徘徊於理性與現實的曠野裏, 生存於東方與西方的交界麵。

My postgraduate experience

(2005-05-23 14:37:24) 下一個

In early 1982, as a postgraduate preparing to go overseas, I spent a few months in Beijing Language Institute (BLI) to undertake further training in English. The facility there was much better than I had in my undergraduate college. I was even provided a personal tape recorder, which was imported from Romania. This machine was somewhat unsophisticated, as it did not have an auto-stop function. Whenever you forgot to turn off at the end of tape, its motor would keep turning and make ear-hurting noises via your ear-plugs. Indeed, there were numerous times, when I would wake up with a non-stopping, buzzing sound in my ears, due to my falling to sleep during the previous night while listening to an English conversation.


In addition to Chinese students having English training, there were also foreigners in BLI attending Chinese classes. We would try to find students of English-speaking countries to practice English, many of whom preferred to speak Chinese with us, unfortunately.


As part of the training program, BLI organized touring trips to the Great Wall, and Ming Tombs for us, which were truly mind-opening. In addition, we also visited other important sceneries (eg, Forbidden City, Beihai and Jingshan parks, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace and Yuanmingyuan) in Beijing during weekends.


After English training in BLI, we returned to our host universities, and started applying for overseas universities, which included writing and typing application letters and getting references from local professors. As we did not have typewriters ourselves, we would go the departmental offices to get assistance from professional typists. And sometimes I would buy icecream bars for them as a token of thanks. During my many visits there, I realized something was happening between myself and one of these typists. Every time I went to ask this girl to type my letters, she would make frequent typing mistakes. I would say that if my presence here interfered her work, I would rather disappear. Her answer was a definite “no interference at all” (more on this in future episode).


Since we had scholarships ourselves, there was no trouble for us to find a prospective university overseas. In fact, having applied for three universities in Australia, I was accepted by all of them. In the end, I decided to go to the university that was quickest in making the offer. Then we were off to buy clothes and other items with an allowance of 820 yuans. We each orderd a suit from Hongdu store, and got a few new shirts and shoes.


In early 1983, eight of us boarded on a plane to Hongkong, where we were in transit for a few hours before catching the next flight to Australia. As a short stay in Hongkong was expected, we were each provided HK$80 as expenses. Apart from a quick snack, I bought a radio-tape recorder for HK$35, which I thought was a real bargain.


As our flight went pass the equator, the temperature increased steadily. By the time we reached Sydney, we were on one piece of shirt only. The Chinese consulate staff there picked us up at airport, and we had a Chinese-style lunch in the consulate. In the afternoon, some existing Chinese students helped us find a private accommodation, as many of us were required to undertake a 3-to-6 month English course there, to familiarize with Australian accent.


The place we rented was a three-storey building belonging to an old couple, who probably migrated to Australia from Eastern Europe many years earlier. Naturally, they spoke English with a heavy accent, but we seemed to have no trouble in understanding them. As landlords, they did the maintenance such as cutting the lawns and washing the pavement themselves. Sometimes we noticed that the hot-water system was not working and had to take colder showers instead. So we asked the landlords what was happening, and they told us that the hot-water switch was down the basement. Apparently, they turned it off to save heating bills, which were part of their responsibilities.


Once we got to know the place a little better in a few weeks, we decided to look for another place to rent. This time, two of us found a room in a family home, whose owner came originally from Lebanon. This place was actually very close to a famous red-light district (Kingscross) in Sydney. Sometimes, when we returned from our English classes, we would encounter some street girls nearby. A street girl would ask where we are going? and we’d say going home. She would then say why don’t you visit my place? When we answered no, we have not time, she would curse us bad luck.


Attending English classes in Sydney was a relatively relaxed affair. We had a quite open-minded teacher who did a PhD in English language. She would answer whatever questions we had or dared to raise. We considered her a very smart person, and she would say you have not met a truly smart person –her husband- yet. She said she adored her husband so much that she would do anything for him, whenever and wherever.


In my English class, there were also three students from Mexico. As I told them my interest in learning Spanish, they recorded a Spanish conversation tape for me. One of these Mexican students was tall and big, we would often jokingly ask him how my hot-blooded friend is doing? Had he had any rosy encounters recently? 


While still in Sydney, the department of my prospective university came to see me and another Chinese guy who was thinking to attend this university too. The department head took us to a famous seaside restaurant near Double Bay for a marvelous seafood lunch, with fresh oysters, prawns, potato fries and salads. While we found fresh oysters tasting so-so, and had a couple of pieces only, the department head no doubt loved it very much. In the end, he told the other guy that the department had no vacancy for his subject of interest. So this guy went to another university.


The most memorable event during my stay in Sydney was when the then Premier Zhao Zhiyang happened to visit Australia in early 1983. We Chinese students went to the consulate in Sydney and listened to Premier Zhao’s talk and his answers to our questions.


With the completion of my English class, I flied to my destination city. This time, someone from an Australian government agency picked me up from the airport, and then my department head brought me to the student dormitory. A new chapter of my life began.


Initially, I was enrolled in a master’s program. During the first three months, my supervisor asked me to read research papers on a particular parasite, and prepare a review afterwards. Fortunately, writing essays had not bee a problem for me. I duly handed in my review, which my supervisor thought was not bad. Then, he suggested me to work with a research associate in her project. For this project, my supervisor acquired a certain parasite from outside expert. While the RA did not notice anything unusual, I found the parasite belonging to a different species based on the morphological features described in the textbooks. My supervisor had a careful look himself and concurred with me. Not long after, my supervisor talked with me about an interesting project for my PhD.


The project indeed turned out to be “too interesting” for me. The main purpose of my PhD project was to develop some new reagents for diagnosing a parasite. As my supervisor had no practical experience on the techniques for producing these reagents, I had to learn the necessary skills to set up and run the facility. Not surprisingly, my first couple of years was not very productive, as I had to resolve many unforeseen problems along the way. By the third year, I managed to generate quite a few new reagents, but none of these was considered ideal by my supervisor.


Somehow, he was a little disheartened by my progress and asked me if I was willing to write up the results for a master’s degree instead. I said to my supervisor that I came here to do a PhD, and I still had one year left. I would use the remaining twelve months to have a last try. If I could not get what we were seeking, I would not regret going home without a Master's degree. My supervisor relented, and the rest was history. Trying by hook or crook, I somehow obtained the much anticipated results and got my PhD. My supervisor was no doubt impressed by my self confidence and determination.


Speaking of PhD thesis examination, In Australia, you would require two external examiners who are recognized experts in the field to pass the thesis. There is no need to give seminar prior to graduation as long as the thesis is passed by the examiners. Sometimes, if two examiners differ on their assessment of the thesis, a third examiner will be called upon. If two of these three examiners think it is ok, the thesis is passed. As Australian PhD graduates spent nearly all four years on bench work except for doing some tutoring work related to the major, they are generally pretty good at getting work done and trouble-shooting .


The students themselves can also play a role in selecting his external thesis examiners. I remember when I was doing my PhD study, I got to know two professors from Europe through an international meeting. And later I chose one of these professors as examiner for my PhD thesis, who was proven to be very helpful in passing my thesis. Obviously, you do not select some one who is critical of your work to be your thesis examiner.


Talking about this issue, I could tell you an interesting story. There was a guy doing a PhD in one university in Australia. This guy was quite active, but the trouble was that he somehow got involved with his supervisor's wife. His supervisor was furious. So, when his thesis was submitted, his supervisor selected two examiners who were in totally different school of thoughts from his own (or enemies in academic sense). The result was predictable, and this poor guy failed to get his PhD thesis passed.


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