Choosing a degree course: A guide for students (and parents)

Two years before leaving high school is the time to start thinking about higher education and to focus on the degree course or other programme you want to do, and you will ask yourself what subjects excite you and will continue to inspire you 10 years from now?

You may not be able to answer these questions so you will then ask yourself which degree courses will benefit you most, as well as enthusing you now? You have to be sure that you will enjoy the degree course you undertake, that it could lead you to a career that you want to follow, and that it will help you develop the skills that a future employer will be looking for.

To help you decide, your parents, your high school’s career service, one of Singapore’s education consultancies and agencies, recent graduates, and your friends can all help you by talking you through your options.

Should you decide to study in Singapore, or perhaps Malaysia, attending an open day at the university or college of your choice will be very useful; it will give the institution you are visiting an opportunity to meet you as well as giving you the chance to see what facilities are on offer. Should you decide on another ASEAN country or elsewhere in the world, then you could resort to the internet.

The level at which you wish to study
Whatever subject you want to explore at this stage, you have to decide the level to which you want to study. Levels include:

  • diplomas and advanced diplomas – pre-degree qualifications that usually last at least two years;
  • foundation degrees – not available in every country and usually related to a specific career. Foundation degrees are equivalent to the first two years of a BA, BEng or BSc degree;
  • top-up degrees – you may be able to top-up your diploma, advanced diploma or foundation degree to a BA, BEng or BSc in a top-up programme lasting one or two years depending on the discipline. It is often possible to do this at a different university;
  • BA (Bachelor of Arts) – undergraduate degrees in non-science subjects;
  • BEng (Bachelor of Engineering) – three- or four-year degrees in subjects related to engineering;
  • BSc (Bachelor of Science) – degrees lasting three or four years in subjects that are science-orientated;
  • other degrees, such as those in medicine, that last much longer (see the web-site of the university of your choice).

Choosing your subject of study
It is important that you don’t allow current employment market conditions to dictate your choice of degree subject, as these may have changed considerably by the time you graduate. You will have to try, with the help of your parents and professionals, to predict what the work environment will be like in three or four years’ time.

It will be better, therefore, if you choose a subject that matches your interests and abilities: you will get more benefit and enjoyment from your studies, and, as a result, you might even get a better degree (higher GPA).

It is important to remember that, in some countries, about half of jobs available to new graduates are open to people with a degree in any subject. So, if you don’t know what you want to do when you graduate, it’s safe to study a so-called traditional subject that have you enjoyed at high school, even if it’s not one that qualifies you for a particular career.

There are, however, some careers (architecture, dentistry, medicine are examples) which it is almost impossible to enter without first gaining a relevant degree qualification. If you’ve researched your career options thoroughly and are sure you want to enter one of these fields there is clearly no point applying for any other course. On the other hand, if you graduate with a degree in forensic computing, say, and then decide after a few years that your career in this field is no longer enjoyable, you may regret your decision to specialise so early.

It is worth remembering also that company recruiters not only look at an applicant’s academic capabilities but also at the soft skills the graduate can demonstrate: numeracy, computer literacy, the ability to present oral and written reports, to work individually and in a team are important to most companies today.

Studying overseas
The reputation of the university you choose could affect your career and you would be well advised to consult a reliable league table, or the published results of national student surveys, to get some insight into the standing of the university.

Going to university in another country is always a big move and while examining possible degree programmes you (and your parents) will at the same time look for assurances that your welfare is of paramount importance at the university you choose. Singapore’s education agencies and consultancies, and especially recent graduates, can be very helpful in giving information on this. Education consultancies can advise you on estimating your future needs overseas: living costs (including hidden costs); and they can give you tips on ensuring your welfare and safety.

Most universities outside Singapore that have significant overseas student numbers operate international offices that are dedicated to the welfare of students from other countries. These offices offer a range of services that usually include:

  • pre-departure advice on visa requirements,
  • a tailor-made international student orientation programme,
  • a range of day trips to places of interest in the host country,
  • an active international student society, and
  • throughout your stay as an undergraduate, the mentoring support you may need in managing accommodation, medical and pastoral issues.

The University Department in which you study will provide guidance on academic and some private issues.

University life isn’t just about getting a degree: it is also about being part of a community that makes you feel at home. So, other factors to examine before making a decision are facilities on offer in the arts, music and sport, and, in case you and a friend want to get away for a short while, ease of access to a city or the country.

Enjoy it!

About the author

E.H. TwizellE.H. Twizell has Professor Emeritus status at Brunel University, UK, and holds several Visiting Professorships at universities in Japan, China and the United Arab Emirates. Before retiring in 2005 he was a frequent visitor to Singapore and is currently a member of the Senate of MDIS, the Management Development Institute of Singapore.

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