Dr. Mak, an academia and journalist in Hong Kong

Makacademia: a short biography of Dr Vincent Mak

10 March 2017

From a childhood dream of becoming a natural scientist, to his current position of critic, writer and academic, Dr Vincent Mak (Croucher Scholarship 1994) tells his story.

For Dr Vincent Mak, physics was a childhood dream. While Mak excelled academically, graduating from the University of Cambridge with a BA in physics with First Class Honours and later completing a MSc in Applied Mathematics, he began to reconsider his path.

“Since I was a kid, I had long wanted to become a natural scientist. But as I grew up a little bit, I realised it wasn’t something that was close to my heart.” It was then that Mak decided to explore his interest in literature, art and journalism. “I began to discover, rather belatedly, an interest in literature and art and thought I’d like to switch to writing.” He made a bold move and returned to Hong Kong, “At that point, I made a decision that perhaps only people below a certain age would make: to give up everything and try to start a new life. I gave up my studies in the UK and decided to return to Hong Kong to get my writing career started.”

When Mak returned to Hong Kong, he encountered difficulties in finding journalism jobs in Chinese newspapers. He notes a story where an editor noticed that Mak’s high qualifications exceeded her own (He had a MSc at that time) and took him out of consideration for the position. Others simply did not believe he actually wanted the job, citing his extensive tertiary education in the UK. In the end he got a job as a cub reporter at The Standard, an English language newspaper. Mak later managed to establish contacts and switched over to freelancing for Chinese language journalism.

During the dot-com bubble in year 2000, Mak was hired as a former colleague to write for a career website. Here he honed his business journalism skills. After the company went downsized and subsequently restructured, Mak decided to move on. At the time, The University of Hong Kong (HKU) was hiring business case writers for the now Asia Case Research Centre. “I worked there for a couple of years and it was here that I started to gyrate back to academia,” he said. Mak worked closely with professors and many of them recommended that he become an academic in a business school. However, he was hesitant; he didn’t want to give up his life in Hong Kong and he enjoyed his freelance writing in classical music columns.

Whether it is academic research, or writing about art, my different lines of work are all addressing what I am most motivated to do: to make sense of human nature.

Mak returned to academia at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). “If I wanted to business and research and stay in Hong Kong, the best place to go was UST,” he said. He pursued a PhD in Marketing under a behavior economist supervisor. “The research I did was basically the juncture between economics and psychology. A discipline where you eclectically use both psychological and economic insights to understand humans,” Mak explained. The marriage of the two disciplines was the final push back into academia and into his current research interests.

“If I was doing pure psychology, it would be very abstract. But once you throw in a bit of economics, it all starts getting more fun,” said Mak.“ In standard economics, people only care about themselves. But when you throw in a bit of psychology, you know that they might care about each other to begin with and there may be psychological biases later. Humans are flawed with respect to standard economic thinking- people are not completely calculating.”

In 2015, Mak collaborated with his PhD student on a study titled “Culture Moderates Biases in Search Decisions”. They recruited students of Thai (collectivist) and Caucasian (individualist) descent who had exposure to and were equally fluent in both Eastern and Western culture. Using language as a prime, they provided instructions in both English and Thai.

Participants, known as decision makers, were required to buy a virtual product with a known value and search for price quotations one at a time. Every time they obtain a new price quotation, they had the option to stop their search and purchase the item or continue searching. Search costs (transportation, time) were either high or low and this information was provided throughout the experiment. The payoff was calculated using the known value of the product, the minimum price quote and the total search cost.

When the search cost was low, both Western and Eastern participants undersearched and overpaid. When the search cost was high, Western participants searched optimally (according to the threshold calculated by researchers) while Eastern participants oversearched and underpaid.

“Like a lot of research it started out as an exploration. At the beginning, the study was not too promising. The message was flawed and needed to be more clearly defined,” said Mak. “I think successful research is due to three factors, hard work, an interesting idea and luck. If one does research and manages to start and complete such a journey, it brings satisfaction. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I’ve been fortunate enough to pull it off a few times in the past few years,” Mak added.

Mak’s current research involves a number of different projects including study on how regret can change search behavior and how competition can change the behavior of those who are not directly involved.

Today, Mak continues his love of writing in two Hong Kong based magazines. Hi Fi review, a classical music magazine and Voice & Verse Poetry magazine, frequently feature his work. “Whether it is academic research, or writing about art, my different lines of work are all addressing what I am most motivated to do: to make sense of human nature.”

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. Dr Mak received his Croucher Scholarship in 1994 to the University of Cambridge.

To view Dr Mak’s Croucher profile, please click here.