The ugly truth – finishing a degree to start another one

NEWS flash: 15 years of education haven’t really prepared you to face the world. No, now you need 20. Marcella Purnama deals with the disappointments of finding a job as an international student.

Photo: shho

Photo: shho

News flash: 15 years of education hasn’t really prepared you to face the world. No, now you need 20.

Most of us have gone through six happy years of primary school, the place where we first made friends, bruised our knees and broke some rules. Then we had six exciting years of high school, the place where we first made enemies, got attracted to the opposite sex and started our first serious learning.

And then most of us began university life.

But after moving half way across the world and enduring three years of sleepless nights combined with a dozen different part-time jobs, international students are nowhere closer to achieving their career dreams.

In an era where education matters, it’s as if work doesn’t matter. I have stopped counting the number of friends who are unable to get a job after graduation. In the end, they work part-time in yet another retail store, or worse, they end up going back to their home countries.

Not all international students invest $100,000 to come here, receive an education and make their way back home. We want experiences, we want to get a job and we want to put our skills on the table.

The most common rejection letter my friends have received includes the line, “Based on some factors critical for success in the job to which you applied (e.g. skills and experience) you were not the most competitive candidate … and the company’s policy is for their candidates to have permanent residency.”

A friend who graduated from a Master of Business Information Systems earlier this year said to me, “When I’m on holiday and want to apply for an internship, they ask for permanent residency. If I haven’t graduated yet, I can’t apply for permanent residency. Now when I’m applying for work they ask for experience. But no one wants to give me a job because I’ve got no experience. But how can I get any if no one will give me a chance?

“Companies ask for a minimum of three-year experiences in a related field for a graduate programmer position. I’ve even checked the websites twice to console my disbelief.”

Despite Melbourne’s recent nomination as the world’s most livable city, I still have my doubts. The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows unemployment rates have risen to 5.3 per cent. Almost 26,400 people have lost their jobs and The Age economists predict another 100,000 will lose their job by the end of the year.

If companies are letting go of their experienced workers, they’re not going to be hiring newbies.

So the ugly truth is, a bachelor degree only prepares most international students for yet another degree, at least, that’s what has happened to me.

A psychology student, I just learned that while we were sitting in lecture theatres for three years, swallowing theories like they were the Bible, first year students in New Zealand were visiting child care centres, putting those same theories into practice.

Is it the education system? Or is it just me?

So after weighing up the prospect of months and months of unemployment, international students like me will be considering an alternative – a Master’s degree or PhD. Another three to four years of education which doesn’t guarantee us a place in the workforce anyway.

And now for the second ugly truth. There’s no guarantee we will get into a Master’s or PhD program either.

In order to do Master’s in psychology, you need to get an honours degree. Roughly 10 per cent of the students who enroll in honours get in. So out of the 700 odd students studying psychology, only 70 of them will be accepted into honours.

And how many of these 70 students will eventually get into Master’s? 20. I’m betting they will have to be H1 students.

Am I being overly pessimistic?

Undergraduate international students not only need to strive for the prize called H1, they still have to worry about their future, doing part-time jobs and applying for internships.

Do we stand defeated in an ailing economy, walking past retail stores with ‘closing down sale’ signs on their doors?

I just hope this is still university and not a pressure cooker.

There are 5 comments

  1. Steph

    Hi Marcella

    Totally understand what you mean – I studied Psych & Marketing as my double majors and the chances of getting into Psych honours or a postgrad diploma were as slim as an anorexic earthworm. Yes, it’s difficult to get work experience here, your success depends on several factors, and I don’t think being an undergrad here means you have to get another degree.

    1. your industry e.g. in marketing, you can even lose out internships (!) to candidates with more experience than you.

    2. your persistence – I know someone who sent 300 resumes for work within a week and she got a job within a month of graduating

    3. your resourcefulness – imagine how many people apply for jobs on Seek? There are thousands of applicants for each role – even stupid roles have a few hundred. It’s hard to stand out unless you had straight A’s, helped in cancer research and won all the scholarships in uni. There are other avenues to find work – social media, for one, is incredibly useful (lots of companies are starting to search for talent through LinkedIn and Twitter, for example), looking in the classifieds, looking in niche web communities – basically, getting out there and not relying on only one or two channels to find work.

    By the way, RMIT students get a huge leg over more academic uni students e.g. Melbourne Uni because they get industry placements that double as work experience. (Boo..) But as far as I know to be an accredited psychologist you need to do a postgrad degree..?

  2. Marcella

    Hi Steph!

    thanks a looooot for your advice – I definitely agree on the use of social media, and I really think that companies highly value experiences, but it’s just so hard to find one (due to competition etc..). but yep, to be a ‘real’ psychologist, you need to do 6 years of study (which means 3 years of undergrad, 1 year of hons, and 2 years of master/phD). yet it’s soo hard even to get into honours…

    i think RMIT has a good intern system (they do give work placements to their students, right?) compared to Melbourne uni… We are bombarded more with theories instead of those expertise that we need to have to work…

    nevertheless, thanks for your advice 😉

  3. Malificent

    Interesting take!

    I do agree. The education system here, or perhaps, perhaps a little broader than just that, might equip us with a whole host of theoretic jargon and feel-good groups in tutorial sessions weaving theoretical, circumstantial fairytales but little opportunity to practice it in a real-world, professional setting.
    This is where the problem lies that even the TAFE syllabus, supposedly based in a more ‘hands-on’ curriculum, has failed to solve.

    We end up with students armed to take on hearsay situations but no idea about the multi-layered nature of a work setting, all fighting to take the very few entry level positions which will admit them without any experience.
    Its a big problem, because companies today, reluctant to put resources into training an individual, are in the business of a win-lose situation – win for them, lose for you. Its common to see entry level positions with similar type salaries requiring a few years of experience from the candidate.

    An example: RMIT’s JD program has made some progress in the sense that it provides current students to shadow a magistrate, operate in moot courts helmed by top prosecutors who actually work as prosecutors in the real world, and other progressive type practices. Other programs have yet to follow through.
    I’ve had some feedback from legal practitioners that the legal grads at RMIT come far better armed at workplace integration and innovative thinking than, though better regarded than RMIT U, the traditional academia of Melbourne U.

    Until universities realise that the terms ‘student experience’ and ‘education’ shouldn’t just be relegated to library stacks, theoretical assignments and essay tomes with grading rubric based on 1970s practice – we’ll continue to see students released into the professional wilderness (figuratively speaking of course!) poorly equipped, bewildered and frustrated at the lack of positive response to what they were taught to expect at university.

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