Piled, High & Deep:

Choosing the Long Doctoral Road

I am hardly a typical candidate for a Ph.D. Having spent my formative years in the school rugby team, chasing odd-shaped balls as well as skirts (and having somewhat more success with the former), I barely scraped through my "A" levels. I did not inspire the confidence of the tutors of the elite junior college that I somehow wrangled my way into. After all, while the other more industrious students in my cohort spent most of their waking hours perched behind the long oak desks of the library, I was far more acquainted with the library's couch, paying pilgrimage to the slumber goddess (confession: more often than not, I overslept between classes).

Still, by a couple of fortuitous strokes of the divine fountain pen, I found myself in one tertiary institution after another, such that I am now the only one among my rugby mates still stuck in school. And having been exposed to studying in three continents, I am often asked about what it takes to do graduate studies abroad. After all, in today's competitive world, having the basic degree no longer distinguishes the individual in the job market - leading more and more of us to seek a more convincing signaling device. So here it is; the lowdown on graduate education, from the perspective of a Singaporean student.

What It's Not

Perhaps the best place to begin is to define what the doctorate is not, and then to move on to describe what it actually is. The Ph.D. is definitely not:

  • A walk in the park
    Doing the Ph.D. requires an investment of time, intellectual resources, and energy. It is often a long, drawn-out process, and although it can be very fulfilling, it can be frustrating as well. There is nothing worse than finding out that a key result that you were trying to prove just isn't supported by the data; or discovering that the groundbreaking theory you had spent the past 12 months on just got published by someone else.

  • An instant passport to wealth and fame
    Although some Ph.D.s do end up with high-flying jobs that pay a truckload of cash, most have to settle more remuneration that is far closer to earth. This is especially so if you choose to specialize in, for example, East Asian literature as opposed to quantitative finance. Similarly, no one is going to set up your own personal fan club just because you have a "Dr" in front of your name (except perhaps your mother, who has been your greatest fan anyhow).

  • Something chicks simply dig
    Ahem. Hardly.

What It Is

Now that we've dispensed with the negatives, there is actually a silver lining. The degree could very well be:

  • A necessity for a particular job or profession
    For example, you may wish to be a serious economist working in the IMF, or perhaps a biochemist in Glaxo-Wellcome. These jobs usually expect the Ph.D. at the entry level, and so getting the Ph.D. becomes a necessity, not just another fancy certification to hang on the wall. Likewise, if you're planning on a career in academia, you'll pretty much need the doctorate to establish credibility, even if you're the best mind since Einstein.

  • A potential signal to your employer
    As alluded to above, a Ph.D. requires grit and guts. Some employers value these qualities, and recognize that a Ph.D. holder actually embodies these positives. Hence, you might land a job that you otherwise would not without 10 years prior experience, or perhaps get an offer for a job in the financial world even though your Ph.D. is in history. Don't bank on it, though.

  • An opportunity to expand your horizons
    Believe it or not, you actually learn more about life than just your chosen field when you embark on a Ph.D.. Assuming that you will choose to head overseas for the degree, it is a chance to explore the wider world, out of the tiny confines of this little island. As anyone who has stayed abroad for a period of time will tell you, the intangible benefits of the stint cannot be easily quantified - yet, they are real and are something you will carry about with you for the rest of your life.

  • A chance to get a job overseas
    Many graduates from overseas schools move on to the job market in the countries where they obtained their degree. Although there is no guarantee, holding a Ph.D. from, say, the U.S. would make it far easier to get your foot into the U.S. job market than if you didn't graduate there. Look at it as an open ticket, but not a certain boarding pass.

  • A possibly stable income
    Although you won't be rolling in dough, most Ph.D.s will be able to land a job that provides a fairly comfortable income, and a relatively sheltered lifestyle. Clearly, this is dependent on your chosen field (as well as whether you intend to be an ivory tower academic), but you will find few Ph.D.s begging in the streets.

  • A way to dig really deep in your subject
    Ideal for those who are either seeking self-actualization or are closet masochists.

Am I Ready?

So you've decided that the benefits clearly outweigh the costs, and you're hungry for those three letters after your name. Before you launch off into the murky world of higher education for God-knows-how-long, you'll need to ask yourself some serious questions: am I ready to dedicate the next 4-5 years of my life into this subject? Or will I be a grad-school dropout? Here are some checklist points to quiz yourself:

  • Do I have what it takes?
    Most decent programs require that you have a prior first degree as a prerequisite qualification. For U.S. universities, a 4-year bachelor's (or a honors degree if you did your undergraduate studies in a British-patterned system) is expected before you can apply for graduate school. Most U.K. programs require you to possess a masters first; this can be undertaken en route to the Ph.D. (contingent on acceptable grades in the masters program). Australian departments accept students into doctoral programs after an honors year; if you came from a 3-year program they might request that you undertake a masters in preparation for the Ph.D.. Eventually, the amount of time spent in any of these systems will work out to be about the same, since the British Ph.D. would need you to hold a masters first, and the Australian one requires you to learn the ropes in an honors year.

  • Do I really love the subject?
    U.K. and Australian Ph.D.s typically last for 3-4 years (depending on the rate of progress in your research). American Ph.D.s are slightly longer (about 5 years), since most disciplines require about 2 years of mandatory coursework. This is a serious investment of time, energy and (in some cases, as discussed below) money. Unless you really like what you plan to do, don't do it. There's nothing worst than feeling cheated out of the prime years of your life doing something you absolutely detested.

  • Have I got research experience/a research agenda?
    Although not strictly necessary - many doctoral students sign up with scant idea of what they plan to research on - making up your mind early will help speed the process of doing your Ph.D. along, and save futile floundering about in the early years of your research phase desperately trying to decide on something interesting to write about.

  • Are there any additional hoops I would need to jump through?
    Unless you did your undergraduate studies in a program where English was the medium of instruction, you would probably need to do the TOEFL (easy, but tedious nonetheless). For entry into U.S. universities, you will need to do the GRE general, and on occasion the GRE subject test (not as easy). In addition, most departments require you to provide a personal statement of your research interests and personal goals (U.K. and Australian schools also expect a short research proposal, which outlines the work that you plan to engage in).

Shopping Around

So you're saying: I know what it is, and I'm ready for the long haul. But how do I decide on where to go? This is probably the most critical decision you will need to make. Just like how you need to shop around for that perfect pair of jeans, you'll need to do some research on which program best suits you. Some things to consider include:

  • Qualification
    Do I really want to do a Ph.D., or is a masters sufficient? In the U.S., some Ph.D. programs do not provide a terminal masters degree; as such, you will need to apply for the doctoral program if you plan on graduate work. If you plan on joining the business world, an MBA would be far more useful (and in some cases, prestigious) than a Ph.D.. Likewise, if you're a lawyer or doctor you might be better served by an LLM/JD or a specialization, as opposed to a Ph.D., unless you plan to go into academia.

  • Location
    Should I go to Australia, the U.K., or the U.S.? Or perhaps seek the degree somewhere else in Europe (continental chicks do, after all, have a certain allure). This depends on your discipline. For example, for disciplines such as economics and computer science, the U.S. has the best programs. The U.K. is strong in others, especially the humanities. Australian degrees tend to be the easiest on the pocket, since the Aussie dollar is comparable to the Sing. Note, also, that rankings on U.S. programs vary widely across disciplines - a brand name may not be completely indicative of the quality of the program. Furthermore, unless you pursued your undergraduate studies in a European country, and hence are comfortable with the language, it is probably not realistic to choose a country where English is not the medium of instruction (that been said, there are an increasing number of European schools offering advanced degrees in English). Finally, do not underestimate the extrinsic qualities of the town where you will do the degree - you are going to be there for a good number of years, and if you're not a cold weather person, the Midwestern United States, with its 5-inch snows, might not be for you.

  • Program Curricula
    Things to look out for: What are the requirements for the degree? How renown is the faculty? Will I be able to find an advisor who shares similar research interests (this is especially important in the U.K. and Australia, where Ph.D. students typically work with only one professor throughout the duration of their Ph.D.)? What is the ranking of the university in the particular field? One often-overlooked issue in this respect is the teaching curricula. Although there is some level of standardization across schools, the absence of taught courses in a particular area that you might be interested in may be a critical factor, especially since this is also highly correlated with the presence of quality faculty in that sub-field.

  • Costs/Financial Aid
    Many Ph.D. programs provide financial aid for their students through the first few years (subject to renewal, which is in turn dependent on your progress). Scholarships abound; some are offered by Singaporean institutions (such as NUS or MAS), while others might find it more fruitful to chase after scholarships offered by foreign bodies. For example, if you are enrolled in an English university, you can compete for an Overseas Research Studentship, which has no bond. U.S. schools will also offer a financial aid package that covers fees plus a modest stipend, in exchange for some teaching or research assistantships.

In summary, always remember that the sky's the limit when you're embarking on something as serious as a doctorate. Undoubtedly, there are considerations such as family, friends and career to ponder about. But if you've decided on it, my best advice is to go for it, and excel in it. Hey, you're only young once.

Useful Tools

I have provided some useful resources for the Singaporean student seeking to do graduate studies in the three main English-speaking destinations. Of course, the listed resources are by no means exhaustive, but that is a minor problem in today's information society. The resourceful individual will no doubt supplement these with material specific to their discipline and chosen country.

Physical world

Good places to begin sourcing for information on graduate studies in general are the various information agencies/representatives for the different countries. A couple are listed below.

U.S. Education Information Center (Singapore)
12 Prince Edward Road
#01-03 Podium A, Bestway Building
Singapore 079212
Tel: 6226 6996
Fax: 6223 0550
Web: http://useic.org
Email: inquiry@useic.com.sg

The British Council Singapore
30 Napier Road
Singapore 258509
Tel: 6473 1111
Fax: 6472 1010
Web: http://www.britishcouncil.org.sg
Email: ukstudy@britishcouncil.org.sg

Australian High Commission in Singapore
25 Napier Road
Singapore 258507
Tel: 6836 4100
Fax: 6737 5400
Web: http://www.singapore.embassy.gov.au
Email: public-affairs-sing@dfat.gov.au

You might also wish to consider attending the various education fairs organized by higher education institutions, usually in collaboration. Although these tend to be targeted at undergraduates, many of them fly in faculty representatives that can be very helpful in assisting in the application process and in answering queries. The British Universities Fair, as well as its Australian counterpart, tends to be held in mid-March/April (after the release of the 'A' level results). However, Australian universities periodically hold fairs over the course of the year, albeit usually on a smaller scale. There isn't a singular American university fair, since the U.S. has so many schools; some might band together to organize exhibitions, but you are probably better served seeking out the USEIC.

Virtual World

Re-Envisioning the Ph.D.

This is a good starting point, and includes resources for doctoral students on obtaining the Ph.D. and obtaining employment. Web pages contain topics such as surviving graduate school, choosing a thesis advisor, preparing for the comprehensive exams, teaching, research, publishing, writing CVs and resumes, jobs, funding and more.

U.S. News Best Graduate Schools

The U.S. News report on school rankings usually the best-selling issue of U.S. News every year. The website, which is available to subscribers, includes in-depth rankings by discipline. The site itself also provides useful tools such as articles on whether one should pursue graduate studies, information about the GRE, statistics on acceptance rate and the like.

UK Higher Education Map

This clickable map includes links to the websites of all recognized universities, university colleges and higher education colleges in the United Kingdom. Topics include the postgraduate prospectus, research assessment rankings, quality assurance agency reports, academic departments, and contact information. See also the links at the bottom of the page, which includes the British Council Education Information Service as well as the Times' Good University Guide.

Australian Universities
Government Quality Ranking System

The first of these sites is an alphabetical list of links to the homepages of all Australian universities. The second site, provided by the University of Wollongong, yields the results of three rounds of quality reviews for Australian universities, between 1993-95. The first assessment is possibly the most insightful, as it provides the most distinction between schools.

This article is unpublished.