What do you think of couples who take the same major, and they enrol in the same modules and tutorials together?

A student asked me:

What do you think of couples who take the same major, and they enrol in the same modules and tutorials together? Would it become boring after awhile where projects are always done together and every minute of school is spent with that person?

Boredom isn’t the real problem that these couples should be worried about. While the idea of spending a lot of time together seems good, it’s actually not healthy for both individuals. It’s important to remember that a relationship comprises two unique individuals coming together to enrich each other as individuals. It’s not two individuals merging into a single hive mind as if The Singularity had taken place.

If you are already studying together or going out on dates, do you really need to spend even more time together?

While it is important to spend time together, it is just as important learning how to spend time away from each other so that each can continue developing their own individual selves, whether it is professionally, intellectually, or even socially as they meet new people or old friends.

Spending too much time together by taking the same classes would mean a loss of opportunities for each person in the relationship to explore new things on their own or to make new friends. It may feel really good now, but in the future you will look back and regret not making new friends or gaining new experiences on your own.

Is it a bad thing to be so focused on schoolwork or other endeavours like hobbies/work in general that I sacrifice having a vibrant social life or a romantic relationship during University? What if I continue being this way when I grow older?

A student asked:

Is it a bad thing to be so focused on schoolwork or other endeavours like hobbies/work in general that I sacrifice having a vibrant social life or a romantic relationship during University? What if I continue being this way when I grow older?

You should be doing what you want to do. It’s true that the good and bad habits you develop now in uni will stay with you when you work. So if you like to work until 3am, you will probably continue behaving like this when you go out to work. If that’s not how you want to live your life for the rest of your life, then you must try your utmost best to change these bad habits.

In general, it’s bad for your mental and emotional well-being if you sacrifice your social life for the sake of work or personal interest. You need a good balance.

BUT, a balance doesn’t mean that you dedicate equal time to social life, work, and hobbies. That’s very mechanical. You have to decide what that balance is. And from personal experience, seeking the balance is itself a constant struggle. Because the demands from your social life (and especially relationship), work and personal interests will always be in tension with each other. So it’s all about readjusting that balance in response to changing circumstances.

As a general rule, as long as you are not sacrificing any one of these things, you’re ok. I should mention that rest and doing nothing are just as important, and should also be factored into your balancing equation. We all need a little down time away from all the hustle and bustle of life.

How much would peer review affect one’s own final grade?

A student asked me:

How much would peer review affect one’s own final grade?

I can’t say this for all modules because different lecturers have different policies. Some might drop a grade or two, some might choose to give a zero for the whole project.

In the case of GET1050, the worst case scenario is that you’ll get zero marks for the group project component, which is 35% of the total grade. That can drop a student from a B to a D, or a C to an F.

Many students think that they can hide and get away with not doing work, but they don’t realise just how transparent they are. My TAs and I are constantly monitoring our students so we already know who’s slacking before peer evaluation results come out. Also, it’s very obvious who didn’t contribute in the group because the social dynamics will be different compared to people/groups who contribute their utmost.

So what I’m saying is, we don’t just rely on peer evaluation reports to penalise slackers, because some people are very petty in how they evaluate their peers. So to ensure that we are fair, we make the effort to gather and corroborate evidence from a variety of sources.

I’ll just add one more point. You’ve probably heard of the phrase “6 degrees of separation.” Because of my social/professional network, I am 2 degrees away from Lee Hsien Loong, Obama, Clinton, and Putin. It scares me to think just how far away (or rather, how near) I am from these people.

If you know me personally, that puts you at 3 degrees away from them. Why am I saying this? The world is small. Singapore is even smaller. If I can notice slackers in a class of 800 students, what more the professors in other modules? What you do with your assignments and your projects don’t escape our attention. It goes beyond just grades. We know people who hire people, and those people do come to us asking us what we think of you. As a compulsory module, HR people do come to me to ask about my former students when they apply for internships/jobs. I have been fighting strongly to give my highest recommendations to students who have been great team players in their groups; and I have been very honest in telling these HR people about students who demonstrated horrible personal/work attitudes in the group project and in this course overall.

So the repercussions of how good/bad you are in your group go way beyond your grades. So do remember this well. Be good to your group mates and work hard. We are training you to learn how to work in teams and manage people of different personalities and working styles. It’s something you’ll have to do in the working world, so use this opportunity of group work to develop these important people skills. It’ll go a very long way in helping you after you graduate.

Is it true that it’s easier to score an A for some modules?

A student asked:

Is it true that it’s easier to score an A for some modules?

There’s no such thing as an easy A module because the number of As are determined by a quota in NUS (this is what people famously refer to as being at the mercy of the “bell curve”). There are quotas to the number of As, Bs, and Cs we can give. But I can’t tell you the quotas. That is confidential.

If a module is very easy to score, then the quota on As will determine that only the best of the best will get the As, and everyone else will get Bs and Cs even though they may have done very well in terms of absolute marks.

This is why there’s no such thing as a module that’s easy to score in university.

There’s this idea circulating among students that smart people don’t have to struggle to earn their As. It’s important to remember that some seniors want their juniors to regard them highly based on this belief, and so they will brag about how a module is easy for them to score without needing to struggle or needing to work hard. It makes them look very impressive, and people who take the module but end up struggling will look up to them for having done it so effortlessly.

Or in some rare cases, the student found it easy because it was something that s/he is already very good at, and so found no need to spend any effort.

So please do yourself a favour. Don’t believe any senior who tells you that a module is easy to score an A. They’re not telling you the truth about how hard they work behind the scenes.

I want to also comment about the belief that being good at something means not having to struggle. This is a false belief, and it has been very detrimental to many students’ esteems as they struggle in their studies (which is actually quite normal). Many students end up going away with the idea that they are very bad at it. I want you to know that struggling is normal. You struggle because you are growing and developing intellectually. And that is a good thing.

Will I be losing out if I don’t go on the Student Exchange Programme (SEP)?

A student asked:

Will I be losing out if I don’t go on the Student Exchange Programme (SEP)? I’m think that I’ll lose out by not getting the full university experience and also losing out by not looking as good as my peers in the eyes of future employers.

No, you won’t lose out at all. I didn’t go for SEP (student exchange programme), and I certainly didn’t lose out on anything.

SEP won’t help you gain any significant advantage when applying for jobs. The whole point of SEP is for you to have a full cultural immersion by interacting with the locals there. Once you are deeply soaked into their way of life, culture, language, you begin to better understand their system of values, ways of thinking about things, and gain better insight into their own way of life.

With such an understanding, you’ll be able to compare and contrast that with your own experience growing up and studying in Singapore (or wherever it is that you came from).

This is useful for helping you to appreciate the good points in both cultures, but also provide you with a basis to identify shortcomings in your own culture and start thinking about the values and assumptions that you’ve taken for granted all your life. E.g. Is it really important to be so focused on studies? Country X doesn’t do it that way.

But don’t just end with the conclusion that, “Country X is better because it’s less stressful.” That is a very superficial comparison. Ask yourself: Why is it that Country X can afford to be less competitive compared to Singapore?

Do the same for every other thing that you find is different in that country and keep asking yourself these questions. You’ll grow more matured in your thinking and appreciation of the pros and cons of each country’s policy, culture, and more.

Did you notice that it’s possible to still acquire this experience without going for an exchange programme? So the SEP is a nice to have. It’s certainly not a must-do.

SEP won’t really give you a significant advantage when looking for employment, unless you use the SEP to build up strong social networks. Otherwise, it doesn’t do much.

If you want to gain an advantage when looking for employment, you should be focusing on developing your people skills: how to interact with strangers, how to speak confidently to other people, how to promote/market yourself, how to work in a team, or how to lead and manage a team without having to play dirty politics, etc. These things will give you an advantage that will take you very very far.

So, you won’t lose out on anything if you don’t go on the student exchange programme. There are alternative ways to acquire cultural immersion and comparison without doing an exchange. And it’s really the people skills that matter in giving you an advantage.

My girlfriend got pregnant, and we’re both still studying in university. What do you suggest we do?

An anxious student wrote to me, asking:

My girlfriend got pregnant, and we’re both still studying in university. What do you suggest we do?

I can imagine this must be a really anxious time for both you and her. Please make yourself wholly available to her and support her in this time of need. Let her know that you are someone she can count on as a pillar of strength and support. And if either of you need someone older to talk to, feel free to reach out to me. You can talk to me without fear of judgement, alright? :)

Many people tend to conflate wanting to “get rid of the problem” with the idea that it means “getting rid of the pregnancy.” That is not true, and that choice has its own risks and consequences that will affect her much more than it will affect you.

First thing’s first: don’t rush to solve the situation so quickly. The stress and anxiety can lead to a lot of bad mistakes that will haunt you both for life. I want you to know that there are three possible options you can explore: (1) keeping the baby and raising the child; (2) giving the child up for adoption to couples who can’t conceive and desperately want a child; (3) terminating the pregnancy.

I think one of the issues people worry about is the shame and fear of what’s going to happen. I want you to know that we are living in a very modern and understanding society. Both of your families may care enough that you have to deal with shame. BUT in the bigger scheme of things, events like this happen so often, it doesn’t really surprise anyone these days (I know too many stories of it happening left, right, centre). So I want you to know that it’s not shameful at all. Just so you know, I’m not judging. It’s just one of those things that happens.

Let me tell you a story… Every year during Chinese New Year, my cousin would bring his super hot girlfriend over. He got married eventually (I didn’t attend the wedding). The following Chinese New Year, he brought his wife and baby over. The wife looked very different. So I remarked to my mother how amazed I was that the lack of make-up could make someone look so incredibly different, since she didn’t look anything like the pretty person I remember in the years past. My mother then told me that that woman was a different one from the girl we had seen in the previous years. It was a shotgun marriage. Whoops!

Anyway… Accidents happen. Life happens. And we should just hold our heads high and learn to handle what life throws at us. That’s how we grow. In some cases, it’s lemons. In some cases, it’s a pregnancy.

Let me discuss some options to consider. It’s important you both make the decision together as a couple:

If you both are still unsure about having a future together, DO NOT rush into a marriage or force yourselves to raise the child together. It doesn’t end well. There are many single-parents because of reasons like this. And the one who has to suffer most is usually the mother as she will end up raising the child all on her own.

In such a situation, I personally would strongly recommend carrying the pregnancy to term and giving it up for adoption. There are so many couples in Singapore who try so hard to conceive but they can’t. They have a strong desire to have a child, but they are afflicted with the inability to conceive. That puts tremendous stress on them and it does strain their relationship. You have no idea how much good you can do for such couples, and you can use this as an opportunity to bring joy to another home. At least one great and wonderful good can come out of this incident. I really think this will be most worthwhile.

Fortunately, because of the pandemic, it’s going to be 100% e-learning for most modules this and next probably next semester. So you both can go through the pregnancy without attracting much attention.

Of course, if you both are sure you want to be together in marriage later on in life, then I think it’s worth thinking about keeping the baby. Don’t stress over the finances. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. You might initially meet with parental disapprovals, but usually when the baby comes, their attitudes will change. I must stress that this is the usual case. If you both have dysfunctional families, then it may make it more challenging to raise a child under such conditions.

Regardless, it can and will be tough having to juggle studies and a baby at the same time. BUT, I want you to know that it’s very possible to have a happy and functional family. I know a friend who had a shotgun marriage during their undergraduate days. They both graduated since and they are still happily married after 10+ years, with more kids added to the collection. What’s important for this to work out is to get wide social support. Not just from your immediate families, but from friends, and other older people. You’ll be surprised to discover how many supportive friends you’ll have in uni. And like I have said before, come talk to me if you need to. We can figure something out together. :)

The last option to consider will be the termination of the pregnancy. It seems like the easiest option to get out of a difficult situation. But there is a really high risk that your girlfriend will have to live with the guilt and emotional baggage of termination for the rest of her life. There is also the risk that her physical health/fertility may be compromised too (there’s always a risk with such procedures). Many people have gone through this without much thought, and it does come back to haunt them later in their lives. So I don’t like to recommend this as an option. And please don’t take this option lightly.

All options are difficult. There is no easy answer. Your parents will get upset for sure. But you will definitely discover that you will have many supportive friends who will help both of you out. Whatever is it, please don’t abandon your girlfriend when she needs you most right now. She needs you. So be there fore here.

And whatever it is, it’s important to make the decision together on what to do with the pregnancy. It is a joint responsibility.

If you need someone older to talk to, or if you need help getting the necessary social support or whatever, don’t be afraid to come talk to me. We’ll figure something out together.

Take care!

When is a good time to start doing level 3000 modules in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS)?

A student wrote to me, asking:

When is a good time to start doing level 3000 modules in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS)?

You can do it whenever you like!

I started doing level 3000 mods when I was in Year 1 Sem 2 (the module was PH3202 Philosophy of Law, if you’re wondering). But that’s me. The level of a module (1000, 2000, 3000, 4000) only indicates the depth of learning, and not the workload.

It is the modular credits (MCs) that determines the workload. 4MCs = 10 hours of work per week (includes time for lectures, tutorials, projects, and assignments).

If you belong to a small department, the depth of the module doesn’t matter too much because the lecturer will probably have to start from scratch, since they probably weren’t able to offer a level 2000 module in time (or train enough students in time) to have the fundamental understanding in place, ready for the level 3000 (or 4000) module.

But if you belong to a big department, the department may have the expectation that you need to clear some level 2000 mods first so that you have the fundamentals in place (since they would have the capacity to train enough students to be ready for the level 3000 module. In which case, the lecturer for the level 3000 module will assume that you already know these things.

To be safe, you should drop an e-mail to the module coordinator to ask about it.

One more thing to consider: You should enquire with your department about how regularly they offer certain modules. Some modules (level 3000 or 4000) are offered once in a long long time. So if you are really interested in it, you might want to consider taking it ASAP instead of waiting, because it may never be offered again during your undergraduate time.

I struggle in my studies. Does it mean that I’m not good enough?

A student wrote to me, asking:

I read that you were originally from the science stream but later chose to major in Philosophy. I share a very similar experience and I feel like I relate to you a lot! Are there times where you feel like you cannot match up to your peers in FASS who had taking humanities even before University? Do you feel that if you had pursued the arts stream, you wouldn’t have to struggle as much, maybe write essays easier?

Because that’s how I feel when I entered FASS. I always feel like I’m not good enough compared to other people in my major who seem to have more knowledge and background as compared to me. I find that I’m struggling and I sometimes question if I chose the right course.

Have you had such thoughts back as an undergraduate student? How did you overcome these kinds of thoughts?

I have had many moments where I feel I’m not artsy enough (and it still happens today). Sometimes I’ll be talking to friends, and they will get really excited and go deep into certain discussions that just fly past my face. These are on topics that I know absolutely nothing about! Or, as a student, I used to have peers and even juniors who always did better than me no matter how hard I worked.

So I want you to know that I totally understand how that feels.

I want to address the issue that underlies your question: if I struggle, does it mean that I’m bad at it?

This is a matter close to my heart because I really wished someone had told me about this when I was an undergraduate. It would have changed my perspective on so many things, and I wouldn’t have had to go through four years feeling that I’m not good enough.

We are our worst critics. And especially in FASS where there is no one right answer, there is plenty of room for self-doubt.

Struggling is part of the process of growth. You will struggle to make sense of the things you read, struggle to gain clarity about concepts, struggle to articulate your thoughts into an essay.

When I was an undergrad, I struggled for my four years, and I kept thinking that I was not good enough precisely because I struggled with writing essays. I felt quite miserable about myself. In fact, I felt so burnt out trying so hard that after I graduated, I told myself I didn’t want to go back to academia ever again because I was not cut out for it.

It was only years later when I got to talk to top academics (in the course of my work) that I learnt and understood that how much you struggle is NOT an accurate indicator of how bad you are. Struggling doesn’t mean that you’re not good enough. Everyone who’s good struggles!!!

Struggling is just the process by which we give birth to new ideas or insights. Struggle is the process by which we constantly challenge ourselves to grow. So I want you to know that struggling is a normal process. It means that you are on the right track, and that you are growing. Struggling means that you are on your way to becoming better. (And I really wished someone told me this when I was an undergrad, so that’s why I’m telling you this now)

You’ll struggle more in university than anywhere else because university is the probably the only time where your mind, your system of thinking, your values are constantly being challenged almost non-stop. The demands on your brain is like nothing you’ve ever experienced (or will have to experience after graduation). So of course you will struggle every step of the way (I’d be worried for you if you didn’t struggle at all).

I’ve since come to terms that struggling is normal, and I’m a lot more patient and kind to myself. I’ve come to learn that struggle makes me produce things that are awesome. Two days ago, I spent 4 hours struggling to write one paragraph of text describing my new course. I don’t like that it took 4 hours, but with that newfound insight I have, I don’t see it as a bad thing. And after 4 hours, I produced a paragraph I’m very proud of. And in fact, that short piece of writing opened up new doors of opportunities for me.

Every good piece of work is produced from struggle. I can name you all kinds of things that were produced because of struggles and the good that came out of it: my Masters dissertation, the two books I published, my lecture videos, etc. They were all the fruits of struggle, but look how far I’ve come with them.

I still struggle with these tasks, and even today, I continue to have moments in my struggle where I feel like I’m not good enough. So I do have to remind myself that it’s normal and that even the brightest academics go through it, and so it doesn’t mean that I’m bad. It’s just the process. And in the end, the work comes out great and people recognise me for that.

The point I want to make is this: struggle brings out the best in us. It doesn’t feel good, and you will always feel you’re not good enough.

So it’s very important to remind yourself that it’s normal, and as long as you endure and be kind and patient with yourself, you will rise victorious. Every work born out of struggle will be the best that you’ve created thus far. You may feel that you’re not good enough. But once you’re done struggling with your work, you have attained a new level of perfection in yourself. :)

Are polytechnic graduates inferior to junior college graduates in University?

A student wrote to me:

I’m curious about your opinion of polytechnic graduates entering university. I am a student who came from poly and I have experienced (to quite a great extent) the discrimination towards undergrads who didn’t follow the cookie-cutter local education route. I even had a tutor who looked down on us in class. Are we really that inferior? Sometimes it feels like we are just tokens of inclusive education that the University tries to promote. And sometimes it feels like we need to try so much harder just to prove that we’re just as deserving or as good as the rest :(

I have the greatest respect for polytechnic graduates studying in University. In general, the students that amaze me most with their independent learning, boldness to try new things, and overall great people skills are the ones who come from poly. (That said, the impressive students from junior colleges amaze me in very different ways. The different educational routes have trained you to be good in very different things, and so the two are really incommensurable – not comparable at all.)

Let me address the real issue at heart here: Petty people exist anywhere and everywhere and they are driven by insecurity to want to make the minority look bad. They will find some arbitrary factor to class you as the “other” in their “us-versus-them” narrative, and so use that to look down on you. 

If you were surrounded by only polytechnic graduates, statistically, some of them will be petty people too, and they will use some other arbitrary factor, like secondary school, or the course of study in poly, or something lame as that, to use as a reason to put you down.

Don’t let them get to your heads. Every time you come across such petty people, remind yourself that you must strive to be better than them. Nothing pisses petty people off more than seeing their target victim unaffected by their words. So deny them that pleasure by being totally chill about it. If you can make a joke out of it and get them to laugh with you, you might win them over.

Anyway, because you didn’t go through the cookie-cutter route, you have so much to contribute and share with by virtue of your background. You have no idea how much of a difference you can make by sharing your experience and ideas. Just opening your mouth to let them hear a different perspective is itself very refreshing and eye-opening.

So don’t buy into that sad narrative that you’re just a token. No, don’t let them break you. You have so much to contribute and share with your peers. And the fact that you made it to Uni through the much tougher route makes you really incredible to have persevered and come this far. 

So stay amazing, stay awesome!

When do you think is a good time to get into relationships?

A student asked:

When do you think is a good time to get into relationships?

It’s your life. So go into it whenever you feel you’re ready to handle it.

If you think you concentrate better in your studies by not being in a relationship, that’s fine. That said, I don’t like how some parents force their children to refrain from relationships until after graduation. It’s not healthy or productive to control these kinds of things.

However, you must understand the risks involved when it comes to your choices on when to start relationships.

University is a great time because you have many opportunities to meet new people, and to hang out with them. You will not be able to interact with people the same way in the working world as you would in school. BUT, it can distract you from your studies, and you may not realise your full potential in your studies.

One possible road bump you may encounter is when you both transition from school to work. The lifestyle change will affect how both of you will be able to interact. Most can handle the change. Some can’t. So it’s very important to handle the transition carefully. Remember: open and honest communication is important.

So proceed with caution and try not to forget that you still are a student with readings and assignments to handle.

If you want to start a relationship after graduation, that’s fine too. Though, you should be aware that it can be really hard (not impossible, just harder) to find a potential partner after graduation. Work is the one place where you’ll spend most of your waking moments at. As it is, most of the people at work are already attached or married. And for some people, it’s weird to date people from the same organisation/office for a variety of reasons. And because you spend most of your time at work, you have fewer opportunities to meet new people. You will need to make great effort on your part to join interest groups and other activities to meet new people and make more friends. Like I said, it’s not impossible, just harder.

Dating apps aren’t that great. I’ve heard more horror stories than good ones. Though I do know of a handful of success cases that have led to marriage. Let me share a funny story. I have on several occasions witnessed people date strangers they met on dating apps. I don’t know why, but it tends to be the case that they’ll sit at the table right next to me when I’m having dinner (yes, I’m very nosey). The interactions are so cringeworthy. It always feels like an insurance agent and a potential client meeting for the first time. It has the same awkwardness (if not more), and they ask the same kinds of questions that insurance agents typically ask: How many people in your family? What do you do? What did you study? How is work? Do you want children? Have you bought any insurance lately? (I kid!)

If you’re going to meet someone on a first date (from a dating app), don’t do it over a meal. It just increases the anxiety levels, and all of that person’s attention is focused entirely on you and what you say and how you say it. So stressful! You’ll just end up talking like an insurance agent (as I have observed over many dinners I’ve had outside). Frankly, it won’t be a memorable experience.

Here’s my advice… Skip the meal. Meet up, and go do some activity where both of you are shit at it, like those art jamming studios, or pottery class, or cooking class, or something like that. Just make sure both of you are bad at it, so you both won’t feel stressed that you have to make something of the same standard as the other. This way, part of your attention is focused on the activity and you’ll both feel a lot more relaxed. Plus, it’ll be a more memorable experience. (And then go have your meal – you’ll have something fun to talk about over dinner. You’re welcome!)

Regardless of when you want to enter into a relationship, just remember one important rule: don’t be desperate. Desperation can make you do stupid things that repel people. And when you get super desperate, you end up doing things that you may regret, like marrying the first person who decided to date you. I know people who did that. They got engaged in less than a year (that’s pretty fast), and they never really appear happy about their marriage when we talk about it.

Moral of the story: Don’t rush. Don’t be desperate. Good things – good partners too – come to those who wait.

How do you respond to annoying relatives who look down on you when you tell them you’re studying in the Arts and Social Sciences?

A student wrote to me, asking:

How do you respond to annoying relatives who look down on you when you tell them you’re studying in the Arts and Social Sciences? I’m so annoyed!

Here is some advice that will give you the satisfaction of winning, but there is a high risk that you’ll get permanently banned from their homes and lives. If you happily desire this outcome, you can try this:

(1) Ask what he/she studied back in school.

(2) Next, ask why he/she isn’t even successful in life, or haven’t been promoted, or still stagnating at work, or haven’t made it rich, or haven’t made a difference in this world.

(3) Once he/she is stunned by the question, recite any one of the following quotable quotes:

  • “As a dog returns to his own vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11, if you wish to cast upon them a sacred BUUUURRRN!!!)

    OR:
  • “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” (Albert Einstein, supposedly)

(4) Enjoy watching them catch fire. LOL :D

Otherwise, if you so desire to maintain harmonious relations with them, I recommend following the advice I wrote here:

What do I say to people who ask me, “What do you want to do in the future?”

How does one become an undergraduate Research Assistant?

A student asked:

How does one become an undergraduate Research Assistant? It feels like many professors want students with prior research experience or at least some relevant experience. I’m not sure what I have to offer other than the same skills that every other student have.

It’s not always true that profs want students with prior research/relevant experience. What’s more important is that you are willing to work hard for it, and you are willing to learn. Minimally, you should have the following:

  • Good relations with the prof whom you wish to work with
  • Same interest in the prof’s area of research
  • Willing to learn new things beyond your existing skill sets
  • Willing to work very hard even if the tasks are boring (a lot of research tasks are boring mundane tasks)
  • And if you were the prof’s student, at least an A for that module.

Personally, I prefer working with people who are more proactive in updating me or finding additional things to do. Because I tend to be very busy with my own work, and don’t always have time to think about what work to assign. I believe many other professors also value this quality (it’s also a very good quality to have for the working world – your superiors will also be too busy with their work, so they would appreciate this kind of proactiveness).

If you believe you have these, go and talk to the prof about it. But be warned that not all profs have a budget to hire RAs. So even if you are good, and the prof wants you, he may not have the funds available to take you on board. In some cases, some students are sooooooo outstanding, the prof may be willing to recommend you to another prof to be an RA.

There are other research institutions outside NUS with profs from the arts and social sciences. Don’t be afraid to cast your net wider beyond NUS.

Is it normal to feel so lost when taking a new module?

Last night, a student wrote to me, asking:

Whenever I take a new module, I feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t know much about what is going on, whereas the people around me seem so relax that they’re constantly using their phones in class. Is it normal to feel so lost and have all these struggles when taking a new module?

If you have watched Japanese anime about school life, you might have come across one stereotypical character that pretends to be all relaxed and chill about studies (yet scores very highly for exams), but actually works incredibly hard at home. And then there’s another stereotypical character who’s quite slack in school, and quite slack at home. Statistically speaking, you will find these kinds of students regardless of what module you take.

I do suspect that many students are more like the first stereotypical anime student. Many students only start working on their modules very late at night. I know this because I was once a student. Night time is when everyone (pretends) to be asleep, and so you finally have the time and space to focus on things requiring high concentration. Also, my students typically message me for help after 10pm every night. So I know that most students only do work from that time onwards.

A typical undergraduate schedule looks pretty much like this:

Morning: Wake up; rush readings before class; attend classes

Afternoon: Meet friends; attend classes; chill out in a cafe; look at memes or watch videos instead of doing work

Evening: Eat dinner; play games; watch Netflix/YouTube; chit chat with friends; part-time work (if any)

Night (10pm – 2am): Actually doing school work

Go ahead. Ask your friends! Many will tell you their schedule is pretty similar to the one I described above. Haha!

Anyway, the point in highlighting this is that it’s because of students’ typical work habits that we sometimes feel that we’re the only one who’s lost and struggling in the module. That said, there are also other students who feel that way, but they have a very good poker face. Or sometimes, we’re just so deep in our anxieties that we don’t realise other people are also feeling just as lost as we are.

I want to assure you that it’s pretty normal. You’re not alone, and what you feel is very VERY normal. I used to feel that way too when I was an undergraduate student. And it was only when I started to befriend people in my lecture/tutorial and when we started to complain about our school work, did we realise that we weren’t struggling alone. And it’s nice to struggle together with friends. It’s what educators refer to as a “community of learning.”

Of course, it’s never good to remain lost and struggling for the entire semester. So there are some things you can do about it! You can write to your professors and ask them for the course reading list in advance. That way, you can begin your readings early. Or you could just go to the library and read several books related to the module you intend to take.

One thing I like to do is I like to read a lot of secondary literature about the topic, instead of merely reading the primary literature about it (which tends to be the assigned readings in classes). I usually grapple with interpreting the primary literature, and so sometimes I doubt my own reading of it. You can find major interpretations of the topic in the secondary literature and debates about the topic itself, which I find very eye opening.

If you are willing, it helps to start a conversation with your professors about the subject itself and ask for recommendations on things to read (or watch or do).

Anyway, having to struggle with yourself is a normal experience in University. The struggle exists because you are being challenged to grow and develop in your thinking. If you aren’t struggling, you are doing something wrong. But if you find yourself struggling far more than you can handle (mentally/emotionally/physically), then you should talk to someone about it.

Anyway, I think I’m getting long-winded about this. The point really is that your experience is very normal. The key message is this: you’re not alone. A lot of people go through what you experienced (myself included), so reach out to them and make more friends along the way. :)

Are there things undergraduates should know or appreciate more?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Are there things undergraduates should know or appreciate more?

Oh, there are so many things I wish to say in response to this question, but I’ll just focus on one major point.

Many undergraduates don’t understand the point of a university education. The degree is not meant to train you to work for in a specific job or a class of jobs. And when you think about it, isn’t it absurd that people expect you to know what you want to do with your life as such a young age? You haven’t even acquired enough information or experience to make a well-informed decision about the matter!

The truth is that most of us will graduate and work in jobs that have almost zero relevance to what we studied. And you won’t be disappointing your professors – we know this to be a fact of life.

Why? Because, as I said earlier, the whole point of a university education is not to train you to work in a specific job (or class of jobs). Rather, the point of a university education is to develop you holistically as a matured and responsible adult, one with ideals and vision so that you can lead and manage other people to make the world a better place.

It’s sad that many students don’t understand this lofty vision of university education and instead see it as training to become just a mundane worker in someone’s organisation, another cog in the corporate machine, so to speak. That’s sad!

So you must be wondering, what are universities doing to develop you into that amazing person?

(1) Your programme is designed to teach you a set of problem-solving skills. Different disciplines will analyse problems different, and conceptualise solutions very differently too. This is something that is often taught and reinforced by subtly in the 3 or 4 years of undergraduate studies. We often don’t realise this until we talk to people from different disciplines and discover that the way we think about problems is very different. That’s the result of the education you received.

(2) Your programme is designed to broaden your perspective so that you appreciate not only the endless possibilities that exists, but to try and connect ideas that seem so separate and unrelated to create new ideas and innovations. You cannot create something out of nothing. Those 3 or 4 years of undergraduate life is meant to fill you with all kinds of interesting and amazing ideas – maybe even ideas that excite you – and you are often encouraged to critique and even synthesise these ideas. The reason is that the training is meant to prepare you for the future where you can then synthesise these ideas to create exciting new possibilities for yourself and other people. Beyond academic studies, this also includes other programmes like exchange programmes, internships, living/working on campus, and other initiatives. Just being exposed to a variety of situations is already perspective-broadening in itself.

(3) You are also being trained to challenge the status quo and to defend your own position in a rational and systematic manner. This is not just in the form of written assignments, but also in the form of presentations and seminar discussions. Take the discourses you find online. A lot of them may attempt to challenge the status quo, but the discourse is often unproductive (and maybe even toxic). We cannot advance or make a real change in society if we employ such unenlightened methods at work, or on a societal level. A university education trains you to do this well according to how your discipline does it best, and again, in a very subtle way that most students don’t realise is happening.

(4) To get anywhere and to make real change in this world, we must know how to interact and work with other people. This is where the University creates a multitude of opportunities for you to explore and acquire the critical people skills to do this. Whether it is in the form of group projects, clubs and societies, residential college/hall life, or other student-led initiatives. Unlike secondary school or JC, you are given lots of free time to hang around on campus with other students. Because the informal kinds of interactions, like chatting with friends about studies or work or life, or just getting together to play – these are all essential to your development and growth as a team leader and team player. You learn to manage people from diverse backgrounds in the process.

There’s more to say, but I wish to highlight these four areas. I find that because many students don’t understand the point of their university education, they take these aspects of their student life for granted. If you want to grow up to be a highly respected and influential leader, then you must know how to take advantage of the opportunities that a university education presents you to help you develop these aspects of your being. Otherwise, these will be missed opportunities for your own personal and professional development.

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.

I don’t have any friends in my major. Is it good for me to stay this way or should I change and try to befriend people?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Is it okay to spend the rest of my school days lonely, studying, and taking classes alone? I saw your previous answer on loneliness, and yes, I see why you will be more or less “lonely” because you’re taking on various challenges and more of them are research work/publishing books.

However, for me, I’m still a student in NUS. And I still have a few more years to go. Yet, I don’t have any friends in my major. (I do have friends in FASS, just none in my major) I really don’t have anyone to go to when I need help (I go to profs instead) is it good for me to stay this way or should I change and try to befriend people?

Here’s my reply:

Hello, I think it’s not healthy to spend the rest of your school days lonely and taking classes alone. It’s not good for your mental/emotional health.

It’s very important to recognise that learning is a social activity. A lot of learning takes place when you’re talking to your friends about the stuff you’re learning outside the classroom (and that is the whole point of university – to give you all that time and space to do that).

I’m usually the quiet kid who sits at the corner all the way at the back in class. I didn’t make friends until my second year when I finally decided to just say hello to the people sitting on my left and right at lectures. Was it awkward? Yeah! It was so freaking awkward! But you know what? We had lots of fun, and we started hanging out a lot more. Many of us are still in contact with each other after graduation.

It’s important to remember that everyone around you wants to make friends but are just as shy to do it. If you read the stuff that’s on Reddit/NUSWhispers, you’d realise how many people are in your shoes, lonely and have no friends. So be the brave one and say hi. They’d appreciate this kind gesture.

The friendship you make in university will last for a long time, and many of these friendships will prove useful when you go out to work.

My recommendation is to make friends with people of all ages, and not just people in your age group. Make sure you have at least one friend in each age group. The multiple perspectives will help you easily identify the bullshit that circulates within our own age group. (E.g. if you don’t do X, you will not me employable, etc…) To quote a friend: “Humans are vessels of experience.” That’s her reason for wanting to befriend everyone.

For some strange reason, I have a number of people I regard as friends from age 70-100. It’s very fun talking to them, learning the kinds of insights that they have, and of course, having them as important role models. Somehow, our generation doesn’t give these bunch of people enough credence. There is so much to learn from their stories, from their successes, to their failures, to their (mis)adventures in life.

What differentiates A+/A students from the rest, especially in your module?

A student wrote to me:

What differentiates A+/A students from the rest, especially in your module?

Here’s my answer!

It’s a bit hard to tell the difference between A+, A, and A-. So I’ll just make a distinction between A+/A and the rest. From my observations in teaching GET1050 for one year, I can say that IN GENERAL (remember: this is just a generalisation based on my observations) A+/A students in FASS exhibit very distinct personal qualities and work attitude/habits that are a class apart from the the others.

Here’s a list of some common traits that stand out to me (this list is not exhaustive – also, if you want to improve in your grades and as a person, it’s good to adopt some of these traits):

(1) They pay attention to detail. They carefully read every word that written by their profs/tutors and they are not afraid to ask and clarify when in doubt.

(2) They make it a point to actively engage with the content they are learning. They aren’t just blindly following examples laid out in lectures/tutorials. They are actually trying to understand and internalise what they are learning.

(3) And because they are actively trying to understand and internalise their learning, they are able to ask very high level questions that take their learning even further.

(4) They regularly doubt themselves and this provides them with a self-checking mechanism to identify when they might be wrong about their understanding or about their methods. These students can at least zoom in on their doubts. This is distinct from “kiasu” students who consult their profs/tutors because they want to “check” that their work is ok because they have a vague sense of uncertainty.

(5) They are very independent learners and will search for answers themselves. Another key distinction is that they aren’t just seeking answers to assessment questions just to get the marks. They are seeking answer to their doubts!

(6) These students are willing to work very hard and pour in additional hours of hard work just to make sure they get things right because they take pride in their work. One key difference that makes them stand out from the other students is that they are working smart as they work hard, they’re not just blindly wasting hours away in an unstrategic manner.

(7) They don’t shy away from a challenge, in fact, many of them enjoy a good challenge.

(8) Essentially, they have a very positive working attitude that has led them to develop these good work habits. They take ownership and responsibility for their learning.

A+/A students stand out from as early as Week 2 of the semester. It’s because they spend so many hours thinking about what they learnt, that they are able to ask questions that are a class apart from the kinds of questions other students ask. And you can tell that they spent many hours thinking about the issues because many of the things they consult me on cannot be easily arrived at just by watching the lecture videos alone: these question came from their reflections, experimentations, or attempts to apply their learning to other things.

Is it a norm for students to be close to their profs?

A student asked:

Is it a norm for students to be close to their profs? Over the past 2 years, I’ve realised that many things (internship, planning of mods, exchange, thesis) seem to require talking to a prof in your own department. Ideally, the student should have good rapport with the prof. However, I was thinking then what if I’m a super introverted person? Wouldn’t the student have no one to look for? Wanted to know this because it feels like I’m the only one who can’t find a prof from my dept to seek advice for when I need it and I really struggle a lot with this

So here’s what I wrote:

It’s actually not a norm here in Singapore (but it is very common everywhere else in the world). I think it’s important to see this as a challenge to develop yourself socially and professionally, even as an introvert. Because the unfortunate reality is that we live in an extrovert-dominant world, and we introverts have to learn how to adapt. It’s difficult for sure, but it’s essential to our learning and growth because like it or not, you’ll have to do stuff like this in the future when you work. Now, the good news is that a lot of profs are also very introverted, so they’ll be quite at home with you and your way of interaction. So don’t fret about it.

I highly recommend the book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain (https://www.amazon.sg/Quiet-Power-Introverts-World-Talking/dp/0307352153). It’s very empowering for introverts like us. Don’t see your introversion as a weakness, but as something unique and powerful to offer to this heavily extroverted world. :)

What are some tips to do well in exams?

A student asked:

What are some tips to do well in exams?

Here’s my reply:

If your exam is essay-based, then my advice will be the same when it comes to writing term papers: if you aren’t consistently getting As for your essays, go learn from your profs what’s missing in your writing.

From my observations, the common mistakes FASS students typically make are:

(1) Didn’t make a clear argument to prove your point (a lot of students don’t even know how to argue/justify, they just throw points out as if they mean something without actually making the effort to demonstrate how it proves your point). And please, don’t write using the GP writing style that you learnt in JC. Most GP teachers teach students how to score for GP at A levels, not how to write properly.

(2) Didn’t show that you exercised critical thinking in your own writing. You might have done the work behind the scenes, but you need to show it if you want to be graded for it. The key is: you should consider how you might be wrong and demonstrate why that’s not the case. Very few students actually even consider that they could be wrong, so they don’t do that.

(3) Oversimplification of concepts or situations. The key about being an arts and social science major is all about being able to appreciate and identify the different subtle varieties of things. for example, the subtle differences in how different states conceive of democracy. A lot of students fail to see these subtleties and discuss these issues with gross oversimplifications. If you make this mistake, you would have shown the grader that you totally missed the learning objectives of the course completely.

One more comment… In general, students don’t get the grades they want because they neglect tutorial participation. In most modules, that’s like 10-20% of the total grade. That can make a huge difference from a B to an A! And students throw that away by staying silent or not participating fully in the activities, or skipping classes without a valid excuse or bothering to do a make-up class.

Hope that helps!

What advice would you give to your students? (About Studies)

One of my former students recently asked:

What advice would you give to your students?

I have plenty of advice that I’d like to give. But to keep it short, I’ll just state two advice that relates to one’s studies:

1. Learn from your mistakes in order to improve

Many students have the wrong idea that the more effort you put in, the better your grades. That is not true. Correlation is not causation. Grades are a measure of how well you have met the learning objectives of the course. In FASS, one of the underlying objectives is the ability to think critically (whatever that means for each discipline). If you are consistently not scoring an A for your assignments, it means that you are consistently doing something wrong with your assignments.

Many students don’t realise this because they keep thinking that they are victims of the bell-curve. That’s usually not the case, and that is really a very unproductive mindset. Because as long as you keep seeing yourself as a victim, you don’t see a need to improve.

So if you want to know what you are doing wrong despite your best efforts, talk to your profs and ask them to explain how you can do better. In my undergraduate days, I started out as a B+ student. In my second year, I had the courage to finally ask one of my professors what was missing in my essays. And he patiently explained what I wasn’t showing, and what I needed to do. After that consult, I scored As consistently for all my essays. That conversation brought to light that what I thought was critical thinking was not critical enough.

2. Good Work Attitude and Good Work Habits are Important

Our attitudes influence our habits, and vice versa. Some students like to think that school is school, work is work, and life is life. But that’s not true. The work habits you develop now in University will be the same work habits you have after you graduate, and these work habits will affect your relationships with coworkers and your marriage/family.

In my 3.5 years of teaching in NUS, I’ve observed many students short-changing themselves (and their grades) by not doing simple things like carefully reading e-mails, or actively checking up information on IVLE/Luminus. I once had a student complain bitterly about missing a deadline. When I asked her why she didn’t read my e-mail reminders, she replied that she would just delete e-mails that come from me. She didn’t think anything I wrote was important anyway. (WTH right?!)

This is an extreme case, but a vast majority of students lose marks unnecessarily here and there because of things like this. They didn’t read the question properly, they didn’t follow instructions carefully, or they didn’t read the rubrics on how they are graded for tutorials or for specific assignments.

Anyway, small things like not reading things properly, or not actively checking up things on your own – they do leave a bad impression on others, and will continue to undermine your career in the future. The habits we develop now will last even when we go on to work.

Habits don’t just come from nowhere. They come from our attitudes. We all value work differently. But if we have a very negative perception about work, then that influences us to be negligent in the things we do (and that becomes a habit).

So try your best to see work more positively. Work, even school work, is an opportunity for you to leave an imprint – a mark – of yourself on the people and things around you. Work is transformative. And if you’re doing the work with a positive mindset and reflectively, it changes you for the better.