A career across diverse paths

Dr Vincent Mak 18 June 2015

Many years ago, as a naïve youngster, I thought I wanted to become a physicist. I worked hard on my ambition upon entering the University of Cambridge for undergraduate studies in science. With some good luck, I managed to get a bachelor degree majoring in physics after three years, and then continued with research training at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge, having been granted generous support from the Croucher Foundation. But after some years toiling with the nuts and bolts of physics research, I felt I had stumbled into the wrong field. Fluid dynamics – the area of my specialisation – is a highly sophisticated discipline with many intriguing unanswered questions, but somehow I could not warm to it.

It was also a time when I realised that I liked to write. The epiphany just happened: upon recommendations by friends at university, I started reading literary novels, and found myself hooked on them. It was not long before I wanted to “do something like that” myself. So I took the proverbial plunge, wrapped up my physics research, and returned to Hong Kong in the hope of finding work that involved a lot of writing.

I first became a cub reporter at the features section of a local newspaper, running around town with all kinds of interesting assignments. On Monday I could be interviewing a social activist; on Tuesday I could be jotting down a Chinese medicine expert’s herbal remedy for digestive hangover after the Chinese New Year eating binges (don’t ask me now, I have forgotten); on Wednesday I could be covering an auction of rare coins; and it went on and on. The job brought me up close with so many facets of life in a metropolis, but after a while I began to look for another way of living that gave me more spare time.

A few more career twists followed. Those were the turn-of-the-millennium years, when Hong Kong went into free fall from the dazed prosperity of the mid-1990s through the Asian financial crisis, the dot com bubble, and the SARS epidemic. While witnessing one historical disaster after another, I eked out a freelance career writing newspaper columns on one hand and covering classical music events on the other – I did many concert and recording reviews for newspapers, magazines, and radio, combining my love of writing with my love of classical music, which has been with me ever since I was a teenager. I had also begun to try my hand at literary essays and novels. Later on, looking for a more stable job, I worked for a while as a writer at a business case centre at the University of Hong Kong, during which I met some professors who piqued my interest in their research. And then, one day in 2004, I found myself back in academia, this time studying economics and psychology under a PhD programme at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST)’s business school.

My present job, which I was luckily offered after completing my studies at HKUST, is as a lecturer at another business school – the University of Cambridge’s Cambridge Judge Business School. Yes, I have come full circle to my undergraduate alma mater, though landing on a different department from the one I left, and in a very different role. Over the past six years, I have been juggling a busy schedule as a researcher – with academic collaborators in the UK, US, and Hong Kong, I could be receiving updates on projects round the clock – and as a teacher of courses ranging from undergraduate electives to PhD seminars. My research area is how people make strategic decisions, such as when they compete with each other as managers of rival firms, when they drive across a road network trying to avoid traffic jams, or when they look for online shopping deals over the Internet. My teaching centres around marketing, the art and science of interacting with customers. My duties at the business school offer me many different, enjoyable opportunities; as a career in itself, it is very fulfilling.

But that’s only one (major) part of my life. I also regularly contribute essays to a classical music magazine in Hong Kong – a continuation of my former life as a music journalist. In addition, I write a column for a literary magazine in Hong Kong, through which I have the opportunity to share diverse musings on the arts with readers. Last but not least, I have kept up writing novels and literary essays as a keen pastime, and have published a number of books of them. My writing endeavours are no less important to me than my day job; I always feel so focused yet also so relaxed when typing away at the keyboard about things that mean a lot to me: literature, music, paintings, films.

On a typical day, I could be engrossed in economic models and experimental data analysis in the morning and afternoon; and then, at night, I quixotically attempt to express in words the smiles and the tears in Mozart’s music, the portrayal of the humdrum and the tragic in Pieter Bruegel’s paintings, or the heart of the matter in Graham Greene’s novels. Or, in the morning, I could be discussing with business students how to promote a new online retail startup; in the afternoon, I could be meeting with colleagues to organise research visits to a company in London. And then, just five or six hours later, under the warm glow of a small desk lamp, inside a cosy study and enveloped by the falling darkness beyond the window, I could be putting together the next chapter in a story-in-progress.

No doubt, this kind of multitasking can make life very hectic. Every time I force myself – with drowsy eyes – to finish a magazine article in the small hours, racing against a looming deadline, I feel like I am running out of breath in the middle of an endless snowy plain with infinite glaring emptiness and no shelter in sight. The stress and fatigue would be even worse after a day of teaching or intensive research. But once I do finish the article, I always feel a liberating sense of relief and achievement – a little personal victory that always leaves a sweet aftertaste in one’s spirit.

I feel like I have strolled through multiple forking paths in the labyrinthine garden of time, and somehow manage to keep hopping to and fro among a few paths. I genuinely find complementary fulfillments in all my engagements, each being like a good diversion – a change of scene – for the other; in a sense, my career is a motley bag of serious diversions! And yet, my various pursuits may not be the polar opposites that they may seem at first sight. My research has a lot to do with game theory – a social science approach towards understanding how humans interact with each other. But intuiting how humans interact with each other is the preoccupation of writers who express themselves through narratives; even more generally, artists strive to intuit the meaning of humanity – ourselves – at the deepest levels. The multiple directions that I seem to have branched out at the same time might well be multiple manifestations of the same pursuit, after all.

Vincent Mak is currently a University Lecturer in Marketing and Decision Sciences at Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge- the same university that he attended as an undergraduate and research student in the 1990s. After graduating from Cambridge, he worked as a journalist, editor, and writer/broadcaster in the Hong Kong media. He later returned to academia when he began studying for a PhD at the business school of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). He completed his studies in 2008 and, after a year as Visiting Assistant Professor at the HKUST, joined the Judge.

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