Transferable Skills After a PhD

I’m on the hunt for a new job again, after resigning from a marketing role with a venture incubator in my first attempt at a “real” job outside academia. I was told by many Singaporeans that Q4 was the worst time to quit, that most people leave after getting their bonuses in the new year / around Chinese New Year, and that quitting without a new job lined up is something you should *never* do. I guess i’m stupid.

But i’m too idealistic really, preferring to search full-time for something new rather than to do something which doesn’t fit my long-term goals. I don’t think many people coming out of PhD programs have a good idea of what’s really out there. I didn’t know that jobs in the so-called “cost-centre” had less room for salary negotiations, or even what basic functions were in a company (i.e. operations, sales, finance, legal, etc.). PhDs also tend to undervalue their skills at a time when it’s critical to blow your own horn.

What i learnt through failed interviews, is that:

  1. You must know what you want and what you can bring to the role. If you cannot fake enthusiasm, at least be curious and ask questions! Once you know more about something, it usually becomes more interesting.
  2. You must be specific about your accomplishments and stories. Give real numbers for timelines, # of people involved, budgets, improvements, deliverables, and whatever else you can think of. Also be clear about responsibilities and the scope of your contributions.
  3. Interviews are a two-way street and you should see if the company is a good fit for you. Having said that, don’t go in too honest, thinking that if they don’t like you the way you are, you wouldn’t want to work there anyway. You are supposed to be professional; you aren’t there to meet like-minded BFFs.
  4. It’s bad to over-complicate questions in your mind. Interviewers usually ask pretty standard sets of questions, and the tricks you are imagining, are not of the smart, intellectual variety. Prepare ahead of time and answer confidently.
  5. People do hire based on who they liked, but only if you have convinced them you can do the job first.

If you’re fresh from leaving academia, you’re probably competing with college grads for entry-level jobs. Being told “you’re overqualified” is just an excuse companies have for not wanting to pay you more based on your educational credentials alone. You probably didn’t convey the value you could bring vs. another candidate. So think about it… aren’t the points below what really differentiate you?

  1. Ability to work independently and contribute original work
  2. Critical thought, analytical ability, problem-solving skills
  3. Ability to work with fuzzy, ill-defined goals; to handle uncertainty and multiple changes in projects
  4. Perseverance, high-tolerance for repeatedly failing but getting back up each time
  5. Experience with committee and peer-review processes
  6. Leadership skills i.e. directing undergraduate research, chairing and managing collaborative projects
  7. Vision, ability to identify trends and solutions that hold tremendous impact
  8. Project management skills from conception (literature search, identifying problems/gaps/opportunities, planning) to finish (interpreting results, validation, communicating learnings via publications and presentations)
  9. Results-oriented mindset, always wanting to be better
  10. Ability to digest large amounts of data, from disparate sources, and to synthesize them into meaningful ideas

I think some of the major challenges to a career switcher from academia, is that people can stereotype you. We are generally perceived as lacking business utility, practical interest/drive, or not having great social skills. It’s your job to dispel these misconceptions! Also in Singapore, you definitely have to network, network, network. The easiest way to not have job applications sucked into a black hole of you-will-never-hear-back-from-us-ever, is to find someone willing to give you a chance. Good luck.


A Visit to Marina Barrage + Gardens by the Bay at Night

My niece and nephew wanted to go on an outing, so i cautiously ventured out with the little monsters & their mum. Marina Barrage is a dam built at the confluence of 5 rivers, and serves as a freshwater reservoir for water-strapped Singapore, as flood control, and as a recreation area popular for flying huge huge kites. There was also a gallery on-site to educate on environmental sustainability through multimedia displays and installations, such as the one done up with plastic bottles below.

The gallery itself wasn’t very big (only 6 exhibits) but i think the kids enjoyed the interactive bits, including the room-sized model showing how the dam would operate under high and low tide scenarios, with fake rain pouring from the ceiling and all.

There was also a small water park just outside, so the kids got into their swimsuits and played for a bit. Luckily, the tourists who were attacked by water sprays from these little monsters were good-natured about it.

Our next destination was Gardens by the Bay, which had looked incredibly crowded to me every time we drove by on the freeway. It was pretty Instagram’ed out too, if my Facebook feed was at all representative. But anyhow, we were there to catch the supertrees after dusk, and to enjoy our chicken rice dinner picnic on the park grounds. We weren’t sure if setting up a picnic was allowed, but a park employee auntie came by to chat up the kids, and didn’t kick us out = all systems go. Since we were there on a super cheapy trip we didn’t pay the fee to go up to the skyway ($5) or to enter the Cloud Forest or Flower Dome buildings ($20 if you’re Singaporean and $28 otherwise). But, why wouldn’t i just go to the treetop walk at MacRitchie, which is in a real rain forest and free? I don’t get it… 

Of course, i was still bitten to death by mosquitoes, because even if we can terraform and plasticize everything into synthetic utopia, we’d still never be able to get rid of pests =P

Lazy Sunday with my Cat

The post title pretty much sums it up. Today i had a 70min phone conversation with a friend going through meltdown, and pretty much just bummed around the house. Pico the Cat continues to make every corner of the house her experimental bed. Next up: swimming, then Vietnamese dinner at Long Phung on Joo Chiat with a friend i met while studying Mandarin at the local community centre =)

Living in Singapore vs. Tokyo: List of Talking Points (Part 1)

Shimokitazawa Cafe

Before moving to Singapore i spent 2 years in Tokyo as a Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) postdoctoral fellow. That whole experience probably deserves a post (or a few) of its own, but let’s leave it for the moment. Instead, here are some facets of life that are significantly different between the two places and its people. There are of course superficial similarities. Both are modern, vibrant cities in Asia with low crime rates, an aging society, and squeaky clean streets. Surprisingly, they both also have a population generally lacking spatial awareness, and a strange penchant to go mob-crazy over food obsessions… German baumkuchen in Tokyo & bubble tea in Singapore come to mind. In general though, i believe Tokyo and Singapore are quite distinct.

Disclaimer: These opinions are formed on the basis of my personal experiences. Take with a grain of salt. And while best attempts were made to learn Japanese at least to a high conversational level, i topped out somewhere between JLPT N3 and N2. That obviously would’ve had a huge impact on my experiences.

Point #1: Language Barriers

Despite the pokes people often make at the level of a typical Singaporean’s English, you can get everything you need done, and that’s good enough for me. The first time i landed at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, i was rather shocked to find that the agent selling train tickets into the city could not speak a word of English. This was the airport!?!? At Todai, the #1 university in Asia, even PhD and masters students struggled to make small talk. Of course individual skills varied, but the language barrier was a huge part of life in Tokyo. Compared to that, Singapore is a walk in the park.

Gingko leaves at Todai

Point #2: Cost of Living

Tokyo is the most expensive city to live in according to Mercer’s Worldwide Cost of Living Survey 2012. Singapore and Zurich share 6th place. If this is what the difference between 1st and 6th feels like (basically none), there’s some serious competition going on in the top 10. I had thought that coming from Tokyo i would find Singapore blissfully cheap. That did not happen. Yes, public transportation is affordable and hawker centres do a fantastic job feeding people at the lower end of the price spectrum. But there is a reason why locals are feeling pinched these days. The unrelenting inflation, standing at 3.9% in August (already a nearly 2-year low), is crazy. How long will it be before prices match deflationary Tokyo? As is, i can’t even imagine having to buy a house or a car here.

Point #3: Public Transportation

I love the train and subway system in Tokyo. If you’re within the Yamanote circle, it’s almost impossible to walk more than 10-15 minutes without seeing at least one stop. What i disliked was the super early last train calls at around midnight. If you missed your train, you had a few options: (1) dish out mucho $$$ for a taxi, (2) drink and sing all night at karaokes with special until-5am packages, (3) crash in the 24h McDonald’s, or (4) bum in a manga cafe or capsule hotel (the latter mostly for men). The Singaporean MRT system is quite good (it also ends by midnight), but you can’t get to many places unless you also take a bus, adding uncertainty to your journey time. I suppose it’s pretty difficult to beat the Japanese after all. Their clockwork perfect, punctual trains are a force to be reckoned with.

Katong neighbourhood in Singapore

Point #4: Work Culture and the Dreaded Face-Time

It’s a bit hard to compare, as i’ve not worked with many Singaporeans professionally yet. From what i hear though, the work day here is around 10h, which saves you maybe 2h from Tokyo’s ridiculous norm. Face-time was so important in my Japanese lab, that students routinely slept on their desks and also during our 8h meetings. Yes, that 8 was not a typo. This behaviour, worse even, was accepted as quite the matter of fact. I know this is reality in Asia (when in Rome…), but couldn’t we just efficiently do our work and be assessed on results rather than posed effort, or time in the office? A girl can dream right? And any commentary on Japanese work culture would of course be amiss without discussion of the salarymen, or their drunken work parties inevitably ending with ties secured around foreheads. Hehe.

Point #5: The Locals

One of the biggest differences you’ll observe in the people is their openness. Singaporeans are a lot chattier but also blunt compared to Tokyoites, and will happily complain about everything from expensive cab fares and their neighbour’s maid, to you yourself. On the other hand, it’s hard to really decipher what a Japanese person is thinking sometimes. They tend to be gracious but more reserved in general, and prefer to talk about positive and predictable topics. For me, it was quite difficult to befriend a Japanese person unless they previously had some global experience… In Singapore I was taken aback by the mannerisms of especially the older generation of Singaporeans. It can appear quite rude and puzzling (and most definitely so in this public transit fight), but is, for most cases, innocent and without malice. Since the “economic miracle” has unfolded over these decades we are now seeing a new generation grow up with different ideas and their own life philosophy. I wonder how things will turn out?

Point #6: Sticking Out Like a Sore Thumb

If you do not look East-Asian in descent, you will be noticed in Tokyo, period. It’s not so much staring, in my opinion, but more a mild curiosity because you’d stand out visually. And if you are East-Asian, everyone will just assume you’re Japanese and speak to you in Japanese. The bizarre thing is that after living there for a while, i also started behaving the same way despite growing up in Toronto, a mix mash of cultures. In that sense Singapore is definitely more familiar, because there’s such a variety of ethnicities present here. I only wish Singaporeans could appreciate this facet of their society more.

Point #7: Apartments

In Tokyo i lived in a 42 square meter (450 square feet) 2DK apartment (2nd Floor corner unit, southern + eastern exposure, cats ok, 6min walk to 4 subway lines including the Yamanote) for ¥120,000/month, or roughly S$1875. It was an older building without an elevator, but was a far cry from a true shoebox apartment. In Singapore, it was hard to find smaller studios until recently, so if your budget is under S$2000 you almost always have to rent a common room and share living/kitchen space with others. If you can afford S$3000+ some good options become available for say, a young couple just starting out. Now keep in mind, i’m talking strictly about condos in Singapore, because landlords renting out HDB flat to foreigners are often doing it illegally. The good thing about Singaporean condos is that they usually come with nice facilities – BBQ pits, a swimming pool, security guards (kind of unnecessary, in my opinion), and fitness gyms. What annoys me, is how they like to count balcony space as “real” square footage. I know we’re living almost on top of the equator, but so what? Hardly anyone would setup a study or bedroom on their balcony. Apartments in Japan are also designed more ergonomically, so that your tiny space is used as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, those building principles don’t seem to apply here.

Tsukiji donburi

Point #8: Quality & Variety of Food

This one is a tough call, but Singapore definitely wins on variety while Tokyo wins on consistency of quality. What do i mean by that? Well, in Tokyo you can randomly walk into any restaurant and expect to get a high-quality meal. The Japanese are probably the best in the world at obsessing over little details to reach super elite master status, and this clearly shows in their food. Singapore does international food ever so well though, so you never have to worry about pastas garnished with seaweed, for example. (For the record it is delicious, but very “Japanified” Italian food). I also love, love, love all the variants of spicy food in Singapore. Seriously, good eats are everywhere.

Grilled Stingray

As i started writing this post it just got longer and longer, until i realized that i’d probably have to break it into multiple posts. Stay tuned for discussions on public spaces, immigration, how singles hook up, and more.