4 Things To Consider When Choosing Your Subject Combination – A Response

Looking for a second opinion? An alumni from Cambridge shares on why you should think again about your subject combination.


This post is in response to a previous article on the site. The article and the author’s response to this post can be found here.

Dear Year to Year,

I’m a big fan of what you’re doing for the juniors through your informative articles and blog. I think this is really an amazing step to bringing the AC community into social media and really reaching out and establishing the community. Having said that though, I would like to take serious issue with your article ‘4 Things to consider when choosing your subject combination’.

The general gist of the article is that science subject combos are generally more desirable due to their ability to open more doors in uni. What the article does right is that it does correctly point out that one should find what career options are available for a subject combination and, if interested, to pursue it. Further, the article hopes to advice against following one’s passion without knowing the future implications of such a move.

However, it cannot be denied that its treatment of the humanities course is extremely patronising. I take particular offence at the statement that a humanities course has the ability to bring about ‘a lifetime of regret’. It also seems to assume that the principal problem facing our students is that too many students in Singapore seem to be following their passion rather than the practical implications of their course. This hardly seems like a giant problem in Singapore, of all places. In fact, the problem is that there isn’t enough passion in Singapore!

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. There are a couple of reasons why this is true.

Firstly, those who are in it because they are passionate about the subject are just going to be better than you. These people love what they do and they make it a part of who they are. Doctors who want to heal and help people. Lawyers who love to come up with the most creative arguments. Artists who feel the unstoppable yearn for creation. Entrepreneurs who have it in their blood to constantly build something new, not for the money, but for the sheer thrill of it.

Your article encourages people who are unsure of their goals in life to compete against them. 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.

Practically speaking, Med and Law schools are infamous for trying to evaluate the passion-levels of their applicants. This is something you can really hardly fake. If you haven’t had the passion for it, it is highly unlikely that you would ever successfully convince a university to let you in. The advice that taking science as a combination would allow you to ‘reserve’ your slot in Medicine is incorrect. 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.

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.

Secondly, how would you expect to ever be satisfied and happy in something you clearly did as a result of career hedging? Doing so is the textbook recipe for crashing and burning midway through your career. This will of course, sound far-off to many of your readers but I believe many of our seniors can attest to this. I have seen countless students utterly lost and depressed in university for pursuing a degree and career they have no passion in. This is because university and the working world will stress you and test your true commitment to your field. Many end up switching degrees or careers, wasting much time and money in the process. By pursuing the ‘safer path’ of science, you can easily find yourself pigeonhole’d into a job you don’t enjoy, in a life you don’t enjoy, into a job you can’t escape from, into a life you can’t escape from.

Being realistic is of course important. However, on the basis that you’ve gotten far enough, to come into the IB programme, means that you’re probably smart enough to get things done, no matter what you eventually get into. Being unemployable should hardly be a concern for an IB graduate, especially one who is unafraid of working hard.

Personally, I completely understand the perspective of the author. I believe very much that this would have been the exact thing I would have done if it were not for the fact that I did so badly in my trip-science combi in Secondary school that the school forced me to take pure humanities (28 points in Year 4, what up). This is not to say that my views come from any feelings of offence or inferiority. I am perfectly happy with studying law in Cambridge.

Rather, I feel that had the school not forced me to do otherwise, I would have taken a similar route as suggest by the author and find myself seriously disappointed with the practical realities of the situation. I would not have had the courage to stand up for what I was passionate and interested at because the common view, as espoused by the author is that humanities is the frowned upon course. There is a general attitude that a good reason needs to exist before one considers the humanities. No such attitude exist for science. I don’t even need to go into how the Google autocorrect for ‘A humanities degree is’ ends with ‘worthless’. The article helps to reinforce such a stereotype.

I believe I could have started my argument with facts such as the fact that some of the most successful people followed their passion for humanities (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/the-unusual-college-major_n…) and that the lifetime earnings of a humanities and a science student are about the same. However, the general attitude seems to be, strangely that such occurrences are flukes, as if success can be achieved without true 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. Rather, the dangerous implication of the article is that one must be aware of the awesome prospects of science combis, irregardless of passion, and the ‘narrow’ prospects of humanities. The reluctant stance taken at the end towards humanities subjects that ‘If you’ve researched into these options and are still interested in them, by all means pursue the subjects you like’ seems hardly reconciliatory, especially given the warnings that humanities (and only humanities) may give you ‘a lifetime of regret’.

I would also like to point out that contrary to the article, the skills one derives from History is exactly the skills needed in Law. I would have not been half the law student I am now without the encouragement and rigorous teaching of my history teachers, Mr. Chirnside and Mr. Khan.

The job of passing down advice to juniors is an awesome responsibility that Year to Year has bravely taken the initiative to manage. For that, they deserve all the recognition. If I may add my own two cents of what should instead be offered to advice to the juniors, I would say this:

1. Think about what you’re good and passionate in.

2. Come up with a idea of what you might possibly do, work towards it even while knowing things might change in the future

3. Know that people will pay you if you’re good, it doesn’t matter at what. It pays to dream.

I hope this post helps you guys out a little bit. I may of course be completely wrong and that wouldn’t be very unusual but I would like to bear in mind a quote that is dear to me. This is from Henry Truman who once said:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Chia Jeng Yang is currently studying Law at the University of Cambridge.

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Year To Year is a student-run website dedicated to helping you to find out more about school and its banalities/trivialities/peculiarities. We value the unique experiences of seniors and alumni who have walked the journey before, and the wisdom they can impart. We are not formally affiliated to ACS (Independent), and do not reflect any official stance or viewpoint of the school. We are constantly looking out for passionate people interested in joining us as writers or designers to make a difference to the school community. Contact us at joinus@yeartoyear.ac to help out!

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