Non-grads need to change mindsets, too

Non-grads need to change mindsets, too

The job advertisements say you need a university degree to be a journalist. But I did not have one when I applied for a job at The New Paper and I still don't. Yet, I have been a journalist for the past 16 years.

Some people, especially those who studied in the same polytechnic as I did, were surprised I was offered a job by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), an organisation that is never short of returning scholarship holders to fill its newsroom openings. How did you get the job, they asked me earnestly. I said I applied for it. That reply shocked them. They could have done the same but did not.

The Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (Aspire) committee has released its recommendations to boost the career prospects of poly and Institute of Technical Education graduates. The report, which Parliament endorsed, has sparked debate on whether Singapore can become a society that is less obsessed with the paper chase and more concerned with lifelong learning. There are doubts about whether employers will be able to change their mindsets about non-degree holders.

Few dispute the bosses' key role in changing perceptions that a degree is a must-have if you do not want to lose out in the workplace. Meanwhile, non-degree holders need to change their mindsets, too. At the very least, they should not set limits on what they can achieve without a degree.

I did not limit my job options to only those seeking diploma holders. Instead, I worked around the job recruitment system by writing directly to the photo editor of The New Paper to ask for an interview. I did not send my application to the human resource manager who would probably have discarded it since I did not meet the minimum requirement.

I would like to believe that I got the job because I was able to convince the editor to look beyond my paper qualifications. I assured him I had the right attitude for the job, that I was idealistic and passionate about journalism. Most importantly, I told him I was hungry, willing to learn and not afraid of hard work.

I started my career in journalism as a photographer with The New Paper. One month into the job, I tried my hand at writing short news reports and photo essays. In less than three years, I became a full-fledged journalist.

I was given plenty of room to grow in the newsroom. SPH has a rather comprehensive in-house training programme - from basic and advance reporting classes to commentary writing workshops and learning about media law and newspaper design. There was no hurry for me to get a degree, although it is something I would want to pursue, not to increase my chances of a job promotion, but to increase my knowledge to help me do my job better.

Journalism is a doing field. It requires one to spend time in cultivating a good network of contacts, gain the trust of newsmakers and talk to them in an engaging way. Like most jobs, it takes a lot of independence and drive to excel in the workplace, something difficult to teach in a classroom.

I have witnessed many non-degree holders who possess the ability to look at things from different perspectives succeed in the newsroom. Being a diploma holder did not put me at a disadvantage at all. I believe in giving my utmost to every assignment, and taking on even the most mundane job, with the aim of breaking boundaries. I have had the opportunity to cover different types of news, from local and foreign to lifestyle, politics and sports.

After years on the job, I do not see the need to get a journalism degree, although it has always been at the back of my mind to find ways to upgrade my skills and master my craft. When the opportunity to join The Straits Times came up two years ago, I jumped at it. A degree can wait, I told myself.

I knew the nation's flagship newspaper would give me opportunities to cover events in the region and beyond. True enough, I was assigned to travel around the region to cover some of the biggest political and natural-disaster stories of the year.

I went to Malaysia to help The Straits Times' correspondents there cover the 2013 General Election and the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370; to Indonesia to cover the haze that blanketed Singapore last year; and to the Philippines to cover its most devastating typhoon disaster in decades.

To help me take my news-gathering skills up to the next level and across different media platforms, my editor sent me for further training in the United States. It was a privilege to be able to attend a three-week course on investigative journalism at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. There, I picked up tips from some of the best reporters in the US and I found out how a degree in a different field, such as law and even computer programming, could help me hone my craft further.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally speech in August, there is no need to rush to get a degree. "You always have the possibility to advance, to improve yourself, to take another step, as long as you are working, as long as your mind remains fresh and active and you dare to go," he said.

I am glad I gave myself the opportunity to discover my true passion and become surer of what I would like to study. Right now, I am thinking of pursuing a law degree, so as to become a better court and crime correspondent.

This article was first published on Oct 30, 2014.
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