Saturday, March 11, 2006

A PhD at 21?

This story in the Star inspired as well as made me a little depressed.

"Chan Yaoban, 21, who graduated with a PhD in Mathematics and Statistics yesterday, is the youngest student to be conferred a doctorate since the university began awarding the postgraduate degree in 1948."

I was just entering college when I was 21. I'm now 30 and am only in my 2nd year of my PhD program. When I graduate (fingers crossed) in 2009 I'll be almost 34. Where did I go wrong?

But seriously, Yaoban's achievement is pretty remarkable. Not only because he managed to get his PhD at such a young age but what he's doing with his brains and knowledge.

"Chan continues to work at the university as a post-doctoral fellow on a joint project with the Australian National University to develop a statistical method to identify protein anomalies in the brain, with a view to diagnose schizophrenia and bipolar disorder."

The article didn't mention his current citizenship status but it's likely that he's either a New Zealand or Australian citizen. I'd be certainly interested if his parents kept his Malaysian citizenship for him and applied for an NZ or Aussie PR. And if I were an enterprising VC in one of the local varsities, I'd try to recruit him to work back home in Malaysia.

His story is very similar to the story of Dr. Chua Choong Tze, currently teaching at the Singapore Management University (SMU) which was highlighted in an earlier blog by Tony. I managed to find this old Straits Times article on Dr. Chua and I thought that I'd reproduce it in its entirety because it highlights a few salient points.

Just 23 and an assistant professor at SMU (Straits Times, July 20th, 2003)

"AT A time when most fresh graduates are pounding the streets looking for jobs, one 23-year-old man has a six-figure paycheck waiting for him. Dr Chua Choong Tze, who finished his studies in May, will start teaching at the Singapore Management University (SMU) next month.He will be an assistant professor of finance and the youngest assistant professor in Singapore.While his boss, SMU provost Tan Chin Tiong, would not say exactly how much the university is paying him, he let on that, on average, a person with Dr Chua's credentials can earn at least US$100,000 (S$177,200) at any good American university for a nine-month contract.And he added: 'We are out there recruiting top people, we are paying top United States university salaries.'Dr Chua, who has a doctorate in statistics from the prestigious Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, is something of a whiz kid.He was the first person in his department to complete his bachelors, masters and PhD degrees in five years. Most students take five years just to complete their doctorate.He comes with glowing credentials from his professors, including his Wharton adviser, Dr Dean Foster who said a member of the US National Academy of Sciences had said Dr Chua's five year schedule was only reasonable for 'the greatest statisticians'.For his doctoral thesis, Dr Chua created a new interest rate model that attempts to give more accurate forecasts of interest rate movements.Prof Tan said: 'Dr Chua's age doesn't come into the picture. A top PhD in finance is a rare commodity.'His credentials are impeccable. And big-name professors have written very strong recommendations for him.'Dr Chua, a Malaysian, has long had his heart set on Singapore. His wife, elder brother, who is an accountant, and friends all live here.He studied at Raffles Institution and Raffles Junior College on an Asean scholarship - an Education Ministry scholarship that brings the best brains in the region here.The younger son of tax officers, Dr Chua graduated with first class honours in economics in two years.He doubled his workload and completed his basic degree in half the usual time to save money. It was the height of the Asian financial crisis then, and his parents could 'hardly afford a US education'.He started working on his PhD in his third year.He said of his doctoral classes: 'It was scary at times. Sometimes, I had no idea what was going on in class. I basically had to catch up myself.'And unlike most PhD students, he started on his dissertation while attending doctoral classes.He wanted to finish his PhD fast, to come home to his Singaporean fiancee - now his wife - a 23-year-old civil servant he met at Wharton.As a PhD candidate, Dr Chua also had to spend time teaching other students.Still, he found time for romance, hanging out with friends and at least seven hours of sleep a day. Holidays were spent travelling to Europe and around the US.'There's enough time to do all these things. You just don't waste time doing stupid things like chatting on ICQ or surfing the Web for no reason,' said Dr Chua. 'I'm very focused.'This articulate young man will stand in front of hundreds of students around his age, teaching them all about corporate finance.'I think my age is an advantage as we are from the same generation, and it's easier to build a stronger rapport.'Teaching is about engaging students and making things relevant,' he said.Dr Chua will also concentrate on his research work, which includes improving his interest rate model.And he wants to do more.He said: 'I'm interested in youth development... I want to make a difference, cliched as it sounds.'"

A few points to note.
1) SMU went all out to recruit him including offering him a generous financial package
2) Singapore had a head start on recruiting him because he was formerly an ASEAN scholar at RI and RJC (both Tony and myself are alumnus of both schools) and his wife, brother and friends are all in Singapore
3) He wants to make a difference over and beyond his immediate field of expertise. (He's on the board of management of a charity called Youth Challenge in Singapore)

I'm really happy for Malaysians like Dr. Chan Yao ban and Dr. Chua Choong Tze. They've obvsiouly harnessed their intellectual and have reaped the rewards early in life. But more importantly, they seem to want to put their intellect to serve the larger community. I wish them all the best. My only slight peeve is that they are not directly serving the community in their homeland of Malaysia.


Anonymous said...

".. And if I were an enterprising VC in one of the local varsities, I'd try to recruit him to work back home in Malaysia..."

Don't mention it, intellectuals are not appreciated in local varsities. The PHD attitude would push every talented people away..
(PHD= perasaan hasad dengki).

Besides, what financial package could local varsities offer?

And what facilities (hardwares and softwares) do we have to offer?

Last but not least, the factor of critical mass. Can Dr Chan find the like-minded colleagues to
pursue what he is researching right now?

There is such a proverb, "indah khabar dari rupa"..

Prove me wrong!

Sincerity begins at home and from the heart..

Anonymous said...

well..what can I say more..

why should we serve those people who never appreciate our talents, unwilling to pay, create all sorts of paper works and nuisance (nonsense rules) that hamper our progress..

Imagine, a foregin spouse to a Malaysian professional are not given a PR status even after 5 years of staying in Malaysia..

Imagine countless to-and-fro trips to imigration office!

Our Down South neighbour, it takes 3 months..

and top of that, they create
class ceiling for us..

we only live young once. Spare us with all the nonsense..

Wake up! MSC with E flagships! What a laughing stock!

I would say, it's K-age with agarian administration..

Ya..what can we construe with 5-year wait, only one interpretation

"sitting on decision, and waiting for kick b----".

As usual.

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely"

Anonymous said...

Tony, do not begrudge them who are justly reaping the fruit of their hard labour and paying back a debt to the hand which fed them. It is very difficult to continue to love your motherland who does not love you in return.

Golf Afflicted said...

Err... umm... Daniel,

Note that the post was written by Kian Ming. :)

But in any event, I think its more than fair for me to say that neither KM or myself ever "begrudges" anybody who chose not to return to motherland :)

Read my post on "A Frightened Malaysian Abroad" more more context of my opinions.

There is nothing wrong with those who choose to stay overseas. As highlighted in my earlier post, even my best mate and the best man for my wedding has sown roots in Singapore - I definitely don't "begrudge" him for that.

However, that doesn't make it such that KM and myself should not try to encourage more to return and contribute to the country, or as per the post by KM above, give our opinions to the powers that be, on what we should do as a country to attract the talented home.

There is nothing wrong with having different philosophies in life and taking the route that best fit those philosophies. Both KM and myself just have that silly and naive thing in us that says that it's up to "us" really, to make this country a better place for our fellow countrymen :)

Anonymous said...

Malaysia exports oil, palm oil, tin, rubber, textiles, electronic goods, furnitures, ....., and multilingual HUMAN TALENTS.

Anonymous said...

"Malaysia exports oil, palm oil, tin, rubber, textiles, electronic goods, furnitures, ....., and multilingual HUMAN TALENTS"

Cool, and i am absolutely agreed with you, MR ANON. We will see what happenned to this year's SPM and STPM graduates :) Should be quite a good "sandiwara" to watch :D

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you are depressed after reading other people's achievements. Go get yourself a life.

And seriously, I believe life is more than just Raffles, completing a PhD within an extraordinary short period of time, Oxford or Harvard.

Dr. Chua completed his PhD in 4 years with a reason: to save money especially at the height of the Asian Financial Crisis. And that is understandable. I believe that with the PhD in 4 years, he is also forgoing some of the college experience that many would define that as part of a university education. So, I would still suggest people to take on the conventional way, i.e. study for a Bachelor's in 4 years because you will develop better in my opinion.

Note that I am not in anyway putting down Dr. Chua. I am absolutely impressed with his accomplishments at Wharton. But then again, I see no point in rushing a degree so that you can belong to that "spectrum" of people, just like being part of the Raffles family.

clk said...

With due respect to the super-achievers here, I also do believe education is not a 100m sprint but a life-long marathon race.

What is achieved is not just a piece of paper but the thought process that goes through the brains allowing us to digest, comprehend, apply and use it in our daily lifes that matters. The use and application may not be direct, it can also be in-direct like a mathematician using his analytical skills in saying evaluating a purchase for an automobile or analysing a business proposal for example.

Anonymous said...

I find it very difficult to believe that this kind of success can be achieved solely by "rushing the degree". You cannot hot-house this kind of talent.

To clk:
With all due respect, I do not believe that your implicit assumption that Dr Chan did the "100m sprint" version of "education" gives him the credit he deserves. It does not say anywhere that he has finished learning now that he has gotten his "piece of paper", nor did it say that he was only doing it for the "piece of paper", and I have looked! I found a site which has links to 4 news articles on him:

(The links are at the bottom of the page). All of them seem to agree that this kind of talent is not restricted by degrees and the like. Evidently this is the case, because according to the article his sister is a musical genius!

Nonetheless, I totally agree with your general point, which is that learning never stops! :)

Tay said...

I congratulate the young genius but I would like to point you that PhD is not only to produce a dissertation but it is more on that.

For mathematics.. its okay..

But for my area which science and technology based ( the study of virus), it takes years and years of research..

May Ooi said...

Most important u must able to contribute to mankind..and be a kind , humble, good at heart person.

One friend got his Masters, it got to his head...( I leave to your imagination..)