That there appears to be more young Singaporeans having a “higher propensity to pursue further education and postpone entry into the labour force” (TODAY, Dec 9) is a healthy trend, for it reflects the diverse educational opportunities available and the willingness to seize these opportunities, either to develop specialised skills or to suss out personal interests. But when deciding whether one should pursue further studies – especially through post-graduate education, such as a master’s degree or a PhD programme – pragmatism, in terms of cost, career prospects, and alternative opportunities, must feature.
Among these three factors, cost appears to be the most important consideration. Even more so, if the programme is based overseas, or if one still has outstanding student debts from the undergraduate education. Notwithstanding parental support – since the S$500 in SkillsFuture credits will hardly defray the steep financial costs – the ideal post-graduate programme should be fully funded through fellowships or scholarships, or through teaching or research stints during the programme. Bear in mind the opportunity costs too, in terms of the time or income lost, if one had chosen to work instead. This concern explains the appeal of part-time degree programmes, though with many commitments this arrangement takes extraordinary effort.
Which is why potential applicants must be pragmatic about career prospects too. Among my friends who are giving thought to a post-graduate education, the main questions are: Where do you see yourself in one, three, and five years after the programme, and are those prospects rosier compared to where you might be, if you worked instead. In other words, knowledge of the academic programmes offered by the school must also be accompanied by knowledge of its career services, where their graduates end up after the degree – in terms of their industries and their positions – as well as the distribution of their pay and benefits. The diversity of one’s potential classmates and where they might be headed, arguably, deserves more attention.
To be able to ascertain the extent to which prospects after a post-graduate education might be rosier, young Singaporeans need to give ourselves options. A year before graduation, while I was applying to different PhD programmes, I also applied for jobs in different organisations. This was guided not only by the intent to familiarise myself with the application process – scoping the industry of interest and seeking out positions, preparing the CVs and the cover letters, and getting practice through the calls and interviews – but also by the need to evaluate alternative opportunities. Rather than dealing in hypotheticals, of what it might be had one applied for or found out more about positions, a mentor advised that it made the most sense to give oneself options. Only with offers in hand, would one be able to negotiate for better terms too.
As to how one should, in the first place, determine an industry of interest, I think past internships and work stints matter.
Above all, prospective graduate students should not concern themselves with generalised prescriptions as to whether a higher degree is good or bad, useful or not – that “getting a post-graduate degree only ‘helps to a limited extent’ at the workplace” or that “post-graduate education is not as pertinent as work experience” – because “work” and the “workplace” entails dissimilar expectations and trajectories for the individual. Who is to say, for instance, that an overseas programme might not lead to continued opportunities abroad, or if working in a particular lab or for a particular professor might not open doors to more options? Eschew generalisations to forge one’s own path, but do so pragmatically, based on your individual abilities and trajectories.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.