Broad approach to life and work


BY JAMIE KHOO

IN the rush to secure employment and start the paycheques rolling, most of us lose sight of what a university education is about, looking to the paper qualification rather than the rounded experience of learning.  

Many Malaysian students have enrolled for tertiary studies with the aim of attaining specific qualifications, or specific career-oriented degrees; there is often a ready dismissal of arts- or humanities-based courses like Literature or History as “not serious” or as not having much career potential.  

It is important to realise though, that a university education is not just about chambering at a top law firm at the end of the degree (although that may be one of the things you aspire towards).  

Having completed a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature last year, I am now reading an inter-disciplinary Masters in The Culture of Modernism at the University of York and have found that arts-based subjects are much more complex than is often assumed.  

TACKLING REAL LIFE: Arts-based subjects are much more complex than is often assumed.

While I am not saying that arts degrees are more important or enriching than degrees in Medicine, Law, Business, Sciences, Social Sciences, etc, I will, however, lay claim to the fact that they can be just as beneficial to career opportunities.  

It is a common misconception that a degree in English Literature entails little more than the idle reading of frivolous novels; History is associated only with streams of dates and details about wars; and Philosophy students are left ignored in an incomprehensible, mysterious tangle of random, incoherent theories.  

On the contrary, most arts degrees advocate an inter-disciplinary approach that encourages students to look beyond the narrow sphere of their subject. As for my English degree, I have had to juggle texts from history, philosophy, politics, music, religion and sociology (to name only a few!) and to write a mere 5,000-words paper on a single Salman Rushdie novel.  

In the same way that medical, science and business degrees require versatility in thinking and analysis, so too do arts degrees, in the scope that it throws at you and in its demands for making and maintaining convincing arguments.  

Looking at it less rhetorically, and more pragmatically, it is useful to note that many large companies, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States, no longer look for subject-related degrees.  

This often means that History of Art and Computer Science students could be battling it out for the same positions in top investment banking or consultancy firms.  

AIMILLIA MOHD RAMLIThird Year, PhDEnglish LiteratureManchester University 

Many people think literary studies involves a lot of creative writing but I can tell you it doesn’t. You do need to have some artistic inclination because it will involve analysing a variety of human expressions (e.g. film, novels). Yet, you don’t have to be an artist to appreciate art. All you need is a lot of human compassion and the ability to interpret, plus a lot of interest in the social sciences (e.g. psychology, history). When, as a lecturer, I have had students come up to me and say they envy their relatives who have science-related degrees, I always advised them to see the bigger picture. While these people can only aim to be good at what they are trained in, whether in engineering or medicine, etc, an arts student has the added advantage of being able to choose from a wide range of careers. If you can picture yourself being a diplomat, a journalist, or a human resource manager ? the list seems endless, literature may be the subject for you. 

 

Prospects, a British website (www. prospects.ac.uk ) for graduate careers, states: “You will find that about 40% of vacancies advertised for graduates in the UK do not ask for specific degree subjects. Possession of the degree itself is taken as evidence of intellectual prowess. What is more important to the potential employer is the range of transferable skills and experience which you can demonstrate.” 

The same approach might be applied to science or social science subjects, such as the pure sciences, mathematics, economics etc, which focus not so much on the immediate applicability of studied modules to the workplace as on developing broad-based, analytical skills and versatility in problem-solving or team-working.  

It still remains, of course, that there are many professions that do require specialised knowledge that can only be acquired at university such as Medicine, Engineering, Computer/IT systems or Architecture. 

But if you are still unsure about what you want to do, or are looking towards careers which are more diverse and flexible in their practices (consultancy, business, management, media, publishing, social services, advertising), it is advisable to pursue a degree that allows you to develop a range of skills that can be applied to different working environments.  

In turn, you might find that, instead of being restricted by your degree, the range of skills you acquire in such degrees lends itself to a much greater choice of career opportunities. (see careers for arts graduates on P3

It is also key to note that work experience currently carries much weight in job applications. If you are concerned about breaking into the job market, take the effort either during term time or holidays to pursue activities or practical training relevant to your career choice.  

Indeed, having less contact hours per week usually means that arts students have more time to pursue extra-curricular interests or develop personal skills. This, in itself, demonstrates a keenness to engage in different activities and speaks of a well-balanced approach to work that graduate recruiters often look for.  

Having only had a maximum of six hours a week, for example, I had plenty of free time to join the campus newspaper and work my way up to being editor for two terms. This allowed me to develop specific writing and reporting skills pertinent to a career in journalism, and has given me an advantage in applications to top journalism schools. 

Some professions require that you take a separate set of qualifications in order to be recognised professionally. In accountancy, for example, you are required to take professional examinations (ACCA, FCCA, ICAEW, etc) in order to practise, whatever your basic degree, although certain degrees such as business studies, accounting or finance may exempt you from certain parts of the exam. For law, many students go on to a law college after their basic degree for training and to gain the qualifications needed to practise. 

Given this, it is probably more to your advantage to study something at university which you are interested in, rather than to zero in on specific career-related subjects. This way, you are more likely to develop the “soft skills” such as working with people around you, and versatile forms of thinking; the specifics needed to practise in your desired career can be acquired later in the training for your professional qualification.  

Lastly, and this is a point often hugely understated, being at university should be exactly that: appreciating the full experience of “being at university” and not just obtaining the degree scroll. It is not so much what is learned, as how you have learned and how you learn to apply what you learn.  

The joint processes of learning to think independently, working with peers in a competitive, academic environment and balancing social life (and the whole other set of people skills you gain from that) with your academic work – these are all just as important to an employer as the qualifications on your resume, and he will be looking for this in the job interview.  

As a literature student, I may just be full of heady ideals, but I do believe in the importance of pursuing what you most enjoy. Genuine, enthusiastic interest in your field of study and the efforts that you invest in your university work will show through and be much more of an asset in the workplace than the bit of paper you hold.  

ZUBIN RADA KRISHNANSecond Year, Bachelor of ArtsPhilosophy, Politics and EconomicsOxford University 

“Philosophy, Politics and Economics” is my triple-barrelled reply to people’s inquiries about my discipline in university. When I was a high-school student, I too contemplated “pragmatism” – considering business, computer science and the like. This, as older people informed me, was where the money was hidden. I was about to head down this road, but then I began to ponder the very purpose of higher education. My thoughts ended with a (warranted) cliché: Should I learn to do or learn to think? Surely the latter option provides a greater autonomy later in life. My degree has taught me how 19th century theorists perceived democracy, why Descartes believed in God and about the intricacies of game theory.  

Most importantly though, I have learned how to appraise ideas, to critique with rigour, and to research and argue my opinion adeptly. Pragmatism is far from lost with these teachings, for they are easily applied to reality and tasks one will face in his career or, indeed, life.  

 

 

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