Focus Group Questions with a PhD student at Macquarie University

I was invited to participate in the ‘focus group interview’ for one of the courses that I taught as a guest lecturer in 2014. I had an honour to have this done with a PhD student at Macquarie University last Monday. Here are some of the questions.


Q1- What do you think the attributes of a professional work‐ready graduate are?

Having ability to handle the ‘bitterness of reality’ is considered one of the most important attributes. Here are the examples of the ‘bitterness’.

– Your boss will have neither time nor inclination to explain everything in detail like your tutor and lecturer.

– Your classmate (whom you used to think very low of) has been promoted up through the chain of command with greater speed and success than you have, and that will become a source of tension or embarrassment for you.

– You and your colleague used to hang around together a lot. There was the time when you worried about ‘what we are going to have for a lunch today’. Now you worry about who you are going to have a lunch with because your colleague no longer hangs around with you anymore.

You will eventually face endless waves of failures, disappointments, and adversities throughout your work life. For driven and success people, these negative elements can be quite disorienting. Perhaps you used to be a big fan of Nietzsche who famously said “Whatever does not kill you makes you only stronger.” Nothing seemed impossible to suppress your defiant spirit. However, as time goes by, you may become eventually a big fan of Schopenhauer – no point of trying hard to climb a greasy pole you will eventually fall anyway.

So what’s required to formulate a pill of handling the bitterness of reality? Ingredients may vary depending on individual circumstances but ‘perseverance’ is the most important foundation of all.


Q2- What is your understanding of what is meant by the term ‘professional’?

This is applicable to the Strawberry Generation (born between 1981 and 1991) who gets emotionally bruised and scarred easily because they cannot handle criticism. For the Strawberry Generation, in order to be ‘professional’, you must not let your emotion neutralize your ability logically think, scientifically analyse and be bravely decisive. Adapting constructive criticism to re-calibrating oneself and elevating to a new level is a quality expected every Macquarie University graduate, and this is my understanding on ‘being professional’.


Q3- What kind of knowledge and skills do employers look for in contemporary university graduates?

Having an outstanding academic record is must because it will give you a head start. Perhaps some may argue that it would only help lead to an interview. However, considering one almost has zero work experience directly relevant to your degree, most if not all, the first qualifying hurdle for any graduate position is determined by your GPA.

As an employer I would look for one’s interpersonal skills – ability to get along well with others and to work harmoniously and collaboratively has direct influence on the team’s performance.

In addition, detecting your boss’ mood is highly important – knowing what to say and how to say is important but knowing ‘when’ to say will give you a competitive edge later. Why? Because after all, your boss is only still human.


Q4- How can we as universities improve graduates’ work‐readiness?

When I was at Macquarie University in 1997, the 1st subject that I studied was COMP124 – learning Basic, Cobol and Fortran which were considered as completely superseded programming languages. I recall bravely asking this question – ‘Why don’t you teach us with the most popular programming language such as Java or C+?” I was just asked to leave the classroom (and I eventually figured out the answer).

I always felt that there was a disconnection between what I learnt at MQ and what’s really required at a work place. For example, I spent a lot of time on learning how to use Minitab at MQ but the demand on Minitab in Australia is rather insignificant. I would have been more benefited from learning how to use SAS instead of Minitab.

Many case studies are too old. Perhaps extracting a few old case studies from the Harvard Business School archive may be convenient for the lecturers but certainly such action will disinterest many students – Just imagine talking about the companies are much older than the students and some of them are no longer around. Many students want to hear more about the ‘modern’ companies such as Google, Apple, Samsung, Atlassian and so on. This will help build a ‘real connection/relevance’ between their studies and the real world.

Offering opportunities to students to directly engage with experienced industry leaders would be helpful. I have recently participated in the Lucy Mentoring Program. My mentee was an overseas student from Malaysia and recently received a job offer from a small actuary firm with exceptional conditions at the age of 21. Some students can definitely benefit from such program but of course this cannot be offered to all students.


Q5- What suggestions would you offer the student for skill development for future employment?

Warning! – Your low GPA cannot be substituted with work experience that is not directly related to your degree. I was the one who believed in this fallacy and I learnt my lesson. If you have a few bumps here and there, my recommendation is to focus on showing your consistent improvement – especially your 3rd year subjects.

Assuming that your GPA is high, always look for internship opportunities as much as you can and as often as you can, especially during the summer holidays. Internship is a great opportunity to get you exposed to a ‘protected’ commercial environment. If you get lucky, you may be given a so-called ‘preferential treatment’ when they look for graduates. Why? If you are an employer, would you not rather have someone whom you already have some degree of ‘positive’ association with? I definitely would.

While it is necessary to utilize innocuous and mellifluous words and expressions because we all appreciate the value of euphemism (or suck up?), we seem to lose the ability to differentiate ‘truth’ and ‘truth-like’ because ‘white-lies have become a necessary evil’. Therefore I chose to be transparent and honest RE: expressing my person view, and the PhD student seemed to appreciate it very much.

About Brendon Cho

조후혁의 개인 블로그입니다. 1994년 18살때 호주로 부모님과 함께 이민을 왔고 2002년 통계학과를 졸업 한후 통신 회사 Exetel에 2004년 사원으로 입사, 2009년 최고재무관리자 (CFO)로 임명 그리고 2010년 MGSM에서 MBA를 수료 했고 지금 내부 감사장 (Head of Veracity)로 일하고 있습니다. 현재 3명의 자녀를 둔 아빠이고 시드니에서 살고 있으며, 클래식 음악과 글쓰기를 좋아합니다.
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