Doing a PhD : Costs & Poverty Line in Hong Kong Since it's been a long time since I actually wrote something not travel related, I thought I'd share with you a few musings on a PhD life here in Hong Kong. (photo credit)


[UPDATE few hours after posting]

I had a feeling this might come out wrong. After a few concerned messages and emails I should clarify : I do okay. Given the circumstances, I don't rely on my scholarship alone. As anybody reading this blog probably knows – I live well, I have fun in HK, I travel, and I generally enjoy my life and studies. I do however, live a much simpler life than I could have lived if I have not chosen to pursue this PhD and I do have to manage my finances. I take this as part of the Asian/academic adventure. So, really, there's no need for concern.

[end of UPDATE]


Last week I went to see Gil Shaham, one of Israel's finest exports and a world class violinist, perform here at the Hong Kong Culture Centre. The day after, I saw a professor in my university who I know is a big fan of Gil's and so I went over to tell her that Gil in town.Doing a PhD : Costs & Poverty Line in Hong Kong "It was a terrific performance", I offered, "and even with my very cheap half-price student ticket of HK$90 the seating was perfect". She paused for a second, looked at me with an inquiring gaze, and replied unexpectedly – "but why didn't you get a better seat? you're a PhD, you can afford whatever seat you want". I was then in a real dilemma. Could it be that our own professors don't know how bad the PhD scholarship really is?


This was the last in a few strange interactions with university faculty and administration here in Hong Kong regarding the PhD scholarship offered in Hong Kong. Could it be that they're really not aware of how bad things are for PhDs here?


True, the official baseline scholarship of 13,000HK$ is generally considered above the world average for a PhD scholarship. But, then, that doesn't take into account two very important aspects. First, PhDs in Hong Kong have to pay tuition, which amounts to ~45,000HK$ a year. Second, PhDs in Hong Kong live in Hong Kong, one of the world's most expensive cities.


So, if you come down right to it, this is what we get each month :

Doing a PhD : Costs & Poverty Line in Hong Kong

5,382.50HK$ transferred into our account after all deductions. This is about 500HK$ more than what I got before I passed the qualifying exams. To ensure that this is all we ever get during our PhD years the HK government has strict rules of no employment during the degree. I won't go into all the calculations of cost of living in Hong Kong, but suffice to say this amount doesn't go far in Hong Kong.


How does this compare to others in Hong Kong? Hong Kong generally puts poverty line at 110HK$ a day, which is around 3000HK$ a month (before rent).

These are good links for understanding more about how these things work in Hong Kong :


Assuming, ofcourse, that being a PhD student incurs all sorts of expenses those struggling with the poverty line normally do not face (like getting a decent laptop, academic travel not covered by university, printing, etc.), I'd say we're not too far ahead of those.


This morning, a mainland friend forwarded this article to me – "Marriage headed for the rocks on mainland" in SCMP :

Almost 80 per cent of women interviewed said they would not consider a man who earned less than 4,000 yuan (HK$4,900) a month.

Among them, 27 per cent set their benchmark at 10,000 yuan – that's more than twice the average income in Beijing, one of the wealthiest municipals on the mainland.

The average monthly wage for a Beijing urban resident (not including migrant workers) was 4,201 yuan a month in 2010. In Shanghai, it was 3,896 yuan; in Guangzhou, it was 3,128 per month.


Compared to a similar survey in 2010, women's expectations of men's earning power has risen significantly. The proportion of women who wanted their partner to be earning 10,000 yuan a month rose by almost half, while the proportion who would be content with 2,000 yuan dropped by a third.

Even in mainland standards, the PhD scholarship in Hong Kong is the average monthly wage, and far below what most females would find suitable in a guy. Needless to say, the guy who forwarded this to me was a bachelor in constant search for a female marriage partner to satisfy his increasingly worried parents, and he was very disturbed with this article.


"But you're messing around with numbers", some people here smile back at me, "we all know that you're doing this PhD because you wanted to make money when you become a professor". Sadly, there's nothing further away from the truth. Being an IT professional with ~7-8 years experience and an MBA a few years back, I'd say the average salary anywhere in the world would be between 2 to 5 times higher than that of a professor, any professor. If you take into account the long years spent pursuing the PhD in poverty line scholarships, you'll get the absolute worst financial investment I could have possibly taken.


But not to worry, I do get by alright. Not to worry, I have my reasons for doing a PhD and I'm hoping things would work out. But it does amuse me that there are so many misunderstandings about doing a PhD, and doing it in Hong Kong, sometimes even by people from within the system.

Tags: Hong Kong; mainland; phd scholarship; phds; scholarship; university; UPDATE;

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CleoFiliHelen SaarDaniel Wallace Recent comment authors
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Sad but true in HK. I have yet to receive a scholarship in Taiwan, the draconian cuts mean that only a couple of people get the Taiwan scholarship. The DPP has been discontinued. But, I have a work permit. As a student, I can teach up to 14 hours per week with a work permit. And I freelance, which is something that’s not tied down to a country, meaning that anyone studying abroad can freelance and earn extra cash. It’s not easy to get into, but it’s worthwhile I’ve been freelancing for the last 5 years and while gigs come… Read more »

Daniel Wallace

Best wishes to both of you. If I am lucky, I will let you know next autumn what American PhD poverty feels like.

Helen Saar
Helen Saar

May-be the poverty is part of PhD … I am finance major and I quite often I don’t know how to manage my own finances and make ends meet. Like you, industry would probably provide me with better income now. But I do hope that the future income will even out the lack of it today. Good luck and successful 2012!


I’m very suspicious of those overly concerned Chinese parents whose exhortations border on and often cross the line into brutality. Why would they want their child saddled with someone who may not be right for them or unaffordable simply to establish a new family branch/provide a grandchild since their own parenting seems maniacal in this respect. Do they just want to ensure that their child is anchored and therefore, not likely to work overseas and forget to subsidize their retirement?

Thusitha Chandrapala
Thusitha Chandrapala

I’m hoping start my phd at HKUST this year, and I’m lucky to have received a 3 yr govt schol, which puts us above the poverty level a bit (At least for the first three years!) I dont know how students put up with the 13k schol for the entire duration of the phd. @Fili – Arent there any other ways to earn some cash there? (If we manage to find some time )

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