There is a time in life when you suddenly realize that your parents will die someday.  Of course you know that everyone will die someday.  What I mean is that suddenly you realize that your parents are getting older (with accelerated aging rate), and that ‘someday’ may not be too far from today.  This wake up call does not necessarily take the form of a serious illness.  It may be little yet undeniable signs, such as the time when you notice that your father – who rightfully takes pride in his sharp memory – forgets something, or when you notice that your mother – who is known as Energizer in the family – sometimes gets tired.

So you take a deep breath, trying to estimate (for you can’t help doing this) how much time you still have with them.  Twenty years or more, you try to calm yourself, for did not all your grandparents reach their late seventies or early eighties?  Then you remember that we are all just frail human beings, and chide yourself for trying to determine something that is only the Almighty to determine.  Then you start worrying, what if it is shorter than that?  Fifteen years, ten years, five years?  Then you frantically list all the things that you still want to do.  What about the grandchildren they have not seen, what about your dream of having them see you become a successful person, what about the businesses you have not yet taken over, what about all the cooking recipes you have yet to learn from your mother?

Then you remind yourself that worrying does not take you anywhere.  So you take another deep breath, and apply Dale Carnegie’s three principles, only that you straightaway fail.  For the first principle is to list the worst case scenario, and the second is to accept that it may happen.  Having failed the first and the second, you jump to the last: to plan some actions which may improve the situation.  Should you take a long unpaid leave to learn the business from your father?  Should you stop postponing pregnancy? Should you take your parents to various health screenings? Should you forbid your father eating his favourite-but-not-healthy food?

After that you regain part of your common sense and again chide yourself for trying to plan and determine what the Almighty alone may and can determine.  And now that you remember God, you start pleading, ‘bargaining’ if you are bold enough – bargaining with numbers as Abraham once did.  Abraham tried to get the smallest number possible, but you tried to get the longest time possible.  Twenty years, thirty years?  Then again you chide yourself for thinking that you know better than your God, and resign yourself with those often-said-rarely-meant words: Thy will be done.

There is a time in life when you suddenly realize that your parents will die someday.  For some people, that time comes early in life.  There are young children who lost their parents because of illnesses or accidents.  For some other, the even less fortunate ones, their parents may not play that much important role in their life due to various reasons, thus when that time of realization comes it barely troubles them.

But for most people, who are fortunate to have decent parents with average (or above average) life span, that time generally comes when they are beginning to start their own life, when they start being classified as young adults.  As becoming an adult means you have to take care of so many things (paying bills, buying a house, starting a family, planning your finances, let alone raising your children), this is generally also the time when you begin to appreciate how much your parents have done for you.  You suddenly feel that life has become so busy and wonder why your life was so carefree before.  It does not take a sage to answer; there have always been so many things to take care of in life, but you could be carefree because until recently, your parents take care of all that for you.

At that realization and appreciation, you again chide yourself for the many times you fail to appreciate your parents, and resolve to make it up to them, and because you need time to do all this you repeat your pleading, bargaining prayer (almost forgetting the ‘Thy will be done’ you just said few minutes before). Twenty years, thirty years?

Then you start reasoning with yourself, why should you be so worried about death?  You are a Christian, who believes in the resurrection, who professes that death needs not be feared for Christ our Lord that path has trod.  The answer comes at once: you are not worried about death, you are just worried because you still want to be with them.  Yes, you look forward to the resurrection, to see them again someday, but that day seems too far off.

After all this reasoning and worrying, you take yet another deep breath, and welcome yourself to the complex world of adults.  After this you will look at children the way your boring aunties used to look at you: longingly and fondly.  For the world of children is another world which gate is now closed to you.

  1. Post those photos taken overseas.  Holiday pictures are fine (your friends will know that you earn enough to afford it), but you score higher if you pose in professional attire (your friends will know that you are important enough that people are willing to fly you over to work with you). For PhD students, conference pictures will do.  Your friends will ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ to know that you are smart enough people are wiling to fly you over to listen to your research findings.
  2. Are you actually living in a foreign country?  That’s even better.  Post some photos every now and then.  Not the tourist spots, of course.  Show the everyday places.  Let your friends know you are truly living as an expat now.  If you, like me, are from a tropical country, then photos with snow is a must.  Oh, a screenshot of the weather forecast or temperature statistics will do nicely, too.  My observations suggest that the temperature has to be minus to be post-worthy.
  3. Don’t forget to allude to your humble beginning.  Your friends would be more amazed at your achievements if they know that you started from nothing than if they suspect daddy’s money give you some helps here and there.  Facebook status along the line of “who would have thought that a boy from an obscure village in Indonesia would someday teach bule master students” will do very well.
  4. Got kids? That’s a real advantage.  Related to number 3, you can proudly compare your kids situation (which is significantly superior, thanks to their successful parents) to your situation at their age.  Compare your age when you board your first flight vs their age, scan and post the first page of their passport, … (why should you listen to those friends who maintains that it is unwise to show any ID documents online? They are clearly just jealous since they are less successful than you).
  5. Post some quotes, wise maxims, verses, every now and then.  You want your friends to know that since you got your basic needs satisfied, you have time and capacity for higher things.  Oh, and a language other than English will be an added score.  Greek goes well with the New Testament, Latin goes well with ancient prayers.  I’m just saying.
  6. Do some humblebragging every now and then.  You don’t want your friends to die of envy, do you? You can show them that even the successful persons like you have their own share of troubles.  Post some pseudo-miserable status updates.  You know, like “hmmmh, boss asks me to go to (*insert a cool place here*) to discuss the new project … how can I leave my precious baby? This is the second time in a month!”  Or perhaps, “grrr, my husband spent all his Saturday morning on his new car”?  This last one will do very well if you live in a place like Singapore.  If you are in the States, perhaps you should clarify that it is an expensive car. You have to be thorough, you know. I am tempted to classify those like “Thank God for His blessings, I’m promoted” as a humblebrag.  But let us give these religious persons the benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps gratefulness are really overflowing in their hearts that they could not help but sharing it in their Facebook page.

And if you are wondering why someone spent his / her time listing this, wonder no further.  The writer must be less successful than you, hence he / she is just jealous.  The less successful ones are always jealous, remember?

Out of frustration, I started to compile some facts and opinions on academia vs industry.  I believe I’m not alone in this frustration, I believe that many of my fellow PhD graduates have experienced similar path: “yay I’m a PhD” – “I’m not yet competitive enough to be a faculty member in a decent university” – “be a postdoc with hope to write more papers, thus increasing competitiveness” – “I’m not yet competitive enough …” (iterate the last two steps as needed).

There have been many articles discussing the difficulty of getting an academic job and the futility of getting a PhD.  Most of the discussions came from US or Europe, and thus they mostly focused on the condition in the Western part of the world.

If you are interested, this article may not be a bad place to start.

Here are some points that I compile, which I think is applicable to the specific case of PhD engineering graduates in Singapore.  It is by no means exhaustive or error-proof, any suggestions would be appreciated.  And don’t you think we do need to make an exhaustive list before we decide our next step?  After all, we are an expert in doing literature review.  It’s only natural that we do literature review for major decisions in our lives, too.

1. Get an academic position in Singapore or overseas.

This is the natural and ideal step for those who aspire to be tomorrow’s professor.  Unfortunately, aspiration alone may not suffice for this noble endeavour.  Based on my observations (sample size < 30 though), a fresh PhD graduate from NUS will have a decent chance to get a lecturer / asst. professor position in a mid-tier university (i.e. neither the top research university nor the purely teaching college) at many countries, but not at Singapore.

The exception comes from the non-written-but-observable preference that the research universities in Singapore (i.e. NUS, NTU, perhaps SUTD soon) have for PhD graduates from overseas.  This practice is not exclusive to Singapore universities; I’ve heard that many universities in US have similar preference.  Intellectual inbreeding is bad for the future, that’s the idea.

As in many other things in life, there is an exception to the exception.  If you are extremely good or extremely lucky (perhaps “and” is a more suitable conjuction than “or”), then your own university may be willing to hire you, their own product, even without the embellishment an overseas postdoc may provide.  I have no definition for “extremely good”, but I know that ‘just’ being among the best in your batch or winning an award from your own university or one or two best paper awards do not count.

2. Get an overseas research (postdoc) position overseas.

So, let’s say one is not competitive enough to get an academic position, but one’s mind is already set in Singapore (there are a number of different reasons for this, from spouse preference to scholarship bond to economic analysis that sees Singapore as an ideal place to settle down), and one’s heart is set in academia (there are less reasons for this, I can only name three: a genuine passion to contribute to research and education, a fervent but erroneous belief on the existence of such passion, and a stubborn refusal to face the fact that the 4-8 years of hard PhD work may come to naught).  For such a one, the most obvious remedy is to clinch a postdoc position with a famous professor / research group overseas.  Hopefully, by the time you come back, you can land that coveted academic position.

3. Get a research position in Singapore.

But what if one cannot leave Singapore?  Perhaps for family reasons, or perhaps one just simply can’t stand the exponentially increasing rental rate and want to buy a resale flat.  Then the obvious (obvious does not mean optimal) path is to find a research position in Singapore.  This path is usually taken also by those who are not interested to join academia in the long term, but are not prepared to jump to industry straightaway.

Unfortunately, the phase of not-prepared-ness may extend indefinitely.  I think it is possible to be research fellow all one’s productive life, but is it good for one’s development?  (My professor would indignantly answer: development? what development?) Moving from one project to another (with or without a continuity of research theme), searching for job every two or three years, looking at the new assistant professors with jealousy (particularly if their list of publication is not more spectacular than one’s own), is it good for one’s sanity?

To be fair, there are practical benefits from making postdoc one’s “permanent” job.  The postdoc salary in Singapore is more than decent, unlike in the US (so I heard).  And don’t forget the time flexibility – few other jobs can compete in this aspect.  I heard that one female research fellow commented that postdoc is really a good job option (job, mind you, not career) for young mothers.

4. Join the dark side but keep that little light of yours, a.k.a join the R&D in industry.

I heard that big engineering companies hire PhD graduates to man their in-house R&D division.  I think this is another ideal solution: you get a permanent job, you got to see the real world (which is important for us engineering graduates), you don’t feel so upset as your PhD training is being made use of (or at least appear to be so), the salary does not hurt your pride (which was hurt badly during your PhD years and rebounded miraculously after you graduate, only to be hurt again few weeks after graduation) too much, and you might still be able to write papers.

Note that salary may matter more than just as a confidence booster.  For instance, the Singapore government has recently declared that foreign professionals can only apply a dependant pass for their (non-working) spouse if their monthly salary is S$4000 or higher.

The limitation of this solution is that not all engineering branches have big companies with R&D division.  Would you deviate from your major (e.g. from structural engineering to offshore & marine) to earn higher salary? Provided they are willing to hire you, of course.  On a side note, while we are at it, should we not stop at deviating, and making a complete turn?  I know of a PhD graduate with respectable publication list who went on to become a successful property agent.

5. Join the dark side wholeheartedly.

Plunge to the industry, research or no research.  Accept the lower (initially only please!) salary, be ready to learn new things (after all, are we not experts in that?), endure the niggling feelings that all the hard research work has come to naught.  For at the end, it has not and will not, come to naught.  Some PhD graduates (again, sample size < 30) who chose this path has said (let’s hope they are being truthful here) that their research training has enabled them to progress faster and perform better in their jobs.  I am not yet in the position to make such encouraging pronouncement, but even I have to admit amidst my frustration that I could not say that all has come to naught.  For I had enjoyed the PhD days, not every single day of course, but enjoy it I did.  The frustration came from the fact that I am, practical and economical as I am, not prepared to accept that enjoyment is the only thing that should come from PhD.

Let me know what you think / experience.  It’s useful to discuss, even if for nothing more than confirming that misery loves company.

Just to cheer up a little: I recently stepped into the wonderful world of P.G. Wodehouse, and as I read an article about academia vs industry, I could imagine this dialogue:

“I’m going to pursue an academic career.  What do you think, Jeeves?”

Jeeves gave me that distinctive cough of his.  “I would not advise so, Sir.”

“You would not? But why?”

“It is without doubt a worthy endeavour, Sir.  But most major funding sources currently fund about 1 in 5 research proposals submitted to them.  Pardon me, Sir, but you have been a postdoctoral fellow for 5 years and are,” again a cough here, “not yet competitive for an academic job.  As miracles do happen, it is not impossible that despite of this, you can be somehow competitive enough for research grants in the later stage of your career.  But it would not, in my opinion, Sir, be wise to base your future plan on such miracles.”

One would say, how can such piercing beauty exist in this world? This choral composition is by Morten Lauridsen, an American (!) composer. There goes my hypothesis that all things beautiful come from the Old land.

The title of this piece is Dirait-on, which means ‘one would say’.  It is a part of the poem Les chansons des roses by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  Lauridsen set this poem to choral composition.


  1. I have difficulty suppressing fangirlish giggles while watching Sherlock.  Considering that I always watched it in my office PC, it is rather disadvantageous to my professional image.
  2. I surf those Sherlock-mania tumblr sites practically every day.  The Final Problem gives the highest satisfaction so far.
  3. As a result of #2, now I smiled foolishly every time I saw a traffic cone.  Which is often.  I just realized that there are three traffic cones in the basement of my block in NUS.
  4. While we are discussing Sherlock, let me remind you that 4th May is recognized as the Reichenbach Day.
  5. I watched Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy just because someone is in it.  Yesterday I watched the unaired pilot of Sherlock, and today I watched Hawking.  I do not normally praise people lavishly, but Mr. Cumberbatch IS A GREAT ACTOR.  In Hawking, in the scene where the young Hawking enthusiastically explained his brilliant idea by drawing in the pavement using a chalk, for a moment, I did not see the actor.  Instead, I saw the laugh, the smile we often saw in photographs of Hawking. (On a separate note: Professor Hawking deserves a great amount of respect).
  6. I have always thought that Smaug is not a proper villain.  Not intended as such, and does not come across as such.  Now I am convinced.  Smaug is not evil.  How can he be, with such an adorable voice?  And, oh, the dragon looks cute with the dark blue scarf.
  7. At least I am not alone in this embarrassing situation.  It has been reported that a considerable number of intelligent, adult women all over the world is suffering from the Benedict Cumberbatch situation.

“We would love to attend, but we will be overseas on that date. So sorry.”

“Oh, how unfortunate.  I really want you to come.”

“You should have told us earlier.”

“I guess so.  But I thought it would be impolite to invite you without a formal invitation … and I had no idea how much I wanted you to attend before you told me you could not make it.”

“Do not be so upset.  After all, wedding is for family and friends …”

“Exactly.  And you are perhaps the closest to friends that I have all these years.”

(after an awkward silence) “You really need to manage your life better.”

“I know that.  I do not need you to teach me of my peril.  I know I am rather screwed up.”

David, king of Israel, uttered that heart-breaking cry upon learning that his third son had been killed.  O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God that I had died for thee!

It occurred to me that many decades after, another parent in the same land might have uttered a similar lament.  As she cradled his son’s battered body in her arms, Mary might have had the same thought.   O my son, my son, my son! Would God that I had died for thee!   The phrase “heart-breaking” applies to her even more than it does David, for a sword pierced her soul, too.

I could not help thinking that perhaps a father might have cried together with her.  O my son, my son, my son!  Except that the Father would not say ‘would God’, I suppose.  But this is something that I would not venture to speculate or write about.

And of course, throughout the ages, many parents throughout the world have had to suffer a similar painful moment.  Young soldiers killed in battles; children died of various illnesses; teenagers died of traffic accidents … Why, my own grandmother buried two of her eight children.  I believe that to outlive one’s children is among the most grievous miseries one could experience.

To return to our first subject (please bear my imaginations), long after David came to the land of the dead, on what must have been a very strange day in Hades, perhaps he learned that another son of his had died.  And this time the death served a greater purpose.  Absalom died as he betrayed his father; this other Son died for David.  Absalom died as he rebelled against David’s reign; this other Son of David died to right another, much more ancient, rebellion.