I want to major in Philosophy but I’ve heard horror stories about job prospects. What are your peers who majored in philosophy doing after they’ve graduated?
Most philosophy majors are working in the civil service, namely in the areas of policy and education. The philosophers I know have worked or are currently working in the Prime Minister’s Office, Customs, ICA, NEA, CPF, MOE, MOH, NAC, and the Centre for Strategic Futures.
There are also philosophers working in the private sector. Among those whom I personally know… There’s one who worked in OCBC immediately after graduation, no honours! There’s another is working in finance in Shanghai. Another works with a big German MNC as the regional head of HR. Another one became one of the senior HR persons in A*Star (that was years ago, I’m not sure what she’s doing now).
Several have gone on to work in big consultancy firms (with and without Honours). There’s one I know who’s working as a data analyst for Alibaba, another as a data analyst for the People’s Association, another one working in marketing for an Icelandic record company, and yet another one working in the gaming industry. I recently met one who’s a software developer. Some are working as managers in various university departments (NUS and beyond). Some have gone on to become entrepreneurs. Fun fact: ThaiExpress was founded by a philosopher!
Probably the 3 most famous philosophers are the ones that have gone into film-making. “Army Daze” was a film created by NUS philo alumnus, Michael Chiang. The award winning film, “Ilo Ilo” was produced by another NUS philo alumnus, Lai Weijie. And recently, another award winning film, “A Land Imagined” was written and directed by yet another philo alumnus and my batch mate, Yeo Siew Hua. This is the movie he kept dreaming of as an undergrad. So it’s pretty amazing that he finally realised his dream.
I think many of these horror stories are coming from ignorant people who lack the imagination of what a versatile major like Philosophy can do.
All the philo majors I know are doing pretty ok in life. And as you can see, some are living really exciting lives. If anything, this is testimony of the fact that a major in philosophy prepares you to do whatever it is you want to do in the future.
Are there any FASS majors that you think are at a disadvantage at getting employed after graduation?
FASS produces about 1500 graduates each year. If FASS students cannot find jobs, Singapore will be struggling with major unemployment problems by now. But this isn’t happening because FASS majors are getting employed.
As a general degree, we can do most jobs. But, as a general degree, the onus is on you to figure out how to relate your training to your work. And to be clear, most people do work that’s unrelated to what they studied in university.
University is not a labour-producing factory where the aim is all about equipping you with skills. It’s about training you to be open and broad-minded leaders who can make sound decisions for the people you are responsible for. Whatever you learn, regardless of your major, you will gain many insights and transferable skills that will allow you to do well in any industry or profession of your choosing.
Some majors appear to be more employable. But we need to be clear about one issue: is it the major that makes students more employable? Or are more employable students attracted to certain majors?
From my own experience interacting with students, I will say it’s the latter. Whenever I open up opportunities for students, it’s always students from one particular major who will come forward (or it’s always students from one particular major who will consult me about their professional development). (There’s no point in me mentioning what that major is because it’ll distract from the main point of this answer.) Sure, I get a couple of students from other majors from time to time. But that one particular major is over-represented.
Can you attribute that thirst to their training in NUS? No. It’s all about character. These people are serious about wanting to push themselves and to gain a vast array of experience. These qualities are what makes them employable. And I am very certain that you could train them in the less popular majors, and they would still go far ahead in their careers because they are that self-driven to figure things out on their own, make the connections, and chase down every opportunity that comes their way.
These are the qualities that make you employable. Your major has nothing to do with it.
In fact, a few years down the road, no one’s going to care what you majored in. At best, they will ask about your degree (Arts? Science? Engineering?). But that’s about it. Your academic achievements, your CAP, your major – all these won’t matter very much a few years after graduation. It will all depend on whether you can perform well at work and what you’re able to achieve in and on behalf of the organisation. (Which is why you need to take your group projects seriously to learn these skills well)
Interestingly, the people who only know how to pursue straight As but don’t know how to do anything else will be the ones who will struggle to go far in their careers as they lack all the important life, work and social skills to survive in the work place.
As I said before: You make yourself employable, not your degree. So work hard to improve your people skills – how to work and manage difficult people, how to speak confidently, how to promote yourself, etc. These will make a difference in your employability.
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. And 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.
After four exhausting years of toil, of literally blood (having gone to the hospital thrice and getting needles injected all over my body), sweat, and coffee, I’ve survived university and graduated!
Well, as some of you know, I’ve been pretty busy finishing my Honours Thesis in my last and final semester.
My thesis was entitled, “Notions of Harmony in Classical Chinese Thought.” In it, I set out to investigate and reconstruct all the various notions of harmony that could be found in the Analects, Mozi, Daodejing, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and the Xunzi. The problem with much of the scholarship on harmony is that scholars have often assumed harmony to be more or less the same idea across thinkers throughout Chinese history. My project was to demonstrate that this is not so. (If you are interested in reading it, please leave me a comment, and I’ll e-mail it to you!)
The final week before the Thesis submission deadline was extremely stressful as I was up almost every night until 3-4am trying my best to edit and polish up the paper.
Friday, 26 April 2013 was the thesis submission deadline and thankfully, I managed to finish my thesis by then.
That day was, for me, a very momentous occasion – it was the big day where after one entire year of researching and writing, the time has finally come for the paper to be printed and submitted! Wow… You know, I never thought it would ever have been possible to write such a lengthy paper. My thesis was approximately 12000 words, and it consisted of 42 pages! That’s right! 42! The number, the answer to life, the universe, and everything!
Somehow, the entire day felt like a momentous victory! I met a friend at the library who was more than happy to help me photograph the momentous occasion while I printed my thesis:
It was somewhat unfortunate that I didn’t have the time to bind my paper into a hardcover book (which was the tradition for submitting theses). Oh well, I didn’t have the luxury of time to do it. But that’s ok. Hardcover isn’t a submission requirement.
With the Honours Thesis out of the way, I felt a huge burden lifted from my shoulders.
But I could not heave a sigh of relief yet as I still had exams to study and sit for. And so, after a day of rest, it was back to the books.
Unfortunately, the exams didn’t end on a very happy note. My last exam was an engineering module (for the life of me, I still don’t understand why on earth did I decide to do an engineering module). It wasn’t an introductory module either (I really have no idea why I put myself through such pains). Anyway, it was the last exam of my undergraduate life, but the paper was so difficult, I was faced with a very real possibility of failing the paper. I counted the marks of the questions where I think I would have gotten right, and I only had just enough to pass. If bell-curve moderation was not in my favour, there was the very very real possibility that I would have failed this paper, and worse of all, I would have to repeat a semester. Gosh… It was a very horrible feeling to have while walking out of the exam hall.
But no matter. A few days after that traumatic experience of the final exam, I was out of the country for a holiday to Penang (I’ll write more about it later). Then it was off to Kuala Lumpur to run some errands and enjoy a bit of holiday by the side. The Girlfriend’s grandmother came down to Singapore some time back and discovered the wonders of the Internet, specifically YouTube, and she wanted to have this amazing Internet in her home. So I volunteered to go down to KL and help buy and set up a computer and an Internet connection. And after Kuala Lumpur, I was off to Bangkok. These three places were amazing in their own way, and I think I’ve grown and learnt a lot while I was there. (But I’ll keep all those thoughts for another blog entry here).
Let me just fast forward by about 2 months to the last seven days leading up to my graduation ceremony.
Gosh… It was quite an exciting week! I was given the opportunity to present a section of my Honours Thesis at an international philosophy conference. It was the 2013 Joint Meeting of the Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (SACP) and the Australasia Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (ASACP).
Not only was I busy helping out with some of the logistic matters, I was also rushing to edit and present my paper for the event. It had been two months since I last wrote papers. It felt good to be writing a paper once again. I had a cup of coffee by my side, soft piano music playing in the background, and I was all ready to write my paper all the way into the midst of the night. So for three consecutive nights, there I was sitting before my computer, typing away until 3am. It was tiring, but it felt so good to be engaging in this paper writing ritual. There’s something so comforting and wonderful about the experience.
Monday, 8 July 2013. At last, it was the day of the Conference. I had to present my paper on the first day, in the afternoon before many academics, some of whom were really really BIG names in the area of Chinese Philosophy. It was intimidating, but nonetheless, a huge honour!
The paper I presented was entitled, “Reconciling Culinary and Musical Models in Classical Chinese Thought.” There’s been some sort of academic debate where there is disagreement as to whether the culinary and musical models of harmony have merged into a single unified notion or remain as two separate models in classical Chinese thought. In my paper, I attempted to present a new way of looking at the relation of the two models and how they can be reconciled together into a single theory despite remaining as two separate yet distinct models.
It turns out that my paper presentation was a huge success! Everybody present enjoyed it and they found the contents very interesting!
The biggest WOW experienced I had was during another panel’s Q&A session. One professor (Prof. Alan K. L. Chan), who is quite a big name in Chinese philosophy replied my question saying that he actually had read my Honours Thesis during his flight to Singapore, and he found it (to quote him), “an enjoyable read” and that it “was very interesting.” Immediately after that, the people sitting on my left and right turned to me asking if I could send my thesis to them.
WOW! If writing an Honours Thesis is meant to make one feel honoured, I think it’s working! I felt so honoured at that moment. Wow…
Anyway, the conference was really amazing. I had the chance to meet so many amazing people. It was also pretty amazing to finally see the faces of people whose books and papers I’ve read and cited in my papers. To be standing amongst the greats in Chinese philosophy from around the world… Woah… All I can say is that it was very inspiring and really awesome to see a bunch of people who are just so passionate about what they’re doing. It was lovely.
The conference went on for three whole days! On the fourth day, Thursday, 11 July 2013, it was finally the day of my graduation ceremony!
Four years of hard work has finally led up to this epic moment:
Let me now present you with the fruit of my labour – the fruit that took four years of coffee, blood and sweat (no tears thankfully):
You know, it’s crazy… Ever since my first year in university, I never thought that it would be possible for me – a person who came from the science stream and who initially majored in Computer Engineering – to be able to get this.
But with lots of hard work and the encouragement and support from The Girlfriend, the wonderful professors in the NUS Philosophy Department, and all my other friends both online and offline, I was able to endure and persevere all the way till the end.
So what’s next? Well, if you asked me this question two months ago, I would have only been able to shrug my shoulders and sheepishly reply, “I don’t know.”
But since last month, I’ve slowly come to realise that my true calling is in academia, and especially in (Chinese) Philosophy. In the past months, I’ve been looking through job ads after job ads, and I was never really interested in what was on offer. The greatest tragedy perhaps, was the constant thought of never having to pursue philosophy once again. Every time I contemplated that thought, a part of me dies. It was painful.
It was only at a recent farewell party for a professor that I realised that I should do whatever I can to pursue philosophy. There and then, we were having a fantastic time discussing philosophical issues. My heart was on fire once again after quite a period of dreaded boredom. The pursuit of wisdom has left me thirsting yet for more.
The pursuit of philosophy is an arduous process. It is mentally and even physically exhausting staying up late just to research, think, and write. But it is a process that I value so greatly. These four years of my philosophical pursuits have transformed me in many wonderful ways. And I wish to continue to be transformed, and shaped by the pursuit of wisdom, just as how it has transformed and shaped the professors in the Philosophy Department here in NUS. I’ve interacted with many of them, and all I can say is that I feel like I’ve been interacting with wise exemplary sages.
I want to be as wise and awe-inspiring as they are, and continue to pass on this most splendid and awesome tradition.
But in the mean time, I’ll take a year’s break from study to work. I intend to focus on publishing at least one paper in an academic journal. That would help me get a better chance of securing full funding for a PhD scholarship. And by next year, I shall be off to some other country to pursue my studies in Chinese Philosophy.
It looks like I have a really exciting life waiting for me in the years to come. I look forward to that as I take life one step at a time.