Dear Thelma: Should I choose a career path in the public or private sector?


By THELMA

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Dear Thelma,

I am seeking advice on career issues, particularly regarding my future plans.

I will be graduating this year and initially planned to continue my studies in postgraduate education. This decision was influenced by the issue of academic inflation, which I feared could lead to unemployment upon graduation.

Additionally, my goal has always been to work in academia, specifically in a public university.

However, recent government policies have raised concerns, particularly the planned abolishment of the pension system, which was one of the reasons I chose the public sector. This has made me reconsider my career path.

Some of my friends have suggested that I consider working in the private sector or moving to Singapore, where wages are generally higher. However, I am wary of capitalist exploitation, such as mismatched salaries relative to qualifications and limited opportunities for salary increases. This has led me to question the fundamental purpose of work. Is it merely to earn a living, or is it to contribute to society?

Even if medical benefits are retained, I fear they may eventually be abolished due to government policy. I am deeply opposed to neoliberalism, which I believe oppresses people and allows the bourgeoisie to live in luxury.

In the public sector, the salary is lower, and with the pension system being abolished, it seems increasingly similar to the private sector.

How can I convince my future partner that I can provide the life she desires on such a salary? Even if we become a dual-income family, societal expectations often dictate that men should earn a higher salary (at least RM5K). Additionally, the rising cost of living and currency devaluation are significant concerns.

I am feeling disillusioned with the direction of the country and worried about my future. Any advice or insights would be greatly appreciated.

Young, lost soul


You’re about to graduate, and so you’re thinking of your future. Lots of readers will be in the same position, so thank you for writing about a hot topic.

Your plan was to work at a public university and seek the safety of a steady job that comes with a government pension.

Straight off: In the past, it was common to work in one career for just one or two employers. Today, job-hopping is normal and career changes are common too.

Social scientists expect Gen Z to have extremely fluid career paths. Conservative estimates suggest two to three career changes but some suggest as many as five.

Malaysian employers have been commenting for some time now that Gen Z will change jobs for promotion, for better prospects or simply because they fancy a change.

This has inspired changes in the corporate world too. In academia, for example, tenure (being given a permanent post) is no longer standard.

Also, as you mention, more people have postgraduate degrees now, so you’re up for stiff competition for any available jobs.

Your concerns about pensions are spot-on, too. As world populations age, and birth rates drop, pensions are changing. They may vanish.

Given all this, I suggest you plan for flexibility and adaptability.

You haven’t said what area you wish to work in. If you work in pure mathematics or classical studies, for example, you won’t have much opportunity outside of academia, which would narrow your options compared to computer science or chemical engineering.

So we will have to talk very generally.

For an academic career, you’ll need a Masters and several years experience to teach undergrads. Top jobs like running a department usually require a PhD. It is two years for a Masters, and three to seven years for a PhD.

This is a huge investment in time and money. It’s a long slog, and academia is extremely competitive. You’ll need to teach, write, research and publish to be successful.

As a 2021 study led by Gurnam Kaur Sidhu of Segi University noted, 20% of Malaysian postgraduate students drop out.

Pick a specialisation that you know will work outside of a university, and if you can, pick something that will allow you to move sideways into various jobs.

Also, consider that PhDs are nicknamed Permanent Head Damage for a reason. If you change your mind about your career path or drop out, make sure that you pick something where a Masters alone will work for you. That will maximise your flexibility in terms of education and skills.

Which brings us to money. As teaching is considered vocational work, pay tends to be short and the hours long. Given your concern about fair wages and exploitation, are you sure this is the working environment for you?

It may be, but I am concerned you are choosing an environment that is incompatible with your wants and values.

You hint at extrinsic motivation and social identity theories, with a dash of Marxism, but for happiness, I think you’d do better considering your choices in terms of self-determination. Look for autonomy, competence, and relatedness so that you can find some meaning in your labour.

To be practical, plot a career path that will allow you to work while you study, and preferably, to pick a path where if you fail to net an academic job, or you get one but don’t like it, you can work in the corporate sector.

Next, pension. You are in your 20s, so you have 40 years to reach your goal. Set up what you can now, and review often.

EPF will work for some years yet, so start there. Ideally, you put by a little every year and take advantage of compound interest. Then, if you do land a nice bonus, you can add it to your nest egg.

Finally, the partner. I think you’re trying to nail down the future and that’s just not possible. Focus on what you can control for now, which is making sensible choices so you maximise your chances of career success.

But do date and make lots of friends! You will change a lot in the next year or two, and life can be difficult, so lots of friends will enrich you.

I hope this helps you work out some useful next steps. Good luck with your upcoming exams.

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