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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)

wow, it's kinda hard to believe I posted nearly 2 years ago, and people are still commenting on this now.

Anyways, just thought I should mention that I ended up in a position at A*star. For those that are in the process of looking, I found that sending a short email to professors you are the most highly interested in, asking if they have any postdoc positions in the near future was the best tactic. Basically every single email I sent out I got a response, many said they didn't have an opening, but it was a heck of a lot better than going the "official" route....sending my resume and a cover letter through the HR department did not get me a SINGLE response. Due to this response difference, I'm assuming HR threw my application out and the PI never got to see it because I'm a foreigner, and I am now well aware how contentious of an issue that is.

I should also say that now I'm not living paycheck to paycheck (i.e. I finally have some reserves) I'm a little less jaded about the scientific route. Yes, the path is unnecessarily long and hard, but it does eventually bring a comfortable living, and if you would be more excited about becoming a millionaire than winning the nobel prize, then you chose the wrong field anyways.

Best of luck to all,

March 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrusslush3

I quit the program after the thesis defense, and have always wondered if I should have turned down that job offer, finished the degree and gotten that "Dr.". To be fair I will never be the top tier researcher pumping out A-journal articles like hotcakes. In hindsight, the mental training was certainly helpful but the actual qualification did not matter much. Many Ph.D.s in my peer group Singapore had to settle for low paying jobs locally, catch up and surpass their peers over time as specialists within a technical field.

Those who did the best got their tenure and started off as consultants before moving to senior management positions in the industry. Many with the title "head of risk management" for example have a Ph.D. in economics, physics, mathematics or finance.

June 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

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