By CHOO HOOI PENG
UNLIKE many bright graduates who opt for a career in engineering, law or medicine, Dr Chua Kok Hua’s ambition was to be an educator.
“I have never wanted to be anything else but a lecturer,” says the soft-spoken man who received a scholarship from the Public Services Department to do his Bachelor of Engineering at the University of Glasgow in Britain and was then sponsored by the University of Dublin to read his Master's and PhD in engineering at the Irish university.
For his postgraduate studies, Chua chose to specialise in water and waste water engineering. In 1996, he completed his PhD. Homesick by then, he returned to Malaysia where he applied to universities and private colleges for a lecturing position.
Chua recalls: “I read that there was a shortage of lecturers because many new universities and colleges were coming up, and they all offered engineering courses.”
While awaiting a reply, he worked at an engineering firm, a temporary post as “I never, ever had any intention to be an engineer. It was my dream to be a lecturer.” Chua was soon hired by a college to teach first year Bachelor of Engineering students.
He laughs when he recalls the first time he set an exam for his students.
“I was very worried. The night before I dreamed that all my students couldn't answer my paper. I was that uncertain if they had understood what I had been teaching them the last four months. And now, they (the students) have graduated.”
He stayed with the college for four and a half years before moving to Universiti Tenaga Nasional (Uniten) in Kajang, Selangor, where he is a senior lecturer in the College of Engineering.
Clearly, Chua loves his job. “I like interacting with students. I enjoy that part very much. I enjoy sharing what I know, and it's very fulfilling to see the students grow, from 18- or 19-year-olds to working adults who are successful in their careers.”
Engineering lessons aside, Chua also makes it a point to introduce his students to the fine arts, taking them on group trips to concerts or dramas. “I want to them to be all-rounders.”
What does a lecturer do?
Other than teach, a lecturer also doubles as an academic adviser by having student consultations. During consultation, students come to you if they have a problem understanding a particular subject. Occasionally, they might have a personal problem, so we must listen, talk to them and advise them accordingly.
A lecturer also does research and consultancy. Depending on the lecturer, the ratio may vary but it's usually about 60% lecturing and 40% research and consultancy.
What kind of qualifications are required?
The minimum is a Master's in the subject to be allowed to teach a Bachelor degree programme. It's better to have a PhD. The idea is that you're always a step higher than what you're teaching, so if you have a Master's, you can teach a Bachelor's programme, and if you have a Bachelor's, you can teach a Diploma course.
In some courses, since it's always good to have contact with the industry, if you have a professional engineering qualification, for example IR, you're allowed to teach designed subjects or a Bachelor's degree.
As an engineering lecturer, you can definitely handle (teach) the basic engineering subjects, but for the higher level (more specialised) courses, you have to have studied it.
Besides paper qualification, I must emphasise that one should also know how to teach in order to be an effective lecturer. After all, you may know the subject very well but may not know how to present the idea or lesson. Most of us (lecturers) don't undergo a proper course in teaching methodology. Not everyone has the instinctive ability to convey ideas to students that well. Lecturers who have that ability can teach better.
What kind of personality best suits this profession?
You need to be a giving person, someone who can share. Remember, at the end of the day, your students will graduate and eventually earn more than you do. After all, a lecturer definitely earns less than an engineer.
If you're selfish or someone who is envious of others, that defeats the purpose of being a lecturer.
However, if you have a heart for sharing, all the other qualities essential in a lecturer will come: patience, willingness to share and to guide, and being happy with another person's success.
In addition , you must have the knowledge - you must know your stuff – and you have to be approachable.
Describe a typical day at work.
I come to the office around 8am or 8.30am, check my e-mail, and then prepare for my lectures. For every hour of lecture, you need at least three to four hours' preparation. Things like lesson plans, teaching materials, etc. require time and planning.
The lectures can be in the morning or afternoon and usually, after lectures, you will normally have students coming in for consultation.
In the afternoon, you may be required to go to the (engineering) lab. After that comes marking of assignments and grading, which can cover an hour or more.
Research means stuff like reading, Internet surfing for materials or discussion with the final year project students. And you only do research when you have a free day or when you're not lecturing or doing all those lecturing-related duties.
Lecture hours range from nine to 15/16 contact hours a week in a private institution. It's different from public universities because they will have tutors, so they may need only six to nine contact hours. In private institutions, depending on the departments, lecturers may conduct their own tutorials.
What is the best part of your job?
A room to yourself, interacting with students, seeing how students appreciate you, and seeing how they bloom. It's always nice to go out and when you bump into your students, they introduce you to their parents and say: “He is my lecturer.”
What's the worst part?
Ugh, grading. Marking assignments, exam scripts and projects can sometimes take long hours and you can stay until eight or nine at night doing that. Marking assignments is mentally exhausting because projects are more complicated at univeristy level, and students are encouraged to be creative and use more lateral thinking. So you have to take those factors into account when you mark.
It's also frustrating to find out from the tests or projects that the students have not understood what you have taught.
What is the salary range?
It depends on seniority and experience. A fresh engineering postgraduate with a Master's may earn a minimum of RM2,400 or RM2,500 in a private institution and this can potentially go up to RM8,000 or RM10,000 for an associate professor. Usually private colleges would offer more than private universities.
What are the career prospects?
You start as a lecturer and move on to senior lecturer, then principal lecturer and then associate professor, depending on the research and publications you produce.
There is a shortage of lecturers in engineering as colleges and other private institutions are offering engineering courses, so engineering lecturers are in high demand. However, I wouldn't recommend becoming a lecturer just because you can't find any job outside because in the end you will find it frustrating and won't last long.