4 Things to Consider When Choosing Your Subject Combination

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A followup article to this post can be found here.

As a Year 5 student, it’s always daunting to make decisions that will affect the rest of your life. And unfortunately, one of the most crucial decisions you will make  – that of your subject combination – will be made in the first two weeks of you coming into JC. At a time when you barely even know what school is going to be like, your choice will dictate what courses in university you’ll be able to apply to; and ultimately what jobs you can apply for in the future.

So, here are 4 things to consider when deciding your subject combination to help you prioritize what you’re really looking for in your subject combination:

  1. What university courses are you willing to rule out for the rest of your life?

Many people at this stage of their life haven’t figured out what career they pursue – and that’s ok, very few people have. What you should consider though, are the careers that you are perfectly fine with never ever having a chance to do. Are you really ok with never touching anything biology related ever again? Sure you’re not interested in doing medicine/biomedical research/health sciences ever again? Only then will you be sure that you can drop a subject without regretting it later. This is especially important for those taking HEE or other humanities combinations which tend to rule out lots of different university courses (especially if you don’t take Math HL!). The only way you will know whether you’ll regret your decision is if you’re 100% sure that you won’t want to touch anything  requiring a science/math HL/whatever it is you’re dropping.

  1. Know which options are ruled out by your combination

University admissions requirements vary from university to university, and even if they don’t, they’re not always common sense. Some subjects may seem appealing to take right now, but actually aren’t necessary pre-requisites to take the course in university. Case in point:

You do not need to take Economics in JC to take Economics in university.

Yes, that’s right. For many universities, you don’t need to have taken Econs to take Econs. Instead, some universities (mainly UK ones) require you to take HL Math as a pre-requisite (note this includes prestigious universities such as LSE).

If your dream course is to take Economics at the London School of Economics, HSP might seem like an attractive combination that gives you good exposure to the humanities, with a nice scholarship to put on your CV to boot.  In reality though, you actually cannot apply for Economics at LSE if you take HSP, because a HEE combination with no Math HL does not fulfil the pre-requisites for the course.

In addition, there are some requirements that vary from university to university. While NUS does not require Biology HL for its Medicine course (you can do Physics and Chem HL), other universities do. So research on what the pre-requisites really are for the courses that you may want to apply to in the future.

  1. Err on the side of caution

Given your (probable) current indecision on what career you really want to do in the future, it’s better to keep your options open. Especially for those inclined towards the humanities but possibly considering a science-related career (like Medicine), this author advises that you go with the path of least possible future regret.

I like to think about it in terms of future regret: If I’m choosing between doing Journalism and Medicine, it’s better to go with the combination that keeps both of my options open rather than one, aka the science combination. (There are normally no pre-requisites for FASS/Liberal Arts courses). Here’s a diagram representing the future regret of my decision:

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Assuming I don’t know whether I want to do Medicine or Journalism in the future (with equal probability), it would be better to do a science combination. At most, I end up doing journalism and regret two years where I could have enjoyed my time in school more. If I took a humanities combination however, I could experience a lifetime of regret (or spend  3 more years of my life studying in Duke-NUS/the US). This minimizes the chance that I’ll spend my adult days reminiscing about the past and cursing my future self for not knowing better. To me, at this point when I’m uncertain about the future, I would rather choose something that future-me is not going to kill present-me for.

  1. Think about careers, not just courses

The careers unlocked by certain subjects may not actually end up like the subject you’re studying. You may like economics now when you read the JC textbook/popular books about economics, but I’d strongly suggest you read (or at least attempt to read) some of the economics taught in university level courses for what it’s going to be like in the future. *hint: it may not be that similar*. You can find such stuff easily online. If you still like what you see, by all means go down that road, but if you don’t, I’d suggest you think twice about what you want to choose.

Similarly, even if you may like to study the humanities (like history now), one thing I’ve realized is that there are startlingly few careers that are similar to what you’re actually studying now, besides academia or (possibly) public policy planning. Law requires similar skill sets but is still different from what you’ll study in Literature/History, while other careers (journalism, business) are all different from what you do in JC. So while you may think it’s all well and good to follow your passion for subjects now, be aware of what the career options at the end of that road are. If you’ve researched into these options and are still interested in them, by all means pursue the subjects you like. But, if you haven’t taken the time to check out what your expected future careers are actually like (as I suspect a lot of you haven’t), then for the sake of your future spend half an hour googling stuff so that you won’t be clueless.

At the end of the day, the decision of your subject combination is still ultimately yours (or your parent’s). I do hope that this article helps you think about some of the considerations involved in choosing a subject combination, and prepare you for more life decisions you’ll have to make along the way!

 *the above article represents the author’s personal opinions, which, if you haven’t noticed by now, tend to favour a more conservative/traditional science combination

Addendum

A response to this article can be found here, written by an alumni from the school. Do check it out, as it provides a good balanced viewpoint to this article.

The writer’s response can be found below

I’d like to express much thanks to Jeng Yang for his article, especially for the reminder about the importance of passion in deciding your course of study. I’ll list some of the many points in the article that I agree with here:

  1. “those who are in it because they are passionate about the subject are just going to be better than you”
  2. Too few students in Singapore follow their passion in deciding what they want to do
  3. “Quite frankly, if you’re not passionate or interested in your subject, you are ultimately going to be faced with a lot of disappointment.”

I would also agree that my personal opinion as expressed on the article unfortunately happens to further the normative viewpoint of the sciences perpetuated within the Singaporean educational system as a “safer” choice, and tends to take a less-than-positive view of humanities subjects.

That being, said, I’d like to respond to some of the points brought up by his comments:

“The argument about passion isn’t just about being able to reach your full potential or any sentiment feelings as such. Instead, believing that you should take the ‘safer course’ in science is an extremely harmful position to take, especially one to be promoted to our incoming juniors. Quite frankly, if you’re not passionate or interested in your subject, you are ultimately going to be faced with a lot of disappointment.”

I completely agree that if you’re not passionate in a subject you aren’t likely to do well. This article in particular, though, is addressed especially to those who are unsure of what they’re passionate in. Moreover, even if you have passion for a given subject, passions change all the time. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong to make decisions based on passion – in fact, if you have a passion, but all means pursue it in your studies – but rather, if you make a decision based on passion that has future repercussions for yourself, you’d better be darn sure you aren’t going to regret that decision in the future. So yes, pursue your passions, but be sure you know what you’re doing if that pursuit limits other options.

If people are as passionate as you paint them out to be (and I’m sure there are many of such people), then they’ll be willing to forsake other options that they can’t even fathom doing in order to pursue them. If you’re really passionate about the humanities, you wouldn’t regret not being able to do science, so that’s not a problem. But for people with multiple/no passions, the opportunity cost of pursuing them should be considered as well.

“Your article encourages people who are unsure of their goals in life to compete against them (people who are passionate). It is not a stretch of the imagination to find that they are hardly likely to succeed. Worse still, by pursuing the ‘safer path’ of science, you do not allow people to experiment and find out what they are actually interested in doing and pursuing that passion.”

Let me first note that there do exist people who haven’t discovered what they’re really passionate about, or don’t like any of the specific subjects offered by the school. For these people, they’ll have to compete against others who are passionate in their fields anyway. I don’t think any subject combination offers an alternative.

Secondly, and more pertinently – there’s the assumption being made here that taking the option of the sciences is not a form of experimentation? (not literally of course). For someone like me who focussed mainly on the humanities before going into JC, taking HL Science subjects was an opportunity to explore my passion in science and discover what I could potentially be interested in.

The author describes taking science as, at worst, resulting in two years of regret. Respectfully, I wonder if he has considered the prospect of taking science and being utterly outclassed at what he does within science. I would point out that the exact same logic applies to supposedly desirable humanities courses like Law.”

I think the logic here works both ways – regardless of what subject combination you take, you can end up being utterly outclassed at what you do. However, I would like to say that the author could have taken his current course of study (Law at Cambridge) by taking a science combination as well. While he may have been less equipped for the course having not taken history, the option of taking the course would nevertheless be present as well.

Beyond such narrow fields, one must also bear in mind the wide range of careers that are available out there. It is myopic to believe the world is constrained to within a few professional careers. If were to view this pragmatically, through the lens of financial success, such a view would still not stand. The most financially comfortable in our society are those who took the unorthodox view and pursued their passions. Passion is what we as individuals need, and what society needs.”

I agree, and I apologise to the extent that the article selectively focuses on professional jobs as you point out. That being said, there exist unorthodox (or less well known) careers that require a science/math background as well, such as actuary or data analytics. So unorthodox careers exists for both sides of the spectrum, and if you have a passion you can go for them in either case.  Just make sure you know the cost of pursuing your passion.

“You may of course say that one would require certain subjects to pursue their passion and they should be aware of that fact. If they were really passionate about it, it is highly likely they would know about it anyway. Any Year 4’s or 3’s out there interested in, computer programming, for example, would know quite early on from their inevitable self-study that maths is generally a requirement for uni entry. Advice to be mindful of uni entry requirements is really unlikely to have made a difference.”

Actually, based on my personal experience, that doesn’t always tend to be the case for many students deciding their subject combinations. I’ve known seniors who only halfway through pursuing a HEE combination realised that some UK universities required Math HL to study Economics. I also don’t see the harm of additional reminders about university entrance requirements, given that it’s a good thing to think about anyway.

“Secondly, how would you expect to ever be satisfied and happy in something you clearly did as a result of career hedging?

I would note that this is an article about subject combinations, not about university courses or careers. The whole point of taking a subject combination in JC that gives you more options is that if you change your passions later in life (and many people do), you have the option to follow them later on in choosing your university course. It’s entirely possible that someone would only discover his passion to do medicine during a mission/medical trip halfway during JC and want to pursue that at university level despite not having a prior interest in it.

In conclusion, I very much appreciate Jeng Yang’s post, especially for providing an alternative perspective of thinking about subject combinations and pursuing one’s passion, and I hope that the mutual exchange of perspectives here will be enlightening to anyone deciding their subject combination at this point.

Timothy Ong (6.5) is from the graduating batch of 2015. He studied Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics at Higher Level.

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