In this global day and age, numerous college graduates seek opportunities to study abroad and broaden their horizons while experiencing diverse cultures and traditions. Yet, did you know that there is a program that is both international and diverse right here in Taiwan? One that brings together young scholars from all corners of the world to create its own type of “study abroad” environment? Introducing the Taiwan International Graduate Program (TIGP), which was founded by Academia Sinica in 2002.
You may be wondering: Why are foreigners coming to Taiwan to study at the Taiwan International Graduate Program? What type of future career options are available for Taiwanese students who enroll in this program?
We interviewed two students, Lauriane from France and Shukai Liu from Germany, who will share with you why they chose Taiwan. They will discuss their experiences studying at TIGP, sharing their ups and downs and everything in between. Furthermore, Dr. Mei-Yin Chou, Vice President of Academia Sinica will talk to us about the challenges and opportunities that TIGP students will face and have in terms of future career prospects.
Lauriane: “I want to protect Kenting’s coral reefs.”
After entering TIGP in 2014 to study biodiversity, Lauriane’s research advisor, Professor Chaolun Allen Chen, Research Fellow at the Biodiversity Research Center of Academia Sinica gave her the chance to choose any research topic of her liking. With so many topics to choose from, Lauriane decided to explore coral reefs. Her doctoral dissertation uses Taiwan’s Kenting National Park as the setting of her research, investigating the impacts of economic activity and land disturbances on coral reef ecosystems.
Known as the tropical rain forests of the oceans, coral reefs feature immense and enormous biodiversity. In many ways, these coral reef ecosystems are comparable to modern metropolitan cities; each inhabitant plays a very special role that comes with its own set of duties and responsibilities.
Besides the integral role that coral reefs play in the overall environment, these ecosystems also create and generate immense economic benefits for humans. Hence, how to conserve and protect coral reefs is an imperative challenge facing Taiwan today.
During her spare time, Lauriane straps on her diving gear, packs up different types of testing equipment, and heads out to the coastal area in Kenting with her peers to carry out field research. Her work involves monitoring activities and conducting numerous tests such as collecting seawater, photographing coastlines, and measuring coral reef fluctuations.
When diving underwater to explore the world under the sea, many precautionary and safety measures must be taken. Being hit and shaken by sudden torrential currents or sustaining injuries and cuts from coral reefs are all serious concerns.
On one occasion, Lauriane and her teammates were swept off and carried away to a faraway location by torrential currents. In her line of work, it is sometimes even necessary to dive deep into the ocean to survey the underwater environment when typhoons are approaching or when typhoons have just left to understand changes in coral reef ecosystems under different climate conditions.
Despite the difficult nature of the work, Lauriane greatly enjoys what she does. She feels that Taiwan’s coral reefs are breathtakingly beautiful and cherishes the opportunity to do her part to conserve and protect them. All in all, she feels that it is worth every hardship and obstacle that she had to overcome.
In the past, ecosystem conservation efforts tend to view humans as the principal force of destruction. Therefore, conservation policies typically aim to prohibit human access to protected areas.
Lauriane has a different take on the concept of conservation. She believes that humans should be considered as part of the ecosystem.
As such, in addition to leading field investigations, Lauriane also collaborates with various laboratories to consult local residents and tourists in Kenting to learn more about how they use the local natural resources or experience Kenting, collecting suggestions they may have regarding conservation efforts. She hopes to formulate conservation policies that accounts for both the local economy, which relies heavily on tourism, while also protecting and safeguarding the coral reefs.
Creating comprehensive protection efforts that are feasible and guarding against tough and hard-to-follow regulations lie at the crux of the matter. It is essential to avoid hardline policies that are difficult to adopt that end up not being helpful to either the local residents or the coral reefs.
Lauriane also observed that overfishing is a very serious problem in Taiwan. She remarked that examining the topography of Taiwan, we see that the Central Mountain Range accounts for a large proportion of land, which means that the expanse of arable land suitable for cultivation on the island is rather limited. In light of this, it is even more critical and vital to protect the sea because it is a very precious natural asset of Taiwan, and one that many residents depend upon for their livelihood.
Lauriane: “Cities in Taiwan are located so very close to nature!”
As a student in the Taiwan International Graduate Program at Academia Sinica, during her free time, Lauriane enjoys taking in as much fresh air as she can. Once she even walked from the Nangang Mountains all the way to Xiangshan, the Elephant Mountain, a hiking trail spanning approximately six kilometers, taking about four and a half hours to complete . Yet for Lauriane, exploring and traversing such hiking trails are all part of her normal routine. When she feels stressed out from her research, she enjoys a good game of football as a way to relax and “sweat out” her worries.
When asked to comment on the differences between Taiwanese students and foreign students, Lauriane said with a grin that students in Taiwan are extremely hardworking; they even take their meals sitting in front of their computers, working while eating their boxed meals. Lauriane says this type of “eat while working” routine does not work for her.
During her breaks, Lauriane has her own way of relaxing. She enjoys heading outside to take a breather, drinking a cup of coffee while chatting up with friends to bounce ideas back and forth. By getting adequate rest, she feels rejuvenated. When it comes time to hit the books again, she comes back refreshed, focused, and more efficient.
Lauriane is also particularly impressed with the public transportation system in Taiwan. She says it’s so unbelievably convenient! Almost every place is accessible by public transportation. Whether it is Tamsui, Yangmingshan, or even the Taroko Gorge, each location is so easy to get to.
“When I go diving in the scenic North Coast of Taiwan, all I have to do is pack up my equipment, hop on a train, jump on a bus, and I’m there. And the fare is not expensive at all!” Lauriane exclaimed with a bit of surprise.
Since English readers are not familiar with this trail, I suggest adding in the distance and time that it takes to complete the trail. This will give them a sense of what this trail is like.
Asked if Academia Sinica is a suitable place for doing research, Lauriane remarked that the resources available at the typical university pale in comparison to the abundant resources available at Academia Sinica.
To study coral reef ecosystems, it is necessary to analyze and compare data collected at different times from different places. In order to compute such large quantities of data, Lauriane takes advantage of the supercomputers available on campus, which can run algorithms much faster than regular computers. She is also able to borrow equipment from different laboratories.
On top of world-class facilities, Academia Sinica also houses experts in a variety of fields who are always happy to help and answer questions. Lauriane often consults scholars with different backgrounds to widen her understanding.
At the end of her interview, Lauriane also provided advice and suggestions for students who wish to apply to the Taiwan International Graduate Program. She noted that applicants must be sure to detail their topics of research on their applications; this is especially important for graduate students with areas of study that require field research. Heading out for fieldwork often conflicts with class schedules. Students need to figure out how to balance a considerable workload that includes scheduling in classes, finding time for research, and coming up with a timeline for writing dissertations. These are all fundamental tasks that students who hope to graduate on schedule must complete.
Shu-Kai Liu: “I was born in Germany, and I returned to Taiwan to challenge myself.”
Shu-Kai Liu is currently studying in the Sustainable Chemical Science and Technology (SCST) doctoral program at TIGP. Born and raised in Germany, his parents are Taiwanese, but he grew up and went to school in Germany. While in college, he learned about the international postgraduate program established by Academia Sinica and decided that he would like to challenge himself by choosing a new and different learning environment. Taiwan is also a place where he can really practice and work on his Chinese.
“Well, it is also more convenient to visit other countries in Asia from Taiwan,” he half-whispered, letting us in on this secret side benefit.
With the laboratory he is working with, Shu-Kai Liu participates in studying Carbodicarbenes, and the team’s research findings were published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society .
To “test” Shu-Kai Liu’s Chinese, during the interview, we asked him to explain his research to us in Chinese. Completely at ease, he fluently explained that his advisor Dr. Tiow-Gan Ong, Research Fellow at the Institute of Chemistry, Academia Sinica leads a laboratory studying organometallic chemistry.
For the part he plays in the team, he told us that he mainly helps with finding new chemical methods to synthesize novel metal catalysts, which fellow team members then test out to see whether these new catalysts produce new metal reactions or optimize original existing metal reactions. The chief goal is to make the synthesis of chemical materials easier while reducing the time and cost of synthesis.
When he first returned to Taiwan and started studying at TIGP in Academia Sinica, Shu-Kai Liu felt somewhat out of place and uncomfortable with the surrounding environment. Although he knew a little bit of Chinese, he found that the locals converse rather quickly and fluently, so fast that he found it difficult or even impossible to follow and understand. Also, at home, his family speaks Taiwanese, which adds fuel to the fire, adding further confusion. Language was indeed a big barrier for him.
Learning by doing. That’s his motto. It doesn’t matter if what he says in Chinese is correct or incorrect, he just says it and then goes from there.
“Local Taiwanese people can usually tell that I grew up abroad, and many of them are quite willing to tell me if what I’m saying in Chinese is wrong or doesn’t make sense,” Shu-Kai Liu remarked.
After putting in much time and effort, his Chinese has also improved to the point where he can easily strike up a conversation with people.
During his interview, he also mentioned that research assistants at Academia Sinica are enthusiastic and very willing to help with all sorts of things, which made it much easier to gradually adjust and adapt to life in Taiwan.
Yet, there are still challenges that he finds impossible to overcome. The weather is one of those things. Another is the way the Taiwanese drive. And watching the news in Taiwan just drives him nuts—he just can’t help but shake his head.
Shu-Kai Liu told us that the lab he works with is a tight knit group. They’ve had barbeques and even visited the hot springs together. However, over this past year, he hasn’t had much time to go out because he and his classmates are now busy running experiments and preparing for their doctoral oral examinations.
“Now that I’m entering my third year in the program, my boss (faculty advisor Dr. Tiow-Gan Ong) said that I have to graduate in four years, and if I don’t, he’ll kick me out! I must work faster and faster,” Shu-Kai Liu uttered with a laugh.
Despite the pressure to graduate, Shu-Kai Liu feels that he should, for the most part, just go with the flow; he shouldn’t put too much pressure on himself and set unrealistic expectations. Instead, he believes in taking one solid step at a time and keeping to the routine, working hard to complete well each of the tasks at hand.
Dr. Mei-Yin Chou: “TIGP provides a solid academic training.”
Dr. Mei-Yin Chou, Vice President of Academia Sinica, said that the purpose behind establishing the Taiwan International Graduate Program is to cultivate independent critical thinking skills and research capabilities by leveraging the state of the art equipment and facilities along with the world leading faculty at Academia Sinica, creating a conducive learning environment for students to conduct their own experiments, solve problems, and interact and exchange ideas with peers of different nationalities.
Since all courses are taught in English and 80% of enrolled doctoral students are foreigners, TIGP provides a wonderful academic environment for Taiwanese students wishing to study abroad to test the waters and get their feet wet. At Academia Sinica, students have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with an international educational environment and cultivate basic research skills before they go abroad for further studies and pursuits. For local students, this is definitely a viable and worthwhile option to seriously consider.
After graduating from TIGP, besides obtaining a doctoral degree from the schools that each specific program partners with, students will also receive a certificate of completion from Academia Sinica.
Currently, TIGP offers 12 different degree programs in collaboration with 10 partnering schools located across Taiwan. At the present stage, degree programs are mostly offered in the mathematics and sciences. In the future, based on developing industrial trends, Academia Sinica hopes to include additional programs. And if there are opportunities for partnerships with other universities, TIGP also looks to set up and offer academic programs in the humanities.
Some people may think that the Academia Sinica focuses mainly on basic scientific research, a focus that may limit career prospects and make it difficult to find jobs upon graduation.
Dr. Mei-Yin Chou explained that when students graduate and enter into the workforce and industries of their choice, the problems they will encounter are no longer simple and one-sided; instead, the problems they contend with are generally multifaceted and require interdisciplinary knowledge as well as working with different teams. Thus, through the interdisciplinary courses offered and the opportunities to conduct hands-on experiments, TIGP endeavors to instill in students the flexible ability to use knowledge from their solid training to understand different perspectives and switch between various modes of thinking.
Of course, during the process of pursuing their degrees, students also need to take note of industry trends. Students should try to maintain regular contact with industry professionals through job fairs or by visiting incubator centers to learn about the industry environment.
TIGP not only arranges for key leaders to come to speak to students, the program also asks students to vote for which leaders to invite. One year, students voted to invite Dr. Morris Chang, the founding Chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. And their wish was granted. TIGP invited him to come talk about industrial trends and share his experiences.
Lately, the government and industrial sector have been vigorously propelling the New Southbound Policy forward. Over the years, TIGP has been home to students from all across Southeast Asia. These students bring with them their rich and unique culture as well as diverse pearls of wisdom from their native countries.
When working hard, being able to play hard is also just as important.
When asked about entertainment and leisure activities offered by Academia Sinica, Dr. Mei-Yin Chou smiled and said that the campus is located near the Nangang Exhibition Hall MRT station, and it’s also quite close to the heart and center of Taipei City. In addition, Academia Sinica offers free shuttles that students can take to visit the National Taiwan University, National Central University, and the National Yang-Ming University.
Beyond the free concerts and film screenings offered from time to time, fitness events are also quite popular in the recent years. On the Academia Sinica campus, there is a well-equipped gymnasium frequented by sport aficionados and fitness enthusiasts. There are also yoga clubs, diving clubs, and even a Pokémon club that students can join to meet like-minded friends who share similar interests.
Studying at the Taiwan International Graduate Program affords students the opportunity to interact with people from all walks of life and from all corners of the world to exchange ideas and research findings, but more importantly, it allows common interest to become the common language of communication. It’s a place where birds of an “academic” feather can flock and flourish together.