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The Post-Education Journey

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• Dr. Tan Ern Ser •

I have taught many cohorts of students through the years, and it is always a delight to catch-up with them whether at chance meetings, in professional gatherings, university events, or when they drop by at my office.  Some are now in fairly senior positions, while others have somewhat modest achievements career-wise.  I am certain that all my students possess the potential and the credentials to do well.  After all, aren’t they at or near the apex of the educational ladder?  Why then the unequal outcomes?

Ingredients For Career Success
There could be many reasons for this – or perhaps, excuses, depending on how well you are doing.  In some cases, it has to do with marrying the ‘wrong’ person, defined here as a spouse who is unsupportive of one’s career.  This can happen to both men and women, though I suspect that women are more likely to face the shorter end of the stick.  Supportive spouses serve as a sounding board, helping their partners to make better decisions.  They can be a source of encouragement, which is vital in the tough and competitive working environment.  A supportive spouse takes up the slack at home whenever one is facing a time-crunch, or, if both are busy at the same time, a mutually satisfactory solution can be worked out to release one to do the necessary. In short, work life – and, by extension, home life – becomes a collaborative effort.
At the workplace, it helps to have a kind, gracious, understanding, appreciative and affirming boss, one who could provide some clear direction or structure. Not one who would micro-manage but one who empowers you to exercise discretion and experience  the accomplishments.  Indeed, such a person is less of a boss than a facilitator and mentor.  Contrary to what has often been said that people perform best when under the gun, I believe nothing is more motivating than having bosses, actually mentors, who set reasonable targets, allow for some mistakes, and trust the commitment and competence of their subordinates, whom they view as team mates.  People who work under (or, rather, work with) such mentors perform well because they want to, and not because they have to.
Just as important as mentors are colleagues who believe in cooperation and synergy, rather than one-upmanship and zero-sum games. The latter approach may benefit a few individuals – the prima donnas – but it stifles the organisational climate and the morale of otherwise committed and competent staff.  All things considered, I believe a win-win arrangement is desirable and possible, especially in the context of the ‘postmodern’ workplace, where teamwork, rather than the performance of divas, can make all the difference between organisational success and failure.  May I also add that while it is true that some roles are not as visible as others, they may be just as important.

Building A Supportive Environment For Career Success
Unfortunately, the conditions I have outlined above are not so easily secured.  With regard to the ‘right’ spouse condition, I am not suggesting that we keep remarrying until we find the ‘right’ one, even if one has the money to go through this.  Rather, my recommendation is that we should invest time and effort on achieving a strong husband-wife relationship and family unit.  Having a stable, supportive family environment, which entails developing work-life balance, frees one to do what is necessary to build one’s career, or two careers, in the case of dual-career couples.  Many find it challenging building two careers and raising a few kids at the same time.  Should this be the case, the couple would have to mutually decide what their priorities are.

In regard to having the ‘right’ boss, I accept that this can be a tall order, since we rarely have the option to choose our boss.  However, we can demonstrate commitment and competence, and hopefully gain the trust and confidence of our boss.  Yet, this approach may or may not even work.  It depends on, among other things, the latter’s sense of security.  Bosses who feel secure are more likely to be generous, forgiving, nurturing and empowering; qualities which can obviously facilitate your career.  If your boss is of the other extreme, then it makes sense to explore other job options. However, in my view, the bottom-line is that we should always maintain our dignity, regardless of how our bosses treat us.  I think it will be a sad day when we have to kowtow to unreasonable people, no matter how powerful they may be, nor should we lose control of ourselves when treated unfairly.  I am of course not suggesting that we dismiss feedback on our performance, simply because it comes from a ‘bad’ boss.  I believe we should always reflect on our own performance and seek to do better.  We should never become an apple-polisher or lap dog.  We need to have a strong sense of self and dignity, without coming across as disrespectful, arrogant or remote.
Indeed, being friendly and approachable is always a good policy.  I found from my own experience that it is possible to get along with practically everybody – the good, the bad and the ugly in attitude.  Of course, one would probably dislike the latter two types, but it does not mean we cannot work with them.  At the same time, I am not suggesting that we keep all colleagues at a superficial level.  It is important to develop strong relationships, and have friends whom we can count on for support and to collaborate in doing positive things together.

Take-Away Points
Marry someone who is willing to collaborate with you to build a warm and supportive family environment.  A person who is always grouchy, whinny, petty, complaining, and immature probably wouldn’t make the cut.
Look for a boss who feels secure and is competent and willing to be a mentor.  If this is not possible, do not become a lackey or yesman, just to please him.  Maintaining one’s dignity is just as important as professionalism and commitment.

Be a friend.  Build a supportive social network.
Before I sign off, I thought I should respond to a question which some readers may have in mind:  Isn’t it premature to talk about the post-education journey in this Scholarship Guide?  My view is that it is never too early to plan for your future and career, especially where it has become a more turbulent and uncertain world, and the line between school and work is blurring out.

Dr Tan Ern Ser is Associate Professor of Sociology and former Vice-Dean of Students (2006-2011) at NUS. He has won numerous teaching awards and received his PhD in Sociology from Cornell University. He is the author of ‘Does Class Matter? Social Stratification and Orientations in Singapore’ (2004) and has served as survey consultant to various government ministries and agencies.