Career Workshops for NUS Students

There is a pressing need to raise the career preparation skills of NUS graduates. In a recent survey of major employers of graduates in Singapore, 70% opined that NUS graduates are lacking in this area. This is what employers are saying about NUS graduates:

  • ‘I was shocked to see an NUS graduate dressed casually in jeans for the interview, thinking that it is appropriate, because it is at Sentosa.’
  • Only half of the interviewees did proper research about our company.’ This feedback was received from one of the largest companies in Singapore.
  • Students can sell themselves better by putting important things upfront. For example, they should highlight their CAP score if they did well academically.  Students are quite shy, and are too modest. They should try to market themselves better and ask more questions.’ This feedback was received from an American MNC.
  • Local graduates are excellent at breaking down problems and delivering results. But they undersell themselves and do not get opportunities they deserve as they are being overshadowed by the vocal and domineering personalities from the US.”
  • And one of Singapore’s largest graduate recruiters wrote Some candidates were neither prepared nor appropriately dressed for interviews. In terms of ratings of performance among the 3 local universities,
    • for Oral Communications: SMU 1, NUS 2, NTU 3;
    • for Maturity: SMU 1, NUS 2, NTU 3;
    • for Grooming: SMU 1, NTU 2, NUS 3.’

Clearly, this is a gap we need to fill.

What should the university do, and how can we help our graduates?

Let me share more about the current situation.

Career preparation workshops are being offered to students on an optional basis, and they do not carry academic credits. Last year, the NUS Career Centre (NCC) offered a suite of 5 workshops (comprising Career Planning, Resume Writing, Interview Skills, Networking Skills, and Business Etiquette and Corporate Dressing). Each workshop was a 2 to 3 hour session, and students were charged $8 to $10 per workshop. The workshops are offered to students at highly subsidized rates, and a nominal fee is levied to prevent no-shows.

Of the 25,000 undergraduates enrolled at the NUS, only 1,500 students attended at least one workshop, and amongst them, 320 of them attended all 5 workshops. Of the 320 students who completed the suite of workshops, about 150 are from Pharmacy, because they had an astute Head of Department, who saw the importance of the workshops, and had made them compulsory for final year Pharmacy students.

Should we then mandate the workshops as a compulsory graduation requirement? If we maintain status quo, the take-up rate of the career preparation workshops is not likely to improve. Interestingly, in a recent survey involving more than 3,000 NUS students, 56% supported the idea of the university implementing compulsory career preparation workshops; 11% of the respondents were unsupportive.  At the NUS Business School, career preparation workshops are not compulsory. Yet, students prioritize these learning opportunities and nearly 95% of their students elect to attend them sequentially over 3 to 4 years.

We then sought to understand why NUS students are not signing up to attend career preparation workshops. The student survey further revealed that top 3 reasons were:

  1. I do not have time! (40%)
  2. The workshops clash with my lectures/tutorials. (25%) We were certainly puzzled by this response as many workshops are held on weekends.
  3. I am not aware of these career development workshops. (25%)

After much deliberation, we have decided to defer the ‘compulsion’ measure for now, and will instead adopt a moderate approach.

Over the next 3 years, we will nudge all students from the Faculties/Schools of Arts and Social Sciences, Computing, Design and Environment, Engineering and Science, to complete the suite of 5 workshops. The workshops will be offered free-of-charge.

Here are the implementation plans:

(1) An Opt-Out System for Freshmen

  • Each freshman will be assigned to attend the 5 workshops in one of the two semesters in AY2012/13. Students who do not wish to attend will have to provide good reasons to the NCC.

(2) An Opt-In System for the Graduating Cohort

  • For existing students, career preparation workshops will be offered to you in your graduating year, and we will facilitate your attendance by ensuring that the workshop schedules do not clash with your formal classes.  You will have to register to attend these workshops.

To conduct these programs on a large scale, the NCC will be recruiting more career counsellors; many workshops will also be outsourced to competent vendors. Notes and resource materials will be prepared and made available online, so that the workshops are more hands-on and practice-oriented. On top of the 5 first-tier career preparation workshops, the NCC will also offer many additional courses under the umbrella of the ‘Future Ready Programme’. Some target specific skills; others are industry-specific.

The workshops by themselves are no guarantee that NUS graduates will become expert job hunters after attending them.  But, our aim is to sensitize our students, right at the onset of their university life, to the importance of planning and preparing for their future careers. Better earlier than later, as students can then start to think and plan their curriculum, education and projects accordingly, to hone expertise and experience and to develop a credible portfolio towards their career goals.

For students who do not have stellar CAP scores, please do not give up, or be overly discouraged.  It is heartening to note that many top employers such as Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Keppel Corporation, Proctor & Gamble, ExxonMobil and others, have shared that they are moving away from CAP to look at strong CCA qualities and soft skills. One firm shared that We do not look at grades, but how the graduates present themselves. Core values such as integrity, and encouraging a non-defeatist, positive attitude is vital to success in society.’ Do take heart, and press on with your job hunt.

In short, we will be making career preparation workshops as accessible and convenient for students to attend them, and in so doing, we hope to ‘nudge’ students towards making beneficial decisions. We sincerely hope that our students will take up these opportunities to enrich themselves, and to enhance their employability.

Getting Enough Sleep

Here is a recent string of tweets on UTown:

  • “utown is packed and my friends couldn’t find a seat”;
  • “found an awesome spot to study in utown”;
  • “camping at utown”;
  • “utown lvl 1 to 3 r all full, going to ctrl lib to mug instead”;
  • ”redbull giving out energy drinks at utown”;
  • “oh, so now sec 4 kiddos are studying at utown”;
  • “security doing checks on ppl in utown. Apparently too many NTU people crashing our study rooms already”;
  • “Utown is fully packed on a Saturday! Stop studying so hard dearest NUS”; ….

This is the Reading Period, which means that exams are around the corner. Our students are all ‘mugging’ hard, hoping to ‘squeeze in’ as much content into their heads as possible. UTown has proven to be a popular study spot and outsiders are also gate-crashing the compound! We are taking steps to ensure that our facilities are accessible only to NUS students.

To me, sleep is most vital, particularly during this trying period. Everyone’s physical make-up is different and our sleep requirements vary. But, insufficient sleep will lead to drastically decreased daytime alertness, and suboptimal performance.

Perhaps that’s why zombies are sometimes associated with sleep deprivation.

Studies have shown that a person’s performance, after 2 continuous weeks of less than 6 hours of daily sleep, can be as dysfunctional as someone who has gone without sleep for the past 48 hours at a stretch. I guess many of our students are in either situation now.

And students have devised ways and means to stay awake. My son told me that a 6-pack of Red Bull can keep him up for the entire night, and it is much cheaper and more effective than 2 cups of Starbucks coffee. This explains why Red Bull is giving out free drinks at UTown. From Wikipedia, Red Bull is plenty of caffeine plus sugar, and conventional (and scientific) wisdom suggests that one should not depend on that for too long!

This is a stressful period for many. Thus, the Counseling and Psychological Centre has been conducting classes and stress-relief clinics; the Centre conducted a ‘Stress No More’ class at UTown last week.

Whatever you do, do rest and sleep well!

Leveraging on Diversity

Here are the student demographics that some of you have been asking for. There are currently about 25,000 undergraduates at the NUS, of which over 5,000 are international students. (This post uses the terms international students and foreign students interchangeably. Figures are approximate and exact figures are available in the NUS Annual Report.) The graduate student population totals 8,000, of which more than half of the graduate students, or 5,000 of them are from overseas. Taken in total, we have about 33,000 students on campus; 10,000 are international students and the rest are citizens or permanent residents of Singapore. In addition, every year, we have 1,400 NUS students going away for at least a semester on exchange programs, and we correspondingly welcome a similar number of international students from our 180 partner universities for a semester exchange at the NUS.

Our international students

The topic of international students is a sensitive one to discuss, but I believe that as members of the university community, we are mature enough to broach this topic in a constructive and appropriate manner. Each year, the MOE stipulates the number of places to be given to Singaporeans and PRs, based on the Cohort Participation Ratio (CPR), i.e., the CPR is the percentage of locals, in a Primary One cohort, who matriculate into publicly-funded full-time undergraduate places at our local institutions. This year, the CPR was set at 26%. Local universities may admit international students; international students made up not more than 18% of the overall undergraduate intake at the 3 local universities in AY2011.

Why does the NUS admit international students? First, diversity creates a campus environment that mimics the global operating context. We thus value the diversity of cultures, perspectives and experiences that our foreign students bring. Second, many of our foreign students are talented individuals of high calibre; they are admitted on a more rigorous and stringent criteria. Foreign students set the bar high, and spur our local students to challenge themselves towards greater heights. And in the process, local students emerge stronger and better prepared to take on competition in the global workforce. Third, we hope to retain foreign students to contribute to Singapore’s economy. It is true that foreign students with service obligations may leave Singapore at the end of their term. Notwithstanding, they will  remain as friends, associations and vital links of the NUS community (and Singapore) whom we can tap on.

NUS is a microcosm of a globalised environment

With a diversity of nationalities and cultures right here on campus, the NUS is truly a microcosm of the global environment. At any one time, we have over 11,000 international students from a hundred countries around the world, studying in our campus. One of the key educational priorities at the NUS is to hone graduates who are effective at and ready for the broader global environment, i.e., graduates who are adaptable and able to communicate, engage and work in cross-cultural settings. 

Although we are physically present amidst a diverse campus environment; alas it is quite plausible that some of our students are completely oblivious to the rich opportunities for learning and discovery surrounding them. Take for example, Peter and Jane are enrolled in the same module. They sit next to each other twice a week, continuously over 15 weeks. Yet, at the end of the semester, they may be none the wiser about each other, and remain acquainted merely by name and face.

Here is a second conceivable scenario. Instead of being glued to their iPhones during class break, Peter and Jane may be having a casual conversation, on anything, perhaps where they’re currently residing and their experiences commuting with the internal shuttle buses. Jane is from Wuhan in China. Peter, a born and bred Singaporean who’s served NS, soon discovers how and why she came to Singapore, what sort of tests she had to take, how the educational system here differs from that in Wuhan and perhaps even how she views certain government policies in Singapore and how these compare with the Chinese government’s approach, and so on. Jane learns that Peter had served his NS as a combat medic, how he continues to be liable for reservist, drives a car that has a whopping COE price tag of $50,000 and so on.  What can emerge? How much can we learn from and through each other? The possibilities are endless.

Within the classroom

How then can we leverage more fully on this diversity in our university, to enrich our students and in so doing, better prepare and develop them for the globalised world? One way, is perhaps to create the time and space for us to talk to each other and to foster interactions, in our academic courses.

A professor once related this experience with me. He taught a class and assigned a term project. He requested students to form their own groups of 4 or 5 for the project. One group came to him, looking ostensibly unhappy. The group comprised two Singaporeans, two Chinese students from PRC, and a Vietnamese. The professor thought the composition of the group was great; it was a multinational team! He later realized students from the same nationality, had congregated to form their own teams: there were several Singaporean groups, some groups of students from India, some from China, and another from Vietnam. The multinational team was visibly unhappy, because it was made up of reluctant individuals who had described themselves as ‘leftovers’.

Henceforth, the professor never allowed his class to form their own groups. Instead, he thought through and allocated the group assignments, deliberately ensuring that each group was diverse. He explained that in our working lives, we often do not get to choose our colleagues and partners, and we should take the opportunity to learn to work with our assigned teammates. He also introduced peer appraisals, to obtain a sense of each student’s contribution to the group.

This got me thinking. If a professor does not take the active step to form diverse teams, what would the likely outcome be? Sometimes, some nudging does help to take us out of our comfort zone and to expose us to experience something different.

Living and learning together

Beyond academics, residential living also provides a wonderful platform for mutual learning and enrichment. At the NUS, we currently have 3 types of student accommodation, namely halls, residences and residential colleges. In our halls and residential colleges, two-thirds of the residents are Singaporeans and PRs, one-third are foreign students (including students on exchange).

By and large, the residing students do participate in the numerous social activities, and contribute to student life on campus and within their halls or residential colleges. This was especially so at the halls, when CCA points were the main criteria to secure hall places for the subsequent year. This year, we implemented a new scheme, the Residence Admission Scheme (RAS) to replace the Revised Hall Admission Points System. This was in response to students’ feedback, as students complained of being subject to excessive pressure to keep up the CCA-involvement within their halls. Some students had however raised the concern that students in the halls might become less active in social activities.  

The new residential colleges at UTown have academic program components, and I do hope that all students will participate actively to create a vibrant, memorable and exciting atmosphere. Ideally, students will engage with each other intellectually and socially, within and beyond the classrooms, in the corridors, dining halls, the lounges and wherever else.

Do take steps to explore, enjoy and embrace the rich diversity we have on campus.


An unfortunate incident occurred on Saturday, 1 Oct 2011. 725 students were scheduled to sit for a Managerial Economics (offered by the NUS Business School) mid-semester test, which had to be cancelled at the last minute. Shortly before the test was due to start, the lecturer found that he had less than 500 scripts on hand. After considering various options, he decided to call off the test. Within moments, comments were tweeted and disseminated instantaneously. The mainstream media fielded many reports too. There was much interest, speculation and commotion. Later, our preliminary investigations confirmed that a human error had occurred. A staff was tasked to print 750 scripts, but had instead printed less than 500 copies. We must and will take steps to avert a future occurrence.

The brouhaha and outbursts witnessed are perhaps in part a manifestation of how intensely our students and society view examinations. The Singapore educational system prides itself as a meritocratic one. Somehow, the notion of meritocracy has been deeply entwined with examinations. I would like to take this opportunity to share about the evolving role of examinations at the NUS, and how we should develop a healthier and more balanced perspective towards examinations.  

When I was an undergraduate at the NUS some 25 years ago, ‘exams’ was a terrifying word. Then, each course was taught over two semesters, and a typical load was to read 6 courses. Each course entailed 5 hours of lectures and one hour of tutorial every week, excluding laboratory time! At the end of the second semester, we had to sit for a three-hour exam for each course. Exams determined everything – it was a ‘make it, or break it’ system (or some would say, ‘do or die’). Should you fail an exam, you can attempt a Re-exam (the proper term was Supplementary Examination). If you’re not able to clear any of the ‘Re’s, there were no ifs and buts about it – you’ll have to repeat the entire year.

The release of exam results was even more interesting. NUS students nowadays can go online to view their results, or opt to receive SMS notifications. But back in those days, the Registrar would print out the matriculation numbers and corresponding grades of all candidates; these would be posted on a notice board near the Registrar’s Office. Results were usually released at around 8 am and many anxious students will be congregating there hours before.

Imagine the fear, grip and trepidation that exams evoked.

But, let us examine objectively – are examinations necessarily evil or are they a necessary evil? Some students feel that exams are intrinsically linked to a CAP system and with a CAP system in place, exams will always take centre stage at the NUS. This is not so. My view is that exams certainly do provide a means to measure learning outcomes; they are the traditional, tried and tested assessment medium. There are however, also other alternative methods that are effective in measuring and assessing learning outcomes; many of these methods are notably more labour-intensive to employ. 

Should we then embrace or eschew exams? Exams are not intrinsically bad, but we should refrain from using them solely and deterministically. Yet, a system with no exams may not be ideal, as exams do provide a sound learning and testing platform for certain subjects. The sensible and constructive way forward, I think, is to adopt a balanced approach.

As such, the NUS has over the years been moving away from a rigid exams-driven system. We have progressively decreased the weightage of final exams, and to place more emphasis on continual assessment instead. Even with continual assessment, we hope that our lecturers will introduce innovative methods of continual assessments, beyond the traditional tests. Many modules now have project work as an integral component. Overall, the NUS system is today a more flexible and forgiving one. We no longer have Supplementary Examinations. If a student fails a module, he or she is not ‘retained’, but is given the opportunity to retake the module, without having to repeat the entire set of modules taken in the previous semester or year.

Ultimately, our aim is to enable and empower students to maximize their learning opportunities at the NUS. We have since allowed students to declare S/U options after the release of results – the motivation behind this move is to encourage students to try out challenging modules and not be deterred by possible CAP implications. Students know this S/U option very well, but many see this as an opportunity to ‘even out heavy course loads’. Many students would like the S/U option to be expanded beyond 3 modules. We may consider this and I will take this discussion further in a future post.

There is a place for exams, but let’s put exams in its proper place.

University Town Opens

It is almost surreal to witness UTown springing to life. From ideas and concepts to plans on paper; from architectural drawings to the piling and construction; from a hole in a ground, to a delightful town; it has been quite some years. 

Education Resource Centre  The Residential Colleges

 There is something in UTown for every NUS student. Those wishing to hit their books can retreat to the many quiet and conducive study areas for some peace, solitude and focus. Friends or project mates can gather for pow-wow sessions at the discussion areas that are freely accessible and equipped with handy boards and markers. The Town Green lawns are proving to be popular grounds for rest and relaxation; the Learning Café is lively even during the weekends and into the wee hours of the night.  The pilot residential college programmes have taken off this semester at Cinnamon and Tembusu Colleges, and we are keenly watching how students take to the immersive educational model of living and learning. I will be sharing my thoughts on residential living for undergraduates in a later post.

Town Green by day 

There are admittedly teething issues with UTown, such as the frequency of internal shuttle services and leakages at various locations and we had sought to resolve them expeditiously. More water dispensers will also be installed. We seek your patience, and I can assure you that the relevant University Offices have been working tirelessly to iron out the problems encountered. We’ve also been reading through twitter posts on UTown. After the first couple of weeks, the tweets are generally very positive. It’s heartening to hear how students are beginning to discover and develop an affinity for UTown.

UTown is for the NUS community; do make the best of it. I think UTown has become a definitive feature of the campus, and I hope it will add to fond memories of your life at the NUS. Do share your thoughts on UTown.