After a harrowing Chinese New Year, the students of Singapore heave a sigh of relief that they no longer have to listen to rude comments by nosy relatives about how their degrees are useless, or how they have lousy career prospects unlike Auntie Karen's son who's a PSC scholar studying law in the UK.
Arts students all over Singapore are no doubt sick of explaining to the entire country that they don't plan to become teachers, while parents who are confident their university-age kids are going to be engineers shouldn't be presumptuous, as they could just as easily end up becoming tuition teachers or insurance agents.
There are no degree courses that will spare you the barbs of sharp-tongued aunties and uncles during Chinese New Year. Still, there's been a bit of hoo ha in the news about how some degrees are better than others.
After talking to hiring managers and considering the tight labour market, it seems to us that the degree course you pursue may have less impact on your employability than you might think, especially if you're not looking to work in a directly related field. If you're aspiring to become a professional like a teacher or a doctor, the playing field might be more even than you think.
What you study may not be as important as you think unless you want to work in a field directly related to your studies
While you're not going to get a job as a programmer without programming skills or a job as an accountant without ACCA certification or an accounting degree, for private sector jobs that don't require a specific skill set, many employers and hiring managers aren't too fussed about what you studied.
May Cheong, senior market business manager at a European bank, says that when it comes to hiring for back office roles where no particular qualifications other than a basic degree are needed, the candidate's course of study doesn't really matter.
"I don't think it's too important," she says. "For operations, no particular degrees are needed, so it really depends on personality and whether they're a good fit, as well as their responses to scenario-based questions."
However, she cautions that for some roles, such as investment banking or analyst roles, a relevant degree is needed to be shortlisted-so finance, accounting and economics grads have the upper hand. Those who start out on the management associate track are also assessed based on their courses of study and the prestige of their universities. The latter, however, are a minority in the back office.
"It's possible to obtain qualifications like CFA, ACCA or other licence papers that can help you transition to front office jobs from the back office," says May.
Is where you study important? May says she wouldn't necessarily pick an NUS grad over one from SIM. "Nowadays many SIM grads are just as eloquent and have pleasant personalities," she says.
Eunice Tan, managing consultant at recruitment firm Jadeclover, concurs.
"It's quite hard to say, as it depends on the industry. But usually if it's a non-technical job that's open to general degree holders, employers are more concerned about relevant work experience and whether the candidate is a good fit."
Professional degrees don't open as many doors as you might expect
People who obtain professional degrees in disciplines like accounting or engineering often think that if they don't want to become accountants or engineers, they have no advantage over other job applicants.
Well, that's both true and false. More specifically, it's true that for many roles you won't have much of an advantage over your general-degree competitors from the business or arts faculty.
But some management roles require certain types of accreditation or professional knowledge that only certain types of graduates can fill.
Bernard, a 32-year-old structural engineer, says, "Actually an engineering degree is the same as any other degree if you don't intend to become an engineer."
"When applying for management trainee posts in some firms, engineering degree holders might have an edge, as being from a technical field they are viewed as being able to obtain professional accreditation like CFA more easily. In addition, engineering grads are often viewed as being more logical and numerate. That being said, the advantage is rather minimal when competing on a level playing field with other grads."
Nigel, a 30-year-old legal counsel, has considered leaving the law, but has found job opportunities in other fields to be less than forthcoming.
He says, "It's a myth that the law degree gives you a wide range of employment options. Unless the job you are applying for has a legal angle, there is no incentive for an employer to hire someone with a law degree-you are usually more expensive and less experienced in that field of work. You must also be prepared to work like crazy to make up for the lack of experience and knowledge. My recent job hunt taught me that the law degree is actually very overhyped."
That being said, professional degree holders' employment options can be more plentiful because they can ply their trade in a wider range of companies.
For instance, lawyers who do not wish to work in law firms can usually quite easily find employment in MNCs and even larger SMEs with legal departments, while accountants can choose to leave accounting firms for non-profits.
Which degrees do a wider range of employers find relevant?
Singaporeans caught up in the paper chase often have the impression that certain degrees give job applicants a huge advantage over others, simply because they're more "prestigious".
Barring management trainee programmes, for which candidates are often assessed based on their grades and how prestigious their universities are, it seems that most private sector hiring managers for non-technical posts don't care that much, especially in a tight labour market.
So to the finance degree holder whose passion lies in marketing or the law degree holder who wants to be a designer, we're sorry to say that if your portfolio or personality aren't up to scratch, things aren't going to be any easier for you.
And if you graduated with a degree in Ancient Greek, good for you.
This article first appeared in MoneySmart
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