Launching satellites to space during my PhD at NTU in Singapore
Sep 29, 2022
5 mins read
Nanyang Technological University Singapore (NTU)
💼 PhD: Aerospace & Space Engineering
⏳ Aug 2018 — Oct 2022
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Nanyang Technological University Singapore (NTU)
💰 100% Financial Need Met
🌏 27% International
The PhD program itself was one of the main reasons for choosing NTU. I always knew I am interested in satellite building, and I was looking for a program that would offer me that experience. Another option I considered was a Master's Degree at Kyushu Institute of Technology in Japan but then I realized that I would eventually want to do a PhD. If I were to do Masters first and then PhD separately, it would take me a few extra years.
Another reason for attending NTU which I realized only after being here for a while is that Singapore is very well connected. I will be pursuing a direction of building a company, and Singapore is a very good place to connect with the rest of the world.
At NTU you spend your first year taking classes and doing light literature review around your research topic. At the end of the year, you are supposed to have a better idea of the direction of your research. You then go through QE (Qualifying Examination), which is essentially a presentation about your hypothesis. All of that happens within 18 months since you join the program during which you complete around 6 courses for 3 units each (18 units total)
From then on you focus on your research. Every year you make a presentation to the TSE (Teaching Advisory Committee) that helps you with technical and any other issues.
Funding for Research
What I enjoyed the most is being able to forget about financing when planning my research. In my case, I had to do a lot of machine learning which requires GPUs, and NTU provided as much as I needed. I was also involved in building a satellite that was launched into space. That project required a lot of money, but the lab was always able to fund what was needed. Financing is definitely a big differentiator when compared to other schools.
What can be improved
PhD still seems to be a one-person show and something to think about is “How do you make the most with the people around you?” When I was at the university, I spent a lot of time by myself, but it makes very little sense for me to have come all the way from Malawi and spend time on my own. There is still room for improvement for students and researchers to bring brains together informally, while still doing research. It’s an experience that you are not able to get when you are at home.
If you are not from China and India, you are eligible for Singapore International Graduate Award (SINGA). Applications for the SINGA award and the universities are separate. SINGA award covers all expenses when it comes to PhD in particular. In general, you don't pay for your PhD as you work some hours for the university.
Regarding Masters, students usually pay for Masters on their own or you can get a deal with your company to have your expenses paid for. Tuition is still much cheaper than when compared to the US or UK (around 21,000 USD).
If you are SINGA awardee, you also get paid, but the exact value changes. When I started I was paid 2000 USD/month. After I passed my QE (Qualification Exam), I got an increment of about 500 USD. Now they increased the pay, so you can expect around 3000 USD. It's a sufficient amount to live in Singapore, considering a comfortable room between 700USD to 1200 USD.
Meeting my Supervisor
I met my supervisor at a conference in South Africa in 2017 where he did a presentation. I came up to him and told him that I was interested in doing research under his supervision. He was happy to take me in.
The best way to meet a supervisor is definitely to attend a conference as both of you are there because you are interested in the same topic. If you are able to go to a conference and physically talk to someone who is a potential supervisor, you already pass a particular filter for that supervisor. Talking to someone face-to-face is very different from sending out an email. These supervisors usually receive several requests for joining their labs, so to really stand out, you should try to meet them.
Application Process & Proposal
There is no one specific way to apply. As I mentioned, I met my potential supervisor at the conference, and that alone is not easy to replicate.
After the meeting, you sent your supervisor a proposal to get confirmation that your topic is within the scope of what his/her lab does. Even if it's not directly his research, the supervisor might help you find someone else who would agree to supervise. A proposal needs to be detailed, but at the same time, it has to be something that helps you initiate a conversation about what you want to do. You are a student, not an expert in the field. Once the proposal is refined, you can use it to apply to a school.
Another part of my application was GRE. Malawi didn't have a GRE center, so I had to travel to South Africa to do so. I was very tired, so it was not the best experience. It is worth mentioning that a supervisor can help you get through some of the application hurdles. There are school requirements and then there is you showing that you have an ability to do research. If your supervisor is convinced, you might not even have to take GRE.
Additionally, every school requires a certain GPA, for NTU it was 3.5/4. If you are going to do research, you gotta have love for academia, so it matters that you have a certain level of academic rigor.
Starting my own company
There are two paths once you complete a PhD. First, you stay in academia and become a post-doc or a research fellow, with the potential to advance to being a professor. The 2nd path is going to the industry which entails two things: you can either join a company and continue to do research or set up your own company, which is what I am doing.
I am creating a company in the Space Technology industry and will go through an incubation program in Singapore. We will be building satellites on the African continent and designing them in Asia to leverage technical experiences that are already here while doing significant work in Africa. I believe the technology we have today is sufficient to solve many problems in the world, but certain countries believe they can not do some things because they are of certain income levels. People think rich countries build airplanes because they are rich, while I really believe that they are rich because they build airplanes. It’s because of the value of the products they produce. Therefore I am not going to go to Africa and ask people to make shoes, as it's not a high-value product. Instead, I am going to build satellites - a high-tech product that I hope makes a positive impact in my community and in the world.