Saturday, July 18, 2009

Overseas Thai Economic and Finance Association

As recent as only five years ago, I was really frustrated searching the internet for content about Thailand in English that went beyond the usual tourism promotion and general culural promotion. So it is with pleasant surprise that now (with a bit of persistance to look beyond common search words) I am discovering a new world of Thai content, especially those offered by literate young Thais who grew up in an internet assisted world.

One website I discovered recently launched their first publication of an internet newsletter of the Overseas Thai Economic and Finance Association. Here's what Kanda Noknoi, their economics editor wrote in an introduction to their newsletter:

"Some Thai economists including myself, finance scholars and finance professionals gathered in San Francisco in January at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association. One subject of discussion was the professional challenges that arise from differences in early education system. For most of us, the major challenge is the lack of training for expressing ideas. In Thailand we were trained to excel in taking exams by reproducing simple exercises and reciting class materials. Challenging instructors was unacceptable and conformists were rewarded in classroom. For these reasons, we tend to be risk‐averse, reserved and have poor writing and public speaking skills. We gradually improved these skills in graduate school but continue to need coaches after graduation.

As junior researchers, we are constantly interviewed by senior colleagues from other institutions. Hence, effective communications in seminars, conference presentations, conference receptions, lunches, dinners, coffee breaks and 2‐minute elevator rides are necessary. The most frequently asked question (FAQ) I receive in the initial encounters is “Where did you do your Ph.D.?” Where scholars earned their Ph.D. is equivalent to last name in the Thai society, since they both determine the degree of instant acceptance. Having a Ph.D. from a reputable school can create welcoming atmosphere, which usually leads to the FAQ No. 2 “Who did you work with?” or “Who was your advisor?” and the FAQ No. 3 “What was your thesis about?” A brief explanation of my thesis often results in the FAQ No. 4 “What do you work on now?

After the FAQ No. 4, the conversation about research may not continue. Uninterested individuals usually politely switch to other topics such as teaching or personal background. Some may abruptly end the conversation. At that point, where I earned my Ph.D. becomes entirely irrelevant. If I cannot get someone to be interested in my work by speaking, I will likely not be able to do so by writing. If that person organizes a conference, I will likely not get invited to discuss or present papers. If that person is an editor of a journal or an editor’s friend, I will likely not get invited to review papers as a referee. If the person is a referee for my paper submitted to a journal to be considered for publication, my paper will likely not be carefully read or accepted. In this industry, we either publish or perish, thus communication skills are critical for a survival. As I continue along the research track, the importance of the FAQ No. 4 increases over time, because I am expected to create new products like firms in any industry. My research productivity or lack thereof is observed by senior colleagues. To keep producing work to satisfy the expectations, I need information about market demand and supply conditions.

As a market for creativity, the research industry has comparable information transmission mechanism to the entertainment industry. The FAQ No. 3 “What was your first role?” or asking Snoop Dogg “What was your first song?” Jolie, Clooney and Snoop Dogg are clearly talented. However, to continue producing work requires more than talents. To be specific, successful artists have excellent producers and marketing team. Likewise, successes of young researchers depend also on the producers and the marketing team. The role of producers is played by the Ph.D. advisors and/or the senior colleagues. The marketing team includes the researchers themselves, former classmates, the Ph.D. advisors, former colleagues and current colleagues.

Professional associations play a complementary role to the producers and the marketing team. To be specific, the primary function of professional associations is to transmit information about market demand and supply conditions by various means of communication: journal publications, conference presentations, workshops, newsletters, social events, rumors, chitchats and gossips. The secondary function is to promote research by granting awards or funding. The associations in the area of economics and finance are classified by categories such as the field of research and the region of residence or research interests, and designed to serve members’ needs. Thai researchers share some needs with those from other Asian countries, given similarity of learning culture. It is encouraging that a number of those from India, Japan, China and Korea have succeeded at the international level. These scholars in fact alleviated the problem of information asymmetry by forming professional associations.

As a professional association, the OTEFA is in the start‐up stage. Its management structure and activities are subject to debates among members. Within one‐year time frame, the newsletter editorial team will circulate the bylaws for reviews, discussions, proposals for changes and voting for an approval. There are issues we can explore, such as new activities. For instance, in the long run we may consider ally the OTEFA with the Allied Social Science Associations (ASSA). That will provide an opportunity to run a parallel session in the annual meeting of the ASSA, to promote research by Thai researchers and students, along with quantitative research on the Thai economy and its financial issues by scholar from any countries. We may possibly consider interacting with other associations.

Today the job market for researchers in economics and finance cuts across borders and types of institutions. Researchers in economics and finance are employed by universities, research institutes, financial institutions, government agencies and consulting firms in various countries. I believe that the information transmitted by the OTEFA will contribute to the professional advancement of Thai researchers and finance professionals at the international level in the future. Although such advancement does not instantaneously result in the economic advancement of Thailand, it certainly represents a progress."

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