a huge discrepancy between the undergrad results and postgrad results. The sam also apply to SPM or STPM. One could score a straight A in STPM but it doesn;t prove that they are the best people to hire. In my experience, it's the personality and the attitude of the workers that accounts for their job achievement.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting data point. I think michelle's question is key: coursework-based masters degrees are not so different from undergrad, though one would expect the courses to be a bit more difficult.

Assuming that the answer is coursework, then it seems that there is an unacceptable level of grade-inflation.

Tony, is there any difference between universities/courses? Are there unis/courses that are particularly problematic? How large is your sample size?

I suppose this leads to the question of whether the proposed increase in post-grad students is in fact a proposed increase in research students, or just more students taking an extra year of coursework.

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

There is some validity to the idea of there is a substantial amount of post-grad students who are very low quality. I have met several post-grad workers and the impression I get is they don't even know their basic undergraduate courses.

The increase in number of post-graduate program is in reality a continuation of quantity vs. quality. Since a thorough examination of the program will never be conducted, the administrators are hoping that by increasing numbers they get anecdotal evidence of improvement in program i.e. just pump a lot of numbers through the program and hope that a few good ones come out of it and say things are working.

Its no different that the NEP, by pumping huge numbers through their programs that produce a few successful businessmen and professionals and they say the program is working. They just need more time.

There used to be a popular saying among Singaporean leaders that they only need a few good men in Singapore to succeed. It was true for while actually given that the low productivity of the economy is dependent on resources (mainly money and import of technology) but a couple of years back LKY himself says that the a country economy depend on BOTH the education of the elite as well as average education level of the people.

Can Malaysia still use the elitist model of development? Its possible but its risky and riskier than others. This is because Malaysia have a feudalistic government that is not much good in self-renewal and furthermore have no depth for self-renewal. The bumiputera elite group is very very thin. In addition, the tendency to self-protect the elite rather than force them to compete will NOT improve productivity to flow through. The only mitigating cicumstance is the vast resources we still have whether its cheap money, land and a large pliant productive minority.

No, its not likely the quantiy vs. quality measure will work. Its putting the cart before the horse. Its akin to try and turnaround a company by NOT firing anyone. You need to restructure first before you expand and that means quality BEFORE quantity and not EVEN quantity AND quality at the same time. Its just don't work.

Kian Ming said...

One possible explanation for the disparity in CGPA is that some of these Masters courses are research based and hence more likely to have been graded subjectively. (Assuming that they do give out CGPA scores for research based Masters courses)

It's very difficult to come up with a good Masters program and syllabus but it's made even more difficult by the fact by less than 30% of the faculty in public universities have PhDs.

My suspicion is that some of these Masters students (especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences) apply to do their Masters to 'protect' themselves from the hardship of the private sector for another year and perhaps because they were offered a scholarship to do their Masters.

There has got to be some quality control in regards to who actually gets to do a Masters. I'm not sure what the requirements are in the public universities but I do know of a few good students who have done their Masters in local universities with the intention of teaching in these unis.

As for my personal experience, my application to do an MPhil in Economics in Cambridge was conditioned on me obtaining a 1st class Honors at LSE, which I did.

With the push for more Masters and PhD students, I'm afraid that quality will be sacrificed in favor of quantity.

cockle hunter said...

TP,
Why not you email the Dean of Faculty of Computer Science UM and ask him for his comments? Write an "open letter" so that it would become public forum

What u said regarding the " unbelievable jump " in CGPA from undergraduate to post graduate is true.

The issue of Computer science teaching has been blogged with huge response in Lim kitsiang blog recently

Casper said...

I can see chen chow has been very active in this thread and I agree with the point that he raised. It is highly possible that a student does well durign specialisation simply because he/she is interested in what he/she specialises.

I had 10As from SPM and yet nearly failed one or two subjects from the uni - those that I had zero interest in.
(I did manage to get my 2nd upper by choosing subjects that I want to do in final year).

Einstein did not do particular well in his secondary and first degree, so I think he would have failed Tony recruitnment process :-)

There is always a risk hiring someone, and most of the time, there are too many applications too. So, I suppose Tony needs a mechanism to shortlist, and using degree/secondary results as a yardstick is a rather imperfect, but reasonable method of selection.

Anonymous said...

most graduate programs require the student to retain a minimum CGPA of 3.0 to remain in the program. But then again, this requirement differs from program to program, as the quality of these programs differ.

jerng said...

Check out this article. It is about China, but hey, it addresses almost exactly the same problems that Malaysia is facing. Yah, you have to register :(

pesky said...

I just got my MSc (by research) recently and will continue my PhD. So all this talk about research funding is really close to my heart. ;-)

I probably do not have enough political/historical/academic/economic/social insight to read more into the announcement about extra funding for the 4 universities mentioned, apart from what have been mentioned in thi blog :-S However after reading the comments here, I have one question:

How are coursework postgraduate programs positioned in a research-based university?

I am really genuinely curious and not trying to trivialise ANY of the blogs and comments posted here! I would really like to understand more about all these so that I can explain what I do clearly when I get asked "research... do you, like, blow up things in labs?" or "what do you mean you don't have to attend any more classes for your MSc/PhD?"