Farah wrote of her experience when confronted by many Malaysians as to how her actual degree programme relates back to her actual occupation today - she read "international relations" but she's currently a software engineer(!)
"But Farah... I thought you studied international relations. How come you're not doing something related to that?"Ewww... and so I did Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), I must grow up to be a philosopher, politician or an economist! I'm screwed(!) But now instead, I am running an information technology company.
This is a question I frequently face whenever I tell people what I do, and what I studied. But whilst in Britain this question is accompanied by polite interest - it is, after all, normal in Britain for people to study one thing but forge a career in a different field; in my own workplace, there are former physicists and at least one English graduate working as software engineers - in Malaysia this question is usually accompanied by incredulity.
What's the impact of such kinds of "thinking" in our Malaysian or to a certain extent Asian culture today? Farah's take was that it means
...employers will automatically overlook a graduate without a ‘desirable’ degree. If I wanted to do IT in Malaysia when I graduated, nobody, in all likelihood, would have hired me because I had the ‘wrong’ degree for the industry. Yet in Britain you could spend three years studying Chaucer and Shakespeare at university and still work in investment banking, whilst back in Malaysia a degree in Kesusasteraan Melayu, it would seem, puts you at the top of the unemployment heap.I came back to Malaysia immediately after I graduated, however, I did manage to somehow (albeit somewhat unintentionally) end up in the information technology consulting industry. I was fortunate because my first employer was a local chapter of a US-based consulting firm which was more than happy to accept graduates of "calibre" from any field. The policy was really - "It's the brains that counts, not the knowledge" at fresh graduate levels - you'd pick up the skills and knowledge you need along the way. However, flip through the recuitment pages of the local newspapers and you won't find any local companies seeking candidates to fulfil IT-related positions with non-IT related degrees.
Farah also recounted her experience when choosing the "right" subject to study.
There is also, in Malaysia, a snobbish attitude towards certain degrees. The preferred degrees are medicine, engineering, law and accountancy. Social sciences? They're for those who aren't up to studying for the ‘proper’ subjects. When I was filling out my UPU (Unit Pemprosesan Universiti) forms all those years ago, I was tempted to put down anthropology at UIA (Universiti Islam Antarabangsa) as one of my degree choices. I talked it over with a friend of my brother's who was a UIA student at the time.In my opinion, there are not many professions out there in the market which requires immediate specialisation at degree levels - occupations related to the medicine, pure sciences and engineering, and to a lesser extent software engineering comes to mind as the exceptions.
"Anthropology? Why would you want to do that? That's what all the matrics students who can't get into law do you know."
Which brings me to my next point. Malaysians seem to think that studying a degree because the subject matter is of interest a complete waste of time. You go to university to get a job that pays well. Why study history? Historians don't make money, and anyway there aren't many jobs for them. Ditto anthropology, archaeology, geography, languages, music, literature, religious studies and many other subjects. As far as (many) Malaysians are concerned, these subjects are a waste of time, and a waste of money.
In Singapore, the government has actually created a humanities stream within the Arts faculty in Junior Colleges to encourage top students to join the Arts stream. These "humanities scholars" will receive the best teachers - many of whom are expatriates in the teaching of English Literature, Economics, History and Geography. With this form of encouragement, Humanities and Social Science subjects are no longer treated with disdain as before, and many top students proceed to pursue degrees such as "PPE" at the top universities overseas.
So, does selecting the "right" type of degree matter? Unfortunately, it probably does to a certain extent if you do intend to work in Malaysia - although it's probably not as bleak as most would like to think. I have for example with me, one of my senior project managers, an honours graduate in English from National University of Singapore. Hence, my take is if you are good enough and you are confident enough, choose the course that will most suit your interest and your strengths, not one which you "think" might just be more "marketable".
And overall, what was the conclusion to the question she posed to herself?
Even though the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson have become extremely successful without degrees, a recent survey of job advertisements in Malaysia's five leading daily newspapers in July found that 19.8 percent of adverts offered jobs to those with a bachelor's degree, so it would seem that the answer to this question is yes. But of course, things are not as clear-cut as they may seem. In Malaysia, it is not just having a degree that matters, but also what and where you studied.She's probably just about right. :-)