Over the past few years, I’ve received numerous questions about studying abroad and whether it is advisable to take a government scholarship to do so from my juniors. Having witnessed firsthand the early career trajectories of many scholars and non-scholars alike, and having heard their different perspectives, I feel like now I have a good understanding of the concerns at hand to answer this question confidently.

This post is targeted towards Singaporean junior college students debating whether they should take on a scholarship from the government to pursue a fully-paid education abroad.

In this post, I will consider both the pros and cons of taking a scholarship. The relevance of some of the points is highly dependent on your current situation, so ultimately you must still make your value judgment.

Why you should take a scholarship

Financial Hardship

It is well-known that an overseas college education is expensive and can set you back by over half a million dollars. To make things worse, most universities do not offer financial aid for international students, and so for many families from humble backgrounds, a scholarship is the only realistic way to pay for their children’s overseas education. Studying abroad turns you into a small fish in a big ocean. You will learn alongside many of the smartest people in the world from faculty members who were pioneers of your field. It also helps to develop your independence, allows you to examine your own biases, and overall is an unforgettable life experience.


If the career prospects from your choice of major are not significantly more attractive than working in the public sector, then taking a scholarship is a reasonable choice. However, there are many caveats to this decision. College is a time of academic exploration and self-discovery, and you may easily find yourself switching majors or finding your interests changed. If it so happens that your new major is in a relatively well-paying sector, then it will make financial sense for you to break your bond, albeit incurring hefty interest on the principal paid out by the scholarship so far. Therefore, you should only consider a scholarship if you are very confident about your commitment to your intended field of study.

Desire to join Civil Service

People with a genuine heart to serve the country and work for a government agency are few and far between, and I sincerely applaud you if you fall into this camp. A scholarship in this case would be the best way to realize your careers and dreams.

Why you should not consider scholarships


This is probably the worst reason to consider a scholarship. Unfortunately, the culture in JCs tends to glamorize and portray scholarship holders as the pinnacle of academic success and as a model for the rest of the student population to emulate, such that you are often compelled by those around you to apply as long as you are in good academic standing. I can very confidently assure you that nobody in overseas colleges will care about the fact that you are a scholar. Neither will employers nor professors. I can say though for the boys (and some girls) who are reading this that they will be very intrigued and impressed by your experiences during National Service.

Complacency and Diminished Drive

Knowing that you are bonded to a scholarship after graduation for the next 6 years brings about a lack of agency and diminished accountability for your future.

In Singapore, scholars have to spend the summer after their sophomore year interning at the respective government agencies that their scholarship bonds them to. This creates a problem where most scholars do not bother applying, or do not try hard to apply for internships in their freshmen year. They justify it by the difficulty of getting an internship as a first-year student, and also because their next internship has already been decided for them, and therefore it does not seem worth the effort to begin building their foundations for industry relevance.

However, the implication of this choice means that by the time that they are in their junior year, they will be competing against other students who have at least one or two internships from American companies under their belt, which holds significantly more brand-name recognition and status than internships from foreign government agencies by recruiters.

Furthermore, the brand name effect of internships compounds. The following example will be biased towards software engineering roles, as that is what I am most familiar with. Few people land FAANG or HFT roles on their first try (excluding training programs like Google STEP or Facebook University) - most people start by gaining experience at a startup or early unicorn, before using that experience and the brand name to clear increasingly selective resume screens. Repeat this a few times and the combined weight of all the brand names on your resume will get you through almost any door.

In addition, scholars are required to maintain good academic standing. This could set an artificially lower bar to shoot for than you could have otherwise aimed for. On the flip side, the GPA requirement can also incentivize taking easier classes to protect your grades at the expense of growth and learning. It could discourage taking hard classes or classes which you know almost nothing about when those usually turn out to be the most transformative experiences that you will go through.

Unrealized Earning Potential

This section will also be very biased towards tech. I don’t know the exact numbers of how much government agencies are paying, but it’s going to pale in comparison to the private sector overseas. GovTech does a bit better as they try to peg their compensation to industry levels, although you really want to be positioned at a company that is the market leader in setting salaries instead. If you are studying in the US, you can expect to get at least USD 150k annual total compensation pre-tax if you manage to land an entry-level role at most fast-growing unicorns or FAANG companies. If you can rise to become one of the best among your batch, you can expect double that amount. Check out levels.fyi if you want more specific data. You will be leveled every few years with generous pay bumps, and you should become a senior engineer by your sixth year (most people should be there by their fourth year). In contrast, if you took a scholarship you have only just completed your bond, and depending on your specific agency, you may not have gained a lot of relevant experience.

As such, with six years of industry work, not only will you have no problems paying off student loans, you will have the opportunity to work with and learn from the best and brightest in the world, gain a lot of relevant experience and exposure, make a lot of valuable professional connections, and have a secure financial base from which you can decide your next career step. In tech, six years is a long time. People stay for only two to three years on average at a company, so you may have already worked at two or three companies by the time you are done.

On the other hand, if you take on a scholarship, you will almost be in your thirties by the time you are done with your bond. It can be challenging to make headway into the industry now if your prior job experiences and taskings are not relevant, which may be something that is out of your control. It is also a problem if your agency is in a sensitive area like defense because you cannot share about the work that you have done. There are also a lot of “bad habits” that you may pick up from bureaucratic government agencies (if you know you know), which can cause companies to believe that you are not a good cultural fit and overlook your candidacy. Finally, I don’t mean to sound ageist, but when you are in your thirties with no industry experience on your belt and you are competing against much younger and hungrier fresh college graduates for jobs, the odds are not really in your favor. This fact may encourage scholars to continue staying in their jobs out of fear of competition, and before you know it, you’ve spent your entire career there.

Blocked from Achieving Your Fullest Potential

You want the option to go to where your work matters most and where you can make the most impact. You want to be in an environment where you can constantly grow and be challenged. You never want to be the smartest person in the room. If you are in the private sector, you can always easily resign or switch teams if the environment is not conducive for your career goals. The same cannot be said when you are bonded to an agency, where you are resigned to your fate. In economics, this can be seen as a form of market inefficiency. Therefore, a scholarship could prevent you from doing all the great things that you could otherwise have done. Live life without regrets.

Final Remarks

There are good reasons on both sides on whether you should take a scholarship. My goal is not to discourage people from considering them, but to provide a fuller picture of what happens down the road if you decide to go down either path. My wish is for this post to help improve the overall efficiency of the scholarship system, by encouraging people who have legitimate reasons for a scholarship to have confidence in their decision to pursue them, and for those who are uncertain to think about it again. This helps to alleviate the rampant problem of scholars breaking their bonds, which not only is unfair for those who needed them and were denied the opportunity, but also wastes time and money for both them and the government.

Banner picture: A waterfall along Half Dome Trail, Yosemite National Park