Thinking out loud: College Education

Writing that last post about reconsidering a post-graduate degree made me uncomfortable. I’ve always been a good student. I went to highly competitive science/technology/engineering schools. Many of my friends are in the midst of getting their master’s and doctorate degrees.

So I always get asked, “When do you plan to get your Master’s?” As if it’s already expected.

I struggle to explain that I have no interest in returning to the academe, except maybe to teach.

My need for constant stimulation coupled with poor memory (which is why I write everything down) made for poor exam scores. In a lot of ways, engineering was a good match for me: we had more problem solving-type exams rather than memorization or comprehension. I managed to get by because I had good study habits. But, I didn’t really learn much.

I hated lectures. I hated sitting in class. I hated having to wait for classmates to catch up when I already knew something. And I hated having to slow everyone else down when I didn’t understand something. I would take down notes, but the real studying always happened after I was home. I would read through books and do the chapter exercises. Again and again. If anything, my true lecturers were the textbook authors.

Being in the corporate world has also jaded my view on education. I have been impressed by the academic backgrounds of people I met through work, only to be unimpressed by their actual skills (on that note read: CS degree holders who are not able to code).

They would ask for training, reference materials, a go-to person… and I wanted to tell them,

You’ve got a brain, right? Put it to use.
Try to figure it out yourself first.
THEN ask.

It made me think how much the local tertiary education is spoon-feeding. With the lessons laid out for consumption. With the students conditioned to swallow whatever the teacher gave them as fact. As if the school owed it to the students to pass because of their exuberant school fees.

And because they did so well in school, these students have an expectation that the corporate world will praise them as well. That they’re already competent.

And dangit, the local workforce culture actually supports this thinking!

I was confounded when, during a recent big data conference, most of the speakers’ answer to the lack of analytics talent was the need to re-calibrate tertiary education. I mean yes, we have to do that anyway, but REALLY? That’s all you’ve got?

Have I been alone in dealing with this overeducated but underskilled workforce???

Recently, this video of hirers reviewing bad resumes has gone viral. I won’t spoil it for you, but it drives the point that exceptional people aren’t all about their education (and their resume for that matter).

That’s why I go out of my way to work with people with core soft skills. The ability to communicate well, the ability to ask the right questions, and the ability to think and decide logically. I value these so much more than graduating from a famous school.

Because if they have these skills, they can learn anything.

It reminds me of this excerpt from Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son:

College doesn’t make fools; it develops them. It doesn’t make bright men; it develops them. A fool will turn out a fool, whether he goes to college or not, though he’ll probably turn out a different sort of a fool.

I’m not devaluating colleges and schools. If anything, I’m advocating going to the right schools. The ones that teach you how to think, not what to think.

In my university we were trained to be independent. The students had to do everything. The lecturer doesn’t have the responsibility to show up, but the students had the responsibility to study anyway. The school culture wasn’t for everyone, but it was a good enough fit for me.

There are two parts of a college education—the part that you get in the schoolroom from the professors, and the part that you get outside of it from the boys. That’s the really important part. For the first can only make you a scholar, while the second can make you a man.

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son

When I interviewed for my job in IT, I was asked what I had to offer given my degree was such a mismatch (I took up Chemical Engineering).

I said it wasn’t about the degree. More than what was taught in class, what getting that degree taught me was discipline. How to approach problems. How I had to learn things for myself. Any industry can make use of those, especially IT.

Also, I discovered I’m the better communicator compared to most techies.

I got the job. Many IT graduates didn’t.

Sometimes I think back to that time and consider myself lucky. I expected to have been told, again and again, to do what I took in uni.

Seems like the local workforce is still too academe-focused. What it fails to realize is a good student doesn’t translate to a good worker. Maybe the workforce landscape will change now that we have more international players in the field. I just hope it changes sooner rather than later.


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