Academia vs Industry: the Singapore case

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 thought on “Academia vs Industry: the Singapore case

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  1. Hi,
    ga sengaja nemu blog ini berkat google search. kebetulan aku sekarang juga lagi ambil Master di NUS n lagi gumulin mo ambil PhD atau ga. boleh minta kontaknya ga tuk ngobrol ngobrol lebih lanjut? hehe

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