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Graduating With a General Degree? Here’s Why Young Singaporeans Shouldn’t Panic

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Joanne Poh

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There’s been a lot of talk about how hard it’s been for recent graduates to find jobs. But let’s be clear—there’s a big difference between the type of anxiety a second upper honours finance graduate from NUS feels, and the type of anxiety felt by a newly-minted holder of a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy.

The first guy is worried he’ll choose the wrong management trainee programme amongst his many offers. The second is horrified that his student days are now over and he’ll actually have to decide whether a career in F&B is preferable to being unemployed.

Here are a few tips for graduates entering the job market with a general degree.

 

Don’t feel so constrained by your major that you miss out on the many opportunities that are open to you

If you’ve been enrolled in a general degree in arts or sciences, you’ve received zillions of reminders that unlike Aunty Irene’s son in NUS medicine, you’re not exactly going to be the most employable graduate out there.

In fact, you’re probably sick and tired of people asking if you plan to join NIE and become a teacher, or ask quizzically what in the world you can do with that degree in animal biology.

You already know in theory that the majority of people end up working in a field that has nothing to do with their degree. But we tend to think of this as meaning law graduates become investment bankers, or engineers become programmers.

Well guess what, there are actually more jobs and salaries open to general degree holders than you might think. The main problem is that you don’t know most of these job opportunities even exist, since they have little to do with your field of study.

Marcia, a 32-year-old vice president in the operations department at a European bank, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from NUS. She got her first job as a bank operations executive contract staff fresh out of uni at the age of 22 and has never looked back. She now has 10 years of experience and is drawing a healthy 5 figure monthly salary.

“When I recruit fresh grads, it doesn’t really matter what they studied at uni. For operations work, you don’t need to have a finance or business degree. I’ve recruited grads from all fields of study, including some from private universities,” she says.

 

The main thing holding you back is a lack of knowledge, not your degree

If your main objective is making money, your general degree is less of a hindrance than you might think. It’s your lack of knowledge, since your degree doesn’t offer a clear career path, that will limit your salary.

Many students know the estimated starting salary for graduates of their course, but they don’t realise that choice of career rather than the degree itself is often to blame for a lower-than-average starting salary.

29-year-old Zac works as a headhunter in the oil and gas industry. He graduated with an arts degree that has nothing to do with his current job and takes home an average of close to $10,000 a month. He recruits experienced oil and gas professionals, many based overseas, and due to their hefty salaries the commissions he makes are quite generous, too.

“When I was at uni I didn’t even know this job existed. One of my seniors was working as an oil and gas recruiter and roped me in. Since I didn’t know what I wanted to do at the time I joined, and the rest is history,” he says.

“Even within recruiting, there is a big difference in how much you can make. A small-time recruiter  might take home only $3,000 to $5,000 a month. In oil and gas the potential to earn is much higher  because not only are salaries high, but there is a lot of movement since many employees are on contracts for the duration of a project.”

The main thing is that most graduates don’t even know this is a career path that’s open to them. It’s just one of many decent-paying jobs that anyone with a general degree can do. While you’re still at uni, it’s a good idea to pay attention to what your seniors are doing and bookmark careers you’re interested in exploring. You never know what you might find.

 

Hone your skills before graduating

When it comes to jobs that hire candidates with all types of degrees, what will set you apart from your competitors isn’t your degree but your skills.

Potential employers aren’t going to be impressed that you got a few more As in your degree in ancient history than that other guy they’re considering, especially since your degree isn’t directly related to the job at hand.

But they will be impressed if you have some real-world skills that will help you do the job better. So it’s in your best interests to figure out what you’re interested in doing while you’re still at school, and start preparing yourself by acquiring the necessary skills prior to graduation.

Raphael is a 28-year-old programmer who works primarily with Ruby on Rails, working in a start-up in some hip shophouse. What most people don’t know is that he actually graduated with a business degree majoring in finance..

When he realised he didn’t want to work in finance, he started learning how to program, using free resources on the internet. After about a year of intense studying and practising, he managed to get his skills up to the point where he was able to get a job as a programmer in his current company.

“People are quite surprised when I tell them I’m a self-taught programmer,” he says. “When it comes to this field, it isn’t the end of the world if you don’t have a degree in computing. The important thing is that you can solve problems and build your own applications.”

Are you graduating with a general degree? Share your career plans in the comments!

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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.