Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Education and life

"You know, graduate school is like kindergarten for people who refuse to get a regular job." - Crazy postdoc in office.

I have been hacking away at the computer on my program for the last 12 hours, tweaking the parameters and debugging the code. Oh God, when will this end?

Was talking to a fellow Singaporean (FS) a couple of days ago. It went something like this.

FS: I'll be going back to Singapore to a suckcock job with a lousy pay.
Fox: Suckcock job? Don't you have an engineering masters? Won't your organization employ you in an engineering postition? At least you have a job after you graduate. When I graduate, I won't even know if I can find a job.
FS: The pay sucks. I also realized that I am not good enough to do R&D.
Fox: Why did you do engineering in the first place?
FS: It was my only chance to go overseas. There was no way I could have afford to study overseas without a scholarship.
Fox: Ahhh... I see.

I used to think poorly of people who took up scholarships for the money. I've always believed that people who did that were mercenary. To me, a scholarship, in the context of Singapore, is really an employment contract and taking up a scholarship means that a person is committed to a career in the organization. For example, if you have a SAFOS, you better like killing things with M-16; if you're an A*STAR scholar, you should ideally only sleep, breathe and eat science; if you're an MOE scholar, please love teaching. I know a GEP schoolmate with very good grades who took up a social work scholarship because he wanted to be a social worker - I have nothing but the highest admiration for people like him. On the other hand, I know of people who took up scholarships, local and overseas, just for the money and the job security. I don't feel comfortable with the notion of signing on just for the money. To me, a job is about commitment. I could never see myself as a civil servant so I basically ruled out government scholarships. (Not that I could have gotten one. Anyway, it was a good thing since I believe the tax-paying public is much better off without an idiot like me in the ranks of the civil service.)

Of course, that sort of idealism has to be tampered by a sense of reality. Many decent people take up scholarships because they did not want to burden their parents who are near retirement. My parents do make a comfortable living and probably won't become financially crippled when they retire. Coming from a middle-class family that could pay for my university education (although I had to work for my other financial needs), I don't think I have the right to judge people for making decisions based on financial considerations. I know of a few very bright people who took up scholarships by my ex-employer even though they could have done without it. They took it up because of the money which allowed them to financially support their parents. In this regard, I am just very lucky that my family can afford to let me pursue a PhD without being beholden to a Singapore sponsor.

I occasionally feel guilty that I am still in grad school, not in Singapore to take care of my family and don't have a regular job. I should be back at home to help out at home. It doesn't help that my elder sibling sometimes goes on prolonged spells of unemployment or semi-employment as a freelance programmer and that my younger sibling is taking the O-levels this year with the prospect of polytechnic becoming very real. Or that my parents have high hopes for me, at least academically speaking, since I was a child.

On the other hand, having worked in Singapore in a large research organization, I am convinced that my professional prospects there would have been poor, given my academic qualifications and the less than stimulating environment. Singapore is just too intellectually backwards and small for any cutting-edge research in the physical sciences.

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