Archives for category: grad school

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.”

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Or more appropriately:

I could have talked all day, I could have presented (my work) all day, and still have begged for more,

I feel like I did spread my wings, and did a marvelous thing I’ve never done before,

Of course I know what made it so exciting, why all at once my heart took flight,

And I do know, when they nodded and smiled and signed the form, I could have talked, talked, talked all day!

In other words, I had my thesis examination yesterday, and got very excited during my presentation (my hands almost took flight several times, I guess). And after the examination, my professor announced rather dramatically to the audience waiting outside the room: “Doctor!”

And yes, last night my head was too light for me to sleep. Yet I forced myself to try to sleep, for Ascot the revision was waiting.

On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, submitted his 95 theses to his bishop. This eventually led to the Protestant Reformation. The word ‘thesis’ comes from a Greek word which means ‘position’.  For someone to say that he has a thesis means that he has a clear and firm position regarding a certain matter. Luther had such positions (he had not one, but 95 theses!) and defended them fiercely. The Pope excommunicated him, the Emperor issued a decree which put him under death sentence. Still, he did not move from his position.

Two days ago, I, a PhD student, submitted my thesis to the Registrar’s Office.  Now that I remember what thesis means, I am a bit overwhelmed. Why should the academic world adopt the word ‘thesis’? Perhaps we should find a humbler terminology. While I do have some positions that I sincerely argue for in my thesis, I am obviously not willing to die defending them. I would not insist that spatial variability must be considered in analysis of rainfall-induced landslides under the pain of death! Nor would I risk excommunication for my conviction that uncertainty is important.

Ah well, perhaps I was just thinking too much about my thesis.

These days I began to think and feel that in some ways, a thesis to a PhD student is not totally different from a child to a mother. Both are begotten through hard labour, and both make those who begot them keep thinking about them days and nights.

When you submit your thesis for examination, perhaps it feels like sending your baby for her first day of school. You sincerely hope that she will do well, that her teacher will be kind to her, yet you continuously worry that you have not prepared her enough for school.

When you receive your examiners’ review, some comments (hopefully there will be some!) might make you smile proudly as a mother to people who pointed out how cute her baby is. Some other comments (unfortunately there will be some!) might make you react as a mother hen whose chickens are threatened.

It seems that my post about PhD program has interested some people. I would like to add some tips here, either for those considering PhD or for those whose spouse / children / friends are journeying on the PhD path.

1. I guess this advice is much heard of: PhD students should consider themselves working on a professional, important job instead of being a student. This will avoid much disillusionment and disappointment in the later part of the program. (I read this advice on the guide for Purdue’s graduate school — and have now realized how true it is). Do not expect to have summer holidays — those are for undergrads. Do not expect that you will surely graduate just because you have been working hard for 4 years or more.  Again, that is for undergrads.  Do not expect that anyone will tell you what to do. 

2.Do not compare one’s achievement to others’. This is related to #1.  We all know that in real life, one’s achievement depends not only on one’s acumen, but also in his /  her environment.  Unlike in undergrad, where everyone has the same lecturer and sits for the same examinations, in PhD program each person will have different professor and different research topic.  Everyone is a unique case.  It is more similar to the real world than to schools.  We have seen bright young persons joining good companies / starting businesses, achieved many accomplishments, earned good money, etc.  On the other hand, we also have seen equally bright persons joining equally good companies / starting equally promising businesses, but failed miserably.  Well, the same thing for PhD.  So do not ask your friend / spouse / child those questions “why haven’t you graduated yet? Dr. X and Dr.Y started their PhD at the same time with you”, “did you hear that So and So are sent to SomeGreatUniversitiesOverseas ? so when is your turn?” Well, those are as rude as asking a person why he has no car while his neighbour has 3, given that they have been working for equally long period and that they have similar education background.

3. It is OK to quit PhD. People do quit their job for various reasons, don’t they? So the same thing applies.  But of course, as in everything else in life, it is advisable to decide to quit only after one is perfectly sure that he / she has given their best shot.

4. A personal retrospection.  These days I start to realize that one of the most important things I learn in my PhD is not related to my research.  I think that I have learned that everyone (perhaps there is a few exceptions) must at some points of their life feel like a loser.  I have encountered such points, and I realize that it is not the end of the world.  I have also learnt to be more sympathetic to those who are currently at such points. I have learnt to reject a false assumption of mine that those who do not succeed are simply not good enough or not trying hard enough.  And I begin to understand the beauty of the Gospel: that the Lord does not reject losers.

1. Made a summary of works done on 2009 – 2010. Some excerpts:

April 2010:  (1) try some adaptive M-H algorithms for high dimensional problems (without success, but at least gain some knowledge) (2) write ASRANet paper (3) advanced FEM exam — my last module!

May 2010: (1) attend SEAGC (2) review Z paper (3) finally got some good results for the transient analysis, which I have been working on since May last year!

June 2010: (1) write 6MIT paper based on the long-expected transient results (2) prepare ASRANet ppt (3) compare original & modified M-H with the same computational cost (4) revise PREM paper accordingly.

2. To do list for July 2010: (1) write chapter 4 based on SEAGC paper and the new transient results (2) write chapter 6 based on ICOSSAR and 6MIT paper (3) write literature review. Seems rather ambitious…just try to do and see how much I can accomplish.

3. My sister is expecting her second child. Finally!

4. Got gum infections — settled it by visiting a dentist. Realized that my backpain is still there after 1 year — try to see a doctor, buy a new mattress and swim regularly.

5. A series of engagement in the family, which indicates a series of wedding next year.  A cousin is getting engaged tomorrow, another cousin proposed to his girlfriend last month and will marry in December, two cousins will have their engagement later on this year and their wedding next year. Naturally, they all ask my parents about my plan. Which they properly answer with ‘no idea, she is still a student’.

Rabu, 16 Sept 09. Hari ini pergi ke conference dengan tekad: mengajukan pertanyaan. Hitung-hitung utk mengecek seberapa keras suaraku di tengah ruangan. Juga untuk membuka kontak dengan pembicara. Keynote lectures hari ini oleh Shinozuka (reliability analysis of port –sepertinya dia tertarik pada suatu sistem yang kompleks, tidak lagi pada analisis detail suatu struktur secara individu misal 1 gedung), Melchers (bicara tentang corrosion, aku tidak terlalu ngerti, tapi teman2 yang bekerja di bidang offshore sepertinya antusias mendengarkan) dan Kiureghian (tentang seismic risk). Melchers dari Australia dan kalau-kalau rencana research visit dapat terlaksana, dia termasuk dalam daftar profesor yang ingin kukunjungi. Dalam keynote lecture nya, Kiureghian menganjurkan kami mendatangi session salah satu muridnya untuk mendapat informasi detail ttg topik mereka. Seperti apa ya rasanya menjadi murid orang selevel Kiureghian?

Di session pagi ada yang presentasi tentang subset simulation dan neural network. Student dari Greece. Rambutnya gondrong, pake kaos oblong. Proposal pdf yang dia pakai untuk subset nya berbeda dari yang biasa kupakai. Aku bertanya, apa dia menganjurkan proposal pdf tersebut untuk general application atau khusus untuk problem dia. Sesuai prediksiku, jawabannya untuk problem dia. Well, at least my statement that optimal proposal pdf is problem-dependent is not wrong. Suaraku lumayan keras juga rupanya. Cukup lega. Siangnya, melihat presentasi dari research fellow nya JC. Subset simulation for multiple limit states. Aku agak heran, kok presentasinya agak tidak jelas. Presenternya bilang perlu mencari suatu objective function untuk mewakili semua limit state yang ada. Tapi tidak menjelaskan gimana mencari objective function nya. Ditanya bukankah objective function itu hanya kombinasi minimum -maximum untuk series – parallel system, dia bilang sistemnya tidak seri maupun paralel. ?? Aku dan Dr Beer saling berpandangan dan mengerutkan kening. O ya, aku mengambil brosur yang tersedia di receptionist, dan ada brosur ICASP 11. ICASP ini conference yang sangat penting dalam structural reliability, selain ICOSSAR. Dan ICASP 11 akan diadakan thn 2011 di Swiss! Oh, oh, oh, how I want to come! Saat itu juga langsung berpikir gimana caranya bisa dapet dana untuk kesana, mau submit paper apa, dan berharap aku dapat datang kesana as a young research fellow or academics, no longer a student. Tapi kalau masih student, ICASP tentunya kesempatan yang baik untuk menebar CV.

Di perjalanan pulang ke hotel aku beli onigiri. Bertemu seorang bapak yang aneh dari India (ikut conference juga, kami berkenalan di saat lunch). Hiiii. Menghindari dia, aku ke supermarket dulu dan naik ke hotel dari lantai 1, tidak dari lantai 2 seperti biasanya. Terbirit-birit masuk kamar. Melanjutkan latihan presentasi lagi. Kali ini sambil berdiri di depan cermin. Sudah hafal apa yang mau dikatakan saking seringnya diulang. Durasinya sekitar 14 – 15 menit, aku menitin.

Kamis, 17 Sept 09. Akhirnya hari Kamis juga!!! Paginya lecture note Prof Torgeir Moan. Sudah tidak konsen mendengarkan, kepikiran presentasi. Session geoteknik yang pagi tidak sesepi yang kutakutkan, tapi entah kenapa pendengar seperti kurang antusias berdiskusi. To my dismay, Prof Honjo is not coming 😦  Padahal aku berencana berkenalan dengannya. JC juga tidak nampak. Oh, well. Mungkin terlalu cepat untuk mengharapkan berkenalan dan memberikan CV pada conference pertama, ya.  Ada dua orang student JC yang present, dan kedua paper ini ditulis bersama Prof P.  Tentang Bayesian updating dan importance sampling. Presentasinya cukup baik, lebih genah dari yang research fellow kemarin. Tapi bagaimanapun, kesanku tentang JC menjadi agak kurang baik. Kesannya agak serampangan…

Setelah makan siang kilat, aku ke ruangan presentasi. Masih kosong. Mencoba bicara dan mendengar seberapa keras suaraku. Sebentar kemudian panitia dan moderator datang. Dr Beer juga dengan baik hati datang untuk melihat presentasiku. Kurasa aku presentasi dengan cukup baik. Ada 2 pertanyaan dan tidak sukar dijawab. Dr Beer mengacungkan jempol saat aku melihat ke arahnya. Wah, memang beda ya orang bule. Encouraging. Setelah presentasi, rasanya lega. Research fellow JC yang kemarin presentasi lagi. Lebih genah daripada yang kemarin.

Selesai presentasi, rasanya lega. Ada perasaan agak kecewa karena sedikit yang datang, tapi mencoba mengingatkan diriku untuk tidak terlalu banyak maunya 🙂 Di luar gedung bertemu dengan rombongan anak Norway yang ternyata sudah siap mau jalan2 ke kota (4 hari ini belum sempat lihat2 kota). Jadilah kami balik ke hotel untuk ganti baju terus jalan-jalan. Selain anak2 Norway, ada 1 anak HK yang ramah dan sudah hapal rute train dan bus Osaka dan Kyoto (mengingatkanku pada Chris, meski ternyata rute dia belum sekaliber Chris). Karena sudah sore menjelang malam, objek wisata sudah tutup, kami jalan2 di daerah Dotonbori, pusat makanan dan belanja oleh-oleh. Semarak dan luas sekali daerahnya. Mulai dari jejeran mall-mall besar, warung sushi, sampai pedagang kaki lima berjualan takoyaki, semuanya ada. Senang sekali melihatnya. Saat berjalan-jalan disitu, tiba-tiba saja aku jadi merasa begitu bersyukur. Di masa kecilku dulu, aku sering melihat dengan kagum pada orang-orang yang sekolah ke luar negeri. Dan sekarang aku juga mendapat kesempatan yang sama, plus bonus jalan-jalan dan berkenalan dengan teman-teman dari berbagai latar belakang.