Macau Matters | The MPhil by Research Degree

Richard Whitfield

The Master of Philosophy by Research degree (the MPhil) is a first research based postgraduate degree that is offered in the English speaking academic tradition, but it is not currently offered in Macau. I would like to see the MPhil degree offered here, sooner rather than later.

The MPhil is training for researchers, like the PhD (the Doctor of Philosophy), but it is a smaller project and drops the requirement for a strong original contribution to knowledge. In a typical MPhil, the student works for around 2 years with a supervisor on a research project that often builds on and “fills out” the work of others. By contrast, PhD students work for 3-5 years with a supervisor on an original research project. In both cases, the student writes up the project as a thesis and usually defends it in an oral presentation. MPhil theses are often about 120 pages long, while PhD theses are often over 250 pages.

The MPhil has a long tradition in the English speaking world, and is offered by most universities in the UK, Hong Kong, Australia and elsewhere, but interestingly, it is quite rare in the USA. It pre-dates nearly all of the taught Master degrees that are so common nowadays. Now there are many different taught Master degrees focused on preparing students for careers in specific fields, eg the MBA (Master in Business Administration) is a very popular taught Master degree to develop business knowledge, skills and attitudes. To me, it is very reasonable that there should be an MPhil degree to initially prepare people for a career in research and academia.

The MPhil is not part of the continental European academic tradition, and so it is rarely offered in European universities. Because Macau follows Portuguese academic traditions we do not currently have the MPhil degree here but it is offered in Hong Kong. The MPhil is, however, recognized in the Bologna Process – the system for unifying higher education throughout Europe.

I have spent several years working in both academic and business environments and I can tell you that working in research and development and academia is very different to typical business situations, and I do not believe that most taught Master degrees are the best preparation for it. Taught Master degrees generally focus on what is known, what the current “state of the art” is for a given field, and being operationally effective and efficient. Research degrees, by contrast, focus on the unknown, what might be possible, and doing new things where effectiveness and efficiency are difficult to measure. I actually see them as complementary in many ways, and one cannot be substituted for the other.

An MPhil gives people a way to try out research/academia as a career path. If they like the life they can then go on to complete a PhD. If they do not, they still have a Master degree that has as much “currency value” as a taught Master degree. Also, there are many situations where researchers believe that an idea may work, but it is too risky to ask somebody to commit to completing a PhD for it because there is a possibility of total failure (in which case the student may have studied for 4+ years and get nothing for it). Much better to only risk 2 years. I actually started my own doctoral project as an MPhil and after 18 months of work my supervisor and I agreed that the project would be successful and so I converted my enrollment to PhD and completed the project over 5+ years.

When will a Macau university offer an MPhil degree?

Categories Opinion