The Pros and Cons of a Local PhD

"Should I go abroad for that PhD or should I do it locally?" This was the question I asked myself when I graduated with my first degree not too many years ago. Today, as an advisor to my own juniors, I am asked the same question over and over again. So, what, I wonder, should I tell today's aspiring scientists?

Before the mid-1990s there were strong pros to making that leap overseas. And the cons weighed rather more heavily on the local PhDs. For example, there was little choice regarding the research area you could work on in Singapore--even within a broad area of interest. Most of the time, you just had to settle for what was available. Whatever was there was there, and you either took it or left it.

Moreover, research facilities were sparse, and laboratories, particularly the smaller ones, were scantily equipped. Research grants were meager--we'd never heard of multimillion-dollar research grants in those days. And in some laboratories, it wasn't unusual to see students recycling pipette tips and polypropylene tubes. There were hardly any computers dedicated to graduate students and many had to buy their own in order to facilitate their thesis work. On the personal front, graduate students had to cope with significant financial constraints because the studentships and scholarships they were offered were hardly adequate. There were no on-campus hostels to lessen the burden of paying for off-campus accommodations. On top of all that, before the cap on the duration of scholarships was imposed, it wasn't uncommon to encounter supervisors who were only too eager to drag out a student's PhD program.

But for the many local PhDs, the greatest shock came only after they had finally graduated: They were, more often than not, turned away from sought-after university positions. People with PhDs from foreign institutions, whether or not they were Singaporeans, were invariably preferred, for whatever reason. There was thus little opportunity for those with local PhDs to prove themselves in such capacities.

For the local PhDs, one had to be really outstanding to stand a better chance than the foreign PhDs. I remembered the anguish of a friend of mine when he was turned away and frankly advised to go to the United States for a couple of years to get that "foreign exposure" before applying for another job. It didn't matter that he used to be among the cream in his class and was, proudly, among the pioneering batches of PhDs from the most prestigious research institute here. Disappointed after a few attempts, my friend switched directions and has since found himself a nonacademic, non-R&D career in the private sector.

Times have, as they say, now changed. And the changes, as I see them, have been nothing short of phenomenal. This is especially apparent since Singapore began its race to remake its economy 2 or 3 years ago. In the past couple of years alone, millions of dollars have been invested to boost the local knowledge-based sector. Research institutes have sprung up by the dozen. Concurrently, local universities went on restructuring their courses and revamping their curricula to keep abreast of the new economy. They have also teamed up with industry to provide more and better practical training for their students.

Today, our graduates are spoilt for choices when it comes to picking a PhD program. From the more traditional courses in zoology, physics, and chemistry to the newest programs in nanoscience, bioengineering, materials sciences, biotechnology, genomics, proteomics, computational biology, bioinformatics, biomedical sciences, pharmaceutical sciences, and environmental engineering; you name it, we have it. R&D facilities abound, too. Currently, there are probably no fewer than 20 specialized research institutes and specialty centers engaging in R&D work and in the training of PhD students nationwide. Walk into any such center now, and you will surely be greeted with gleaming state-of-the-art facilities and the latest research equipment. Many even boast robotized workstations and, I'm sure, none need to recycle their plastic ware!

A PhD student here today is likely to work with a team of multidisciplinary researchers headed by an established local or imported scientist. The group will inevitably have professional links or even collaborations with prestigious institutions or research centers overseas. The student will have access to the best facilities and equipment and will be taught not only by local experts but also by visiting professors and scientists from institutions around the world. These individuals might come attached to certain laboratories or they might give or attend workshops, seminars, and lectures. On top of that, today's student will have no lack of opportunities for the occasional overseas exposure, as funds to support short attachments or travel to conferences overseas are now more readily available.

On the personal front, too, life has been made much easier for the graduate students. Not the least, there is ample, quality on-campus accommodation. And I mean good quality! Easy access to dedicated computer clusters around the campus provides much convenience. Good financial support schemes such as loans, scholarships, top-up grants, and teaching assistantships are available. Today's scholarships also come in bigger and more generous packages. Moreover, for most scholarship holders, tuition fees are waived for them. And how about those scholarships that even offer fully sponsored postdoctoral fellowships overseas plus a job back home upon completion? With so many international collaborations and memoranda of understanding with foreign institutions worked out, it is now even possible for local students to work towards a PhD degree from a foreign university. This is like getting the best of both worlds! Now, do you still need to seek for greener pastures abroad to do your PhD?

Of course, a foreign PhD--especially if it is from one of the top institutions in the world--still comes with that extra "oomph," and employers will continue to value that. But, not many students can afford to go for a foreign PhD on their own, and there aren't as many scholarships that support such activities. If you can afford it, or if you are fortunate enough to secure one of those few foreign PhD scholarships, by all means, go for it. But certainly for most, it seems clear that going for a local PhD--coupled with some foreign exposure--is the best bargain. With strong government support, increasing job openings in the R&D sector, and changing employers' mindset, there is little to doubt about your future. Local PhDs are increasingly viewed as equally as competitive as foreign ones. So, in this day and age, you can definitely do a world-class PhD locally and be well assured of your future employment as well. Obviously, the pros have already outweighed the cons. So, if I were asked to make a choice today, I would opt to do a local PhD, within the comfort of what I call home.

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