It is not a zero-sum game, say Singaporean women who pursue PhDs. It is not necessarily a stark choice between one's career and starting a family.

This was the refrain voiced by six female doctoral students interviewed by The Sunday Times.

They were reacting to what former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had said to a woman PhD student at a recent university dialogue.

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) student Joan Sim, 27, had stood up to ask a question.

He later asked if she had a boyfriend and she said 'no'.

Mr Lee then said good-humouredly to not 'waste time' and added: 'It's more important and more satisfying than your PhD. Good luck to you, I hope you get your PhD and your boyfriend.'

It led to an online buzz and letters to the press, especially on whether women pursuing PhDs - which can take three to five years or even longer - reduce their chances of getting married.

There is already an increasing number of women pursuing doctoral degrees here.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) registered an 83 per cent increase in the number of female (local and foreign) doctoral degree students last year compared with 2005.

At NTU, the figure has risen from about 31 per cent to 35 per cent in the last five years.

One NUS doctoral student, Ms Vanessa Lim, 26, felt it was about 'finding the right balance' when it came to getting that PhD and settling down.

In her case, there was some unexpected delay in her research, and the biomedical engineering student will be taking longer than expected to finish her PhD.

But that has not stopped her from planning for her wedding next year.

It takes several years to obtain a PhD because of the need to do intensive research for the thesis. There may also be a requirement to assist in undergraduate courses.

For instance, over five months, Dr Carol Soon, 37, spent close to 80 hours interviewing people and 120 hours transcribing her interviews for her thesis on new media and political activism.

Dr Soon, who completed her PhD at NUS in communications and new media this year, felt that women here tend to juggle various roles, with or without strong support from their families or the organisations they work for.

'I don't have a domestic helper so I'm very grateful for my family's support,' said the mother of one, who is now an NUS academic.

As for Ms Sim, although she was the talk of the town after the dialogue, the NTU biological sciences doctoral student has clarified that her studies are not the reason she is still single.

'It's not that I spend all my time studying. I have a lot of male friends but I just haven't met the right one,' she said.