Does a second major bolster my standing for employment?

A student wrote to me, asking:

I’m an English Literature major. I very much like my major & I enjoy interdisciplinary approaches to things. As much as I enjoy my major, I grow worrisome thinking about my employment prospects. I know that there are vast opportunities for FASS majors given how ‘general’ our majors can be, but it worries me so much so I’m taking a more ‘employable’ second major to bolster my standing. Does it matter? Any advice? I have no idea what I want to do post-graduation and it scares me so much.

Here’s my reply:

Hello! Taking a second major doesn’t really bolster your standing in any way. On paper, you’re just doing two “general” majors. Are you enjoying the second major? If not, don’t kill yourself over it.

Here are the things that will actually “bolster” your standing:
(1) Have done stuff that shows you can learn fast and independently and are ready to embrace new challenges outside your comfort zone without supervision (employers really love this quality the most because you give them confidence that you won’t be a problem hire that will pester your superior regularly or sit cluelessly at table not knowing what to do how to do something you’ve never done before).

(2) Have done stuff to show that you have initiative to start new projects on your own (employers love this a lot too, because they know they are getting value for money when someone is happy to start new projects without being asked).

(3) Have done stuff that shows that you are a team player and/or have leadership qualities (one thing employers worry about is having to bring on someone who’s a trouble-maker rather than a team-player).

Because at the end of the day, you will be fighting with other people who have single/double majors and a high CAP. There are far too many people out there with bad work attitude and poor people skills (but they have high CAP and single/double majors/degrees). So employers want someone who not only won’t give them a headache, but preferably someone who sparks joy in their organisation (you have no idea how rare these people are).

What will make you stand out are the three qualities I listed above. It’s really people skills that make you more desirable as a potential employee.

What if some of us can only do humanities well and enjoy doing humanities well?

A student asked:

I think the concern most of us have about the humanities is not that we don’t value it despite studying it, but the mass consensus in society –  evident in the fact that most jobs look for tech skills, coding or data analytics – makes it a huge disadvantage for us. The thing is then to make ourselves more inter-disciplinary by including some form of tech background in our resume. But what if some of us can only do humanities well and enjoy doing humanities well?

There are several issues I want to address here. So let me respond to specific lines in what you wrote:

(1) “[T]he mass consensus in society, evident in the fact that most jobs look for tech skills, coding or data analytics, makes it a huge disadvantage for us.”

It is very important to recognise that this is a fad in the industry right now. It won’t last for very long. If you look at the economic history of Singapore, we started out with a huge hoo-hah over manufacturing, and then over engineering, and then later on life sciences became the big thing, and now coding/data analysis is the fad. I want to point out that the life sciences fad happened when I was in secondary school all the way till university. Everyone was saying you had to go into life sciences because that’s where the money was. Every other major was “useless.” But look where we are today. What has happened to all the life science graduates? They’re not working in life sciences.

The coding/data analytics fad is currently largely driven by the hope and promise that we can harness all the information we’ve collected about people to make predictions about them and make lots of money. If you bother to read beyond the hype, you’d realise that this initiative is failing spectacularly in many areas. And many key players in the tech world are saying that a STEM approach is not enough (Science, Tech, Engineering, Mathematics = STEM). They are now advocating for STEAM, where the A stands for the Arts, i.e. humanities and social sciences. Because, as I demonstrated in GET1050, the problems of all these tech stuff are essentially arts problems.

If you go to places like Australia, China, Japan, UK, and US, you’d find that there is a greater appreciation in the humanities. The question we need to ask ourselves is: why is this not happening in Singapore? Because a lot of the people who make hiring decisions here came from very humble beginnings. Their parents/grandparents were not as educated as the elites. So they did not have the same education and experience with the humanities and so they have absolutely no idea what that is all about. In the countries I mentioned, there is a significantly greater understanding of the value of the humanities it pervades their discourse on everyday affairs on a regular basis.

So if you want to be marketable, you really need to invest time and energy to educate your potential employer on the value that you bring. If you cannot articulate that, then you need to recognise that the problem is not your major but that you haven’t reflected on yourself and explored what you can/want to do.

(2) “The thing is then to make ourselves more inter-disciplinary by including some form of tech background in our resume.”

It helps to understand why our government/MOE is pushing for a multi-disciplinary approach. For a while now, scholars have been echoing that we are heading into a very unpredictable future. The accelerated development of technology means that we cannot easily pre-empt what’s going to happen in the next 10, 20, or even 30 years. Also, the rate of technological development means that people will be losing jobs faster than we can learn new skills. So the idea is that by equipping ourselves with an array of soft skills in the humanities, in computational thinking, in scientific thinking, design thinking, engineering thinking, etc., people will be more resilient to such unpredictable changes and can adapt quickly to whatever gets thrown at us.

The main purpose of me teaching GET1050 is not really to teach you coding, but to equip you with additional mental processes for problem-solving. Personally, I think it’s good if you have a tech background because it will give you an edge over tech-only people and over humanities-only people. If tech really isn’t your thing, then don’t pursue it. Go find some other thing that you can relate your training in the humanities with.

I find that humanities in isolation can be very fluff sometimes because we’re just discussing issues theoretically without really helping people to solve problems. My encik in the Air Force likes to call these people NATO warriors – No Action, Talk Only.

It pains me to see humanities scholars intentionally cutting themselves out of world-saving discourses because they don’t know how to participate or it’s not rigorous enough on the arts side of things (I personally saw this myself when I worked in NTU helping to organise an international conference). Sheesh… If they participated, they could have helped to up the rigour. But they didn’t.

(3) “But what if some of us can only do humanities well and enjoy doing humanities well?”

How do you even know for sure that humanities is the only thing that you can do well? You’re still so young and there’s so many experiences that you’ve not had before. It’s too quick to validly come to this conclusion.

There is a mutual relation between (1) doing X well, and (2) getting enjoyment from doing X. For some people they start out with (2), and that motivates them to do (1), i.e. you like something, and that passion drives you to do better at it. At the same time, we also can get to (2) from doing (1), i.e. there are many things where, after we discover we’re not bad at it, we experience joy doing it.

So all I’ll say is: don’t limit yourself so quickly based on such limited experience. You’re doing yourself a grave injustice. It helps to read up more about what’s going on in the working world (don’t just rely on your seniors). It helps to talk to people who are out there in the working world. Like just randomly drop them an e-mail and say that you’re a student and you are curious to know more about X, Y, Z. Yes, you can do that. Just be nice, and people will be happy to reply or even meet you.

What advice do you have for a fresh graduate looking for a job?

A student wrote to me, asking:

What advice do you have for a fresh graduate looking for a job?

There are two kinds of hires: (1) inspirational hires and (2) hires due to necessity.

1. Inspirational Hires

Let me start first with inspirational hires. If you can convince employers – especially people at the top – that you can add value to their organisation with what you have, they can create special positions within the organisation just for you. These are called inspirational hires because they value you and want you around to “inspire” by doing what you say you do best in the organisation. In many ways, these kinds of hires will provide you with great freedom and flexibility to explore things that you want to do.

I want you to know that this kind of hiring takes place a lot more commonly that you think! Every job that I have worked since graduation has been specially created for me. I have never gotten a job by applying on a job portal. My wife got a job in Australia for the same reason as well. I know a handful of people who also had positions specially created for them since graduation.

So the moral of the story is: if you want to be hired like this, go talk to all sorts of people. Maybe maintain a website so you can curate a portfolio. Start thinking about how you can use your training in your major to add value to certain organisations that you are passionate about. More importantly, you should develop a good work attitude, because your work attitude screams very loudly at the start, from the way you write your e-mails, handle phone calls, etc.

2. Hires Due to Necessity

Hires due to necessity are essentially jobs that have already been defined, and the employer just needs someone to do the required tasks. It could be newly created positions or new vacancies. The job ads you see are usually hires belonging to this category.

First, you must understand the sociology of how employers typically hire people. What would you do if you need manpower to carry out a set of tasks successfully? Would you go for a complete stranger or someone you whom you already trust? If you can, you’ll go for someone you already trust. It takes up a lot of energy just to meet strangers and find one whom you hope you can establish a good and trusting working relationship with.

Now, if you can’t find someone in your social circle, you’d start to ask your friends if they know anyone they can recommend. Here, you’re not just asking them to recommend any random person. You want them to recommend someone they trust. And because you trust your friends, you trust their judgement in that person.

How does this apply to employment? When a new position is created, or when there is a new vacancy employers will typically do something similar. And if they have already found someone they can trust, they would still put the job ad out there as a formality. Sometimes, you may apply for jobs where they’re just going through the formality. Occasionally they may be willing to hire you in addition to the person they already found, but that’s only if you – as a stranger – are able to impress big time.

In the event the employer cannot find someone trustable within his/her extended social network, then they will resort to hiring a complete stranger. By which time, your application will be fighting hundreds of applications against a selection algorithm and/or some HR person spending a couple of seconds per CV to see if you’re worth considering or not.

How do you win in such a battle? What you want is to know people who can not only vouch for you as a reliable person, but also recommend you to their professional network when someone they know urgently needs to hire people. That way, you enter early into the game. Once again, it’s back to work attitude.

Take me as an example: I am more inclined to recommend people who have fantastic work attitudes, because I know I can recommend them to my friends without letting them down. That these people are so good that they are sure to excel if they work for my friends.

A junior once asked me to help him find work. I wasn’t close to him, but I thought I’d help him. But he was so sloppy he couldn’t even be bothered to put together a proper CV. When I see work like this, I don’t want to recommend him to anyone. If he can’t be bothered to get something so important done properly, I know he will disappoint the people I recommend him to.

Also, it happened that two undergrads I know applied to an internship where my friend’s the boss. I was asked what I thought about them. The one that had a much better work attitude impressed me so much that I did not hesitate to sing praises about him. He got the internship.

One last point, if you are very talented and have a good work attitude, but you aren’t getting called for interviews, you probably didn’t do your CV right. It’s a very common mistake. At all costs, do NOT be humble in your CV. Show off all the amazing things you’ve accomplished thus far. Take pride in your achievements. Maybe Google how to write an impressive CV? There’s plenty of good resources online.