Can’t Figure Out What to Study at Tertiary Level? Here are 3 Tips to Help You Decide

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When I was at school, local JCs and secondary schools were notoriously bad at providing career guidance. Poly and university courses were pretty much chosen by default, meaning everyone just tried to get into the most prestigious course they could qualify for.

Things have changed somewhat. For one thing, there are a lot more courses on offer at university level, what with the entry of SIT, SUTD and SIM University. More and more young people are now aspiring entrepreneurs or computer programmers, which has shifted the focus slightly from the usual courses in medicine, law and finance.

In addition, this might sound rather cynical, but entry to many courses now requires straight As, which means students with good grades aren’t as afraid of veering away from the usual professions.

If you’re about to pursue further studies but can’t figure out what to major in, here are some tips that might help.


Consider the lifestyles offered by career paths you’re interested in

Working adults are always whining about factors like work-life balance and lifestyle. Those of us who don’t work 16 hours a day marvel at those who do, while people who go to work in jeans or flip flops cannot imagine themselves heading to the CBD in a suit.

But most students do not think of such factors when picking a potential career. That’s also why the early years of many young people’s careers are fraught with unease when they realise they don’t like the environment they’ve entered.

The career path you choose is going to influence not only how much you earn and what you spend your day doing, but also the sort of lifestyle you live and the people you’ll be surrounded by. It’s a good idea to speak with working adults in the fields you’re interested in to find out more about what it’s actually like to do their jobs.

For instance, some fields like law and management consulting are much more formal and hierarchical, so be prepared to go to work every day decked out in office attire and show deference to your superiors. On the other hand, jobs in tech start-ups or advertising may allow for a little more flexibility and creativity, but be prepared for intense all-nighters.

You might think such factors shouldn’t have to influence your career choices. But it’s pretty hard to stay motivated when you don’t fit into your working environment or are forced to work with people whose values differ too greatly from your own.


Consider everything you enjoy doing and then figure out what careers would fit in with your interests

As a young adult, your life may revolve around skateboarding, Kpop stars or video games. But that doesn’t necessarily mean any of these should become your career.

But how then do you pick a career that ties in with your interests? Trust me when I say that this is something that most Singaporean adults have failed at, given that 75% of Singaporeans see their jobs as nothing more than a way to put food on the table.

Instead of only considering the narrow range of hobbies you might have right now, it’s a good idea to take a broader view of your interests, and areas that you are keen to explore further.

Take a piece of paper and write down every single thing that piques your interest. Don’t limit yourself just to activities and hobbies like swimming or watching movies. Include skills you are interested in improving (writing, Photoshop, programming or marketing skills all count), as well as areas you would be interested in reading up on if you were trapped indefinitely in a library (history, astronomy, languages, politics, art and design and so on).

If you have some notion of the sort of working life you’d like to have, include details as well. Perhaps you want to work abroad, start your own company, become a powerful corporate executive or help people.

At the end of the exercise, you should have a sheet chock full of the things you’re interested in. You should be able to spot some patterns now, and based on your answers shortlist some possible areas of study and careers.

Your next step will be to find out what these careers are really like, considering factors like salary, lifestyle and what people in these jobs actually do from day to day.

Take on internships, talk to adults doing these jobs and join an internet community targeted at these fields. It may not come to you right away, but after a few months of interacting with certain types of people you should have a good idea of what it’s like to join them.


Make sure you’re not only looking at the upsides

As a broke student, one of the most obvious upsides of coming of age and getting a “real” job is the fact that you’ll suddenly have all this money.

But make sure you’re not only looking at the upsides when evaluating a career.

Many of the Singaporean students who rush to apply for courses that churn out doctors, lawyers and bankers are thinking only of the most obvious advantages—a generous salary and a prestigious job.

But few really consider the fact that many doctors in hospitals are made to be on call for stretches of 24 hours at a time, or that many lawyers in big firms drop out after a few years of working till 2am every day.

In the same vein, many students are now attracted to the prospect of becoming a startup founder, since that’s probably the sexiest job at the moment in the eyes of the Facebook generation.

What they’re not considering are the sleepless nights slaving away with no guarantee that your project will bear fruit, being broke in the early years while your peers are all getting paid proper salaries and the pressure of having to make your own decisions without being able to lean on seniors at the office.

Choosing a career requires quite a bit of trial and error for the majority of people, unless you’re one of the lucky few who can just put your head down and work in any job no matter what it is. The answers aren’t going to come right away, and even when you think you’ve picked the right career, you might later decide you want to do something else.

That’s why adaptability is one of the millennial worker’s biggest assets. Learn to roll with the punches and thrive in new situations. Anyway, judging by the way the economy’s going these days, you’ll need to.

What do you plan to study at tertiary level? Tell us in the comments!