askST: Why working before going to university can be a plus

Discover your interests and talents before deciding where to further your education

Mr Viren Shetty dropped out of his applied mathematics course at Nanyang Technological University to start PlusMargin. Ms Ainul Fasha Amran, a Year 2 student at the Singapore Institute of Technology, worked for eight years before she enrolled in the
Ms Ainul Fasha Amran, a Year 2 student at the Singapore Institute of Technology, worked for eight years before she enrolled in the university's naval architecture degree course. Her work experience at a firm that provides engineering and consultancy services for the maritime sector helped her to develop an interest in maritime engineering. PHOTO: SIT
Mr Viren Shetty dropped out of his applied mathematics course at Nanyang Technological University to start PlusMargin. Ms Ainul Fasha Amran, a Year 2 student at the Singapore Institute of Technology, worked for eight years before she enrolled in the
Mr Viren Shetty dropped out of his applied mathematics course at Nanyang Technological University to start PlusMargin. ST FILE PHOTO

Q I have pretty decent polytechnic results, but I am undecided about which degree course I want to pursue, whether it should be in information technology or digital marketing. I feel I should work for a couple of years after my diploma before deciding, but my parents are worried that if I wait, I won't get a university place. I could do with some advice.

A Your question reminds me of young people I profiled a few years ago, who went to work after completing their A levels and polytechnic studies to figure things out.

One of them, a Hwa Chong Institution student, had A-level results good enough for a place in a local university, but she could not decide on a degree course that was of interest to her.

She decided to wait a year or two until she had a better idea. Meanwhile, she took up a one-year wood craftsmanship apprentice course, where she had to work in a furniture factory and learn how to craft furniture.

When I interviewed her after 18 months of work, she said she discovered through work that she had a knack for operating complicated machines and a fascination with the design process. She was leaning towards taking up an engineering course, but one that combined the science with design thinking.

Another was Mr Viren Shetty, who dropped out of his applied mathematics course at Nanyang Technological University to start PlusMargin, which uses artificial intelligence and behavioural psychology to help businesses predict how consumers behave on websites.

Another young man featured was Mr Goh Wei Xiang, who gave up a place in a top junior college to go to a polytechnic because of his interest in nautical studies.

After his diploma, he grabbed the opportunity to become the first Singaporean to be accepted by the Trafigura's global commodity trading apprenticeship programme. He marked another milestone when he became the first non-degree holder here to join trainees from prestigious universities in the company's highly competitive graduate programme.

These young Singaporeans said that by working, they discovered more about themselves, their interests and aptitude. They said they also developed valuable work and life skills.

More recently, I interviewed Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) student Ainul Fasha Amran, who worked for eight years before she enrolled in the naval architecture degree course.

After completing her junior college studies, she tried for a university place but could not get into a course she wanted. She went to work for Deepblue, a firm which provides engineering and consultancy services for the maritime sector.

It was there that she developed an interest in maritime engineering. But since she had no background in the field, she decided to enrol in a part-time Higher Nitec course in marine engineering at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). She later took up a part-time poly course in the same area.

She graduated with a perfect grade point average from polytechnic and won a scholarship to enrol in SIT as a full-time student.

"My ITE classmates were surprised to hear I had completed my JC. But I figured I needed to gain a good foundation in the field, if I am going to go further. I am glad I stuck to it," said the 28-year-old, who is married and has an eight-month-old baby.

She said it was hard juggling work and study, but added it helped her gain maturity and discover where her interests and strengths lay.

The skills she gained at work also helped her do well in ITE and polytechnic.

I must admit that far too many of your peers still base their higher education plans on their grades, as well as on the perceived prestige value and future earnings that certain degrees promise.

But there is an increasing number of young people who are ready to take the road less travelled to discover their likes and dislikes and where their talents lie.

In over two decades as an education reporter, I have met many young Singaporeans who chalked up some work experience before furthering their education at the polytechnics and universities. As a result, they tend to excel in their chosen courses and later, their careers.

In speaking to them, I found the one thing that comes through is that they all love what they do. When probed further, it became clear that besides having developed a genuine interest in their field of work, they had also spent a lot of time honing their skills.

As education and creativity guru Ken Robinson would say, they have found their element.

In his book Finding Your Element: How To Discover Your Talents And Passions And Transform Your Life, he says to be in your element, it is not enough to be doing something you are good at. To be in your element, you have to love it.

The work experience may help you find the sweet spot where your interests, skills and opportunities meet.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2020, with the headline askST: Why working before going to university can be a plus. Subscribe