Archives for posts with tag: phd

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.”


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.

Dari percakapan dengan beberapa orang, jadi terinspirasi untuk menulis artikel ini.

1. Apakah PhD itu?

PhD atau panjangnya Doctor of Philosophy merupakan gelar yang diberikan pada seseorang yang telah menyelesaikan studi tingkat doktoral (strata 3). Dari gelarnya dapat dilihat bahwa orang dengan gelar ini -seharusnya- berkemampuan dan berkemauan untuk menjadi seorang doktor (dalam bahasa aslinya berarti pengajar / guru) dan menguasai bidang ilmunya secara mendalam. Tidak sekedar tahu rumus-rumus dan metode-metode, tetapi mengerti benar dasar, tujuan, dan alasan dari semua rumus dan metode tersebut. Salah satu definisi lain, yang rasanya tidak salah, menyebutkan PhD sebagai Permanent Head Damage.

2. Apa bedanya gelar PhD dengan Doktor?

Tergantung bidang ilmu dan jenis studinya, ada macam2 gelar doktor, misal PhD, ThD, Doctor of … dst. Dalam penggunaan sehari2, kita menyapa orang dengan Dr A, Dr. B, bukan A, PhD. Embel2 PhD hanya disertakan di keperluan surat menyurat resmi. Atau di surat undangan nikah dan iklan kematian, kalau kamu orang Indonesia.

Di Indonesia, perbedaan PhD dan Doktor menjadi penting karena universitas2 di Indonesia belum diakui secara internasional untuk menganugerahkan gelar PhD pada seseorang. Itu sebabnya gelar yang diberikan kalau lulus S3 dari univ di Indonesia adalah Doktor, dan bukan PhD. Beberapa dosen saya di ITB dulu ga pernah mau gelarnya ditulis Doktor. Maunya PhD. Enak aja, kata mereka, sekolahnya susah buat dapet PhD!

3. Ngapain aja studi PhD itu?

Sama seperti anak TK: belajar membaca, menulis, berhitung. Yang terakhir ini bahkan tidak perlu untuk bidang studi tertentu.

Studi PhD biasanya ditempuh dalam waktu 4 – 6 tahun. Ada yang lebih singkat, kebanyakan lebih lama 😀 Di Civil Engineering Dept. NUS, rata-rata 5 tahun. Dengar-dengar di Purdue bisa 3.5 tahun dan di Univ. of Chicago bisa 9 tahun. 1 – 2 tahun awal biasanya diisi dengan mengambil kuliah-kuliah yang sekiranya akan mendukung penelitian dan meningkatkan peluang kelulusan dalam Qualifying Exam. Sisa masa studi digunakan untuk melakukan penelitian yang nantinya akan dituangkan dalam thesis / disertasi.

4. Apa saja tahapan-tahapan penting (milestones) dalam studi PhD? 

Harus lulus Qualifying Exam. Ujian ini intinya menilai penguasaan si mahasiswa PhD akan dasar-dasar bidang ilmunya. Tidak hanya terbatas pada topik penelitiannya, tetapi juga konsep-konsep dasar lain dalam bidang ilmunya. Umumnya ditempuh dalam 1-2 tahun pertama.

Harus menyusun proposal penelitian yang jelas dan mempertahankan proposal ini di depan panel yang berisi para profesor yang dirasa ahli di bidang penelitian tersebut. Umumnya ditempuh dalam 2 – 3 tahun pertama.

Memperoleh temuan hasil penelitian yang cukup layak untuk dipublikasikan dalam jurnal internasional ataupun seminar internasional. Di Civil Eng. NUS, standarnya berkisar antara 2-3 makalah jurnal dan 2-3 makalah seminar. Mengingat jurnal-jurnal teknik sipil umumnya memakan waktu 8 bulan – 1 tahun untuk proses review dan revisi saja, menerbitkan makalah dalam jurnal bukan hal mudah. Untuk mengakali hal ini, ada mahasiswa yang mengirim makalahnya ke jurnal yang editor utamanya adalah profesornya sendiri. Yes, some of us do sink that low.

5. Apa itu penelitian?

Kalau ada yang tahu, berilah saya pencerahan!

Menurut legenda, penelitian itu upaya tiada henti untuk menemukan sesuatu yang BARU dan BERGUNA. Baru artinya di seluruh dunia belum pernah ada yang melakukan seperti yang kita lakukan. Berguna artinya kita tahu hasil penelitian ini bakal dibuat apa nantinya, bukan sekedar untuk memuaskan keingintahuan saja.

Untuk bidang engineering, tidak perlu sampai menemukan rumus baru atau material baru. Yang umum dilakukan adalah menyusun metode baru untuk menghitung / mengukur sesuatu, memperbaiki metode yang sudah ada, menerapkan metode yang sudah ada untuk memecahkan kasus yang di seluruh dunia dari jaman Nuh sampai sekarang belum berhasil dipecahkan, atau combine two methods in a smart way (kata profesor saya).

6. Darimana datangnya topik penelitian?

Umumnya mahasiswa PhD sudah punya ketertarikan pada topik tertentu (dalam skala luas). Dari ketertarikan inilah kami memilih universitas / profesor  yang kira-kira sesuai. Meskipun ada pertimbangan lain, misal universitas yang menawarkan beasiswa menggiurkan. Lalu topik yang lebih dalam dan spesifik akan muncul dari hasil membaca kira-kira 100 makalah selama 1 – 2 tahun, diskusi dengan profesor, dan juga disesuaikan dengan proyek penelitian profesor saat itu, yang umumnya didanai oleh pemerintah atau industri.

7. Apa kegiatan sehari-hari mahasiswa PhD?

Bervariasi tergantung universitas, bidang studi, dan profesor.

Sebagai ilustrasi, jadwal sehari-hari saya diisi dengan melakukan perhitungan, termenung melihat hasil perhitungan yang aneh dan tidak sesuai teori, membaca makalah dan buku untuk mengecek teori dan mengecek apa ada  orang yang sudah mendului saya memecahkan hal ini, berdiskusi dengan prof tentang hasil dan langkah selanjutnya, gembira kalau sebab keanehan ditemukan, menulis makalah, di tengah menulis sadar bahwa hasil saya kurang, balik menghitung lagi, menulis, revisi sekitar 5x dari prof, datang kuliah, membuat tugas kuliah, mengajar tutorial untuk anak2 S1, mengoreksi tutorial, datang seminar khususnya yang ada makan gratis. Semua kegiatan ini umumnya memakan waktu dari 9 am – 8 pm (dipotong waktu makan dan bingung).

8. Berapa ratio kelulusan program PhD?

Yang jelas tidak 100%. Pernah dengar dari teman katanya 50-50. Hiii. Tapi selama 2 thn saya menjadi mahasiswa PhD, memang melihat beberapa teman yang memutuskan mundur (atau diputuskan oleh Prof). Merasa tidak cocok dengan kehidupan sehari-hari yang isinya berpikir, merenung, membaca, menulis,  berhitung, dan bingung. Merasa ingin bekerja yang hasilnya lebih nyata. Insinyur sipil yang kerja di konsultan, begadang 3 malam menghasilkan perhitungan struktur. Yang kerja di kontraktor, kerja keras tahu-tahu gedungnya jadi. Bagi mahasiswa PhD, begadang berujung …. makalah, yang kadang pun ditolak oleh jurnal.

9. Jadi apa setelah lulus PhD?

Oh macam-macam. Yang masih cinta proses belajar mengajar dan meneliti, jadi researcher di universitas atau lembaga-lembaga riset. Yang mau lebih praktis, jadi staf R&D di perusahaan besar (sebab perusahaan kecil ga ada R&D nya). Yang udah muak (“no more research” kata teman satu lab saya) bisa kerja di industri sesuai bidang ilmu masing-masing. Contohnya, PhD on Civil Eng. bisa kerja di konsultan struktur atau bahkan kontraktor. Yang bahkan merasa muak dengan bidang studinya, bisa jadi pengusaha, agen properti (ada ini beneran), bintang sinetron (ini juga ada), atau bahkan komikus (yang ini bukan dari civil eng sih). 

10. Apa parameter seorang PhD yang baik?

Menurut wejangan yang saya terima dari para Begawan: menguasai konsep dasar bidang ilmunya, sangat menguasai topik penelitiannya, megikuti perkembangan terkini bidangnya, dapat menemukan topik-topik penelitian yang berguna untuk kehidupan dan dapat menyumbangkan solusi bermutu dalam topik tersebut.

Menurut khalayak umum (yang menurut saya tidak tepat): banyak menulis makalah dan ikut seminar dimana-mana. Lulus dalam 3 tahun.

11.Senangkah menjadi mahasiswa PhD?

Tidak senang kalau hasil perhitungan aneh. Lebih tidak senang lagi kalau sudah begitu, prof mengkritik. Paling tidak senang saat bingung tidak tahu langkah selanjutnya. Merasa tidak berguna saat paper ditolak atau dikritik tajam.Kadang merasa aneh saat teman seangkatan di SMA atau S1 sudah jadi manager, mencicil rumah dan mobil, nikah dan punya anak, sedangkan kita masih berstatus mahasiswa.

Senang saat tahu teman yang sudah lulus PhD dapat gaji gede (ok, we’re still human). Senang saat anak S1  yang diajar mengerti hal baru. Senang saat perhitungan yang sulit dapat dipecahkan. Senang sekali saat dapat mengerti hal baru tanpa diajari siapa-siapa. Senang saat paper diterima. Senang saat melihat profesor yang bermutu –sampai tua terus belajar, masih semangat mengajar dan meneliti– dan membayangkan suatu hari kelak saya akan menjadi seperti itu.

ditulis sambil menunggu perhitungan Matlab selesai. Tulisan sudah selesai, Matlab belum.

Tulisan berikutnya seputar kehidupan mahasiswa PhD dapat dilihat disini.

It is 10.39 pm and I have just come home, after spending whole day (whole 2 weeks, actually) preparing for the super-important (or, is it?) QE. I used to enjoy studying and I think I am still enjoying it. I still love to read all those textbooks, re-read those old structural analysis things, smile to myself whenever I understand any concepts better, and I still think mechanics and dynamics very beautiful; however, I begin to question whether it is enough. I mean, whether a liking (I think I should not boast by saying “love” or “passion” instead of liking) to a major is enough to climb the ivory tower I’m climbing now. Talent isn’t genious, Louisa May Alcott said through the voice of beautiful Amy March. I finished reading Alcott’s Little Women a week ago, and one of its heroine, Amy, was really talented for arts. However, when she traveled to Rome and stood face to face to the marvelous work of arts there, she realized that “talent isn’t genious”, and that she has to give up her dream of being a great artist, which she had cherished since her childhood merely because she is talented.

I hope that is not my case. I don’t think my dream is too high compared to my ability (or so I thought, up to now). I have never, as long as I remember, dreamt to stood in Stockholm podium. But I do have a dream of being a professor. I do have a dream that someday, in my 70th anniversary, my colleagues and students will gather to celebrate “a very fruitful life” as the civil engineering world did at Shinozuka’s. Is it too high a dream? But a dream has to be high, otherwise how can you call it a dream? Yet what I heard this afternoon makes me trembling. Will I survive? (I don’t even say, succeed – but may be in grad school the 2 terms are equal). What would my future be, I wonder?

Lord have mercy.