October 28

Popular degree courses in Singapore


The record stands.

After 102 applications, 28 interviews, and 0 job offers, the degree I studied in university seems to have been an absolute dork.

You probably don’t want to be in a position like me, where you’ve spent $36,000 on your degree ($9000, multiplied by 4 years), and not being able to get a job. You will be screamed at by your parents, questioned about what you’re doing with life by your friends, and probably won’t get any dates.

Take it from me.

You’re probably looking at this article because you’re thinking of what the more popular degree courses are, and what would be worth a return on your investment. Whether there will eventually be a good paying job at the end of it.

Just looking at the Graduate Employment Survey can give you a better idea of what's paying.
Just looking at the Graduate Employment Survey can give you a better idea of what’s paying.

But here’s something else you should think about before trying to understand what the most popular courses are.

Understand what degree courses are actually ones you’re good at

You can do something I can’t.

Well, I don’t know what that is.

But I know what I can do, far better than you. Hands down.

Nope, it’s not breathing.

It’s writing.

Finding a course that amplifies your strengths, will be miles better than finding the most popular course. After all, do you really want to be squeezing in lecture theatres, trying to get your lecturer’s attention, with the other grubby students who also thought that would be a popular course to enter?

Nah, not really.

Growing up, you probably had some idea of this.

If I find what I love, I will never have to work another day in my life.

Absolute bullshit.

One business owner once told me,

Who cares whether I’m the boss? I still have to scrape the shit off the toilet bowl if my staff isn’t there.

Crude, I know. But you get the idea. Even if you find the absolute job you fall in love with, you’re still going to do things you don’t like. Truth.

And you’d rather be working at something you show some inclination for, rather than something that you’re not very good at, that you’ve chosen because it’s ‘popular’.

It’s far easier to get great at something you’re already good at, than to get good at something you suck at.

And if you want to get the best jobs in future, you need to be good at something. Cal Newport, the author of ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’, talks about how the world has fallen into the trap of the ‘passion hypothesis’, where we think that as long as we are passionate, we can get the best jobs.

Before you get good jobs, you have to get good.

True, isn’t it?

Look at the people around you whom you admire for being good at something. They haven’t got there because they are old (at least I hope so). They’ve gotten there because they’ve shown consistently that they can produce results, whatever the situation they are placed in.

Choosing a degree course that works for you is not about looking outwards at what’s working for others. It’s looking at what works for you.

Ah, the big existential question that's bound to give you nightmares this evening.
Ah, the big existential question that’s bound to give you nightmares this evening.

Does what you study matter?

They always say,

It doesn’t matter what you study. You will do something different anyway.

That can be true to some extent.

Broadly, there are two kinds of degrees. There are those which are vocational in nature. They lead directly to a job. These can be courses like:

  1. Law
  2. Medicine
  3. Accountancy
  4. Social work
  5. Computer engineering

But there are other degrees that are more generalist in nature.

They teach you how to think, but don’t map directly to a job. These have value too.

For example, despite studying a social work degree, that mapped directly to a social worker job, I found that the most useful thing it taught me was the ability to draw knowledge from different fields of knowledge. As a social worker, I had to learn about finance to understand why the poorer people were not necessarily making wise financial decisions, and how to help them to get out of the sticky financial situations they found themselves in.

This later helped me to transit into the world of writing, where I found myself increasingly able to understand knowledge from different domains quickly.

What may be better than just choosing the most popular degree course in Singapore, is choosing the one that helps you think better.

Make small bets

Choosing a popular degree can be the way to go, if you want to go to hell.

You can see from my example of what happened when I took a big, concentrated bet in a single, vocational degree, that ended up not getting me a job, at all.

You may be surprised that others, like Christopher Gee, the Head of Governance at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Policy, agree too.

When I first met him and shared my situation, he told me about how education today is framed as a series of big, concentrated, expensive bets. If you look at the nature of education, you will see big expenses on degrees occurring at roughly the 18 year old mark, in hope that one will get a good paying job at the end of that back.

It may not be very wise, as my experience after spending $160k (and not getting a job offer for 12 months), showed.

What did help though, was a series of smaller bets, that helped me to repurpose my career. During my time in university, I was fortunate to undertake courses and modules in public speaking, that helped me to establish my speaking, so that it was better than croaking.

I hired a coach. Spent $13600 on a public speaking course. Went for another Advanced Certificate in Learning and Performance, a train the trainer course.

All these established my credibility as a trainer and speaker, allowing me to build a sustainable career out of writing, speaking and training.

You can do the same.

Take small bets, rather than big bets on popular courses.

It's better to build your career one block at a time, rather than just making one big concentrated bet in a popular degree, that may not pay off.
It’s better to build your career one block at a time, rather than just making one big concentrated bet in a popular degree, that may not pay off.

My personal recommendation?

As part of the book that we did on adulting, we interviewed 21 career luminaries, trying to understand how they came to succeed so well in their careers.

We were trying to answer the question,

Why do some people succeed in their transitions, whilst others don’t?

We found some interesting insights.

What matters is how easily you quit when things are not working out, not what you initially study

Take the example of CP, who is today the Director of People at White Coat, a telemedicine company.

Sometimes life may not be a straight line, and you need to know when to quit
Sometimes life may not be a straight line, and you need to know when to quit

For someone who seems accomplished in the field of Human Resources, teaching, lecturing, and giving talks on it, it may seem that he would have started there.


He started as a teacher. And realised that he didn’t want to do it.

But what helped him was his ability to call it quits when he saw that teaching was not something he wanted to continue. This ability to not have the ‘sunk costs fallacy’, where you hold onto something because of how much you’ve previously invested into something, can help you make better decisions.

So it’s not how popular the course is, but how unpopular you’re willing to become amongst friends and family, to call it quits, when things are not working out.

You need to understand yourself

If you look back at your own studies, where have been the times when you’ve thrived? Is it with more technical subjects, or with more exploratory subjects like the humanities? Understanding this, can help you understand which course to pick, over and above what’s popular.

How do you learn best? With tons of books in front of you?
How do you learn best? With tons of books in front of you?

My personal reflections after looking at where I had succeeded in my studies was that the humanities, where I could explore a subject on my own, was far better than science, where I was directed on how to study.

Understanding how you learn best, and what you like learning, may provide interesting insights.

SMU, for a stronger foundation in communicating your ideas

The Singapore Management University is famed for asking students to share ideas at classes. It’s also helped students to be stronger at communicating (their pay packages, too, ahem).

You can see from the bottom that the SMU graduates from the School of Social Sciences did earn more than their friends (or enemies) at NUS. The mean at SMU (Cum Laude and Above), was $3856, whilst those at NUS got $3757.

Those from SMU's school of social sciences seem to have earned more than their counterparts at NUS
Those from SMU’s school of social sciences seem to have earned more than their counterparts at NUS

You can say that their students are all talk, no action, but you know the truth in companies. People who make themselves heard, more often than not, get the recognition.

Having seen quite a few SMU students, I’ve seen how they have thrived in an environment where they are encouraged to speak up.

So what’s popular, doesn’t really matter.

What’s popular doesn’t matter much.

It’s what you find will interest you, grow you, and put you in a better position that matters.


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