askST: Can specialised degrees become out of date?

The Singapore Institute of Technology offers many specialised degrees, such as cyber security and software engineering. PHOTO: SIT

SINGAPORE - In the second of a five-week askST series on university education, The Straits Times addresses questions on specialised degrees.

Q: I want to take up a specialised degree in cyber security or software engineering, but am worried of overspecialisation. What happens when what I learn in the course becomes outdated?

A: I understand your concern about "overspecialising" in a field. After all, people are experiencing rapid change and disruptions. And the pace is only going to get faster, thanks to advances in fields such as computing, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Several reports on job trends have warned that in many industries, the most in-demand occupations or specialities currently did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and they say the pace of change is set to accelerate even more.

People cannot think of degrees as lifelong stamps of professional competency. Such thinking creates a false sense of security, perpetuating the illusion that work - and the knowledge and skills required - is static.

Fortunately, universities around the world, including Singapore's institutions, have moved away from such thinking and changed their curricula and the way they prepare their students to ensure that they are able to adapt to changes.

The Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) offers many specialised degrees, including the ones you are interested in - cyber security and software engineering.

These degrees are popular, partly because of the good job prospects they offer. With cyber-security risks becoming more sophisticated, there is an acute shortage of cyber-security specialists who can be engaged to help fend off such threats.

Similarly, software engineers are increasingly sought after as every aspect of people's lives is touched by technology - at home, in schools and in the workplace.

SIT graduates in information security in 2020 earned a median monthly salary of $4,300, up from $4,100 the year before, while ICT (software engineering) graduates earned a median salary of $4,000.

Their employers were a good mix of local small and medium-sized enterprises, government agencies and multinational companies such as GovTech Singapore, Accenture, Temus and the Defence Science and Technology Agency.

So how does SIT do it? University officials say their graduates are able to hit the ground running partly because of the institution's emphasis on hands-on, real-world learning.

First, the university maintains close contact with industry leaders in each degree course's relevant sector and involves them in shaping the curricula. This enables the faculty to uncover emerging industry trends and gaps in skills quickly and tweak the courses.

In computing, for example, there are courses that are co-designed and co-delivered by SIT faculty and industry partners from firms such as Group-IB and Dell Technologies.

Cyber-security students benefited from guest lectures provided by industry partners and had lessons where they role-played hackers attacking SIT's network or the tech team defending the system.

All SIT programmes require students to take up an eight- to 12-month attachment under the Integrated Work Study Programme.

This is a distinctive feature of the university's curriculum. Students apply and go for interviews to undertake paid jobs within companies relevant to their programmes. The attachments enable them to gain an understanding of the jobs and industries they may be working in, as well as develop important work skills including teamwork, innovative thinking and problem-solving.

SIT students get to work on authentic industry projects throughout their studies. In their penultimate and final years of studies, they carry out their capstone and final-year projects in partnership with the companies where they do their work attachments.

For example, software engineering students developed a mobile app for doctors at the neonatal intensive care unit at the National University Hospital.

Addressing concerns about specialised degrees becoming outdated, deputy president (academic) and provost Professor John Thong said that even though SIT students undertake specialised or niche degrees, their learning is not confined to just those fields.

SIT ensures that its students pick up interdisciplinary and transferable skills to navigate multiple careers in an uncertain future.

For example, students undertake a sequence of modules such as critical thinking and communication and design innovation. Using a project-based learning approach, student teams drawn from different programmes have to come up with solutions to complex problems, keeping economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health, safety and sustainability factors in mind.

There is also a social innovation project where multidisciplinary student teams put their skills into practice while leveraging their disciplinary expertise.

The university is also launching the Industry Ready Skills Framework when the academic year starts in September, to help students keep track of the transferable skills they have acquired over the course of their studies.

The skills - ranging from creative thinking and problem-solving to digital data literacy and self-management - will be embedded into the formal curriculum, with the levels of skills attained to be explicitly stated.

Skills acquired through activities outside of the formal curriculum are also taken into account.

Of course, another key way to guard against your knowledge and skills becoming outdated is to pursue lifelong learning.

SIT is a strong proponent of that. It has always stressed that after four years, its students will have the SIT DNA, which is the ability and commitment to continually learn, unlearn and relearn to keep up with the changes.

An example of an SIT graduate who successfully pivoted to another field, thanks to his training at SIT, is Mr Bhati Yash, 26.

SIT graduate Bhati Yash successfully pivoted to another field, thanks to his training at SIT. PHOTO: SIT

For Mr Yash, who graduated with a degree in hospitality business in 2020, finding a job was initially challenging because of the bleak outlook facing the hospitality industry.

So, he switched to searching for jobs in IT project management and secured a traineeship for six months at Singtel doing project management and fintech business planning in its business analytics team.

Now a business analyst at technology company The Software Practice, Mr Yash credits his education at SIT for enabling him to make the switch to IT project management.

While he was at SIT, he picked up valuable IT skills during an eight-month work attachment at the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort. He also gained project management experience while juggling multiple projects during his degree studies, as well as through joining competitions such as the Singapore Tourism Board's Tourism Innovation Challenge, where his napkin-folding machine solution was well received.

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