A few days ago, the observant Mr. Takchek featured a recent Singapore newspaper article on how “Scholars cannot fail“. Granted, there’s always academic pressure to succeed when you’re on a scholarship, but just take a look at the price that the PSC scholar, Mr Chong, had to pay for his failure (everything + interest!). Poor Chong didn’t consider the risks involved before signing up for that particular scholarship.
What can we learn from this?
Takchek’s opinion was that this was another reason NOT to take up any of these ‘scholarships’, so I thought I’d share my life story on how I got this far in my academic life through alternative means. I really don’t talk enough about it on my blog, but anyone interested in U.S. education should really ask any of us overseas bloggers what we’ve learnt about the academic system here.
To set the record straight, I’m not mentally or financially gifted. Things in my life just happen to go my way for some reason (there’s a story behind my chinese name which might explains this phenomenon, but I’ll save that for another day). A common advice is for you to learn how to shop for scholarships… there are local ones and even overseas ones if you search hard enough. But I say to hell with that! My personal belief is that local (Singapore) scholarships tend to be overly competitive and unnecessarily popular, while overseas scholarships are mostly bond-free but hard to find one which we can qualify for. As a typical fellow who could only afford to study for his B.A. in Communication at the University at Buffalo, how did I make it all the way to working on my PhD?
My Four Ingredients
1. Working smart (not hard)
2. Knowing irrelevant people
3. Possessing diverse skillsets
4. Having some dumb luck
A lot of Singaporean students already have this and it’s something you can depend on for a safe and enjoyable alternative to painful scholarships. Mind you, we’re talking about alternative scholarships which pay enough for your college tuition and overseas living finances.
How I survived on so little…
Back in 2002, I was all set to go back to Singapore after finishing my B.A. in Communication. Late into my final semester, a fellow American classmate saw my web design skills and recommended me a Graduate Assistantship (G.A.) opening in the university. It just so happened that the Educational Technology Center (ETC) was in need of a replacement G.A. By some stroke of luck, the leaving G.A. was the housemate of my classmate, who naturally gives me a solid referral. Given that I was heavily involved in web publishing back in 1997, my interviewers were impressed with my management skills so they hired me based on my leadership and production experience.
What are graduate assistantships?
Graduate assistantships (G.A.) can only be earned when you are in graduate school, so make sure you can afford your B.A. first (or get a student assistantship which pays much less but helps). Likewise, there are also Teaching Assistantships and Research Assistantships which pay almost equally well, so you have a choice of interest. As a G.A., I get paid in two parts: A stipend which is around US$900 per month (less after tax), and tuition waiver (where I only pay comprehensive fees around $400). My apartment rent, car insurance, food and other overheads typically cost me about $700/month, so that leaves me an excess of around $200/mth. Pretty decent living! Lastly, there are no bonds to break, and my work contract renews every year. FYI: I’ve been working at ETC for three years already.
Singaporeans have it easier
I’ve seen a lot of Singaporeans are hired as graduate assistants (G.A.) or teaching assistants (T.A.) in American universities. I believe we have an edge because we tend to be older than our cohort, are decently hardworking and possess good communication skills. In addition, the fact that we Singaporean guys have to go through National Service pays off here, since it goes towards your leadership ability. So remember to put that on your resume!
Do approach your prospective university about the kind of graduate, teaching or research assistanceship opportunities they have. Let them know you’re interested and keep a relationship with the intended unit you wish to work for. Note that it doesn’t need to be limited to your department.
I’ve finished my Masters in Informatics and am now halfway through my PhD program. All this while, I rarely needed to ask my parents for another dime. I’m pretty happy where I am and I hope this has been useful to you. If you have better alternatives to what I suggested, do share!
UPDATE on 14th Dec 2005 Biao adds very detailed comments on how he went through college on a Citibank student loan, survived through two jobs as a student, and how he made it to a job in the Silicon Valley. He also talks about F1 visa job restrictions and opportunities as granted under CPT and OPT. A definite must read (in the comments below)!