Small Change

Funding your doctoral dreams

Before deciding on further studies, brush up on the financial ABCs of graduate school

More and more Singaporeans are harbouring ambitions of postgraduate study, but while schoolwork may be foremost in their minds, financial fears can't be far behind.

The proportion of residents with degrees has risen over the years - from 25.7 per cent in 2012 to 29.1 per cent last year.

And even after clearing the hurdle of the first degree, there has also been an uptick in the number of graduates with higher degrees.

This rose from 7,186 in 2012 to 8,280 last year.

But before embarking on further studies, prospective candidates should be aware of the financial ABCs of graduate school.

It is important to note that "higher degrees" is a category that covers qualifications all the way from postgraduate diplomas to doctoral degrees.

Certificates are not all created equal, so prospective swots should be clear on what they are after.

Postgraduate studies generally fall into one of two tracks - "taught" diplomas or degrees that are obtained by completing a set amount of coursework; and "research" degrees, the most famous kind being the PhD.

Taught programmes are one way to build up your skills in a specialist area - for example, to make sure you are on top of the latest knowledge in your professional field.

To that end, the Government's SkillsFuture Mid-Career Enhanced Subsidy covers postgraduate-level courses - but only taught degrees.

Such taught degrees may also lay the foundation for embarking on research programmes, in which you are meant to create new knowledge of your own.

A poll of more than 5,700 doctoral students worldwide, conducted by science journal Nature this year, found that 44 per cent picked the desire to pursue an academic career as their most important reason for enrolling.

Another 35 per cent pegged the pursuit of their own research as a top motive.


Once you know what type of postgraduate studies you want, the next step is figuring out how much your pocket will hurt.

Taught degrees usually come with heftier annual tuition fees than research ones, but take one to two years to finish.

Meanwhile, you would normally invest three years, at the very least, in carrying out research for a PhD programme.

As an illustration, the National University of Singapore now charges $32,900 a year for research programmes in arts and social sciences, before any applicable subsidies kick in.

A full-time coursework programme in the same field would set students back by more yet - $35,050 a year.

Then steps in the largesse of the state, which heavily cushions the cost of local education in most advanced economies.

With a basic government subsidy in the examples above, Singapore citizens would be on the hook for just $8,500, for an arts and social sciences research degree here, or $9,400, for the taught programme.

But the concept of double jeopardy applies.

Students who previously accepted a government subsidy or sponsorship for a postgraduate programme are not eligible for further discounts if they take up more studies at the same or lower level.

So, if you enjoyed a subsidy for your first master's degree, and then go on to do a blended programme with both master's and doctoral components, the Government would foot the bill only for the PhD portion of the new course.

On top of that, not all postgraduate programmes here are covered by government subsidies - so check beforehand.

For instance, the Master of Science programme in Electronics at the Nanyang Technological University carries government subsidies, but the Master of Science in International Construction Management does not.

The funding situation is also subject to change from time to time.

Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said in October that with "the reality of a finite budget" looming, "we will have to relook the funding levels for coursework programmes which are purely academic in nature".

Those who want to pursue such courses may have to make sure they have other piggy-banks to tap.


When it comes to cash, another key difference between taught and research degrees is that money for research tends to be taken as a given.

This ideally supports the valuable knowledge output being produced.

How much cash is handed out is another matter altogether.

Former academic Rebecca Schuman, who shakes her fist at the state of the higher education in the United States with the colourfully titled essay, Thesis Hatement, notes in another article for online magazine Slate: "This is a refrain repeated throughout academia: If you must get a PhD, which you shouldn't, make sure it's fully funded."

"Fully funded" refers to the maximum, comprehensive scope of the compensation packages that universities might offer to woo and support postgraduate students.

This can include merit scholarships, tuition fee waivers, part-time jobs as teaching or research assistants and benefits like travel grants and health insurance.

Still, cosmopolitan bookworms venturing abroad will also have to contend with cultural differences over what's fair play - and fair pay - for advanced students.

Dr Schuman goes on to note that anecdotal evidence suggests the stipends that US universities give - which are, for tax and minimum wage purposes, not the same as salaries - are not enough to stave off the necessity of debt for doctoral students there.

But it is quite the opposite scenario in parts of Europe, such as in Denmark or the Netherlands.

There, PhD candidates are not considered students so much as employees of their respective universities.

So, rather than pay for the privilege of an education, they in fact earn wages for the work they do. The flip side is that applicants to such programmes must peruse job ads to find ongoing projects that will take them, instead of proposing their own specific investigations.


All of this money talk is a lot to take in. It can also be hard to accept that the fruits of the intellect come with a corresponding cost in filthy lucre.

As much as some - myself included - would love to jump headfirst into a sea of books and pursue the life of the mind, it may be better to cool our heels for a while.

There is some advice worth taking on the "Frank by OCBC" website, which the bank uses to target younger customers.

"Do you know exactly what field you are interested in for your further studies? Work will help you find it," the bank suggests.

Also: "Working right after that bachelor's degree... can give you a financial head start."

So, it seems that as much as a degree is an investment in the future, my pay cheques are an investment in any future degree, too.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Funding your doctoral dreams'. Print Edition | Subscribe