Getting an Economics Degree at NUS

A key reason why I have been teaching Economics as a subject exclusively for so many years now, is that I had started as an undergraduate at National University of Singapore (NUS) studying Economics, eventually graduating at the end of 2013 after 4 years with a B.Soc.Sci. (Hons) 2nd Upper.

A number of my students professed keen interest in furthering their studies in the subject of Economics. They were often curious about what it was like as a student majoring in Economics, and I was in a good position to answer their various curiosities.

Of course it wasn’t just students who wanted to know more about the NUS Economics programme. Parents were naturally concerned with the impending choices that would determine future career trajectories to a large extent. 

It is to these ends that I am sharing about my experiences furthering my studies in Economics at NUS today. 

Why Economics?

When I graduated from MJC in 2006, like many of my cohort-mates, I wasn’t entirely clear on what I would like to do more than 5 years from then – it all seemed very abstract given the time-frame.

Ironically, though I wasn’t a spectacular student, scoring 3As and 1B for my 4 subjects (no H1/H2 back then) did allow me the enviable position of picking subjects that I would love to pursue.

Ultimately after some days of head-scratching after the release of my “A” level results, I decided that Economics seemed the least disagreeable to me and it was a subject that I had excelled at.

Besides, looking at the big-shot bankers and cabinet ministers, many of whom hold good degrees in Economics, it can’t be a “wrong” subject – right?

And why at NUS?

With my choice made about the subject I was to pursue, actually this was a very easy question to answer.

At least in my day (I feel so old now), NUS’ Economics course was considered to be the most established amongst the local universities. At that time when SMU was challenging the old-fashion style of teaching (i.e. big lecture groups and sizeable tutorial classes with emphasis on academical rigour), NUS’ Economics course was unapologetically rigorous in hard theoretical frameworks.

It is my belief that schools are where students should be taught hard academic theories well, and soft skills should be picked up through part-time pursuits, be it internships or even giving tuition.

Therefore NUS’ Economics course strongly appealed to me and it was a no-brainer for me to apply to NUS’ Faculty of Arts and Social Science (FASS) to study.

The above was my official statement in justifying my application to NUS. Of course there were also unofficial reasons and one of them was that I wasn’t keen on filling all 12 choices for my application and then paying multiple universities for the the applications.

The less-than-convenient truth was that FASS wasn’t the hardest course to enter, and with my results, it was definitely a shoo-in. So I confidently entered FASS as my only choice and left it at that, to pursue leisure and part-time work before serving my National Service.

Was Economics at NUS easy to study?

As you study at NUS, you will be expected to fulfil various subject requirements in order to graduate, in addition to Economics. In short, there are various ways you can do well (or badly) and your Economics course, while forming the bulk of your requirements, is not the only factor in determining whether you will have an “easy” time in NUS.

I personally knew people who did very well at Economics, and struggled with their cross-subject grades. Likewise, there were people like myself, who made use of these cross-subjects to balance against some of my weaker Economics modules, such as Econometrics, and did relatively well overall.

When it came to the Economics subjects themselves, there wasn’t a straightforward answer in many cases either as the actual content taught depends largely on the lecturer and what he wants to do that semester.

Case-in-Point 1: EC3371 – Development Economics I

What was touted to be a “very easy” subject amongst students proved to be my Achilles’ heel that semester. As most people would know, your grades are ultimately governed by the “bell curve” and it meant that I couldn’t find any competitive foothold to gain good marks against the rest.

In the end, the “easiest” subject gave me the most atrocious score of “B-” and generally hurt my overall grades.  

Case-in-Point 2: EC3341 – International Economics I

Disappointed with EC3371, I took a different tack, and picked a module that students generally avoided as its then lecturer, Prof. Tomoo Kikuchi, was generally known to utilise difficult mathematics almost exclusively to teach.

Except – things didn’t go to plan.

Apparently, that semester, Tomoo received feedback about his lessons being too “unrealistic for real world situations” and decided to utilise project-based case-studies instead for the coursework!

In the end, it became a story of luck (I had great project-mates) and my determination to prevail still ensured a “fairy-tale” ending of an “A” grade. But it wasn’t easy at all!

Case-in-Point 3: EC4302 – Macroeconomics III

Prof. Basant Kapur was pure terror for students in general. Known for his penchant in slaughtering students at his classes and exams (my favourite story was how he loudly told his best student to “use his common sense” when he had a query during the exam), students except the best in the cohort studiously avoided his course.

Except some crazy souls like myself who decided to have some “fun” before I graduated. Life’s too short to not try crazy things from time to time!

I was pushed to my limit that semester, and I was really happy to get a “B” grade at the end, which was really ok to me considering that the class was extremely competitive. Definitely wasn’t easy!

I could go on and on about my various stories. But my point is that there is no magic bullet to getting good grades.

Yes, I chose modules that played to my competitive advantages. But there were many occasions where I had to dig very deep to maintain good grades. You could just about get by on minimal effort if you intend to graduate with a B.A. in Economics, but to get a good Honours grade, you have to be prepared to work very hard.

For my last semester, I took a highly unusual step of taking a Leave of Absence and delayed my graduation date by half a year to work with the late Prof. Anthony Chin on my Honours Thesis (EC4401).

It was a long 1 year journey that was very tough, but in the end, my efforts paid off and I gained a wealth of experience that many students missed out on, in writing my thesis.

Was Economics at NUS what I had expected?

Short answer – no!

I hadn’t realised at the beginning how much mathematics had come to govern “the laws of Economics”. I actually thought it would have been just extensions of what it was like in JC (i.e. just writing essays).

A key takeaway for me though, was that if teachers in JC actually taught students the fundamental mathematics of various Economic principles (such as elasticities and marginal units), without brushing them off as “too complicated for JC students”, many students would have struggled less and not have to resort to draining memory work for “A” level Economics.

The truth is that Economics taught to JC students are simplified versions of many mathematical principles. Think about the many graphs taught – aren’t they mathematical in nature?

In the end though, I adapted and did well enough to graduate with a good Honours degree. So again, it’s about taking charge of your life and doing well for yourself.

What are the career prospects like for the Economics graduate?

The Economics degree is a highly flexible bargaining chip for a surprisingly large number of jobs. The best known ones are public service jobs, in particular for policy formulation.

Economics graduates are also commonly in demand for jobs that require strong quantitative analytical background, often due to the statistical background in Econometrics, which is a core subject in the NUS Economics course.

In fact, a significant number of Data Scientists today are Economics graduates and as you can imagine, it’s a really hot job in today’s data-driven society!

I am myself working in the IT Project Management field and my Economics background has been really helpful in understanding the products’ business requirements and the formulation of KPIs to track the systems’ performance and project implementation.

Do you have any further comments or queries about getting an Economics degree? Feel free to ask me in the comments section below! 

For more information about my services as a JC Economics tutor, do visit my website here

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