The writer recently graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Hons) from NUS.
To gain tenure, survive and perhaps even thrive in Singapore’s universities, a professor typically has to publish papers, consistently and preferably in top-tiered journals. It will be even better if their research is cited by peers working in the same field. Such pressures to generate research are in line with international standards and have often been described as the Publish Or Perish phenomenon. Either publish journal articles or lose the coveted university position.
The implications of not publishing enough or in sufficiently well-regarded journals can be severe for a university professor heading an entire lab. Funding may be scaled down or withdrawn, disrupting the progress of current research. In extreme cases – though not uncommon – the relevant labs may be shut down and resumes become irrevocably stained. This reality, while harsh, is not unreasonable or unexpected.
It is in these environments that all Honours undergraduates from NUS’s Faculty of Science are expected to learn how to conduct research. Now, research work can be intensive, interesting and fulfilling. But, like a moon with one lighted face and another shadowed side, undergraduate research can be an ugly experience too. So much depends on the faculty member whom one works under.
The fact is that not all professors are glad to take undergraduates under their wing. Some grudgingly offer support, if any, since students are supposed to be only concerned with grades; there are not many reasons to waste too much resources on them. Some demand publishable results. Some view undergraduates as a large pool of free labour, dangling grades as incentives – “you better work your ass-off” – and as threats too – “or you know what you’ll get”. Some expect students to return every workday, even during the December break. One even explicitly requires his lab students to turn up for research even on Saturdays.
The quality of support offered can vary wildly, with very loving professors on one end and disempowering advisors on another. Undergraduates trapped unhappily in particular laboratories, slaving under certain professors, may find that they are like repressed workers from all over the world. Should they speak up, risk jeopardizing their working relationships, perhaps even further deteriorating the quality of advice they receive? If they maintain silence, are they complicit in their own debasement?
There is value in learning how to conduct research in a systemic manner. There are people who love researching – procuring chemicals, altering them before probing for interactions that the naked eye cannot see. There are also people who would prefer industrial attachments or taking more advanced theoretical studies.
The compulsory lab research projects for all final year Science undergraduates come across as an act of shoehorning individuals. What is there to be gained from forcing unwilling students on unwilling professors? To produce publishable results so that the Faculty can be ranked highly? Why don’t other NUS Faculties have this same rule and why can’t the Faculty of Science take a leaf – or many leaves – from their books?
Indeed, what are the alternatives? Other faculties, like NUS Business School and Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, allow their undergraduate to complete their Honours requirements by taking more challenging modules. Many schools, including NTU’s School of Biological Sciences, allow students to fulfill their academic requirements through industrial internship programs. Other universities, such as UK’s Imperial College, require literature surveys of the current scientific scene from their final year Honours undergraduates. Having alternative routes to fulfilling Honours requirements enables undergraduates – after all, they’re around one-fifth-of-a-century old – to make decisions that best reflect their strengths and interests.
As the Faculty of Science’s orientation program regularly and triumphantly reassures, most Science students do not go into the research field. They may enter related fields – sales of spectrometers or quality control, for example – or somewhat related fields – teaching in both public and private schools – or even non-related fields – such as banking and human resource. There is really no need to thrust all final year students into laboratories where the guidance they receive may have wildly fluctuating standards.