Getting Ready for the Workplace (I) – Internships

For the majority of NUS students, the NUS educational journey is your final full-time educational pursuit before stepping into the working world. Our NUS degree programmes are designed to equip students with the breadth and depth of knowledge and skills for our graduates to embark on their careers. A robust disciplinary curriculum coupled with solid foundational training in the general skills of numeracy, reasoning, critical thinking, communication, personal and interpersonal effectiveness, will go a long way in equipping our graduates for their future jobs.

Beyond all that can be taught and learnt in an intellectually stimulating campus environment, it is not an exaggeration to say that there is no better way of learning about the working world, than by experiencing it first-hand. Several of our degree programmes have had integrated internships or workplace immersion programmes as part of their degree requirements for quite some time now, and with much success. Others, such as the Faculty of Engineering and School of Computing, have introduced internships for all students from the AY2014/15 cohort.

Given the learning value of internships or workplace immersion programmes, we can expect that internships will feature more prominently as part of the NUS education offering. For degree programmes with compulsory internship requirements, Departments will work closely with industry partners to design and curate workplace immersion programmes that integrate learning with training and workplace needs. Let me highlight a few examples.

In Medicine, throughout their undergraduate education, students have multiple opportunities to be fully integrated into existing healthcare teams in a clinical setting, and they learn from the teams they are attached to. Medicine students will undertake clinical rotations in Year 3 and 4, and this is considered a form of internship.

In Year 5, all final year students will go through the Student Internship Programme (SIP) as part of the course work for the MBBS programme, under which they are placed with different healthcare institutions in Singapore. The SIP comprises medicine and surgery tracks, and every student is required to complete postings in both tracks. The duration of each SIP attachment could vary from 2 to 8 weeks.

During the SIP attachments, students would be assessed on attributes such as their clinical skills, professionalism, as well as the ability to work in a team, communicate with patients and kin, and function within a healthcare institution.

At Pharmacy, all undergraduates read Professional Skills Development modules; these are practice-based, and aim to help students develop essential clinical and patient management skills. Students are assessed based on their achievement of competency in the relevant skill set. These modules will prepare them for the Pharmacy Internship and Final Year Project (FYP) in their final year of study. Year 4 students will go through two 12-week rotations in Community Care (e.g. Guardian, Unity, Watsons), and Indirect Patient Care (e.g. pharmaceutical companies, public sector regulatory bodies such as Health Sciences Authority) or Ambulatory Care (such as at community hospitals, polyclinic pharmacies). The satisfactory completion of the 24 weeks of internship can count towards the 12-month pre-registration training required by the Singapore Pharmacy Council to qualify to be a licensed pharmacist.

Apart from professional or specialised degree courses, general degree programmes are also increasingly incorporating internship stints. Take Social Work for example, which has introduced compulsory field placement. Field placement aims to provide students with the opportunity to integrate theories with practice, through the guidance of a qualified field supervisor. Students will take two compulsory 400-hours field placements during vacation time after completing Year 1 and Year 2. The emphasis for fieldwork is on the development of knowledge/skills to work with individuals, families, small groups and the community as well as within the agency context. Students apply theoretical and professional knowledge in different practice settings. They will have the opportunity to experience variety in their field practice though placements at organisations such as agencies for children & youth, agencies for older persons, agencies for the disabled, correctional settings, medical/health settings, family service centres and government organisations amongst others.

Apart from required internships, one interesting trend we have noticed is that students see the value of work experience, and they have been pursuing such opportunities on their own accord. In fact, the past few years has seen a sharp increase in the number of students pursuing voluntary internships. In AY2015/16, nearly 4,000 students went on voluntary internships.

There are also interesting initiatives by faculty members to create internship opportunities. Assoc Prof Ben Leong of the Department of Computer Science runs an informal programme for selected students through the Computing for Voluntary Welfare Organisations (CVWO) initiative, which he founded in 2007. CVWO seeks to build IT systems that help partner VWOs serve the community more effectively. Under this initiative, about 12-14 students annually would work on projects to revamp, redesign or develop computerised customer management systems for VWOs. The CVWO has worked on projects with VWOs such as The Lion Befrienders, Care Corner Counselling Centre, Fei Yue Community Services and the YMCA. Students selected to participate in the CVWO initiative will carry out projects with the CVWO for three months during the Special Term.

Students who have participated in the CVWO testify of how valuable it had been to gain work experience and to complete real projects early on in their degree journey (typically at the end of their first year). Many of them were able to land subsequent attachments with partners such as Facebook and Google.

All in all, I believe this move to create more opportunities to introduce students to the workplace and to allow students to immerse in and experience working life in an industry setting, is a positive one. It prepares you mentally, and gives you confidence to step into the working world as you make the transition from a student to an employee (or for some of you, an entrepreneur).

I would be happy to hear you relate your internship experiences.

The Lost “Art of Asking Questions”

A Harvard Business Review article entitled “Relearning the Art of Asking Questions” stated that “Proper questioning has become a lost art” (Pohlmann and Thomas, 2015; From this simple but tightly packed statement, we may deduce several important things:

One, there is a proper way of questioning. (See the four types of questioning to achieve different goals by clicking on the Pohlmann-Thomas article link provided above.)

Two, questioning is an art, an important skill.

Three, we have lost this important skill.

Four, we used to possess this important skill.

The article goes on to say that while children have been observed by their parents to ask many questions (as much as 70-80% of their interactions), the adults themselves estimated that they only ask questions about 15-25% of the time in their own talk. This is a steep fall – why? Why do children ask so many questions compared to adults? Is questioning a ‘survival’ skill of some kind? Many scholars and innovators hold the view that questioning is a critical skill in their practice and has contributed to their success.

Paul Sloane, the author of “The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills” and “The Innovative Leader” says that asking questions is “the single most important habit for innovative thinker” ( Sloane affirms the importance of asking questions to our growth. He writes:

“Children learn by asking questions. Students learn by asking questions. New recruits learn by asking questions. Innovators understand clients’ needs by asking questions. It is the simplest and most effective way of learning. People who think they know it all no longer ask questions – why should they? Brilliant thinkers never stop asking questions because they know that this is the best way to gain deeper insights”.

This view, of the importance of questioning to growth is shared by Google CEO Eric Schmidt when he said that Google runs “on questions, not answers”, because only through constant questioning can one arrive at better answers that will facilitate innovation and progress.

The NUS curriculum wants to reclaim and restore this lost art of questioning by offering a new compulsory university-wide module under the General Education (GE) Curriculum, that has been simply titled “Asking Questions” (or as the teaching team affectionately calls it – “Q”). This module adopts a multidisciplinary approach to introduce all NUS undergraduates to the different disciplinary modes of investigation through questioning. Newly launched this January 2017 semester, over 1,000 second and third semester undergraduates are currently undergoing a 6-segment introduction to disciplinary questioning – in Philosophy, Physics, Computational Thinking, Engineering, Economics and Design Thinking. We obtained the permission of a number of students currently taking the Q module to share their forum postings with us. This is what they have to say (italics added):

  • Is it too late to be teaching and learning about questioning now?

Evette: “So is it too late to start teaching questioning in university where most of our minds have been conditioned to only ask questions that can help us get the grade we want? My honest opinion is YES. But I also agree … that it is better late than never. There are pros and cons to teaching Q at this stage of our lives but as much as we are already off to a late start, I do believe that each of us will still take something away from this module.”

Thenappa: “I feel that questioning is an important life skill that is essential not only for undergraduates like us but also something that should be developed since young. I agree that questioning is important in all aspects of life. Top entrepreneurs of today like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are successful as a result of them asking the right questions at the right time. So much of our life depends on asking the right questions. It lets us clearly define problems and expectations. …. Throughout our 12 years of schooling we are not encouraged or taught how to ask questions. However, the moment we enter university, we are told that asking questions is important and it is crucial that we develop this skill with 1 semester of studying this module GEQ1000. Although questioning should be nurtured and nourished from young, at least it’s a start in this module that we are taught the basics of questioning and hopefully it improves over our undergraduate years at NUS.”

Dean: “This peculiar module seemed redundant to me at first: defining “questions” on a rhetorical level seems almost ridiculous at our age, given our years of academic experience …. But the more I think about it, the more I realised that General Education mods are meant to broaden our perspective. As we progress in this module and reach the other domains, perhaps we will come to realise that there are other methods of questioning that we have yet to apply to our life – the way a physics student questions is perhaps different from how a philosophy major questions? That is why I am assuming this mod has a vast range of domain that ranges from philosophy to physics.”

  • On the importance of questioning

Amos: “Personally I feel that questioning promotes and facilitates a deeper understanding of the given subject; it defines the learning experience. I can ramble on about the benefits of questioning such as how it can lead pupils through a planned sequence which progressively establishes key understanding or to promote reasoning, problem solving, evaluation and the formulation of hypotheses, but I feel this mod represents more than that. The purpose of this mod, shifts the limelight away from academics, studying merely for the grades but instead makes us ask [questions], look thoroughly and reflect on our actions. It makes us more inquisitive, curious without consequences. Plus it’s a good skill to be able to frame a question properly. After all our lives revolve a lot around questions and its answers.”

Daryl: “[W]ith regard to tutorial 2 [on Physics], I believe what we’ve done is a repeat of all the Physics SPA back in secondary school days and it was really funny how me and my group could not remember how to do it and in fact, got the result with the biggest outlier of 7.8. However, the key learning point from this was when I think back to my secondary school days, little did I know that every little action of mine could have led to such discrepancies in the results and it brings back the question, why did I not question myself back in secondary school? Why did I (we) just do what we were told to do? The [online lecture] video made me realise that while doing such experiments, we should adopt ontological thinking and question the nature of such experiments in order to understand the fundamentals of what the experiment seeks to teach us rather than just doing the experiment to obtain the desired results which were what most of us were probably doing in the past! Seeking answers isn’t wrong but through this week’s tutorial, I realise that there are a lot that we can learn from by asking questions of why and how.”

The Q forum discussion is already filled with lively exchanges of various kinds, from “Are there such things as ‘stupid’ questions?” to “Making sense of a university built on questions”. We are deeply gratified to read the above and many other forum postings that assured us we have made the right decision to launch this new module for all NUS undergraduates. With Q focused on Questioning, the GE curriculum now has a suite of courses that aim to provide the foundation for questioning (Asking Questions Pillar), thinking (Thinking and Expression Pillar), reasoning (Quantitative Reasoning Pillar), and supported by two other GE pillars on society (Singapore Studies Pillar) and cultures (Human Cultures Pillar). This is the NUS approach to inculcate essential skills, including infusing the invaluable art of questioning and a sense of (intellectual) curiosity that we believe will put our graduates in good stead as they move from university to work, and later, continue to learn as productive citizens in our society. We hope you will embrace this module in the same way as we and many Q students already do. Let’s join all our current students in Q to reclaim this lost art of questioning, together!