Are you prepared for a research postgraduate study (Masters or PhD) in Malaysian universities?

Update (15 May 2013): I was interviewed by Samantha Joseph from the New Straits Times newspaper on my views on postgraduate studies in Malaysia. “The realities of postgraduate education” was published today in NST Postgraduate Supplement issue (pg. 2).

Some students go through a self-inflicted torrid time during their Masters or PhD programme in local Malaysian universities. There are many reasons for this, but they can be grouped into two issues. These students often have: 1) a wrong evaluation of their interests and capabilities, and 2) a wrong expectation of the amount of self-reliant work required from them in their postgraduate studies.

Yes, you are interested a research postgraduate degree in a Malaysian university. But are you ready for it? (photo from www.wtsinternational.org)

Yes, yes, you are interested in a research postgraduate degree in a Malaysian university, but are you really prepared for it? (photo from www.wtsinternational.org)

So, before you fill in the postgraduate study forms, you need to ask yourself the following questions.

1. Why do you want to do a research postgraduate study?

This is the most important question students should to ask themselves, but yet, students often neglect to do so. Doing a postgraduate study is not a customary progression after completing your first degree. And you should not do a Masters or PhD simply because some of your friends are doing it, or because you cannot find a job, or because you feel aimless after graduation.

Research work often involves plenty of lab analyses (photo from www.upm.edu.my)

Research work often involves plenty of work in labs (photo from www.upm.edu.my)

Unbelievably, one of my former (and failed) students once disclosed that she wanted a PhD simply because she like the title “Dr.” to precede her name! Some students also do a PhD with the belief that their employers would increase their salaries or their social status would rise.

A research postgraduate study should only be pursued if (and only if) you are interested in research or academic work. What you might be unaware is doing a research postgraduate study would limit your career options to only those in research and teaching. And even if you do find a job that is unrelated to research, do not expect your employer to pay you according to your highest training level. In other words, you would be paid according to your first-degree level. But in most cases, your job application would likely be rejected because you would be deemed over-qualified.

2. Do you have sufficient money?

Another often neglected question is to ask is if you have sufficient funds to support your postgraduate study. A Masters study would take two years, and a PhD four years. Shockingly, some foreign students have little qualms coming to Malaysia with insufficient money. God willing, they might say, part-time work or additional money would come later.

Shockingly, some students pursue their postgraduate studies with insufficient financial means. Although plenty of scholarships are available to local Malaysian students, these scholarships are typically unappreciated. These scholarships actually act to cause students to be lazy and slow down their work progress (photo from www.themalaysiantimes.com.my).

Shockingly, some students pursue their postgraduate studies with insufficient financial means. Although plenty of scholarships are available to local Malaysian students, these scholarships are typically unappreciated. These scholarships actually act to cause students to be lazy and slow down their work progress (photo from www.themalaysiantimes.com.my).

When you are stressed out thinking of money, is there any room left in your concern for your research?

To put it simply, you must have sufficient funds to pay the tuition fees, accommodation, food, and other expenses.

And, no, part-time work is never a good option for additional income. The job, even though part-time, steals your precious time from research work. You must be fully focused on your research work. My students who have part time jobs have never been able to give their best effort in their research or to complete their studies in time – never.

But what about scholarships?

3. Can you get a scholarship? And would you even appreciate the scholarship if you get it?

Supervisors in Malaysian universities are blessed with ample research projects and with ample financial support for student scholarships. However, these scholarships are competitive. There is no guarantee you would get it because supervisors often have more than one student under their wings. Do not be surprised that a supervisor can have as many as five to twelve students at any one time.

My university, UPM, along with five other universities, is recognized as a Research University. This means, UPM gets additional funds to offer scholarships to postgraduate students. Local Malaysian students find it relatively easy to obtain one form of scholarship or another. Now, ironically, comes the problem with abundant scholarships. With plentiful of scholarships available to Malaysian students, you might think this would make these students work even harder and more appreciative, right? Wrong. Easy access to scholarships only makes some Malaysian students lazier and slower in their research work.

Foreign students have it harder. The only scholarship available to you in Malaysia is through your supervisor’s research funds. You need to ask your prospective supervisor even before you apply for a postgraduate study if he or she has sufficient funds to support you.

4. Is your family or partner supportive of your studies?

What most students fail to realize is doing a Masters and particularly a PhD can disrupt your family life and social relationships. I have seen more than one case where parents threaten to disown their children because their children wanted to pursue a postgraduate study. This is because some parents fail to appreciate or are naïve about postgraduate studies. These parents think a postgraduate study is an unnecessary and additional financial burden to continue to support the children’s seemingly never-ending studies.

Support from family members and/or your partner can be crucial in your postgraduate study. They can derail your studies as easily as they can support you (photo from www.mc.vanderbilt.edu)

Support from family members and/or your partner can be crucial in your postgraduate study. They can derail your studies as easily as they can support you (photo from www.mc.vanderbilt.edu).

I have seen one of my former students receiving ridicule from relatives and even from family members when they compare her to her ex-course mates who have already graduated (from Bachelor) and who are earning good money while she still slogs through a Masters programme.

I have seen a marriage end up as a divorce because the wife cannot stand being alone for long periods whilst the husband was busy at the field or lab. I have seen a long-term relationship break up due to one partner (girlfriend) pursuing a PhD, while the other partner (boyfriend) was not. Intellectually, it appeared, they grew apart. On a personal note, my own ten-year-old relationship with my former girlfriend broke down because of my long absence while I pursued my PhD in the UK while she remained at home in Malaysia (no, long distance relationship do not work).

I have seen one student who was so completely stressed out from his PhD that he was admitted to a hospital mental health ward … twice. And I have seen both husband and wife (both PhD students at the same time) stressed out of having to take care of their newborn baby, their financial difficulties, and their respective research; so stressed the husband was that he was close to tears as he disclosed his troubles to me in my office.

Doing a research postgraduate study is stressful because it competes with your family or your partner for your time, energy, devotion, and concentration. So, you may be ready to do a PhD, but is your family or partner ready?

5. How is your English?

English is the lingua franca in academia. Unfortunately, the level of English among students (both Malaysians and foreigners) in Malaysian universities often range between poor to atrocious. Yes, English courses (even from British Council) are easily available, but the level of English proficiency required in science is much higher than what can be taught in these English language centers. It is one thing in being able to read and speak conversational English such as:

“I would like to see my supervisor. May I know when he is free to see me?”

and wholly different in being able to read scientific text and actually understand what the whole text is saying, such as:

“…factors of aggregate stability can interact with one another; meaning that a factor may not, by itself, have a unique contribution to aggregate stability. Instead, it jointly contributes with another factor or factors to affect aggregate stability. Such jointly contributions cannot be measured by simple linear regression or by correlations…”.

So, if your command of English is less than desired, how far are you willing to work to improve it? You simply cannot escape achieving at least a good level of English language proficiency in science.

6. Are you willing to learn to read and write a lot?

Laziness to read and write scientific papers is a key problem among postgraduate students. Part of this problem is the poor level of English proficiency among the students.

Plenty of reading is required in research postgraduate study (photo from srpp.com.au).

Plenty of reading is required in research postgraduate study (photo from srpp.com.au).

You need to start reading—and read a lot—early in your research work. You need to understand the problems, gaps in knowledge, issues, and latest findings in your research area. When you read enough, you feel more confident and competent in your work. Instead, students often start to read only when it is time to write their thesis.

And how much should you read? One journal per day, as once pledged by my former (and failed) student? No. You read as much as you can or as needed. Contrary to a common notion among students, you do not have to read a book or journal paper from front to back like a novel or story book.

You only read parts of a book or paper that are relevant or for information you require. Yes, there would be books or papers which you will read front-to-back and many times over because they are most relevant to your research, but certainly not all documents should be treated as such.

Unfortunately, poor comprehension and low concentration skills hamper reading. Students may understand the individual words that make up a text, but yet fail to understand what the whole text means.

Lastly, you need to write. You must get your research published, but not just in any journal, but also preferably in high impact journals. Unfortunately, there are many so-called scientific journals out there, ready to publish your work, sometimes as fast as within a week. These journals require payment, which itself is not unusual because some high impact journals do carry page charges, but the problem is these so-called journals carry low quality research papers, sometimes complete with grammar and spelling errors and missing references.

Students must publish theirs work in good journals (photo from www.agronomy.org)

Students must publish their work in good journals (photo from www.agronomy.org)

7. Are you self-reliant?

Self reliance is a very essential ingredient in all good research students. Masters and PhD study is a test on independent work. You must plan your research work and keep to the schedule. It isn’t your supervisor’s duties to accompany you to the lab or to the field all the time.

Self reliance is crucial in research. It means able to go out to the field to collect data, for example. Research planning and schedule are crucial.

Self reliance is crucial in research. It means able to go out to the field to collect data, for example. This was one of my previous research with my former student.

It is your supervisor’s duties to provide financial support for your research (such as to purchase chemicals or research equipment) or networking assistance in any research collaboration with external organizations. But, ultimately, it is you who have to plan and setup the lab and/or field experiments, collect and analyze the data, and interpret the results. This includes solving problems that often crop up unexpectedly in research work.

Your supervisor guides and advises you in your research but not do all of your statistical work and interpret your analyses.

Self reliance is such an important criterion that it cannot be stressed often enough. Used to being spoon-fed with information and work being carried out for them, students often struggle to prepare, let alone execute and complete, a series of experiments on their own. Deadlines are never self-imposed, so their work is often completed late and shoddy, lowering the quality of research.

Self reliance also means self study, where you learn to overcome your knowledge deficiencies through reading, consultations, and hands-on practice. No one knows everything or is talented in all aspects. The crux is being able to seek out the relevant information and to do it diligently to overcome our knowledge or technical skill weaknesses.


Consequently, these seven questions are essential questions you need to ask yourself. This article is not about the nitty-gritty details about postgraduate application, as universities’ websites carry those information, but it is about whether you should be pursuing a Masters or a PhD programme.

My PhD student, Mohsen, and I discussing some finer points in our research.

My PhD student, Mohsen, and I (left) discussing about some finer points in his research project.

Stress, difficulties, sleepless nights, and delays are part and parcel of any research work. In fact, they are to be expected. But what becomes an unrewarding Masters or PhD experience is when students come unprepared in terms of insufficient financial means, wrong attitude and expectations, and inadequate basic knowledge and skills.

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Comments

  1. Hello Dr. Teh

    I am currently in my final semester of Bachelor’s Degree at USM majoring in English Language and Literature Studies.

    I am interested in pursuing masters in philosophy from overseas as I found it interesting ever since I took Philosophy and Civilisation as my minor. However, I can’t help but feel insecure as my knowledge regarding the subject area is not very wide. I realise that changing a different field than my major would be risky but my general reason for wanting to further my studies in the subject is the interest of learning and wanting to be part in the academic world.

    After reading your article, it is clear that it would not be advisable for me to further masters in research mode since I don’t have any particular subject interest to research due to lack of knowledge and experience regarding the subject area.

    I just want to know if there would be any differences in outcome if I take coursework or mixed mode. How does it affect my prospect regardless of whatever mode I opted?

    Do you have any advice for my situation?

    • If you have a strong desire and interest in a field and willing to work hard to acquire knowledge and overcome your shortcomings, then you should do the postgraduate study in that field. Yes, I wrote that some students face great problems in their postgraduate, one of which is from having a weak background in a certain field. But this does not mean students must be experts before pursuing a postgraduate. If one is an already expert, then one shouldn’t need a postgraduate degree! Postgraduate studies are, at the end of the day, to train students. My article is to warn students on the risk of “biting more than they can chew”, for instance pursuing a field that is very remote or very different than their training background. Even then, some students are able to overcome this gap by self-learning, so it really depends on you and your self-determination.

      Perhaps a talk to some lecturers will help. They can advise if you have the sufficient skill set to pursue your field of interest.

      Coursework degrees are more suitable for non-academicians. If you want to be a lecturer or research, it is much better to pursue a research-based degree as it would expose you to research, not just bits of it.

      • Yes I did consulted a few of my lecturers. What they point out is to have a good MA transcript so that I would be able to be admitted into a PhD program.

        I figured given my background, I should at least establish some basic knowledge in order to develop some experience and interest in a particular subject area. So the way to do this is by taking coursework or mixed mode. After that, then perhaps I can further into a PhD research mode.

        Would this be possible?

  2. The only thing I would like to add is that it is possible to make it while having part-time or full-time work. I completed my Industry PhD with MyBrain15 sponsorship. Took me near 5 years. The company I work with endorsed my enrollment, but the research scope is far enough from full-time work. I had to find my own time, i.e. nights and weekends. Turning it effectively a part-time program.

    Contrary to most suggestions to pursue PhD if interested as soon as possible after grad, I am glad that I signed up 10 years after getting MSc. I talked to 2 universities and 4 prospective supervisors during the time. The 10 years allow me to build up soft skills, as well as to think thoroughly the right subject suitable for research. Can’t imagine the pressure I would have to endure should I pursue the program earlier.

    Nonetheless, I value the training PhD program offers. No classroom course would substitute what it provides. It is very much student-driven to train oneself an independent researcher. The way the program runs set it differently from bachelor degree and masters. Be prepared and good luck!

  3. Dear Mr.Teh,

    I have just graduated with 1st class honours from a local university and was offered a masters in social science by research. My aim is to be a lecturer and I plan to further my studies to PHD right after masters.
    The thing is my bachelor degree required no thesis and I have very limited knowledge about research. Everyone around me has been advising me to work instead or take up masters by coursework cause according to some people art students’ research are useless (I am no sure how to respond to that) and coursework is easier than research. May I get your insights on this?

    • If you are planning to be a lecturer and furthering to a PhD later, I *strongly* recommend that you choose Masters by research. Research-based degrees will give you the experience to carry out research: data collection, analysis, and interpretations; statistical analysis; designing your experiments; review of studies; and writing — valuable skills that a research-based degree can only offer. Coursework degrees are easier, yes, but less helpful if you are looking for academic experience. Coursework masters are for those who are already in management level and do none or very little research in their office/work.

      But for academicians, this is not the route. You should shoot your friends for advocating shortcuts, lazy, easier, and dumbdown pathway to your ambition.

      • Dear Mr.Teh,

        Thanks for your reply! Just a further question: I like teaching, but I am not so sure on research as I have not done it before. If I am set on the academic route, is that what I am going to do for the rest of my career? May I know what is it like for life in research? Getting unemployed after PHD as a lecturer is also one of my biggest concern as it will be deemed ‘overqualified’ for most commercial companies and I will be left with only degrees…

        • If you are planning to work at universities, be they private or government, overseas or local, then experience in research is essential. Getting a PhD does not mean you have to work at universities, you can work in think tanks or research firms.

    • I am afraid I don’t understand what you mean by “get the family status”. Are you asking if scholarships will sponsor your family when you go overseas for a Masters? If yes, you need to ask your sponsors if they will do this. Some scholarships provide some additional living allowance for family members — but not always.

  4. Good article.. Hello Sir, i’m a teacher in government high school in KL.. i have taught for only about 3 years right now but have already been thinking of pursuing masters degree.. the reason is simply because im bored with teaching high school students these days.. teachers need to lower their knowledge level as well as expectations since students’ nowadays lack of efforts and thinking skills.. as educators, we tend to challenge ourselves and wanted to gain more knowledge but instead, we end up lowering our level to fulfil the students’ need.. however, reading your article made me realized that one simple reason is not what it takes to do it.. thanks for all the reminders. need to plan really carefully..

  5. Great article!
    I have a few questions for you:
    I graduated with First Class Honours from a Malaysian public university.
    I’m interested in furthering my studies at a graduate level. This is because I have a long-term plan of becoming a lecturer one day.
    I’ve been hearing/reading that because my result, I can actually skip Masters and go straight to PhD.
    I never considered this option before due to my lack of research background/don’t think I am mature and ready enough for the kind of challenges faced by a PhD student.
    Could you give your thoughts on this matter?
    Also, I thought of trying to further my studies overseas. I’ve been wondering are there any overseas institutions (US, UK, Australia preferably) that actually recognise a Bachelor’s Degree with Honours from a Malaysian public university?
    Appreciate your thoughts on the matter.
    Thanks.

    • Some local universities including Uni. Putra Malaysia do allow for First Class Honors Bachelor students to skip Master and go straight into a PhD. However, our experience is that many such students struggle badly when they skip one level. Even when they do finish their PhD, they often take longer than students who did not skip a level, so savings in time may not be appreciable. I urge you not to skip a level and to continue with Master first, then a PhD.

      However, if during your Master study, you find that you have done some excellent work and got some good results, you may opt to promote to a PhD. Even then, that would depend on your supervisors and faculty if your work can be promoted to a PhD.

      So, there is some allowance to promote to a PhD without Master — but this is not a normal or even recommended route.

      Yes, overseas universities do recognize our local Bachelor degree.

  6. HI ,

    i would like to join Post graduate in Malaysia by part time .

    how i can check ? is university certificate approved by Malaysia or any other overseas country ?

    because im from INDIA And working in Singapore . so my certificate should approved or recognized by other country (like India , Singapore and Canada ) .

    im worried ,
    if certificate didn’t valid in other countries .
    after i did my post graduate ( Msc in material engineering ) in Malaysia . its not worth for me .

    so looking for your best suggestions to choosing right university ?

    • I am unclear if you have done your MSc before (but you found it is not certified?) or you have not done any Masters yet but are planning to do one soon.

      Anyway, go directly to the faculty offering the intended degree and ask. To clear any confusion, why not see the Faculty management? In my faculty, for example, the Deputy Dean of Postgraduate Studies handles the Postgraduate programs. He would be the right person to answer your question. But the person would be different for your university, so please check. It is a simple matter of calling or going to the faculty office one day.

  7. Dear Mr Teh,

    I would like to ask if it is possible to apply to an overseas PhD programme (UK, US etc) using a malaysia public university degree with good academic performance?

    • Yes. You will find that gaining entry for a postgraduate degree much easier even for overseas universities than for a Bachelor. However, you will need to find sufficient funds for overseas study (not cheap) and a supervisor with research you are interested in and he or she has the funds to support your research.

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