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.

Global Competition

How can NUS nurture graduates who are able to compete against the millions of other graduates?

In March this year, Evan Osnos, an American reporter for the New Yorker based in Beijing, appeared on The Colbert Report and revealed a startling fact. “There are more Chinese kids right now learning English than there are American kids learning English. Think about that for a second.” He declared to a rather bewildered Stephen Colbert.[1]

Not just the Americans, we too here in NUS, Singapore, are cognizant that global competition is real. Last year, China’s universities and colleges produced over 6 million graduates, up from 2 million graduates just in 2003. We must thus enable and ensure that our graduates, though small in numbers, are competitive, and are a notch above the others.

Our challenge is cut out for us. The top 50 universities in China take in about 0.1% of China’s yearly cohort of newborns, which numbers in the millions. The three public universities in Singapore take in collectively about 25% of Singapore’s yearly cohort of roughly about 45,000 (new births, 18 years ago). Just based on pure statistics, China’s top universities already have a head start over us in NUS in terms of the calibre of undergraduates.

In light of this, how will our graduates compete with other top Asian graduates?

A key advantage that NUS graduates have over graduates of other Asian countries is our competence in English. That said, Chinese students are beginning to understand the importance of acquiring English, as Osnos had pointed out. According to this article, the demand for English teachers is insatiable and there are as many as 300 million Chinese people are learning English. This ‘English advantage’ will not hold out for long.

How now?

In my previous blog posts, (hyperlink: I had commented on the importance of global readiness and of having effective writing and communications skills. ( These are but some of many other attributes which we believe will better equip our graduates to compete globally.

One other important attribute is the competitive spirit of NUS graduates. Let me elaborate. On the university’s part, we have taken care to provide an array of free activities to aid NUS undergraduates in their development. For example, the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning ( organizes free workshops on communications skills, on making effective presentations, etc., and there are also numerous job fairs and career workshops that the NUS Career Centre and individual Faculties/Schools provide for their students.

That NUS students do not seem keen attending job fairs, career workshops or communication skills workshops has been a point of our concern. This is in spite of arranging for workshops to be held during the weekends to avoid timetable clashes. I will be interested to understand why.

We are one of the world’s smallest countries, with a resident population of nearly 3.8 million people, a territory of 700 sq. km and no natural resources. By conventional wisdom, Singapore should be a rather insignificant country. Yet, Singapore has remarkably defied the odds to progress from third world to first in a single generation. This little country has evolved to become a global city that is a focal point for talent, enterprise, cultures and ideas from across the world. It is often said that Singapore ‘punches above her weight’, be it in economics or in diplomacy.

The physical and economic realities have not changed. Singapore has stayed ahead because we are continually a step faster and better than others. Can we continue to stay ahead? As NUS is a crucial part of the Singapore system, how can we enhance NUS education to nurture graduates who are competitive in the global workplace, and allow Singapore to stay ahead?

[1] (


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.

Writing and Communications

English has become the lingua franca of academia, commerce and even diplomacy. Proficiency in the English Language – reading, writing and communications are now critical skills required in all vocations. This is also an area that employers have singled out as a weakness of NUS graduates.

I have been deliberating on whether it is necessary to introduce compulsory language and communications modules in the undergraduate curriculum. We do not want our graduates to be unnecessarily hampered or disadvantaged in the global talent marketplace, because of sub-par reading, writing or speaking skills. Language proficiency will give our graduates an edge in productivity and effectiveness at the workplace.

The undergraduate cohort is a diverse one. To cater to the varying levels of language competence, the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) is looking into how students can be matched to programs of an appropriate level according to their language ability. Some pilots are already in place.

Our challenge is that students are not keen! Our pilot Writing modules are not attracting much interest from Science, Engineering and Computing students. And students from the Science and Technology disciplines are precisely the ones who are most in need of these courses, as they have far less opportunities to develop language and communications skills through their disciplinary modules.

I sincerely hope students are convinced of the importance of English proficiency. Prof Brent Strong, the Lorin Farr Professor of Entrepreneurial Technology at the Brigham Young University, has written a persuasive piece on ‘Why Engineers Should Read Shakespeare’. He argues the importance for scientists to develop the ability to express themselves articulately in terms that all can understand and to discuss scientific and other issues from a broad and comprehensive viewpoint.  He encourages engineers to read Shakespeare, and explains how Shakespeare will help us think, because we think in words.

Of course, we recognize that a single module, or a set of modules, does not suffice to produce sustained results; we must in parallel encourage faculty members to integrate writing and communications components into existing course modules (and for each major). Supporting infrastructure must also be put in place to encourage and assist with writing and communications; these may include seminars, workshops, and writing and communications stations and resource centres amongst others.

I had to realise the importance of, and then learn English the hard way. English did not come naturally to me. I was raised in a dialect-speaking environment. Father had secondary education but in a Chinese-medium school; Mother did not have the opportunity to receive any education. And so, my siblings and I picked up English in school. I managed alright, until secondary school, during which English and Literature became my weakest subjects.

When in Pre-U, I harboured hopes of going abroad for university. I excelled in Math and the Sciences. But alas, it wasn’t good enough. During a PSC (Public Service Commission) scholarship interview conducted in the middle part of Pre-U 2, a panel member remarked that he didn’t think I would be able to pass my GP (General Paper). There went my overseas scholarship.

I felt hurt and indignant. And I was determined to prove to them that I could do well in GP. I was from a poor family and my parents could not afford tuition. So I decided to self-teach. I bought a few assessment books and First Aid in English became my ‘bible’. I read voraciously and disciplined myself to write a GP essay every day. Eventually, I was happy to have managed a P3 at the ‘A’ levels – though not stellar, it was a decent grade.

I still have this in my Math office.
I still have this in my Math office.

Language can be likened to music. Music is a medium of expression; one can depict merry and melancholy through music. We have heard and can feel how tenderly an instrument like the violin can render ‘Air on a G String’. But we cannot execute the same, unless we have acquired technical mastery of the instrument. Language is our primary mode of expression and communication. Likewise, without the requisite grounding in grammar, vocabulary, semantics et al, we are not able to express ourselves as richly and fully.

Language acquisition is a lifelong endeavour; I am still at it. Never cease to learn, and never ever give up.