3 Big Questions Singaporean Students Need to Ask Themselves Before Picking a Degree Course

By Joanne Poh

Singaporean students are notoriously pragmatic when it comes to choosing a course of tertiary study. Basically, there is only one rule: enrol in the “best” course your grades will let you get into. And “best” means “the one that will enable you to get the highest paying job upon graduation”. So scores of students fight for spots in accountacy, law, business and finance, only to find upon graduation that they can’t find jobs, or don’t want to work in that field anymore. So they become what the government terms “underemployed”.

With graduate numbers rising year on year, strategically choosing a course of study is becoming more and more integral to finding success and fulfilment in one’s career later on. Here are 3 factors students should be thinking about before they pick their courses, but aren’t.

How are markets evolving?

It’s no longer enough to think about which markets provide you with an iron ricebowl, or are a ticket to a high paying job. The world is changing so quickly that it’s becoming more and more crucial to think in the long term. Engineering was once a highly sought-after course of study in Singapore, but these days many engineering grads are realising that companies can hire cheaper engineers from neighbouring countries, thereby depressing their wages. Maybe that’s why the resignation rate for engineers is higher than average.

On the other hand, those who intend to go into the healthcare industries are likely to find greater opportunities close to graduation as Singapore is becoming a bit of a biomedical hub these days, plus with the ageing population those who are in sales or administrative functions rather than R&D stand to benefit as well.

Does it really help me achieve my life goals?

If your life goal is just to earn as much money as possible, you have a lot to learn. When you grow up, you’ll realise that there are more ways than one to earn money, and the safest method (join a big MNC, work like a dog and claw your way up the corporate ladder) doesn’t work for everyone. The sooner you realise this, the better.

While you’re not going to get all the answers at the tender age of 19 unless you’re precociously self-aware, it helps to at least envision the sort of lifestyle you want. Do you aspire to a life of boardroom meetings and perceived power, or is work-life balance more important to you? Is your end goal to become an entrepreneur, or to help others through your work? All these questions will directly influence which course of study would be best for you. Sure, no one’s saying you can’t become a corporate warrior with a history degree, but it does make things harder. Likewise, if you have dreams of starting a small business, you would probably pick business over accounting.

Will I learn any useful skills?

Singaporean students tend to equate “useful skills” with “useful qualifications”. When someone says their degree was helpful to them, they usually mean that it looked favourable to employers when they sent in job applications. We’re not suggesting you get a degree in navel gazing from the University of Mars, but try to look beyond the perceived prestige of a qualification to discern if you’ll actually acquire skills that will help you to achieve your goals in life.

A computing degree might not sound as glamorous as one in finance, but if your dream is to found a tech start-up, the skills you’ll acquire from the former will definitely come in handy. If you want to work in the media, you might not need a mass communications diploma or degree to succeed, but it will give you lots of practical skills that can make life on the job a bit easier, so you might want to pick that instead of the degree in philosophy you were initially thinking of pursuing. We’re not saying that a degree in philosophy isn’t the right choice for some people. But when making your choice, don’t underestimate the usefulness of graduating with solid technical skills. When you’re a tired employee, it’s harder than you think to learn new tricks.

This article was first published over at MoneySmart blog on 1 June 2015. It is reproduced with permission.

About The Author (Joanne Poh)

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.


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