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Get a doctorate in your 20s

Thinking of a PhD? See how you can get started. Young NTU PhD holders tell their stories
by Peter Yeo

Calvin Ng

“I used to joke that I pursued a PhD because I couldn’t get a job,” says Dr Calvin Ng, a postdoctoral fellow at University of Oxford who completed his PhD in environmental remediation and water purification at NTU two years ago.

Turning serious, he says: “About 10% of people in the world don’t have access to clean water. This problem is compounded by industries – some vital to the communities – that pollute the environment and contaminate water stocks.”

“I wanted a career that would allow me to do high-impact and novel research to deal with pollution and improve water security. I knew it wouldn’t be possible unless I had deep research training on the matter,” he says of his decision to dive into his doctoral programme fresh out of his bachelor’s degree course.

For the deeply curious

Others like Dr Andrew Yee are prompted by their love for research.

Andrew Yee

“My undergraduate course in communication history and theories really sparked my desire to learn more about theories of communication and behaviour,” he shares.

Working on his final-year project at NTU’s communication school cemented his decision to become an academic. “It dawned on me that since I really enjoy doing research, I should pursue it as a career,” explains Dr Yee, a faculty member of the Singapore University of Technology & Design.

For Dr Asyifah Rashid, who works as a policy officer in the Energy Division of the Ministry of Trade & Industry, it was a similar curiosity and enquiring mind that steered her towards the PhD route.

Doing her final-year undergraduate project in Imperial College London, the NTU chemistry graduate came across a cancer patient who had gone into complete remission purely with natural remedies.

“I was so intrigued, I took up a PhD to investigate whether natural products such as fruit waste components and plant parts could be used to treat metabolic disorders,” she says.

Lee Mian Rong

The path to academia

The journey to an academic career begins with a PhD as the first step. “If you want to become a lecturer or professor, you need a PhD, good publications and a few years of experience working in a research group as a postdoc,” says Dr Ng. “This is what I’m doing now. Industry experience is typically not a must in order to become faculty.”

“It is difficult to get fellowships and postdoc positions without having published a few high quality papers, so the pressure to publish is very real, adds Dr Ng. “My academic supervisor and I agreed it would be good for me to have at least five papers before I graduate so that I can get prestigious fellowships or postdoc positions at esteemed research groups.”

Dr Yee agrees: “Publications are important. But it is also important to take a step back at times during your PhD candidacy to look at the overall picture, and make sure that you are not publishing for the sake of publishing.”

However, not all PhD programmes have a mandatory requirement to publish before graduation, says 26-year-old Yang Chuyi, who will graduate next year with a PhD in finance. Dr Asyifah, too, says she was not pressured to publish but “was encouraged to”.

So does one sail into a university as an academic after that?

“Positions in local universities are extremely competitive. One study concluded that only around 7% of all PhD holders eventually get a faculty position in a university. Even after you successfully get hired by the university, you will have to prove yourself worthy over the next five to seven years by doing high-impact research, publishing many papers and training a few PhD students before getting a permanent contract, or tenure,” says Dr Ng.

Asyifah Rashid

Work before higher studies?

As someone who deals with policy-making, Dr Asyifah sees the benefit of gaining some work experience before embarking on a PhD. “It may widen your perspective and help to deepen your knowledge. But doing your PhD early also makes the transition to higher studies easier as the basic principles that you learnt during your undergraduate years are still fresh in your memory.”

Chuyi agrees: “Doing my PhD early means I will have more energy and can begin my academic career earlier. I interned at financial institutions before the PhD programme, which helps in developing my research ideas.”

Dr Ng notes that there is a win-win option to study for a PhD at a university while being employed with a company. “This is gaining popularity among aspiring researchers. NTU currently offers such industrial PhD programmes,” he says.

Yang Chuyi

Meeting of minds

Presentations at academic conferences are an integral part of life as a researcher. Was it ever daunting to be the rookie in a room full of established scientists?

“I’d say it can be quite intimidating to present at conferences and face questions from established researchers,” says Dr Ng. “But, I eventually realised it’s more effective to just focus on my research than be self-conscious about things like age or seniority. People respect experience and scientific knowledge. They can tell if you know your subject matter.”

Dr Asyifah agrees that people tend to look beyond their age and just want to hear about their research discoveries and findings, as well as build networks.

Tough but satisfying

Research Fellow Dr Dora Chen, who has a PhD from NTU in communication, has this advice for students considering a PhD: “If you’re not sure, don’t rush it. Doing a master’s by research could be a good way to explore research without over-stretching yourself.”

Dora Chen

“A PhD is not for everyone,” says Dr Yee. “There are real costs involved, and it’s hard to anticipate the job market you’ll be entering after getting your qualification several years later. Do some serious research before starting on a programme. But if you have real interest in learning and producing knowledge, nothing beats doing a PhD.”

For NTU alumna Dr Lee Mian Rong, who is now a lab analyst in DNA forensics at the Ministry of Home Affairs, her work is not in the same field as the one she did her PhD in. “However, my PhD training equipped me with the ability to learn better and faster, even in a foreign subject,” she says.

The pay-off could be indirect, like for Dr Lee. For others, it could take years to see the fruits of their labour. “Even for fast-moving research fields like computer science, it can take more than five years before you see results. In medicine and environmental studies, it could take upwards of 10 years. During my PhD training at NTU, I worked with companies to develop their technologies, and I’m about to file my first patent on an application related to biotechnology,” says Dr Ng.