Thoughts on getting a degree

Recently, there has been some discussion after some ministers commented that Singaporeans do not need to have a degree in order to be successful. At home, there was also some discussion at our family dinner table. I listened with some interest but did not give it much thought as to me I understood what the minister was trying to say – that it is possible for one to have a successful career in Singapore without a degree and having a degree does not guarantee success. And, I do agree with that.

Last week, after a conversation with a colleague over a lunch meeting, I felt myself being challenged in my beliefs concerning having a degree. She was sharing with us about her eldest son who just started his career as a chef. He did his A levels and did not go on to get a degree even though he could. He wanted to pursue his dream of being a chef. She shared that initially, her husband was appalled of the idea that their son is not going to the university and against it. However, she supported him. He was interested in a degree in culinary skills offered by SIT, however, one of the criteria is that work experience is required. Hence, he started work as a kitchen help, and he showed much potential and was given many opportunities. Currently, he is given the opportunity to assist at a Michelin star restaurant and has abandoned the plan of taking the degree in SIT as he is doing well and need not go that path.

In today’s context, the idea that your child does not have a degree or at least a diploma would not sit well with many parents. In the course of counselling students, I often have students express sadness that they have interests like art/writing novels/music which their parents do not really support. As a hobby or CCA, yes but more than that …. a degree takes precedence. Hence, I was actually in admiration that my colleague actually supported her child to pursue his dreams even though it meant he would not take the conventional degree/diploma route. She said that she saw how since young, he was very interested in cooking and baking and would come up with interesting dishes for the family. Once, he baked a cheesecake which her colleagues loved and raved about. And as it turns out, he is doing well now …..well on his way to becoming someone accomplished in his field and happy doing what he loves.

I wondered what my response would have been if I was in her position. And to be honest, I am not sure. As parents, all of us want our children to do well in school. I realised that I still place a great amount of security in taking the conventional route. There is some sense of security in having paper qualification. My response I figure would be closer to that of her husband, though I will eventually be won over if I see that my child is really passionate, knows what he is doing and has a plan.

I also thought about this in relation to my job as a counsellor. Career counselling is something I find fascinating and empowering. Finding a good career match – a job that suits your interests/strengths/values/personality is so much linked to our destiny. Doing what we enjoy, do best and functioning effectively. Yet, often, it is a journey of self-discovery and sometimes, it takes time to explore and find out what we are good at and what we like to do.

I feel that the essence of it should not be chasing paper qualifications for the sake of doing so but that paper qualifications are just a stepping stone, which may or may not be necessary depending on one’s career goals. Definitely, I see much value in education and in getting a degree and would encourage every child/student to study as much as he is able to. In fact, I am also for post-graduate studies in the spirit of lifelong learning. I enjoyed my university days immensely – it was a time of great intellectual stimulation. I am not really that smart and I often thank the Lord for His goodness towards me, how he allowed me to pursue my university education.

Through education, our mental faculties are stretched and we pick up important skills which prepare us for our future vocation so one extent or another. Through education, many doors of opportunities are opened as well. Education must not become merely a pursuit of  paper qualification. Pragmatism does dictate that we need some sort of paper qualification to get a job, but paper qualification must not be an end in itself. If getting a degree or doing post-graduate studies help in our self-development and career advancement, why not? If it is not necessary for us to achieve success in our field, no need to get one for the sake of getting.