Reflections with Eduardo Araral

By Brendan Loon

Professor Eduardo Araral is currently Vice-Dean (Research) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP). He obtained his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Degree in Public Policy from Indiana University-Bloomington on a Fulbright PhD Scholarship, with Elinor Ostrom (2009 Nobel Laureate in Economics) as his mentor.

Prof Ed specialises in studying the causes and consequences of institutions for collective action and governance of the commons. His work has been cited by National University of Singapore (NUS) President Tan Chorh Chuan as research that advances knowledge and helps solve society’s important problems. His portfolio of government advisory and consultancy includes having served as Strategy Advisor to Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Development, and to the Government of Vietnam for public administration reform. Prof Ed enjoys taking relaxing walks to Botanic Gardens MRT station at the end of the workday, revelling in the concert of the crickets and the frogs before taking the train home.

Prof Ed: This is my third career, and unlike your typical Singaporean who would plan well in advance what they wanted to do and what they would do each step of the way to reach there, I never planned on being in academia. Personally, it was more of what career options were available out there. Joining academia stemmed from personal family considerations rather than from a personal career aspiration.

The advantage in academia, at least here in Singapore, is that you have some control over your time, and you get to exercise choice in what to do and when you want to do it. And being in academia here in Singapore, you can get international exposure and background, especially if you’re in the LKYSPP. We do have a school of some stature and international standing. When I’m in conferences, even as far as maybe in Ethiopia, and they see ‘LKYSPP’, they know who we are and what we are about; but of course, if I had no name plate, they probably wouldn’t bother too much with me.

Young people who plan to go into an academic career have many considerations. There’s the opportunity cost of your time. Academia means being a university professor or instead of, say, a primary school teacher. To go into academia, you’d need a first or second class honours degree, and then a master’s degree, and then a scholarship for another five years of doctoral studies. Adding these up, that’s at least 10 years, during which you forgo all your income and subsist on something like sardines and bread, and a small amount of money.

It will be especially difficult if you’re starting a young family, because you need to study and also look after your family. Maybe your spouse will have to make the difficult choice to put his or her career on hold while one of you is pursuing the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). Again, this means foregone earnings — something of a doubled loss — during that period.

Once you’re done with your PhD, then you will have to compete with thousands upon thousands of unemployed PhD holders looking for the same kind of job as you. You won’t just be competing locally too; if you’re working for and with an international university, then the competition is also international. There are so many eager applicants all competing, so you won’t find any preferential treatment.

Women have a dual problem: finishing their PhD and getting tenure, as well as finding the right partner and starting a family. Very few successful academics have managed these two challenges. So it may be particularly challenging for women to enter the field of academia. However, women academics in Singapore are better off than those in the United States, because here you can have childcare and a house-help. These don’t exist in the U.S., so it’s difficult to balance a family and a career. Some young women who are aware of these things may decide that academia is not what they want to do because they don’t want to give up having a family. So we do see a disproportionate amount of tenured faculty who are men compared to women.

Assuming you make it and get an offer at a university, then you get another six to seven years to work your bottom off — publish, and publish, publish, publish — in order to get tenure. From the time that you decide to enter academia and the time you actually get tenure, it takes about 17 years or so. Only then do you get to enjoy the life of a career academic: the autonomy, the pay, and all that; and in a way, that’s when you recover some of your foregone investments. But that’s really only if you make it.

Some people think this route holds too much uncertainty and would rather just take a big offer from a bank or company that’s right in front of them. As they say, ‘A bird in hand is worth two in the bush’. So, some young people may want to take the opportunity handed to them early instead of waiting in uncertainty for 17 years for another opportunity, especially if they are constantly calculating their time and money.

My take is that when you find yourself at certain junctures, you have to figure out the right choice, and you won’t know if the choice is right or wrong, you just have to do it — just close your eyes and jump. I too thought about whether or not to do a PhD, and if I had worried too much about those 17 years and that uncertainty then I would probably have said, ‘No.’ So if you worry too much then pursuing a PhD and a career in academia probably won’t happen. And it is going to be difficult, unless you’re a big nerd with first class honours, or have a rich family to pay off your student loans, or are on scholarship.

Luckily for Singaporeans, the government now offers scholarships all the way up to PhD, so you won’t have to worry as much. There’s the added bonus that Singaporean education confers, because you’re ahead of many in terms of where you start.

On hindsight, I think the advice I would give youths is that you need to take a long-term view. Be ready and willing to sacrifice your time and income stream and to put up with the uncertainty for those 17 years, just on the promise of substantial improvement to come if you do make it. Also, ask yourself if it’s what you really want; not everybody is cut out for academia. Academia is teaching, research, and administration; if you only want one of these areas, then you will probably not make it in the long-term.

I also want to caution youth that the attrition rate for PhDs is very high: about 75%. So, for every 100 PhD candidates who kick off from the starting line, only 25 or so finish their studies; and of those who finish their PhD, maybe only 4 or 5 end up in the tenure track; and out of these 4 or 5, maybe only 1 to 2 will get a professorship in a good university at the end. And the system can be quite brutal to those who fall through the cracks. The journey is like a full 42-kilometre marathon; it takes a lot of patience and stamina. You could think of the analogy of surfing — I don’t surf, but I’ve watched people surf along the beaches in Bali. It’s very difficult starting out, paddling out, but once you’ve learned how to coast back on the waves, it gets easier.

Prof Ed: When I sent in my application for doctoral studies, I didn’t know to whom or where it was going to go, I just sent it in to Fulbright; I had no particular professor in mind to be my advisor. From there, it was sent to Dr Elinor Ostrom. This was back in 2001. And then, of course, in 2009, she won the Nobel Prize. I didn’t choose her, but she chose me, so I’m really just lucky. I was also doubly lucky that she was not just my advisor in name, but became a real family friend. She funded our family’s airfare and trip to the US for me to study, because I didn’t have any money as a graduate student. So, my wife and children, Dianne and Buena, and I all went to the US, and that made it bearable for me to actually do my PhD. Her generous offer was for us to stay at her place and she would pay for the water, electricity and utility bills, and in return I would cut the trees, split the wood in winter, mow the lawns, trim the grasses in summer; I would do these in return for her financial support.

While I was pursuing my PhD, I had to teach 1 or 2 undergraduate courses — mostly courses the professors didn’t want to do: huge class sizes, a lot of marking, statistics — but you couldn’t earn much from it. My wife had to take on several jobs to supplement our income – as a babysitter, a restaurant manager – but you couldn’t really get stable jobs in the US with a student visa as your background, so you just take on whatever odd jobs here and there that would come your way. We had to make a lot of sacrifices to make it work, make it happen because we were still starting out as a young family when I was pursuing my PhD. Normally if you do a PhD, you’d be much younger than I was. I was already late into my 30s, so I actually started quite late. My advice here then is ‘Don’t start too late.’ At that age, you might already have a family or be planning for one, which makes it difficult to pursue a PhD, though not impossible – I myself had 2 careers before coming into this one.

Success in academia requires a lot of hard work, sacrifice, taking a long-time view, but also an element of luck. For me, I think I’ve been quite lucky – or favoured in the grand design, call it what you will – because even before I finished my PhD, I already had an offer from the LKYSPP which was just opening then, and having an offer before you complete your studies really rarely happens; and the Vice-Dean then had just completed his sabbatical studies in my university as well, so while he didn’t know me, he did know my university. And so, sometimes you make it because you’re lucky – you’re at the right place at the right time, the right moment, and supported by the right people. And I was on a Fulbright Scholarship, but even how I got there was quite lucky, or a series of lucky events. The long and short of it is that I just happened to be in a library, and I just so happened to open up a newspaper to this particular page on which there was an advertisement, and that’s how I ended up applying for a Fulbright Scholarship. Had I not been at that library at that time and not opened that newspaper to that particular page, I probably wouldn’t have gotten a Fulbright Scholarship, and my application probably wouldn’t have found its way to Elinor Ostrom’s desk. And without her, my family probably wouldn’t have gone with me to the US, and without them, I probably wouldn’t have completed my studies. So, it was a series of lucky events.

Prof Ed: For me, personally, the most difficult part was getting the tenure. The National University of Singapore (NUS) has very high expectations – naturally to be expected with the reputation and distinction – and expectations only increase over the years as things get better. Whenever NUS’ ranking goes up, the bar is bound to keep rising as well. If you had applied to NUS during the 1990s, the expectations wouldn’t have been as high as they were during the 2000s – or as high as they are today. And I got here in 2007.

Additionally, there’s stress because once you come in, you have only 6 to 7 years to make it, meaning publish in this number of journals, present at this number of international conferences, have people cite your work, win international awards and recognition, get high teaching scores from your students, and serve on committees. This is especially challenging because you aren’t really trained to do this; you are trained to research and write.

So, there’s the challenge of juggling your time, especially with a young family, you have to balance so many different priorities. But eventually you learn these things. And I’m lucky again because my wife had a job which didn’t require her to report to the office, so she could be at home for our children. To the credit of my wife, she said that she would take care of our family so that I could focus on my career. Without her decision, I don’t think I could have done my PhD and I don’t think I could’ve succeeded.

We also had a house-help, and our children could find a school just around the corner when we got here from the US. Had I been the in the US, where there are no house-helps, then I’d probably also have to drive to drop them off in the morning and then pick them up again for day-care in the afternoon and then pick them up again from day-care at the end of the day, and still have to go home and cook – it would have been much, much harder in the US than it is in Singapore.

Prof Ed: Walking my dog, going to the gym – but I don’t distinguish much between what’s work and what’s not work, because I think that if you love what you do then you won’t have to work even a day in your lifetime. I guess I love what I do so much that I don’t see it as a chore or burden, so I still respond to emails on Saturdays and Sundays and all that. But, of course, from time to time, it’s good to take break so I travel, with my family, and we take a family vacation, usually at least once every year, to have that time to spend with each other and not have to worry about the next deadline.

Prof Ed: Oh, you should have fun, of course – besides the values I’ve already mentioned: hard work, perseverance, sacrifice, long-term vision. And then optimism: to believe that you will make, or even if you don’t, it’s really not the end of the world, there’s a lot of other things to do. I mean it sounds easy for me to say all this because in a way I made it, I managed to survive. But it’s true that not everyone has the same luck.

Prof Ed: Well, you can consider me as an example that you can have 3 careers, or maybe 4 if you want to have more careers than I’ve had. Always continuously improve on yourself – don’t slacken off, but upgrade yourself, invest part of your time in self-improvement and learn new things. And always remember that the destination itself is not the reward. You have to enjoy the journey to make the destination count. I remember how even when I was writing my dissertation, I would keep the weekends free to spend time with my family and friends, maybe play some poker with them, socialise … only come Monday do I get back to the grind.

Before my PhD, I was doing consulting work for organisations like Economic Development Board and World Bank, but the field was ultra-competitive with so many consultants and rather few projects available by comparison. The salary was not quite predictable or stable, and you’d only have food on the table if you can win many projects or a series of projects or a long-term project. So, if you have a family, then the situation isn’t really ideal. I thought then that I needed more stability for my family, so I shifted to academia.

Before I was doing consulting work, my first job was with a Non-Governmental Organisation in the Philippines, working in partnership with Catholic missionary groups. I was there for 7 years, working in the local communities: the markets, the agriculture sector, entrepreneurship and innovation. But it didn’t pay well enough to support a young family.

Then I decided to shift my field of work by getting a Master’s Degree, which brought me to a university and to doing consulting work. So, one thing led to another – and then now I’m here, so you could say that there was a grand design.

Prof Ed: At this stage in my life, it’s really no longer my education, the tenure, or the money. I guess in Maslow’s hierarchy, the base needs have been met for me, so I’m at the self-actualisation stage. It’s about doing meaningful things, to see the benefit of what you are doing. Right now, I’m doing some things in Philippines like helping to write the Constitution so that’s really important – maybe this will even be the apex of my career – because knowing that the future of the country is going to be influenced heavily by what is written in the Constitution, I want to take pride in doing and investing myself in this kind of meaningful work.