A university education should have equipped the graduate with various skills that are transferable and ultimately prove to be useful. picture by REUTERS

IT is again that time of year when undergraduates in many universities are contemplating their future, or maybe they will, once the reality sinks in. Where to, next? What options are available to a fresh graduate upon leaving university? The majority will go on to enter the job market.

In today’s highly competitive job market, positions for fresh graduates are few, relative to the high number of applicants. But a job is not the only option, although for many, it seems to be the most obvious and rational direction to take.

The push towards taking on a salaried position immediately upon graduation can stem from a number of factors including financial constraints and family pressure to contribute and recoup the investment of a university education.

Nevertheless, there are other options that may be considered as routes less ventured. Despite many job ads asking for applicants with experience almost implying that fresh graduates with no work experience are of less value and little potential to contribute to the employer, a university education should have equipped the graduate with various skills that are transferable and ultimately prove to be useful.

For example, many universities now try to instill the entrepreneurial spirit in its students that are inculcated via formal courses as well as the daily activities on campus. This is in part to allow graduates to be independent of the job market and enable them to be self-employed. There are numerous stories of graduates (and of course drop-outs) who are self-made successes. There are also less conventional positions in non-governmental organisations that can be useful for gaining operational experience.

Another option that is also taken up by many is to acquire postgraduate qualifications, either a certification course, postgraduate diploma or Masters and PhD degrees. The quickest of these options is the certification course. In some cases, these certificates will even allow divergence from the bachelor’s degree field of study. A postgraduate diploma on the other hand, will allow supplementary or complementary skills to be added to the existing qualification. This will allow the graduate to tag on knowledge and skills without needing to undertake a whole degree programme.

A common misconception is that a postgraduate degree should be an extension of the study done at the undergraduate level. While in perhaps the majority of situations this may be true, the postgraduate degree can be an entry-point into a totally different field.

The more obvious examples are of course the MBAs (Master in Business Administration) where whatever knowledge and skills acquired during the BA/BSc stage is supplemented with skills to manage organisations and is commonly a qualification sought after by those seeking management positions as part of their career progression.

However, it is also not uncommon to cross disciplines at the MSc or PhD level, even in technical fields. My field of study — bioinformatics and computational biology — generally involves the application of computer and information science to make sense of biological data.

For example, we can understand a particular disease better by analysing large amounts of genetic data from patients. This would require deploying information science to solve problems in biology and medicine. Because of this, a graduate in Mathematics, Computer Science, Engineering, Medicine or other sciences can undertake a MSc or PhD in Bioinformatics thus resulting in their involvement in a totally new field. The key to knowing what programmes can allow for such discipline changes is to check the specified entry requirements for each programme.

At the MSc level, there are programmes that can be completed by coursework, similar to requirements at the undergraduate level; and there are also those that are completed by carrying out a research project. In general, all PhDs would require the candidate to undertake a research project. Other questions that perhaps come to mind are: why do a MSc/PhD; should you do a MSc, a PhD or both; where can you do it and consequent to that, with who should you do it?

The motivation to do a postgraduate degree, especially a research type programme, needs to be clear from the start. Were you just following the crowd? Did you feel that you had no choice but to equip yourself with more advanced skills to be competitive for the job market? Are you just buying time until you’ve figured out what it is that you actually want to do?

I can offer no right or wrong answer to this. What I can say is that a degree by research will require commitment, in some cases the level of commitment required is not something that a candidate is prepared to give.

This makes being passionate about the field of study a big factor in staying the course to eventually reaching graduation. Whatever may have been the original motivator, being passionate about your subject of study will set you up in the right frame of mind to persevere through the failures and obstacles along the tracks of what can be like a roller coaster of frustration and euphoria that go together in postgraduate research.

There is also the question of whether one should do a MSc first, or directly do a PhD, or do both in sequence? In Malaysia, it is perhaps more common to first undertake a Masters degree. However, some programmes do allow for qualified candidates to undertake a direct PhD and thus bypassing the MSc level.

Upon completion of a MSc, should one proceed to do a PhD? Again, there are no right or wrong answers. Ultimately, it depends on one’s own career direction and interests. A PhD is not necessarily the obvious direction a graduate with excellent grades (such as a first class degree) or those who have completed a Masters should take.

The aptitude to successfully undertake a research project at the PhD level, that is in essence discovering new knowledge, is not necessarily present even in the best undergraduate level students; yet candidates who seemed to be floundering and directionless as undergraduates, may actually be driven enough and somehow have acquired the focus to accomplish a PhD.

Where to do a MSc/PhD depends on numerous factors that I do not have the column space to elaborate on here. These considerations include the institutional reputation, the project suiting personal interests, lifestyle considerations, availability of funding or stipends/scholarships etc.

Who to do a research MSc or PhD with is also something that can be of personal preference. Although there are general guidelines as to how academic supervision should be carried out, different academics will have their own styles. What is crucial for the candidate to understand is that he/she must attain some level of independence from the academic advisor. This would therefore be different from an undergraduate environment where teaching and instruction can still be central to the learning experience.

To the graduating class of 2017, whatever your decision is, be it to enter the job market, or to courageously venture out to pursue your own visions of success, or to proceed on further down the road of academia via postgraduate studies, keep the passion and drive for success burning. That fire will provide you the propulsion to do great and incredible things, but also possibly derail you towards failure. Nevertheless, rejoice in the fact that failure will simply mean that there is still much potential and room to progress and accomplish success.

Mohd Firdaus Raih is a bioinformatician and molecular biologist with the Faculty of Science and Technology and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Systems Biology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

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