Monday, May 18, 2015

What kind of thosai does your degree resemble ?

For this weekend, I wanted to write an article on treating a degree as an investment just like a portfolio of stock and bonds. Fortunately for everyone, I was also ordering my thosai while thinking about this idea so I thought I could write an article on choosing degrees and eating thosai.

Let's start with some fundamentals.

Degrees serve two purposes :

a) Equipping you with the skills to take on the modern workplace.

Skills are a degree's secondary purpose, in spite of what a minister tells you. If degrees genuinely equip someone with actual skills, then the university ranking would not be important when considering a new hire, management consulting firms would not fixate on just the Ivy League and Oxbridge qualifications.

In practice, there is simply too much domain knowledge that needs to be absorbed on the job before you can become a useful member of your company.

So get real about degrees. You get a degree in Engineering. You do not get a degree in Engineering in General Electric.

b) Signalling to the employer that you have the intelligence and intensity to be turned into a company asset.

This is the true purpose of a degree. It signals to the employer that you have what it takes to get the job done even if the industry changes.

The degree makes you solve complicated problems you will never see in real life, write horribly convoluted essays on arcane concepts and throw  group dynamic issues at you when you form project teams. If you survive, it tells the employer that you are a very safe option as a new hire into a management associate program.

I suppose this is the hardest truth that a savvy Singaporean has to grasp.

Now we talk about Thosais, degrees can be classified based on the Thosai they resemble.

a) Professional degrees are like Thosai Masala

Professional degrees are like Thosai masala. Thosai masala costs twice as much as plain thosai but is packed with potatoes and other goodies. Thosai masala is filling and robust.

The cut-off to get into these programs are high but the investment returns are also high. Survival is based on both the skills actually developed and the degree's signalling value.

Doctors must be able to cut someone up with great proficiency. Lawyers must understand the law. Engineers risk killing thousands if the bridges they design collapses.

My advice, that you do not need to agree, is that if possible, always eat Thosai Masala. It is high skill and high signalling. It is also exclusive.

b) General degrees are like Plain Thosai

Local general degrees are like plain thosai. Plain thosai is an institution and can be paired with different kinds of sauces for great taste. General degrees equip someone will skills which depreciate slower than professional degrees so they last longer and flexibility is a valuable trait.

Degrees like Arts, Sciences and Business Administration are high in signalling but the skills are not directly required by the industry. If you analyse a job which requires a general degree, the skills requirements is normally no higher than that of a job which requires O levels. You can talk, operate email and present yourself, your skills qualify.

But things are not that simple.   You will need to understand that the degree that you are getting is more signalling than skill. You will need to write well, speak well and network like an ace.   Inevitably, HR practitioners will look at your honours classification and "provenance" to determine whether they should you, so grades will still matter.At the end of the day, such jobs pay well and continue to have their fair pick of top degree holders.

Over time, plain thosai can beat thosai masala. Plain thosai blends better with the sauces and sometimes thosai masala makes you full too quickly and you don't really enjoy your meal.

You need to signal well after graduation and then develop the domain knowledge with your general intelligence after entering your first job.

Ruthless Tip : Go for prestige. Don't try to pao kao liao in a SME. That's a decision for gimps. Wanna work for an SME, start one of your own.

c) Private qualifications are like Paper Thosai.

Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with paper thosai, but what drives me crazy is that they cost twice as much as plain thosai but it's creation is very wasteful. To make paper thosai, the cook actually scrapes some flour off to create the paper-like texture. It takes lot of effort and sad waste of money to make a paper thosai. It is also very oily.

This is the main issue with Singaporeans and private degrees.

The Singaporean's insist that a degree equips someone with relevant skill and is the key to a better life in Singapore, so they invest more money into private degrees. Private institutions exploit our kiasuism and see us as goldmines.

Problem is that HR practitioners and MNCs continue to see degrees as a signalling mechanism, so they continue to review these private degree brands to be stacked against local universities and expensive overseas elite universities.

This is the rub,

If you invest in a private university, you need to look at your resume and ask yourself the brutal question: What am I signalling to an employer when I show the company my academic history ?

The issue is not that you now have the skills of a graduate.

The issue is whether you can be elevated above the plain thosai and thosai masalas to qualify for the competitive job.

Maybe it's time to consider label this the "Paper Thosai" problem.

If a private institution takes on anyone who can afford the fees and lack quality control, they damage the signalling value of their degree even if their graduates leave with the proper skills.

A degree without signalling value is no better than a piece of paper thosai.

Our government does not want Singaporeans to waste resources getting paper thosais in their resumes, it is unhealthy and the economy cannot have so many people spending so much time in school.

In conclusion, I think ASPIRE is the right move for our government to adopt. Think like an investor. Maybe getting a job is better than buying  a paper thosai qualification. As you will be younger, there will be more years to compound your savings. You can get into sales where your qualifications would not matter at all and may get your first million you are thirty.

P.S. The missing un-named thosai which is all skill and no signalling has not been invented in Singapore yet. It is either the apprenticeship system the government is trying to build on the German model or the idea of development bootcamps. Pray that this idea succeeds and we get a new thosai to munch on.


  1. hi christopher,

    great article. very practical and useful advice.

    in my opinion, the problem of overinvestment in education is because the people eating the thosai are not the ones paying for it.

    throughout their whole lives, the people paying for thosai have grown up in an environment where thosai was so rare and any thosai would be considered a good and tasty meal.

    further, everyone believes their child is the superior sauce that can make any thosai taste good.

    it is hard to change your dining preferences after 30 to 40 years.

  2. Chris,

    I've no clue why I am so tickled pink by your post?

    We have nothing in common - you are ang mo pai; I very cheena.

    Yet I find myself nodding to what you say (I not sleepy and you not boring OK?)

    I too like what ASPIRE is doing - lead the way for Singaporeans to build a future based on SKILLS and MASTERY in every job.

    Just as long its not to top down heavy.

    Oh by the way, I prefer roti-prata kosong ;)

  3. Oh yes, a major cost component for a degree is not the tuition fees, it is the opportunity cost of working for a couple of years.

    Ultimately, the role of ASPIRE is not to demonstrate that a diploma holder is better than a degree holder.

    ASPIRE's goal should be to shape the choices of a diploma holder to prefer 3 years of solid work experience rather than three years getting a paper thosai qualification.

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