Multidisciplinary education helps fresh NUS graduates navigate fast-changing job market

Nicholas Soh Keng Siang (left) and Cheryl Leong Jia Hui were among the fresh graduates of the NUS Class of 2020 who had to plot new career paths.

In 2020, Nicholas Soh Keng Siang was finishing his final year in NUS Mechanical Engineering and looking forward to becoming an aeronautical engineer. Then the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out his plans. The aerospace industry suffered an unprecedented crisis and it was difficult to keep one’s job, let alone get hired for a new position.

Nicholas is one of the fresh NUS graduates whose career plans were derailed by the pandemic, but who adapted quickly to the changing economic landscape and found success in new areas.

He started applying for jobs in January 2020, a few months before the end of his course. At first, he submitted several applications for aerospace jobs. When those were unsuccessful, he cast his net wider.

Charting a new career path

Fortunately, the variety of modules he studied at NUS gave Nicholas the versatility to move into other sectors. For example, he enrolled in modules on project management and the Internet of Things (IoT) in addition to aerospace-related topics. In particular, the IoT module deepened his understanding of the important role of the semiconductor industry that he would eventually work in – almost every device connected to the IoT contains semiconductor chips.

Then-undergraduate Nicholas Soh Keng Siang playing badminton for TeamNUS at the Institute-Varsity-Polytechnic Championships in January 2020. (Photo: Guo Pei)

Nicholas knew that career advisers at NUS were there to help if it took him too long to get a job, but he did not need it in the end. He got his job offer in July 2020 – as a Field Service Engineer at Applied Materials, a California-based company in the semiconductor industry with a research facility at NUS. At around the same time, he received his Bachelor of Engineering with Honours (Highest Distinction) degree.

Nicholas’ job requires him to interact with the company’s clients almost every day. A project module he did at NUS taught him the necessary communication skills and the virtues of giving back to the community – he was second-in-charge of a team of engineering students that designed a portable wheelchair ramp and tested it with patients.

Nicholas said, “coming from an Aeronautical Engineering specialisation and working in the semiconductor industry was extremely challenging. I experienced a steep learning curve at the workplace, as the COVID-19 pandemic prevented me from going overseas for training on the specialised equipment that my company uses for semiconductor fabrication. However, my colleagues and mentor have been a great help in guiding me as well as integrating me into the company.”

Turning the pandemic into a positive force

Meanwhile, the Faculty of Science on the other end of campus has been nurturing its own graduates to thrive in the rapidly changing world. One of them was Cheryl Leong Jia Hui, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Life Sciences with Honours (Distinction), with a specialisation in Biomedical Science and Minor in Philosophy.

Cheryl wanted to be a doctor at first, but she did not get selected for graduate medical school when she applied in her fourth year of undergraduate studies. This prompted her to consider alternative careers. And the COVID-19 pandemic turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

After sketching out a Venn diagram of her interests, she realised that public policy, international relations and strategic planning appealed to her. It so happened that the COVID-19 pandemic was at its height, and she took the opportunity to learn how policymakers addressed the medical, societal and economic problems caused by the coronavirus. She eagerly signed up for webinars, including some by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS, and even a COVID-19 policy hackathon. She found it satisfying to synthesise different kinds of information into a coherent whole.

A diverse and supportive environment

She emailed the career advisers at NUS, who conducted mock interviews for her and empowered her with the courage to make the career switch. She applied for a few SG United Traineeships (SGUT). She credits the SGUT programme for helping her make the leap from science to policy as a fresh graduate with little experience.

Cheryl landed a traineeship with the policy department at the Land Transport Authority and started work in November 2020. Her job included calculating the cost-efficiency of autonomous vehicles using mathematical models, as well as international relations. It was right in the sweet spot of her Venn diagram of interests.

NUS gave Cheryl the skills to do well in the workplace. The diversity of topics she was exposed to at the university made her less prone to being overwhelmed by the new and unfamiliar information that she faces at work every day. The two research projects she did as a student (a research project on rapid detection of bacterial infection and final year project tracing the development of the human brain) also gave her the scientific rigour and logical reasoning that produces good policy analysis.

Cheryl said, “I enjoy teamwork in an intellectually stimulating environment, such as at my present workplace. As the future is uncertain, I want to remain adaptable to change and continue to be interested in a wide variety of issues.”

According to the Joint Autonomous Universities Graduate Employment Survey 2020, close to 94% of NUS graduates secured jobs within six months of their final exams, an increase of three percentage points over the previous year. Read the press release here.