How can I boost my CV/portfolio while studying without exhausting myself in the process?

A student asked me:

How can I boost my CV/portfolio while studying without exhausting myself in the process?

It’s practically not possible to do that. There’s 24 hours in a day, and if you want to do anything beyond academics, you will need to set aside time outside of your lessons to do that. It may mean less personal time, or less sleep (though I don’t recommend sleeping less). But the moral of the story is that something has to give way for you to be able to invest the time and energy for it.

One thing I did so that I didn’t exhaust myself too much would be to only take on projects I really enjoy. That way, I don’t find the work a chore, and I am very delighted to pour hours of my time on it.

In my first year of undergrad studies, I used to conduct language classes in the evenings after classes. It was fun (and earning money’s always fun), and my desire to teach better led me to read up more about different techniques for facilitation and public speaking.

From my second year onwards, I started to work as an undergraduate Research Assistant for one of my profs. And I was very passionate about the research area and that really helped me to grow and develop myself intellectually and academically in the process. I read hundreds of books, and I wasn’t complaining because I actually enjoyed it. And the research area overlapped with a lot of the modules that I took. So I didn’t actually have to read much for those modules because I already had the background knowledge and familiarity with many of those topics.

When I took over the leadership for the Philosophy Interest Group, I did a lot of work, but I wasn’t so exhausted nor did I consider it extra work because I thought it was a nice platform to make new friends and try to form a philosophical community, which was already something I personally aspired to make. So I never thought of it as extra work. I just did it because I enjoyed it and personally wanted those things.

And it’s only when I sit down to craft my CV did I realise, “Oh wow! I’ve done so much that boosted my portfolio!”

Now, what’s the point in sharing all these?

If you noticed, I didn’t specifically go out of my way to do things to boost my portfolio. I just took on things I enjoyed doing because I wanted to do them. This is a more organic way, and more importantly, the portfolio/CV that I craft at the end of it all is a true reflection of who I am and what I want to do with my career. I want to build communities, make new friends, learn and read up about the stuff I enjoy, and just teach things that I enjoy teaching. These are things I would prioritise in my life, and they overlap with the kind of work that I want to do.

So the moral of the story is: find opportunities that you actually want to do, or create the opportunities yourself to do the things you want to do. Don’t just do stuff for the sake of adding to your portfolio, especially if it leads you to do things so grudgingly or hesitantly. And I say this because I’ve encountered people who want the achievements, but they don’t want to do the work, or they don’t enjoy the work.

And if you don’t know what to do, then just try anything and everything that comes your way. At least you’ll discover for yourself what you can orcannot do, and what you like or dislike doing.

Some people tell me that university is the last time for us to be carefree young adults before entering the workforce, but shouldn’t I be studying for my future instead?

A student wrote to me, asking:

What does it mean to have a vibrant university life? Some people tell me that university is the last time for us to be carefree young adults before entering the workforce, but shouldn’t I be studying for my future instead?

You are right that you should be preparing yourself for the future. And that means developing yourself holistically. Grades aren’t everything. And if you make the mistake of only developing yourself academically, you run the risk of not developing every other aspects that matter when you go out to work. There are many graduates with fantastic grades who struggle to succeed in the working world. And many employers often complain that these people are very incompetent. If you only focus on grades, you only know how to read, memorise, analyse, and write.

Work is more than that. You need to convince and persuade others. You need to solve problems. You need to sell yourself and/or your company and its products/services to go far. You need to lead people, make decisions on behalf of the people under your charge. You need to work with people you can’t choose, some of whom you’ll have difficulties dealing with on a personal level because of their work styles or personalities.

University modules will provide you some opportunities to develop these from time to time. But there’s only so much your lecturers can do for you. To fully develop yourself, you’ll need to immerse yourself in the richness of student life. Go organise things, persuade people to join you to do stuff, and then advertise it so that other people will participate in it. The very act of doing these things will give you the experience you need to make it in the working world. And what’s most important of all is that these are opportunities for you to network and form real authentic friendships, many of which will last long after graduation. And you’ll discover that many years after graduation, these real and lasting friendships will prove essential when you need to create new leads or opportunities for your work.

And for that matter, the very act of socialising with a diverse group of people from different backgrounds will give you more insights into the varieties of people that you will have to deal with in the future, whether professionally or personally. And as you try to make new friends or form romantic relationships, every attempt adds to the rich tapestry of experience that will form you to be a more matured person. You will have a vast library of experiences you can tap into whether it’s dealing with people or work. And with these experiences, you are more than prepared to go out into the working world.

If you want to prepare yourself well for the future, my idea of a vibrant university life is to make as many friends as you can. And I mean genuine friends you can hangout and chit chat with, do stuff together and all. I don’t mean superficial hello-byebye friendships where you befriend people for utilitarian purposes. I’ve met people who make friends for that reason, and they come across as very sleazy because it’s very apparent that they’re not really interested in forming genuine friendships.

Some of the most incredible people I know back in my undergraduate days formed large networks of friends, it’s amazing to count the number of people they greet as they walk from the Arts Canteen to the Central Library. It’s like a 5 minute walk, and every few seconds, they bump into different people. It’s fun to enjoy one’s school life like that.

I’m more introverted, so I never really made friends to such an extent. But it’s always nice to bump into at least one person I know when I along that path. It’s nice to know that I’m going through this academic journey with friends.

Now, one thing I do strongly recommend you to do is to challenge yourself to join a society, club or interest group, and try to organise something at least once a semester. The more events you can organise, the better. It can be a CCA that you are already good at or something you are interested to learn. What’s more important is that you have the experience of organising things. It forces you out of your comfort zone to understand the administrative, logistics, operational, and marketing aspects required to get something done.

It’s a pretty accurate representation of what the working world is like. And those who are enriched by these experiences are more empowered when they go out to work as compared to those who didn’t enjoy such experiences.

How do I go about choosing my major or what field I should specialise in?

A student asked me:

How do I go about choosing my major or what field I should specialise in?

I am of the firm belief that you should major in a discipline that you enjoy and are very passionate about. For most people, university is their last stage of their education. So it’s all the more important to end it with something you enjoy. After all, the assignments are tough and very time consuming, so if you enjoy what you’re learning, it makes it a lot better. Otherwise, you’ll be spending 3-4 years suffering in misery learning something you have no interest in.

I have said this before, and I’ll say it again. Your major does not make you more or less employable. YOU make yourself employable. The soft skills of expression, of writing, of presenting, of persuading, of working together in a team, of leading others in a team, of being able to learn new things fast and on your own – these are more important than your major. These will determine whether you will get called up and succeed in an interview, and these soft skills will determine whether you will progress fast in your career or not.

The only reason why some majors look more employable is because certain disciplines tend to attract lots of people who are already very employable. They are very career-minded and self-driven. And with these same personal qualities, they would go just as far if they had taken another major. The issue really isn’t the major. It’s whether you bother to take the initiative to learn beyond your major, and to develop yourself professionally and intellectually.

Many of the assignments and modules you’ll take in University will try to prepare you in one way or another in many of the soft skills I listed above. Things like group project, etc., are already ample training grounds to hone these skills.

Lastly, I don’t recommend taking a major just because it is “practical.” What’s my issue with “practicality”? Well, this is speaking from observation. I’ve noticed that students (and my peers) who say they chose a “practical” major use this reason to give themselves a false sense of assurance that their future is secure. But what they don’t realise is that they often blackbox the entire thing, thinking that the having the name of their major printed on a piece of paper will do miracles for them, and so many of these students don’t actually develop themselves professionally and thus they go out into the working world unprepared and quite incompetent in what they do. Or in the case of my peers who lied to themselves that they had chosen a “practical” major, they ended up worrying about jobs and job security the same way as everyone else towards the end of their uni life. So the choice of their major really made no difference. It just made them feel comfortable for the first 3 years.

I also have issues with deciding a major based on whether or not it is “employable.” Employability will depend on the economic tides. In my time as an undergraduate, life sciences was the fad while computing was the dumping ground. Many of my peers took up life sciences in the hopes of making it rich, and very few took computing. Fast forward a few years later to today, now computing is the fad and all the life science graduates are having difficulties finding a job.

The same will go the way of computing/data analytics now that they are the “in” things. What many students don’t realise is that industries are very happy to drive more people into studying computing/data analytics because they want to increase the supply of talent so as to reduce the cost of manpower. Right now, such good talent are low in numbers and they are expensive to hire. By driving up the supply of talent, they can reduce salaries for such talent in the near future. This, by the way, is true of every discipline that gets caught up in the employability hype. Once the fad dies out, these majors will question the employability of their degrees once again.

Similarly, many chemical engineers are out of a job now because the oil and gas industry isn’t doing so well (it used to be booming so fantastically well years ago). Many Grab drivers I spoke to in the past year hail from the oil and gas industry. Some even hold PhDs in chemical engineering! What you study and the level of your qualification isn’t always everything. We’re all subject to the changing tides of the global economic situation.

So choosing a major based on “employability” is rubbish advice. What is employable now may not be employable in the future. And with the rise of AI and technology, experts cannot predict the next rising or failing industry

What is it that keeps those people employed in these shifting tides?

The same soft skills and qualities that I mentioned earlier. Why are they so important? Because these are the very qualities that enable an individual to add a lot of value to the organisation. It’s an intangible value that’s hard to measure, but it plays such a crucial role in the lifeblood of the organisation, whether it is the people and culture, or the business operations itself.

So once we’ve discounted “practicality” and “employability,” what are we left with? Well, like I said, it doesn’t matter what you major in. It’s the soft skills and people skills that matter waaaaaaay more than what you study in uni. So you might as well just choose a discipline that you enjoy learning. At least that way, when passion kicks in, you’ll gain so much more and those years of learning will be the best years of your life.

What should I do when all my friends have internships or job opportunities? I can’t help but feel very anxious and scared for my future.

A student asked:

I’m in my third year now, and many of my friends have internships or job opportunities. I can’t help but feel very anxious and scared for my future.

I don’t really have very high ambitions. I just hope to secure a job in my field when I graduate. To work on that, I’ve been taking up opportunities that help to boost my resume. But still, I always feel that I’m not good enough and quite lousy compared to other people.

Do you have any advice on what I can do right now? Should I pick up more skills so it helps to increase my chances of employment or something?

I have some advice:

(1) First, please stop looking at peoples’ profiles on LinkedIn. Don’t compare because everyone’s different, and everyone excels in different ways. No matter how good you are, there will always be someone better than you in one way or another. And we always ignore the fact that we are better than those people in other areas.

Also, my friend who works in the financial sector alerted me that recently, a lot of insecure graduates have been lying on their CVs. It’s got so bad that HR had to implement tests to see if people really know how to do the stuff they said on their CVs. So odds are, many of those very impressive LinkedIn profiles are full of rubbish, or at best half-truths. For example, someone boasts on LinkedIn for having two internships that simultaneously last for one month? Probably an exaggeration. So I wouldn’t think too much about that.

(2) While I think it’s ok to still feel lost about what to do, I really hope that you can challenge yourself to aim higher. Just securing a job is a very low bar. Everyone can get a job in a reasonable amount of time regardless of your education qualification (so that really shouldn’t be your worry right now). If you can (and you really should strive for it), I recommend spending the time to understand the kinds of jobs that’s out there. The world now is nothing like what we learnt in kindergarten/primary school, where there’s fireman, policeman, teacher, banker, chef, etc. It’s a lot more nuanced. It will help to find a sector that you find exciting, or fulfilling; or perhaps a particular category of tasks or processes that you think might be fulfilling or satisfying.

Because right now, you are limited by your understanding of what’s out there. That vast unknown is what makes life after graduation seem so scary. And it’s natural to feel that your degree is not enough, or the skills you have are not enough. And for that matter, the opportunities that you are looking at are precisely the same opportunities that everyone around you can picture and that’s why those opportunities are quite competitive and limited. And because so many people are fighting for those same opportunities, there are many other opportunities where no one’s applying for – even in this economic situation we’re in. You might have seen some job listings where you think you’re not cut out for it because you have no idea what it’s about (or they might sound intimidating to you). Then you should read up more to find out what it’s about. Knowledge is power. The more you know, the less intimidated and worried you’ll be. You’ll be surprised to learn how many of these jobs can be done by you if you are willing to learn and read up more.

(3) While it’s good to learn skills, I think what you need is to get your feet wet and try working a job or an internship. Or even if it’s to promote your own freelance business. Just do something to make money. It’ll be a good start. I know people who use “learning skills” as an excuse not to take the plunge into the working world. And I know some people who delay working for years because they don’t feel ready until they’ve taken this and that course. It looks like you’re doing something productive, but it’s actually a form of procrastination from doing the necessary – actually experiencing the working world for yourself.

Between a person with a CV full of certificates (of skills) and a person with only one skill but with some work experience, I’ll take the person with work experience. Learning a skill is one thing. Knowing how to practice it at work is a different thing altogether.