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Why be an expert in Singapore? Seriously.

(Note: This was a blog entry which I wrote a while back before I completed my PhD program. I have made minor edits, but have left most of the writing intact. This entry highlights one compelling reason why I chose to work in the industry eventually. This led to a job search in Singapore, but ended up with me in US. But that's another story.)

My supervisor once voiced his concern when I started my PhD on whether I would be able to find a job upon graduation because I was not planning to study a more "popular" subject matter. Being fresh out of National Service and finally free to use my mind, I was eager to pursue my own interests and was not ready to kowtow to the perceived stifling of my academic life by such mundane economic reality. In fact, I was questioning his concern at the back of my mind - surely a computer science PhD would not have any difficulty in finding a decent IT job!

Due to stipulations of my fellowship, I am obliged to stay in Singapore for two years to work after graduation, but I was free to work anywhere, as long as it is related to computer science. So in my last year of my candidature, I started my job hunt in earnest. I prepared my resume and seeked out the usual suspects - I applied for industry and teaching positions first, and procured several job offers, each giving a fairly decent monthly salary as a first job. But, well, let's just say I was not tripping over my own feet to accept any of these job offers.

Incidentally, my wife started her job approximately the same time as I entered graduate school, and is thus rather suited to serve as a frame of reference for comparing job compensations between working after a Bachelors or doing a PhD before entering the workforce. After four years of working, she was moving up the career ladder, and was earning 25% more per month than the job offers I was getting. I like to point out that my wife is a Bachelors degree holder in a government job - so we are not talking about a really fast-tracked Masters in a blooming industry. Many a times I would hear about a supposedly "excellent", or "great" job offer from a local research institution or school, and would be informed that I was going to be paid a quarter less than my wife. The icing on the cake, the cream de le creme, the best part of it all, is that I would be drawing Bachelor's pay until my PhD degree is actually conferred. FYI, I was officially conferred my PhD degree in September after submitting my thesis in January. Let's just say I was not amused at this point in time.

The school does have much more attractive compensation, with a higher monthly salary as a postdoctoral researcher (although they do not pay annual bonus), a much more comprehensive healthcare plan, and the freedom to engage in any area of research. It seems like a no-brainer to stay in school if possible after a PhD in Singapore. However, postdoctoral research positions are contract-based for one to two years, and it does entail a need to secure a more permanent job after the contract ends. That means a tenure-track position, which is hard to obtain unless you are a super-star (but if so, you should be gunning for a position in an ivy league university).

I am disappointed at the job options of a PhD graduate in Singapore, and found them clearly lacking any attraction whatsoever. I find solace in achieving mastery of a subject matter after four years of research and study, but financially, it is a little disappointing.

Read and weep - Student to Professor: The Road to Tenure-Track []

In a related thread, what makes sense in Singapore? People management.

People management is better rewarded than technical expertise. This differentiation between experts and middle-level managers in terms of rewards is an Asian phenomenon. Here, those who present the work seem to get the credit for it, regardless of who actually performs it. We live in a place and time where articulation is often mistaken for accomplishments.

- Are you too smart for your own good?. Manoj Thulasidas. Today newspaper. Aug 25 2007.

Fast forward to today, and I am enjoying showing up at Google for work. I honestly enjoy the challenge and it pays well enough for me not to worry about money. I wished Singapore could have given me such opportunities there, but in all seriousness, I will never return to Singapore for a technical job.

References (2)

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  • Response
    Why be an expert in Singapore? Seriously. - Blog - Yew Jin Blogs (sometimes)
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    Response: strony internetowe
    Why be an expert in Singapore? Seriously. - Blog - Yew Jin Blogs (sometimes)

Reader Comments (27)

u are right.. they don need a phd.. a phd u cant find a job easily
even u can find a job. ur pay may not be as good as those without phd degree

May 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterYuen Chau

Well, the bottom line is that unlike CS PhD grad in USA who have the very wide options of choosing between Google, MS, Yahoo, IBM, Intel, Bell,.... and many well established industrial research labs, Singaporean CS PhD grads are not that spoilt with the wide choices. In fact rumours has it that in Singapore, PhDs are considered overqualified.

NTU, NUS and A* are the typical traditional choices PhD grads can choose from. And yes then there is the salary disadvantage as well.

Then Singapore also lack common-border with another developed country. Unlike a German PhD who can also choose to work in UK and France, and a Canadian PhD grad who can apply in USA, travelling to our nearest neighbour, Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand, would actually be considered a downgrade.

December 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNTU SCE PhD 4th yr

Good Honours and Master, and Decent PhD
Job hunting but having difficulty in finding suitable industry jobs for a long time...

December 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEngineering

Still struggling to find suitable jobs in Singapore...

A good article "Doctoral degrees - The disposable academic" by The Economist at

Wish your family and you a Happy and Prosperous Year 2011.

December 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEngineering

Great article find. Thanks!

Best of luck with your job hunting, and a happy new year to you too.

December 28, 2010 | Registered CommenterYew Jin

I like your blog.

December 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertiffany

Still no luck in securing a suitable industry job after so long. There is very low industry demand for PhD. As mentioned by "NTU SCE PhD 4th yr, rumours has that PhDs are considered overqualified in Singapore...

January 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEngineering

That. Really. Sucks.

I have been agonizing a little over how to respond, but my general advice will be to try looking outside your area of expertise. I have a colleague here who was a physicist for many years until he decided to switch careers for monetary reasons. He thought that he would miss science a lot, but after chatting with him, it seems like he is intellectually quite content with the work that we do right now.

January 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterYew Jin

I agree completely with the views of this blog.

My niece obtained a PhD in Bio Sciences at one of the top Universities in the world in this subject. She Passed her Masters with distinction and has published many papers on breaking ground technology in drug delivery systems.

She is a proud Singaporean and wanted to return to Singapore and pass on her knowledge and experience. She was offered several posts in the UK at Oxford and Cambridge as well as posts in American Universities but she is determined to remain in Singapore.

Now one year later and no job, she is regretting the decision to come back home. Without exception, at all of her interviews, she is told she is over qualified and does not have relative experience.

Well done Singapore, nothing like driving away home grown talent.

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Brown

In order to find an non-research, industry/business job in Singapore. Which will be more helpful? A Masters from a top US university or PhD from NUS?

March 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJane

This might be a bit futile here, and I'm a little late in reading this, as I'm defending next month;) but my partner graduated with masters last year and moved back and is bound to work in Singapore; I'm currently looking at my options there. I'm in biomedical field, already have a couple professors I'm interested in working for at A*star, but should at least give my time to ponder other options. Is there a good place to look for positions at biotech companies, etc?


March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRusslush3

Jane: My personal take? For technology jobs at least that are not research-based, Completing masters degree takes a shorter time (especially if it's only 1 year), and at the end of the day in the industry, your experience and career advancement counts for more if you have what it takes. On the other hand, NUS PhD programs are typically quite fast (they are quite merciless about graduating students, which is good) - 4 years.

Some articles on compensation based on the highest degree attained:'s&q2=Master's&q3=Ph.D.&q4=MBA

A top-tier university also opens doors for your first job. (a PhD, even from NUS, helps too, but not as much in my opinion)

Russlush3: Sorry - can't help you much here. I am in CS, so I am not informed of the employer choices for the biomedical field.

April 17, 2011 | Registered CommenterYew Jin

The problem with our local culture is we expect to get higher studies and expect things to be created for us. One expect to be paid "x" amount per month simply because you get an academic paper? Did anyone ask themselves why should an unproven, unestablished PhD holder be paid more than someone with industrial track record? Truth is there is no reason why this should be the case.

Look at this list of brand names ..."Google, MS, Yahoo, IBM, Intel, Bell,.... and many well established industrial research labs" all these are founded by people with or without a higher education. If one is really an outstanding Bachelor, Master or Phd holder... Prove It! Start a company and bring it to establishment like Google or IBM. A lot of the well establish industrial research lab today was founded by Fresh College Kids.

May 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGen Y

touché. touché.

Now go forth and do that young one.

May 29, 2011 | Registered CommenterYew Jin

there are really a lot of opportunities in Singapore, especially among IT executives. it's important therefore to increase your market value through continuous learning. great article!

August 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIT jobs

Pretty interesting and inspiring story. Getting the right job is really thought specially with all the competition right now. Singapore has become one of the most fastest growing country in the world specially in the IT industry. Executive Job Search

Well, i can't totally blame the system for seeing many PhD can't get a job. Many of them really think so high of themselves, thinking that the industry must reward them for their degree even at the first day of their work. I think a bit of modesty is required, not asking too high for your starting, and prove that you are good, then money will come gradually.
If i can pay a diploma holder to write a computer software, why should i pay a PhD?

December 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

It's obvious that compared to Yew Jin, I make really bad career choices. I got my PhD in Computer Science from NUS in late 2007 (at the same time as Yew Jin; we were lab partners and collaborators), worked as a lecturer for a year, then went to Hong Kong for a 2-year postdoc hoping to get a tenure track position in a Singaporean university. I was counting on the foreign postdoc to dilute my "Singaporean-ness", and combined with a few more publications I thought I'd be able to get a tenure track position in Singapore. I was even thanking my lucky stars that the new 4th university SUTD is opening at just the right time, so there must be plenty of vacancies, right?

Well, I'm now back in Singapore and jobless for the last 4 months. I've applied to all four major universities in Singapore and received nothing but rejections or complete silence. I may not be a superstar, but I've got 18 conference publications (including 3 top-ranked ones) and 8 journal publications that I worked my butt off to produce, so my publication record is pretty good. Not only that, I see them hiring fresh grads (either foreigners or Singaporeans with a fancy foreign PhD) with 4 conference publications in total on their CV, or worse yet, someone with no publications but with 3 years of work experience in the field. Yet somehow I haven't even managed to get an interview.

I've also sent out numerous applications to overseas universities, e.g., US, UK, Australia. So far, nada, and I don't expect to have much luck either. It seems that these universities prefer to hire locally, which makes sense to them since they have a large talent pool and don't have to pay relocation costs. Singapore universities, on the other hand, seem to prefer to hire from overseas. Which means that a Singaporean with a Singaporean PhD is completely screwed.

I am slowly coming to the realization that since I can't seem to get an academic job, my 5-year PhD and 2-year postdoc is a complete waste of time. I am woefully backward when it comes to the latest technologies (I work with low-level algorithms using C or C++), so I'm a bad fit for positions requiring X years of Oracle experience, for example. Looks like I should start applying for entry-level positions at entry-level pay. Any suggestions?

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOon Wee Chong

I am responding to Wee Chong privately. (Hello sir!)

February 25, 2012 | Registered CommenterYew Jin

Hi Wee Chong, perhaps you will like to try to see if there are openings at St Dynamics, they do have quite a number of PhDs working there.

April 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJames

hello. i'm 1 year away from finishing my PhD in NUS and frankly, I came across your blog by searching for "industrial phd jobs singapore". I had done so because I too feel there aren't opportunities for PhD in Singapore...and I wanted to find out more. Sadly its very worrying. It's adding undue stress to my already difficult PhD experience. Could you share where you found work here in your first 2 years of graduation (the bond period).

July 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterColin

I worked as a postdoc in NUS for the first two years: it was rather enjoyable in retrospect if you are looking at it as a short-term gig as you get to continue doing research, but actually getting paid decently to do so.

I used the free time available to look for career opportunities.

July 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteryj

thanks for your reply. could you share avenues you looked at to finding career opportunities? I'm currently using jobstreet and other online sites...not too much variety i'm afraid

July 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterColin

This was pre-LinkedIn era, but I relied on applying to individual companies via their websites. That said, I got my job at Google via a referral so you should tap into your social network. (The referral connection was very tenuous - it was basically husband of a friend of a friend :)

July 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteryj

nice blog

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbuddu

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