Whose choice is it anyway?

This article was first published in 2015 as a part of my contribution as a working committee member of Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce’s Newsletter Publication Committee. As I am not sure of the reach of the newsletter, I am publishing this article on my blog to benefit more of my readers.

I still get calls or Whatsapp messages a few times a year from friends and acquaintances asking for advice on how they can impose their choice of tertiary studies on their offspring or which field of studies is “hot”. My favourite response, “It’s their future, let your kids chase their dreams. By all means, influence their choices but let’s not force them to live YOUR dreams!”

I published a related article on this area in late December 2014 citing an article I wrote for the now defunct The Heat (but the online version is still alive).

A survey carried out and published by Penang Han Chiang College on over 300 college-going-age students in early 2015  confirmed two important trends in Malaysia. When it comes to the choice of study and choice of college for high school students: (a) Parents are often the decision makers; (b) Students want to decide for themselves. One will wonder why these two trends are at a tangent to each other.

Parents in Asia, including those in Malaysia are very concerned with their offspring’s education. While Malaysian parents usually make pretty straightforward choices concerning primary and high school education, the same cannot be said about the tertiary education level. High school graduates and more importantly their parents are faced with more and more tertiary education choices and an information explosion that compounded the issue. While the bulk of the high school graduates want to decide on their choice of study and college, many, because of deep-rooted Asian upbringing differ to their parents’ wishes.

“I want him/her to study medicine/law/engineering etc.” is a common phrase one will hear from fellow parents with teenage children. In many cases parents think that they know best without learning about their child’s aptitude for the field of study and the child’s preference for a particular college. They also have the wrong impression that one must take up a career in the field of one’s undergraduate studies. This article gives four real life examples (though only the real name of this author is given!) of university graduates not taking up a career in their fields of study and making a success (or in this author’s case, a good career)  in what they do.

My Story

I studied agriculture at Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland and moved on to read Biotechnology for my Master’s degree culminating with a PhD in plant tissue culture. As yet, I have never farmed after my undergraduate studies. I have also not worked as a plant tissue culture scientist for close to 20 years after my stints at the National University of Singapore and later in a commercial plant tissue culture laboratory.

Instead, since 1996, I have been serving in the education and training industry at diverse capacities, allowing me to learn enough to be hired as the CEO and Principal of a private not-for-profit college (in 2015), working to upgrade it to be a university college. However, my three university degrees are not “wasted” as they allow me to pick up more knowledge and skills and prepare me to take on many difficult tasks. When I first started to work as a lecturer in Klang, Selangor, I had to call upon what I learned in “Farm Management, Planning, and Control” to provide tutorials to a group of engineering students on a twinning degree programme with the University of Adelaide, Australia in  a subject on project management. The “Business Policy” subject  I learned during my Master’s degree became very handy when I served as the Director of Special Projects for a publicly-listed education group where I often had to churn out full business proposals complete with financial details to bid for funding or “sell” to prospective business partners. The six months of 12-hour day writing my Ph.D. thesis forced me to pick up writing skills which allowed me to serve as a columnist and feature writer for the weekly publications, Focus Malaysia and The Heat recently. I think ‘education not wasted’ is a good way to describe my experiences in utilising what I learned at college!

ML’s Story

While at university, ML and I became very good friends. In fact, I stayed at ML’s house for almost two years when I was completing my Ph.D. studies. ML was trained as a surgeon and in 1988, he bought his first second-hand personal computer and asked me to teach him how to use it (I, being a scientist was always curious and was already a self-taught advanced user by then). ML also used to take things apart, fixed them and put these back together to work better. ML and I once spent a few days working in the pit of the garage of Belfast’s Malaysian Centre where he and I took apart the engine of his car, sent it for repair and put it back together (with me providing just the muscle as I was not into cars). Towards the end of 1990, ML got a job in Singapore, working for an international computer hardware & software company as its medical system specialist.  He came from nothing to an expert in a medical computing system in less than 18 months! He went on to form his own IT system company a few years later, but sold it when it was at its peak, finding his first pot of gold. Despite the bursting of the “dot-com” bubble in the early 1990s, ML founded the first share discussion platform in Singapore and built it to be the talk of the town, eventually selling it to a large publication house in Singapore. This medical doctor friend of mine retired at the age of 48. He had not practiced as a medical doctor for about 20 years, yet I think, like me, he made use of all the knowledge and skills he had picked up at medical school and from his many hobbies and applied these to his best advantage.
[Sadly, my good friend of 34 years, ML passed on on Feb 12, 2016, RIP.]

SB’s Story

I first met SB when she was a Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam (JPA – Malaysia’s Public Service Department) scholar who was sent to my university. SB was very popular, smart, and networked readily with her peers. She earned her degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering with ease. Our paths crossed again in the early 1990s when I was working in Singapore and she was then working as an electrical and electronic engineer. We met up again in the late 1990s in the Klang Valley when I learned that SB was doing well as an investment adviser handling her clients’ mutual fund portfolio. Naturally, I became SB’s client and I must say, I have not been disappointed with her professionalism and sound advice. Today, SB is very established in her business which brings her tremendous financial freedom. I think if she had stayed as an engineer she would not have attained her wealth so quickly. SB made use of her knowledge as an engineer to quickly became adept at financial investments to provide good advice to her clients. I was once told by a financial analyst that the best people to pick up financial analytical skills are those with engineering degrees as they know how to apply their mathematics knowledge easily. I think SB provides the classic example for this!

MP’s Story

MP was heavily pregnant when I first met her while I was working as the head of a department at a private college in 2001. She was very friendly and humble. I allowed her the 5-minute sale pitch that I would entertain sales people whose disposition earns my attention. She was at the right place at the right time as I was looking for some medical insurance for myself and my family. I soon learned that MP graduated from a local public university as an electrical engineer. Like SB, she did not pursue a career in engineering. MP gives great professional service and was willing to service my life insurance policies bought from another company. She also looked after my family’s general insurance needs. Naturally, not only my family but my sister-in-law also became her client. When my sister-in-law needed to file for her medical insurance claims, MP was fast and efficient in her service resulting in a quick settlement of the claims. One day, during one of MP’s routine visits to my home, I asked her why she did not pursue a career in engineering. I was not surprised by her answer: she wanted flexibility and a way to build up a business. Like SB, the technical training as an engineer made it relatively easy for MP to pick up the new skills and knowledge needed to be an effective professional investment advisor in the insurance sector.

You are what you make out of your knowledge

‘You are what you make out of your knowledge’ is perhaps the most appropriate way to describe why in the four real life examples above the people concerned did not follow the paths of their undergraduate studies when it comes to a career. So if you are the parent of teenagers, you should perhaps sit back and hear out what tertiary study plans that your offspring have. Your job is not to dictate which field of study your child should take. People of Generation Y are a lot more independent-minded and they have access to multiple channels to information relating to tertiary study options. As parents, you must try to draw out from your teenage offspring his/her real interests. You can influence them by providing sound advice while at the same time take their views into consideration. Parents should not impose their view forcefully upon their offspring. I have personally witnessed a few examples while I was at university of friends struggling to cope with their studies due to the lack of aptitude and interest. Give your child the benefit of thinking about his/her future “under their own steam” i.e. without you putting words in their mouths.

In my own experience, my son was able to decide on his choice of studies pretty fast when he was studying for his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM is a public examination taken by high school students in Malaysia before graduation) and is now on the verge of completing his studies in Finance at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA. My 16-year-old daughter’s tertiary education desire (now completing her SPM examination) was a bit more challenging for us to discover. But through many sessions of discussions and our sharing of our views and knowledge about different professions, my wife and I finally found out what she wanted to study recently. She was taking selfies as a child with my camera (and later my mobile phone) long before the word “selfie” was invented. Naturally, she hopes to pursue her studies along the videography and allied field!

Whichever the study options my children choose for their tertiary education, I am not sure these would be their career paths in the future. What I know for sure is, if they have inherited the combined wisdom of my wife and I, they would be using the knowledge and skills that they have gained at college to strive out a career for themselves in whichever fields that they so desire. Our job as parents is simple, to provide our children with our RINGGIT and support them with our SPIRITS.

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