Should Your University Degree Dictate Your Job?

Apr 10, 2015 1 Min Read


From an ex-Economics student turned marketer

After winning The Apprentice Asia, I started receiving inquiries from students and professionals asking for advice about their careers.

I’d like to share one interesting note which I think a lot of people will be able to relate to:

Hi Jonathan,

My name is Linh from Hanoi, Vietnam, and I am a big fan of “The Apprentice Asia”! I am a high school student and will soon attend university.

I honestly don’t know what course to take but I have some options in mind. I want a course that will help me get a good job; something that I like and something I enjoy doing.

My question is how important is your college course in choosing the job you want to get after graduation? I am afraid to choose a course that might limit my options.

I think I want to get a job in marketing and sales like you because you can go to a lot of companies! I think selling products and making advertisements on TV (television) is exciting. Please share your advice.

Thank you,

Linh is definitely not alone with his concerns. Many high school students (including myself years ago) fear the same thing.

The general answer to Linh’s question (on the importance of paper qualifications for a job) is a yes. Your university degree will greatly influence the job you choose because careers are defined by a set of skills, knowledge and competencies that match with what you learned in school.

Doctors need to study medicine to be able to practise in hospitals. Engineers need to study engineering to be able to participate in construction and architecture projects. Artists take art lessons to refine their creativity, and so on.

However, let me make an exception that this is not strictly the case in all situations.

As you start working, you will realise that many have university degrees that don’t match what they do. I had a boss once in the marketing department who was a Philosophy graduate. I have a friend who works as a producer for a theatre company but finished engineering in school.

It takes more than effective absorption of textbooks and the receipt of a diploma/degree to be successful in a career.

The good news for those who feel “trapped in courses” is that shifting gears is still possible and manageable. You can also still make the most of what you learn in school.

Here are some insights

1. Unless you are taking up a highly-specialised course (medicine, law), know that you can still branch out to other fields that are related to your course.

I’m living proof that your course should not strictly dictate who you will become. Most people think I have a marketing or advertising degree because I’ve been practising marketing for 10 years now, but I actually have a degree in Economics. It’s an intensely mathematical course suited for working in government positions that involve research and analytics.

Have you heard of people who study and predict a country’s inflation rate, GDP (gross domestic product) growth, interest rates, and the like?

That’s a classic example of what could have been my first job. I could have ended up as an economist, analysing growth rates of developing economies for the central bank, but I didn’t.

When I was about to graduate, a telecommunications company recruited me to become a management trainee and I gave marketing a try. Because I was always fascinated with branding, advertising and product development, I went for it.

I realised later that marketing wasn’t just about the glamour of making the most talked about TV commercial or video on YouTube; it also involved a lot of mathematical analyses such as forecasting.

My forecasting acumen (thanks to my Economics degree) has been helpful in marketing — from forecasting my product’s inventory in grocery shelves, or forecasting the number of times a person will likely call, to forecasting the number of times a passenger will travel.

There were many skills and disciplines in Economics that were related to marketing, too — analysis, research, finance, budgeting, and the like.

In most cases, what you learn in university is the general discipline, skillsets and knowledge that will further expand your capacity and tenacity to learn.

Your industry can also be an influencing factor. An engineering graduate who is also creative can work as a marketing or sales executive in the IT (information technology) industry.

And all those folks in Silicon Valley who built and managed their own start-up companies? They’re likely IT or engineering graduates – not marketing or advertising graduates.

2. You have to love what you’re doing to be good at it.

What does it take to become a marketing or sales man? From my personal experience, getting a marketing degree can give you advantage from a theoretical perspective. However, being a successful marketer also involves an immense amount of love and passion for it.

I smile from ear to ear when my brand recently stole market share from my competitor. I get a morale booster whenever I see my brand’s video being shared on Facebook. Simply put, marketing makes me exercise what I’m good at – being creative and strategic.

So even if I often spend sleepless nights developing Powerpoint presentations, or visiting a remote farm to interview a customer under the scorching heat of the sun, I still get motivated to succeed because I love what I’m doing. Likewise, you need to love your job for you to be good at it.

3. You will learn the most while doing the job, more than anything else.

You may have heard of the popular 70-20-10 model of learning and development based on a research crafted by Morgan McCall, Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership.

In this study, they concluded that lessons learned by successful managers come from the following sources:

  • 70% from doing the job (doing the job routinely and repeating what works)
  • 20% from people (feedback and observation shared by your boss, colleagues, etc.)
  • 10% from courses and reading (from school books, online articles, case studies of other businesses, etc.)

What does this mean? It means that even if you miss all the marketing lessons in university, you still have the opportunity to catch up as long as you persevere to learn (and be humble) while on the job.

I made many mistakes when I developed my earliest TV commercials. As I did more, I made less and less mistakes as I got better at it.

Practice perpetually breeds perfection. I was always a curious learner. I loved asking questions from my mentors and bosses, even if it got to the point of irritating them at times.

I requested to sit in at meetings of other marketing departments that had nothing to do with my project because listening taught me a lot of things. I went to events and concerts organised by other industries so I could learn and apply best practices.

Learning by doing was my mantra. This, coupled with an open mind to constantly ask people for feedback on what they think I can further improve on, and constantly reading articles and watching videos on the Internet about success and failure stories of popular brands — I found my way towards becoming a marketer.

Take this advice with a grain of salt

Of course, not everyone will fall into the same situation as I did. I am arguably a fortunate case of being at the right time, at the right place and with the right heart.

This article is not declaring that anyone can be an instant marketing or sales executive regardless of his/her course I in university (the marketing geniuses of our times such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t even finish college, mind you).

Neither is this article suggesting that marketing students and lecturers are simply wasting their time. Marketing students study dozens and dozens of case studies about the rise and fall of various companies and brands, so they are obviously more knowledgeable than an engineering or education student.

This article celebrates the fact that we are living in a time when opportunities are plentiful, whether they may be in the fields of marketing, medicine, or law. Opportunities can be tweaked to our advantage. Today, technology has levelled the playing field to almost equal for everyone.

If you succeed, please do reach out and share your success story with the rest of the world. Good luck!

To engage Jonathan for organisational work in your organisation, email us at or drop us a line or two in the comment box provided. For more Career Advice articles, click here.

Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 11 April 2015

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Jonathan is the winner of The Apprentice Asia and is currently based in Kuala Lumpur as the managing director of The JY Ventures & Consultancy. He is also an author of the book From Grit to Great, and a Leaderonomics faculty partner.

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