Biz Alumni 23 July 2018

Life as a PhD student: You Can Have It All

Sarah’s curiosity led her to the world of academia.

After graduating from NUS with a double degree in business administration and chemical engineering in 2012, Sarah joined Unilever working in various roles, including procurement. She never planned to become an academic, but one year working in the private sector left her hungry for new knowledge.

Even after graduating, she remained in contact with Professor Sun Jie. When he found out about her desire to further her studies, he recommended she pursue a PhD with what is now the Department of Analytics and Operations and that he would be her mentor.

Embracing change

When Dr Sarah Gao Yini was in the second year of the NUS Business School PhD programme, she faced one of the biggest challenges of her life: she became pregnant.  Feeling torn between pursuing her career as an academic and being a mother, she did not know what to do.

“I remember that day when she told me about taking a break because of the baby. She was hesitant and fearful of the future,” said Teo Chung Piaw, Professor of Analytics and Operations, who took over as her mentor in the PhD programme.

Prof Teo advised her that starting a family might take up some time, but it would not affect her research productivity since the generation of research ideas and methods depends on one’s creativity. He also shared that his personal experience of starting his family during his PhD course.

“Balancing my personal life with a demanding research agenda was the greatest challenge during my time at school,” recalled Sarah.

Besides Prof Teo’s support, she received help from the PhD and Research Department as well as her fellow classmates who would exchange ideas with her and lend a hand when possible. Sarah’s former mentor, Prof Sun Jie, continued to coach her with her research and even offered personal advice.

Curiosity and the willingness to explore

Sarah (left) at her Commencement ceremony

According to Prof Teo, Sarah is one of the best PhD students to have graduated from the Department of Analytics & Operations.

“Her strength lies in her willingness to explore new things and ability to pick up the technical skills needed,” added Prof Teo. For instance, she studied game theory, a completely new subject for her, under Assoc Prof Lim Wei Shi from the Department of Marketing. Together with the School’s former Dean, Professor Chris Tang, they published their research on copy-cat branding and manufacturing strategies in journals and their study was featured in the media.

What would Sarah’s advice to aspiring doctoral students? “It is to first talk to the faculty to understand in advance the work they do and what are the requirements to be successful in this career. The advice from them is invaluable,” she said.

To find out more about our PhD programme, please visit