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PhD Study in Singapore - A Guide for 2020

An island city state situated in southeast Asia, the bustling multicultural country of Singapore has been dubbed the ‘garden city’ for its ongoing commitment to the preservation of natural habitats.

Despite its small size Singapore punches above its weight as world leader in education, research and development, with a government investment of SGD $19 billion (USD $14 billion) in research innovation and enterprise between 2016 and 2020.

This page will cover the essential information about studying for a PhD in Singapore. From the PhD process to student visas, this guide will get you prepared should you wish to start looking for a PhD in the garden city.

PhD opportunities in Singapore – what’s on offer for 2021?

Singapore is home to six public universities offering PhD programmes. In Singapore all postgraduate study is referred to simply as “graduate study”; PhDs and Masters by research are “graduate studies by research”, while taught Masters are known as “graduate studies by coursework”.

Singapore is renowned for the high standard of its education, and a PhD at one of its universities will see you work alongside world-leading researchers. Here are some of the reasons why you might choose to begin your doctorate in Singapore:

  • Prestigious universities – Two of the universities rank within the world’s top 100 institutions and deliver high-impact research
  • Study in English – PhD tuition and research in Singapore is conducted in English. English is also widely used by many native Singaporeans
  • Fully funded scholarships – There are several scholarships covering tuition and living expenses open to international students with excellent academic records
  • Quality of life – Singapore is one of the safest and cleanest countries in the world and is a great place to live as a postgraduate

PhD Study in Singapore - Key Details
Universities 6
Oldest University National University of Singapore (1905)
International Students 51,756
PhD Length 2-5 years
Representative Fees S$36,000 (USD $26,700)
Academic Year August to July

Coronavirus updates for international students at Singaporean universities

For the latest information on the impact of coronavirus on studying a PhD in Singapore, please check the official Study in Singapore website for updates.

PhD life in Singapore

There is also plenty to see and do while living in Singapore. The Singapore Botanical Gardens for example is a 150-year-old UNESCO world heritage site and the first garden in the world to obtain this status. If you’d like to know more about living in Singapore, you can visit our Singapore living guide.

Singaporean universities

Despite its small size there is a vibrant higher education sector in Singapore. Currently there are six local universities all of which offer a variety of PhD programmes. The Ministry of Education (MOE) is the government body responsible for higher education in Singapore and employs stringent quality assurance frameworks to ensure that these programmes are of exeptional quality and recognised internationally.

Local universities

Singapore has six local universities offering PhD programmes

  • National University of Singapore (NUS)
  • Nanyang Technological University (NTU)
  • Singapore Management University (SMU)
  • Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT)
  • Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)
  • Singapore University of Social Sciences

Foreign institutions

In addition to these local universities, many of the world's leading universities including MIT and the University of London, offer PhD programmes in Singapore in collaboration with local universities (which will be the awarding institutions).

University rankings

Although few in number, Singapore’s higher education facilities are highly regarded on the world stage.


Top Singaporean Universities in 2021
University THE 2021 QS 2021 ARWU 2020
National University of Singapore251180
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore471391
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

Do rankings matter for PhD study?

University rankings can help you choose a PhD project or programme, provided you know what to look at. Our guide explains how to use rankings as a prospective postgraduate.

PhD structure

Obtaining a PhD in Singapore can take anywhere between two and five years depending on the subject studied, but it typically takes around four years. The structure of a doctorate in Singapore is different from that commonly found in the UK and other parts of the world.

Graduate study by research

Rather than apply for a specific project you will instead be applying for a place on a PhD programme within a faculty of your choosing. This programme will be called a “graduate study by research” and will generally begin with a fairly broad focus.

The first year includes a taught element and you will be expected to collect a certain number of credits by completing qualifying modules. You will also learn any techniques that you will require in the future during this time.

Qualifying Examination

Following your first year of study and provided you have successfully completed the taught element of the programme, you will have the opportunity to select a specific research project. Your supervisor will then arrange for you to undergo what is known as the Qualifying Examination (QE).

The QE is a combination of an oral and written examination, designed to assess your ability to understand and criticise literature as well as test specific knowledge regarding your chosen research project.

Upon passing this examination you will be confirmed as a PhD candidate and will begin working towards producing your thesis. If you fail this examination (you can retake it before the end of your second year), you may continue to study for a Masters degree in your chosen subject.

Thesis defence

In order to obtain your doctorate, you will need to submit your thesis and then undergo a formal thesis defence. The process is similar to the viva voce used in the UK and other countries, but also includes a public examination in addition to the typical closed-door examination.

Two or more academic experts will question you on your thesis in order to determine that your research is original, and your subject knowledge is sufficient for the award of a doctoral degree.

Fees and funding

Tuition fees for Singapore based universities can be expensive, but the good news is there are plenty of scholarship and support options available, to encourage international talent. The fees you will face as well as the support options available will vary by university and by the subject area but this should provide an overview of what is available.

The typical fee for an unsubsidised postgraduate course for international students is around S$36,000 (USD $26,700). However, many courses are eligible for government subsidy, reducing the cost of tuition to around S$20,000 (USD $14,800). This subsidy is available from the Ministry of Education (MOE).

Service obligation scheme

Singapore residents and citizens who are eligible for the MOE subsidy will have the subsidy applied to a supported programme by default. International students need to apply for the Service Obligation (SO) Scheme to have access to the same government subsidy.

In order to be eligible for the SO Scheme you must be applying for a graduate degree of a higher level to any you already hold, and your previous degree(s) must not have been sponsored by the Singapore government or government agency.

If you successfully apply for the Scheme then once you have acquired your doctorate, you will be required to undertake three years of work in a Singapore-based company. This is to ‘repay’ the Singapore government for subsidising your education.

Scholarships

There are also several scholarships that you can apply for that can cover the cost of tuition and in many cases provide a monthly stipend to help with living costs. Depending on the scholarship you acquire, these monthly stipends can be quite generous.

Here is a list of the most common scholarships you can apply for. They are subject to change and it’s always worth checking with your chosen institution for the most up to date information on available scholarships.

A*STAR Singapore International Graduate Award (SINGA)

The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) is a government affiliated body that supports research and development projects that intend to improve lives in Singapore. Supported projects fall into one of the following technology domains: Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME), Health and Biomedical Sciences (HBMS), Urban Solutions and Sustainability (USS), and Services and Digital Economy (SDE).

The SINGA award represents a collaboration between the A*STAR, and the universities of NTU, NUS and SUTD. The award is only available for selected research projects and these are typically in the areas of biomedical sciences or physical science and engineering, in line with A*STAR’s aims.

The award is open to all international students, although to be successful you will need to be able to demonstrate a passion for research as well as excellent academic records. If you are successful, the award will cover 4 years of tuition fees and includes a monthly stipend of S$2000 rising to S$25000 after passing the QE. The award also includes an allowance for relocation.

Applications should be made to A*STAR before the deadline which is usually at the start of December.

SMART Graduate Fellowship

The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) Fellowship is a four-year scheme aimed at attracting exceptional graduate students to NTU, NUS, SMU and SUTD universities.

In order to be eligible for the fellowship, you must have graduated with at least an upper second-class honours degree (or equivalent) and have a research interest that fits with one of the projects being carried out by a SMART affiliated research group.

As a successful applicant you will receive up four years of tuition and school fees as well as a monthly stipend of S$3,500 (USD $2,600). You will also have the opportunity to conduct a one-time research residency at MIT for up to six months.

Applications for the August intake typically run from November to the end of December. To apply you will need to select a project listed by a SMART affiliated research group that aligns with your interest and provide a research statement based on the project you have selected.

University research scholarship

Each university has its own equivalent of this scholarship, which is awarded to outstanding graduates undertaking research in one of their faculties. Typically, to be eligible you must possess at least a second-class honour or equivalent in your undergraduate degree.

If you are successful in your application this award with cover your tuition fees and you can expect to receive around S$2,000 (USD $1,480) monthly stipend as an international student or around S$27,000 (USD $20,000) as a Citizen of Singapore. This often increases after passing your PhD Qualifying Examination.

If you wish to apply for this scholarship it is best to contact the university directly about how to go about this. Usually you will need to indicate your interest in the scholarship during your application to the PhD programme

Presidents graduate fellowship

This award is similar to the research scholarship and is also issued by the university that you are applying to. It is significantly more competitive than the research scholarship and is only awarded to students who show exceptional promise or accomplishment in research.

The fellowship comes with more funding than the research scholarship. As a successful applicant you can expect a monthly stipend of around S$3,000 (USD $2,220) as an international student and S$3,500 (USD $2,600) as a Singapore citizen. The funding also includes provision for air travel and a settling allowance, to help with relocation to Singapore.

As with the research scholarship you will normally need to make your interest in the fellowship known in during your PhD application.

Tuition fee allowance

If you cannot acquire a scholarship the universities offer a tuition fee allowance to cover the cost of study. The requirements for eligibility vary by university but are largely similar to the research scholarships offered by the same.

This award will cover your tuition fees but will not provide a monthly stipend.

Loans / Work

Other forms of financial aid which are available include study loans and part-time appointments as graduate student tutor or student researcher.

If you wish to undertake part-time work at your institution or externally, make sure that your visa allows you to undertake paid work (see Visa/Immigration section) and that the institution where you are doing your PhD does not have regulations preventing it.

Applying for a PhD in Singapore

Singapore universities generally have two intakes; one intake in August and another in January, the applications for which close in November and May of the previous year, respectively.

The application process for a PhD in Singapore is a little different to that of the UK. Rather than applying for a specific project you will apply to a faculty for access to a graduate programme. Each faculty offers various programmes focusing on a wide range of subjects.

Having selected the programme that you want to apply for, you’ll need to make sure that you meet the following criteria in order to be considered:

  • A degree in a relevant field
  • High GRE score
  • Proficiency in English

Meeting the application requirements does not guarantee acceptance onto the respective programme as the number of applicants often exceeds the number of available places. Should you wish to make an application here is what you will need to have to hand.

Academic results

In order for your application to be considered you will generally need to have obtained a Masters degree in a relevant discipline. Some programmes will consider those with a Bachelors degree as long as it is an upper second class honours, though this is subject to approval.

You will of course need to supply academic transcripts when making the application. Official transcripts can be provided by your previous university(ies) but all transcripts should be translated into English if they are not already. This will need to be done at your expense and with a recognised translation service.

Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) score

The GRE is a standardised test that is an admission requirement for most graduate schools in the United States and many other countries around the world. The GRE is administered by the Educational Testing Service and tests your aptitude for verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing; in other words, all the things that will be expected of you during your PhD.

Most university faculties in Singapore recommend that a score for this test is submitted to support your application and some require it explicitly. Scores are valid for five years after the test is taken. As the test is computer based, it can be taken at any time of the year at a registered test centre by booking online.

Research proposal / statement of objectives

You may be required to provide a short (1000 – 5000 word) document detailing your experience, research interest and reason for application. You might also be required to include a brief summary of your intended direction of research.

How do I write a PhD research proposal?

The research proposal is an important part of any PhD application, regardless of where you choose to study. Take a look at our guide for some tips and advice on putting yours together.

Referees

You will need to provide references from up to three referees. These referees should be familiar with your previous academic work, ideally having been your supervisor during your undergraduate or Masters study.

English language proficiency

Since all programmes in Singapore are instructed in English you will need to demonstrate that you are proficient in the language. If English is not your native tongue and your previous degree(s) were not instructed in English, you will need to submit the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing System (IELTS) as evidence.

Other documents

Competition for admission to graduate programmes in Singapore is very high. If you have more evidence of academic achievement you may want to consider submitting it to strengthen your applications, e.g. evidence of research experience, journal publications etc.

Application fees

There is usually a non-refundable application fee of around S$50 (USD $37) that will need to be made before the application and the proof of payment sent with the application

Student visas

If you are intending to complete your PhD in Singapore and you’ve been offered a place as a student at a Singaporean university, you will need to apply for a Student’s Pass issued by the Singapore Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA). A tourist visa is not enough to study in Singapore.

The process can be done mostly online through the Student's Pass On-Line Application and Registration (SOLAR) system, which both universities and students use to submit the relevant documentation.

You will need to provide:

  • Proof of admission to the university
  • Proof of financial support
  • Your residential address in Singapore

Successful applicants will be issued with an in-principle approval (IPA) letter by ICA which your university will send directly to you.

You should make your application at least one month before the course begins, which will cost S$30 (USD $22). During periods of high demand (July to August) the process can take longer. In these instances, you should submit your application as early as possible.

Working as a PhD student

Part-time work is allowed under certain conditions and is subject to approval by the university that you are studying in. Before you look for part-time employment, it may be best to enquire at the relevant university office. Local employers can offer part-time employment to overseas students from local universities. As a student, you will have to present a letter of authorisation from your institution allowing you to pursue part-time employment.

Next steps

The combination of structured training and independent research that characterises a PhD awarded in Singapore is designed to produce capable graduates, ready for a range of employment opportunities.

Foreigners seeking highly-skilled work would be hard pressed to find a more suitable country than Singapore. Offering a wide range of opportunities, especially in sectors such as banking, biomedical sciences, communications and media and information technology, the garden city is a magnet for business and high-tech industries in South-East Asia.

Remember that if you received a tuition fee subsidy through the Service Obligation (SO) Scheme, you’ll be required to spend three years working for a Singapore-based company. The good news is that there are plenty of exciting employment prospects in this bustling city state!

Find a PhD in Singapore

Ready to start browsing some current PhD opportunities in Singapore? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 23/10/2020

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