Career Opportunities for PhDs in Singapore

Doctorate degree holders (PhDs) represent an extremely small but vital group of the Singapore workforce. With the nation gradually transitioning to a knowledge-based economy, the demand for this highly qualified group of people is increasing by the day. With more postdoctoral positions in universities and research institutes/centres and a new demand for highly qualified knowledge workers in the private sector, PhDs today have many more career options than their predecessors a decade ago. However, getting onto the ideal career path is still a daunting task for many fresh PhDs. Just finding any job that pays is not a problem to most. What is challenging is getting onto the springboard that would kick-start you along the path of your choice. This calls for good decision-making that involves an awareness of your core identity, interests, capabilities, preferences, and values and on the translation of these criteria into appropriate career choices. The rest is really up to you. ...

Academia: Conventional Favorite

The old-time favorite--academic teaching and research--has never lost its appeal. A career in academia is still coveted as a lifetime of social respectability, notwithstanding the fact that tenure-tracks in universities are being phased out. For most PhDs, a direct transition from a studentship to a postdoctoral fellowship in academia is often the most natural path for them. This is especially so for those who are academically inclined, have a flair for scientific inquiry, and most of all, aspire to be experts in their fields. Currently, Singapore's universities, namely, the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technology University, their affiliated research institutes, and other independent research centres (see sidebar) remain the major recruiters for PhDs. And postdoctoral positions have increased dramatically over the past year due to several new government initiatives in R&D, particularly in the biomedical sciences. In fact, the demand for postdocs has never been greater.

Working conditions for postdocs vary from laboratory to laboratory, depending on the nature of the research, as well as the mentor or principal investigator you work for. You will usually be assigned specific projects, and if you are lucky, you will have one or more research and/or technical staff members to assist you. Annual remuneration for postdocs varies, depending on their academic background, level and relevance of expertise, and funds available. A random sampling by Next Wave Singapore shows annual packages ranging from SGD$52,200 to SGD$75,400. The downside: All postdoctoral positions are contract-based and do not guarantee any direct promotion to the position of principal investigator or assistant professor. Moreover, opportunities at senior levels are rare, being wholly dependent on steady turnover or new positions created by expansion.

R&D Sites in Singapore

National University of Singapore

Nanyang Technology University

National Heart Centre

National Cancer Centre

KK Women's and Children's Hospital

National Skin Centre

National Neuroscience Institute

National University Hospital

Singapore General Hospital

Tan Tock Seng Hospital

Singapore National Eye Centre/Singapore Eye Research Institute

Institute of Microelectronics (IME)

Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB)

Kent Ridge Digital Labs (KRDL)

Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) Bioprocessing Technology Centre

Data Storage Institute (DSI)

Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC)

Institute of Molecular Agrobiology (IMA) Bioinformatics Institute (BII)

Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS)

National University Medical Institutes (NUMI)

Tropical Marine Science Institute (TMSI)

Advanced Materials Research Centre

Biomedical Engineering Research Centre

Centre for High Performance Embedded Systems

Centre for Mechanics of Micro-Systems

Bioinformatics Centre (BIC) Defence Medical Research Institute (DMRI)

Centre for Signal Processing (CSP)

Environmental Engineering Research Centre

Environmental Technology Institute (ETI)

Gintic Institute of Manufacturing Technology

Microelectronics Centre

Centre for Natural Product Research (CNPR)

Johns Hopkins Singapore Pte Ltd (JHS)

GEA-NUS Pharmaceutical Processing Research Laboratory

Lilly-NUS Centre for Clinical Pharmacology

New Economy Choices: Industrial and Clinical Research & Development

While there are good reasons for some to stay on to pursue R&D in academia, industry offers equally exciting careers. Today, it makes more sense to look for a job that provides not just prestige and respectability but also a reasonable chance for career development. With the changing economic climate, many high-tech industries are moving into R&D and doing a lot of good "R". Multinational corporations--including pharmaceutical and biotech giants like Chiron Corp., Elli-Lilly, Pharmacia Corp., Affymetrix, and Applied Biosystems--are also shifting some of their R&D operations or expertise into Singapore. With these moves come many new opportunities for knowledge workers, including PhDs.

In this sector, pharmaceutical industries remain the most alluring employers and top recruiters of science PhDs. Pharmaceutical industries, in particular those with R&D operations here, have been taking in quite a significant number of PhDs in the past few years to fuel their needs in powering clinical research. Among them are Novo-Nordisk; Pharmacia Corp., which runs the Pharmacia Clinical Research Unit at Singapore General Hospital; and Elli-Lilly, which runs a clinical pharmacology research center.

In clinical research, PhDs are mostly recruited as clinical investigators, research associates, or biostaticians, depending on their academic background and area of expertise. While biomedical PhDs are favored, mathematically inclined PhDs in biostatistics or equivalent academic discipline are recruited as research biostaticians. Clinical investigators direct the investigation of new drugs for efficacy and safety, whereas research associates conduct the experiments and record the results. They also are responsible for monitoring and managing off-site investigations, as well as protocol preparation, status reporting, data collection, and compilation of reports associated with the investigations. Biostaticians analyze the data and generate reports to communicate the results. Good organizational skills and an eye for detail are essential attributes if you want to take up a career in clinical research. And if you opt to be a research associate, you must be prepared for some travel. Some companies with multicentered trials may require you to travel as much as 60% to 80% of the time.

In the biotechnology industries, PhDs are being recruited for positions such as application scientists, research scientists, and even managers. Unlike their academic counterparts, industrial scientists set their goals against specific commercially driven products or solutions. While research scientists work in the background doing mostly R&D work, application scientists often need to stay in the frontline to provide specialized support for the end users of their products. The products could be anything from a propriety assay system to high-tech equipment. You will need not only good knowledge, but also good communication skills, as a fair amount of interactions with customers is expected. As for the managerial positions, they are essentially supervisory roles requiring you to plan and prioritize goals for the company and providing your team the tools that they need to achieve the corporate objectives. Most scientists may find the transition to management intimidating, but rest assured, if you have strong planning and organizational abilities, you can make it. Most management skills can be acquired on the job.

Remuneration in industry varies considerably from company to company, and Next Wave Singapore's inquiries suggest that the range is very wide. On the whole, though, you can usually expect better remuneration in industry than in the public sector. Our sampling suggests that other than the regular salary, most industries also offer various perks to their employees. Equities and stock options are not uncommon, and some companies have performance-based plans that reward select employees with discretionary options. Although jobs in industry are not contract-based and are therefore considered "permanent", downsizing due to mergers and organizational restructurings frequently affect them.

Administrative Careers: Opportunities in Government Ministries and Statutory Boards

Administrative careers are best for those who really like paper work and who enjoy doing mostly routine things. Statutory boards and government ministries offer various opportunities for PhDs. The Health Science Authority, the Economic Development Board, the National Science and Technology Board, and the associated Research Councils (the Biomedical Research Council, the Science and Engineering Research Council, and the National Medical Research Council) take in PhDs for positions such as senior officers, scientific officers, and regulatory scientists. The most interesting of these is the regulatory scientist, whose job responsibilities include reviewing and evaluating studies submitted by manufacturers in support of new drug applications, as well as evaluating the quality and adequacy of manufacturers' tests to determine validity of drug safety and efficacy claims. They also write reviews of application data. On the other hand, senior and scientific officers may serve any of the many portfolios, encompassing areas such as laboratory services, R&D funding and manpower development, corporate services, planning, and policy. Remuneration is very similar to that of academia, but there is an added advantage in that most of these positions are not contract or fund-based. As such, job security is there and linear career progression within the organization is almost guaranteed.

Emerging Areas: Cross-Disciplinary Careers

Cross-disciplinary careers for scientists are fast making their way into the public vernacular here. Such emerging careers include those of patent agents, bioinformaticians, and bioengineers. All these careers require cross-disciplinary knowledge and interests, and most of the time, they require additional training and certification in the secondary area. The ease of transition from either side depends on the job's nature. The challenges are to be able to understand the lingua franca of both disciplines and to interact adequately with other cross-discipline people. On top of that, you will need excellent communication skills to thrive in the field. Currently, there are local postgraduate courses in bioinformatics, bioengineering, and intellectual property law for those who are seriously considering making the transition.

If you are a biologist with good computing skills, a career in bioinformatics is perhaps one of the best choices today. You will need to have good analytical skills and excellent attention to detail. The pay is excellent, and the opportunities are currently unfathomable. With today's explosion of genetic data, the demand for people in this area is ever increasing. Similarly, for bioengineering, with technology heading toward the nanoscale, the potential for developing novel and clinically useful products and probes is tremendous. There are very few local predecessors in these areas, and as such, early comers can expect a quick move up the ladder.

For the more technically inclined, a move into the lucrative field of patent law, in which the remuneration can be as much as SGD$90,000 per annum, could prove to be the best career decision now. Good communication and writing skills are a prerequisite. As a typical patent agent, you will draft the specifications for an invention and submit them for patent application. At the moment, most law firms in Singapore still channel the drafting of the specifications to patent attorneys or agents overseas, but this is set to change as more scientists and engineers prepare themselves to enter the field.

Although switching careers is not as easy as switching lanes on the road, those geared to switch at appropriate times would score well in any arena. As Darwin himself pointed out, it is the versatile breed that leaves its mark in a changing scene.

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