This post was updated on 14 June 2023 to include some new perspectives and information I’ve had since the post was originally written, and to use a more nuanced tone.
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 I have a good understanding of the concerns at hand to answer this question confidently.
This post is aimed at 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 take it with a grain of salt and consider your unique circumstances. It is useful to keep in mind that a scholarship is designed to benefit the government’s interests, not your own.
Why You Should Take a Scholarship
The three main reasons for taking a scholarship are financial hardship, choice of major, and the desire to join the civil service as a career.
It is well-known that an overseas college education is expensive and can set you back by over half a million dollars. 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.
The opportunity to study abroad provides you with an invaluable global perspective of your field. It turns you into a small fish in a big ocean, making you realize both the biases that you had due to your unique Singaporean background, as well as the biases of the local students and other international students from other countries. You will grow and learn alongside many of the smartest people in your generation, and make lifelong friends and connections. You will get to listen to lectures from faculty members who were pioneers in your field. The experience will develop your independence, broaden your worldview, and is overall an unforgettable life experience.
If you do not have the means to pay for your studies abroad, a scholarship opens the door to this transformative experience that will stay with you for a lifetime.
However, if you decide that this is your main reason (which is true for most people), ask yourself again whether you or your family are just hesitant to pay for college due to the sticker shock, or if there is indeed financial hardship. Many scholars who initially took on a bond due to “financial reasons” were suddenly able to find the funds to break their bond after securing a lucrative job or internship offer towards the end of their studies. Investing in your own future through education is the most worthwhile form of investment that will pay dividends for the rest of your life, so think hard about whether it is just a difficult conversation that you are trying to avoid having, or if there is indeed financial hardship.
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 The Civil Service
People with a genuine heart to serve the country 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. The goal of scholarships is to nurture the next generation of leaders to build and run the country, and people like you who dare to step up and take on the reins of responsibility are truly admirable.
Why You Should Not Take A Scholarship
Now we move on to the many reasons that should make you re-consider whether a scholarship is actually suitable for you. I will apologize in advance if I accidentally inadvertently offend someone.
Societal Expectations, Rite of Passage, Prestige
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. It also does not help that government boards have very effective and persuasive scholarship outreach campaigns that start as early as secondary school. It might almost seem like you are missing out and not optimizing for your future if you don’t apply for a scholarship. The constant scholarship award ceremony photo-ops, newpaper articles of newly minted scholars, and even posters of role-model alumni scholars around your school does quite have this effect.
However, you need to cut through this fog of hype surrounding scholarships. What you won’t see at this point is that after you go to college, scholarship fairs now become career fairs. You will constantly see recruiters from top companies come to your school to attract top talent with swag and competitive compensation, and now you will feel like you are missing out on all these industry opportunities because you already committed to the government.
Furthermore, the prestige factor only holds for a short period of time within a relatively localized circle. Nobody overseas will care much about the fact that you are a scholar, and neither will they understand anything about the “prestige” tiers of the scholarship, or the selectiveness of the agency you are bonded to. In the US (and similarly in other countries), people will only recognize established local scholarships such as the Barry Goldwater scholarship for sophomores actively engaged in research. Unfortunately, these are not even open to non-U.S. citizens.
On the other hand, people overseas will be very intrigued and impressed by your experiences during National Service, and will ask you for many stories of what you did as it is a relatively uncommon experience there. On a few occasions, my friends told me they already felt safer knowing they were being escorted by a military-trained man while we were walking through some sketchy streets in the US.
Three Types of Scholars
There are three kinds of scholars.
- The first kind is driven and wants to join the government as a career. They spend each summer interning at different ministries/departments, and from this experience now have a pretty good idea of where they want to be matched to. They end up serving their bond somewhere close to their interests, perform well, and enjoy what they do. This is excellent.
- The second kind is driven but is not passionate about civil service. They do well in school, and make the best out of their summers by doing internships, summer school, or research attachments. They will do well in both the public and private sectors, and will most likely break their bond as they will also be highly sought after in industry. This is bad, because you wasted everyone’s time and money.
- The third kind does not know what they want and took a scholarship. They are relieved that they are freed from the rat race, spend their semesters enjoying themselves, and their summers traveling around. They will most likely not have any compelling financial reasons to break their bond and end up as a mediocre-performing civil servant. This is good since you fulfilled your duty, and we also need good workers on top of good leaders in the civil service.
If you think you are the second type, re-consider if a scholarship is right for you.
Complacency and Diminished Drive
This is not something that people think about immediately, but 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. Why bother grinding so hard if your future career has already been planned by some higher-ups? This can have the following consequences.
Fewer Industry Internship Opportunities
In Singapore, scholars have to spend their sophomore summer interning at the government agency that they are bonded to. This creates a trend where many scholars do not try hard to apply for internships in their freshmen year. Why? It is extremely difficult to get any interviews as freshmen, much less an offer. Furthermore, they know that their subsequent internship next year has already been secured. As such, it does not seem to be worth the effort to start worrying about internships so early on. Many of them spend their summers traveling around instead.
However, this has grave implications. This means that by the time 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 for recruiters holds significantly more brand-name recognition than internships from foreign government agencies. This often affects their ability to get a good internship in their penultimate year, which is when they are the most attractive to companies since they will be graduating the following year.
Furthermore, the brand name effect of internships compounds. Most people do not just suddenly land into some big company on their first try. Usually, they start by gaining experience at a startup or early-stage unicorn, before moving on to some bigger publicly-listed companies, and then places like big tech. Your experience at each place shows that you have been able to deliver value and impact, which allows you to clear resume screens at increasingly selective companies.
Having only 1 industry internship experience as a scholar would therefore put you at a massive resume disadvantage for future opportunities.
An internship is also one of the most fun things you will get to do during college. You’ll get to work on exciting real-world projects, attend classes and meetings, go for intern social and team-bonding events, and explore and experience living in a new city. Almost every full-timer secretly wish they could be pampered and showered with attention like an intern again. And it is a real pity if you miss out on these experiences.
Paradoxically Poorer Academic Standing
Scholars are required to maintain good academic standing, which usually includes some minimum GPA requirement. This could set an artificially lower bar to shoot for than what 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.
An Academic Moral Hazard
During one of the first orientation sessions at CMU, our first-year academic advisor told us that by amortizing the tuition that we are paying over our classes, each lecture has an implicit price tag of $200 (probably higher now as tuition has increased since). The message is pay attention every lecture and think twice about the true opportunity cost if you want to skip lecture.
As a scholar, the cost of education is no longer borne by you, and the opportunity cost for other (in particularly leisure) activities have decreased. It becomes very tempting to decide to spend more of your time traveling around and to enjoy the good life abroad. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, especially if it helps with your mental health, but remember that first and foremost your goal was to obtain a quality education.
Unrealized Earning Potential
This section is more relevant if you intend to work in the tech sector. I am not very familiar with the rates for other sectors, and will refrain from commenting.
According to this post, the starting salary for civil servants will be around 4-5.5k SGD in base pay, and 1-3 months in bonuses. If you are a scholar, this will be a bit higher. While GovTech does better as they try to peg their compensation to baseline industry levels., you really want to be positioned at a company that is the market leader in setting salaries instead.
If you are going to be based in the US, you can expect to get around 200k USD annual pre-tax total compensation if you land an entry-level role at fast-growing unicorns or big tech companies like FAANG. If you can rise to become one of the best among your batch, you can expect double that at more selective firms. Check out levels.fyi for more specific data.
In tech, 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 just finished serving your bond after 6 years of doing administrative and managerial work.
As such, after six years in of working industry, not only will you be able to pay off your student loans, but you will also 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. Average tenures are only two to three years, so you would already have work experience at two or three companies by then.
Poor Exit Opportunities
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 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.
There is not much reliable information on this around, but I’ve heard that at least half of the scholars choose to leave the moment they finish serving their bond.
Expecting a 9-5
It is a misconception that all government jobs are cushy 9-5s. Some of my scholar friends frequently work on weekends, and could be working as late as 1-2am on weekdays. For this amount of effort you can command a considerably higher salary in the private sector, so why is this the case?
The mere fact that you are a scholar does not make you eligible for senior leadership roles across the government in the future. You could spend your entire career there and never make it to Director level.
If you want the doors of senior leadership positions to be open to you, you must compete against other scholars to be placed on the Public Service Leadership Programme by demonstrating a very impressive track record. This means working extremely hard on the right things. The opaqueness of the system means that it is often difficult to ascertain where you stand as well. You need to be okay with living under this pressure daily if you want to succeed in the government.
But They Were So Nice To Me
I personally benefited a lot from programs organized by agencies that offer scholarships. For instance, the DSTA Young Defence Scientists Programme (YDSP) provided me with opportunities to do research attachments with DSTA and DSO researchers, and to also gain exposure to topics like cryptography and AI in their World of Science lecture series program. I also received a lot of swag from them, like folders and notebooks. I am very grateful to them for all of these opportunities, which I am sure is doing a great deal to shape the future of Singapore’s technology leaders. However, I know that I am best poised to serve the world not in DSTA but elsewhere.
Similarly, regardless of how much you benefited from various outreach programmes by these agencies, keep in mind that at the end of the day this is still your career and that you are not obliged to join them. If you want to show your gratitude, think about where you will be best poised to contribute to the future development of our country and the world, and if the agency is actually still the best place to do that.
Losing Career Autonomy
Regardless of what they tell you, the truth is that the government’s current needs and priorities will determine where you are placed. The degree to which you can influence this depends on how good you are. For example, if you are a PSC (Open) scholarship holder, there will be a period of team-matching right before you start work, where you can express interest in different ministries and vice versa. It could be possible that there are no openings at all at a place you are interested in. Otherwise, if you are among the top pool of candidates, there is a good chance you will be matched to one of your top choices. However, if you are somewhere in the average, you could end up somewhere random and may very well end up doing work you really disdain. If being able to take charge of your career direction is important to you, you may want to re-think a scholarship.
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 to your career goals. The same cannot be said when you are bonded to the government.
Imagine graduating from college and reaching the peak of your intellectual development, having been equipped with the knowledge and skills to make a difference in the world, and then having to spend the next six years at a bureaucratic job that hardly makes use of your technical skills and talents, resulting in intellectual stagnation and perhaps even regression. Your working environment will not be very stimulating and challenging. Instead of solving hard problems, you will be playing office politics and counting down the days before you are eligible for the next promotion. There is an implicit glass ceiling and pre-determined career progression rate depending on which scholarship you have and whether you are being considered for any leadership programmes. When one feels like they can no longer make an impact and influence their trajectories, quiet quitting begins. Is this really the best way to start a career?
A Big Life Decision You Are Probably Not Ready To Make Yet
The prefrontal cortex, which is the area of our brain in charge of planning and making important life decisions, does not mature fully until we are 25. From a psychological perspective, it is perhaps unwise to be committing at such an early age what you are going to do for the next 10 years of your life. Most people are not so lucky to have figured out who they are and what they want to do by then. It may be better to keep your options open and know that you are limited only by how big you dream.
If you still think a scholarship is the right choice for you, it will also be helpful to consider the process of bond breaking in the scenario that you change your mind halfway.
There are two main components to bond breaking: liquidated damages, and exit interviews. It will be a recurring theme that PSC, which is generally considered to the most “prestigious” scholarship, is structurally designed to be as hard for you to break their bond as possible, so in particular seriously think it through before you accept a bond from them.
In the past, scholarship agencies would also buy newspaper ads to “name and shame” bond breakers. However, this practice has stopped as bond-breaking has become more prevalent.
You will be provided with an itemized list of every expense incurred in relation to your scholarship. This will include tuition, allowance, flights, scholarship award ceremonies and events, internship pay, and many others. If you are a PSC scholar, they will also have organized a whole series of summer events and camps for you before you enroll in college that you will have to pay back for, so expect the damages to be even higher.
You will have to pay 10% annual compounded interest for these damages, which is significantly higher than most student loans from banks which are around 5% APY. This means that you should break your bond as soon as possible if you have some feeling you would already do it eventually.
Whether you can pay back the damages in lump-sum or installments depends on the specific scholarship. If you decide to pay it back in installments, it will still be subject to 10% APY. PSC does not allow you to pay in installments, so you will be forced to repay all damages upfront. This could be prohibitive depending on your financial situation.
There will also be a series of exit interviews to understand why you decided to break your bond. During the exit interviews, they will try to convince you to stay, and possibly offer other roles within their organization to see if you might be interested.
PSC also has an infamous guilt-trip exit interview, where a professional psychologist will interrogate you and try to make you feel like a terrible human being for having made this decision. Some scholars will leave that interview in tears.
There are good reasons on both sides for 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 to study overseas, but wastes both their and the government’s time and money.
Remember, a scholarship is not free and it is not designed with your best interests in mind. When you take a scholarship, you give up your freedom and the ability to chart your future. It is now the government’s prerogative to decide how to best utilize you as a human resource. Whether this is a good trade depends on your unique circumstances.
Banner picture: A waterfall along Half Dome Trail, Yosemite National Park