An excerpt from the Singapore Scholarship Guide: The $500,000 Decision

Question: 

Right now, I feel quite sure about what kind of career I want. Will this change when I’m in university?

Daniel: It’s pretty likely.

There are people who, since childhood, know that they want to be an entrepreneur or a civil servant or a teacher. But most people have only a vague idea of what their dream job is.

In university, you’ll get a lot more exposure to the “real world”.

You’ll have the opportunity to talk to recruiters from all sorts of different companies. You’ll get to interact with professors who have experience in both academia and industry. You’ll meet people who are passionate about causes that you didn’t even know existed.

Through the classes you take, your eyes will be opened to the big, wide world out there.

For example, I didn’t know anything about poverty alleviation work or the ethics of civic engagement until I learned about these things in university. This knowledge has made me see the world with fresh eyes and has given me clarity about how I want to serve my community through the work I do. Even my personal mission statement, which guides me in every decision I make, was borne out of the experiences I had learning about civic engagement.

These experiences have informed my personal mission statement: “To empower others with the mindset and methods to lead a meaningful and marvelous life.”

Having a more nuanced and developed worldview will help you to understand what kind of contribution you want to make during your lifetime.

All the exposure you’ll get during your time in university will give you a better idea of what kind of career you’re suited for.

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Ailian: It is rare for people not to change their minds about the kind of career they want. The biggest problem with making a major career decision when you're 18 or 19 is that you have limited information. You don't really know about the jobs and careers that are out there.

Think of the adults you know. Do you even know what their jobs are about? I had no idea what investment bankers or product managers did when I was 19. I didn't even know that those jobs existed.

To give you a sense of some things I didn’t know but that matter a lot: I didn’t know that I’d have such a hard time working working in an environment characterized by slow decision-making. I didn’t know it would frustrate me to no end to work with people who resisted change at every turn. I didn’t know that it would annoy me to have to tell small financial institutions how they violated obscure rules. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the fact that even some short emails I wrote had to be vetted by several levels of bosses.

I didn’t know that I would love being in fast-paced environments. I didn’t know how fulfilling it would be to help build a company, or be able to point to a chunk of revenue generated from my clients or from my product and feel responsible for having made that happen. I didn’t know how exciting it would be to make product decisions today, ship the products and see better performance and higher revenue in a few weeks.

Also, if you're making the most of your college education, you will probably discover more—more about what excites you, more about what you're good at, more about what you want to spend your time doing.

Let's say that you’ve never tried your hand at coding before, and you take your first computer science class when you’re in university. Prior to that, how would you know whether you'd enjoy being a software engineer?

It is not certain that you will change your mind, but you shouldn't deny yourself the chance to discover new things about yourself. That is the premise of personal growth. As you gather more information along the way, give yourself the chance to change your mind. Sometimes these changes won’t even lead to a change in career path, but sometimes they will.

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Chin Lum: This will definitely happen when you expose yourself to different experiences and perspectives. You will meet people who inspire you, and you might consider a future partnership with them. Or you might discover something you are passionate about and decide that a specialised career appeals to you much more than a generalist one, say, in government.

I know some people who ended up transferring their bonds to academia (i.e. their bonds were taken over by one of the local universities) while they were in school. Others came back to work in the government after graduation, but eventually left. For this group of people, the first seeds of doubt might have been planted during their time in university, when their eyes were opened to other opportunities out there.

But there are also many others who remained as sure as they were when they first took the scholarship, about working for the government. For me, while the opportunities and accompanying temptations were there, my motivations for wanting a government job in the first place did not change, because these motivations were related to my values and what I wanted my career to be like (or not to be like).

Nevertheless, I would still encourage you to expand your understanding of the realm of career possibilities while you are in university. It may or may not change your mind about the job that you thought you were sure about, but it will make your decisions better-informed.