It’s a farce, isn’t it? Spending 3 years of your 20s, the so-called “best years of your life”, to finish a degree. 3 years of blood, sweat and tears. Only to do a 180-degree about-face, and start work in a job that’s completely unrelated to your field of study.
Everyone knows someone who has a story about how they switched careers. I’ve had friends who studied medicine and became a DJ. Or they studied law and went on to work in advertising.
At this point you might ask: “Why? Why do so many people go into a particular field with such high hopes and dreams, only to go on to do something completely different?”
Read on, dear reader. If you’re a college graduate with absolutely no idea what you want to do in life, this story is dedicated to you.
A High-Achieving Graphic Designer?
So first off, let me tell you about my background.
I was a high achiever in school. They told me the better grades I had, the further I’d go in life.
To everyone’s surprise, after getting straight A’s in my SPM results, I announced my intention to become a graphic designer.
Obviously, they were having none of that. To them, I might as well have decided to be a (starving) artist. Instead, my parents and teachers ‘encouraged’ me to take A-levels in college.
At 17, I had an ideal: To open my own online T-shirt store. But I ended up chasing another set of ideals; my parents’, and to some extent, society’s ideals of what is successful.
Looking back, I think they were hoping that two more years in the rigid academic system would free me of this inconvenient and overly-idealistic notion to become a starving artist.
“He’ll grow out of this phase and learn to realise how important a real education is.” – Or so they thought.
It’s kind of ironic. I had done my best academically just so that I could have choices in my career paths. Yet somehow I found myself typecasted into doing the hardest A-Levels subjects (Physics, Maths and Chemistry), because if I did anything else it would have been a ‘waste of potential’.
Anyways, two years later after I passed my A-levels exams with flying colours, I was even more sick of the Sciences. Now I wanted to study Philosophy.
I had traded one idealistic career choice for another.
Joke’s on them, I thought. But really, 7 years down the road, I realised the joke was on me all along.
Why? Because I had believed in the system. Ingrained in my soft impressionable head was the shallow notion that good grades = good job.
That was my motto from the day I stepped foot into the classroom as a 7 year old kid, to the day I graduated from university at 25.
Living In The Real World
But it was not meant to be. When I left the hallowed halls of academia, I started applying for jobs in my area, and the reality of my situation hit hard.
Not qualified. No relevant experience. No contacts. No people skills. No communication skills. No contextual knowledge.
It was like a slap in the face with a big wet fish. What I’d learnt in school was a mere drop in the ocean of knowledge.
I realised with much chagrin that I sorely lacked the skills needed to survive in the adult working environment.
I felt cheated and used. I’d done all that academic posturing in university, and for what?
A piece of gilded paper that was pretty much identical to the thousands of other pieces of gilded paper of graduates who came before me and after me.
Once upon a time, being a university graduate meant something. But now it’s just another capitalistic money-grab, marketed to the middle-class with aspiring dreams of greater things.
Everyone says you NEED a bachelor’s degree, but nobody stopped to ask why.
It’s a paper chase, and people are still falling for it, hook, line and sinker.
Why Was The Job Market So Shitty?
To be fair to myself, and my peers who graduated in the year 2015, there were many factors that went into the slow job market at the time.
As it turns out, I was not the only one who felt this disconnect between expectation and reality.
The UK’s right-wing political party was ramping up its anti-immigrant sentiment ahead of Brexit, and government policies were set in place which made it hard to find jobs.
International students like me were finding our resumes placed at the back end of a waiting list.
We could only be hired if companies could prove to the UK government that a British guy couldn’t do the job, and then there were the EU nationals next in line, before they would consider applications from internationals.
Out of all of the Malaysians who graduated that year, only one dude managed to secure a job at a bank – doing IT support despite studying Mechanical Engineering.
So I took a job at the most tedious place imaginable: A call centre.
It was a recruitment agency that specialised in young talent. I spent all day calling up companies asking if they were interested in my pool of ‘talent’, a bunch of resumes that looked just like mine.
I couldn’t find a job in the field I studied in, so instead, I helped other job-seekers find the job they’re looking for. Essentially, I was Red Skull in that one scene with Thanos in Infinity War.
Day after day, I asked myself the question: Why am I doing the very thing I swore not to do?
I was working at a 9-to-5 office job, with made-up targets and made-up calls. My office was almost a stereotype, like a 90’s sitcom version of Mad Men.
One day, it dawned on me. If I’m going to be spending ⅓ of the rest of my life chained to an office, I need to find work that I actually enjoy doing.
For some people, that’s too much to ask. It’s almost as if daring to ask for work that you enjoy doing is a slap in the face for the rest of the adults.
But that was me, and those were my terms. I needed to do this for myself, or face personal extinction.
I wanted out. I was ready to throw in the towel, and that was when a colleague tagged me in this job opening for a copywriter position.
From what I read, essentially, they wanted someone to write one-liners for all their advertising media.
This sounded too good to be true. Writing pithy comebacks for a living? I already do this in my free time on social media.
It was a no-brainer. So I applied with a bunch of infographics I had done in my spare time, and got the gig.
Now I can’t see myself doing anything else. I’ve always been writing, as a form of self-exorcism, creative mental gymnastics, and to connect with people I was too shy to speak to in person.
This was a natural progression.
The only thing I regret is not finding out that this job existed sooner.
Are universities worth it?
Every now and then, I think about what I could have achieved by now at 28 if I hadn’t taken 4 years out of my young life to study, party, try a few non-addictive substances, and travel.
I’m not sure I needed a 4-year degree in Chemistry to realise I really wanted to be a copywriter all along. But hindsight is 20/20, and what-ifs are an exercise in ego-stroking.
Look, I’m not saying going to university is meaningless. For those of you who truly find it their life’s passion to become a doctor, or physicist, or economist, it’s a necessary and worthwhile endeavour to partake.
Some of my unforgettable memories were made in university. I met my life partner there. She is also not working in the field in which she studied, so I’m in good company.
I learnt how to make friends with people from all cultures and places. I was exposed to Western values and adopted a few of them.
I realised how much I’d internalised toxic beliefs that were taken for granted at home: Homophobia, racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, bigoted Christian ideas, and so many others.
My eyes were opened to how much improvement was needed back at home to raise the standard of living.
I was able to experience the feeling of being a foreigner in another land — not just my own.
Being among strangers is liberating for a time, but there comes a point where you decide who you want to be with, and how it matters to you.
But all things said and done, I still wouldn’t have gone to uni. It’s just too damn expensive.
If you want to find a job that pays well, you like doing it, or if you can find fulfillment in other things — don’t waste your time with university.
Look for a marketable skill and learn it at a polytechnic or apply as an intern somewhere. Get some years of job experience behind you, then decide if a bachelors is in line with your career goals.
For more articles on picking the right career, read Why I Didn’t Let My Lack of a Degree Stop Me – And Why You Shouldn’t Either, and Taking a Break Between Jobs Was the Best Decision I Ever Made.