I met up with a friend recently who was in my MBA class. He’s in his late 30s with wife, kid, condo, car, the whole ball-and-chain. And of course, we started talking about our classmates and how everyone was doing. One of our Vietnamese classmates had just been made partner in the big accounting firms KPMG.

“I wish I’d done a professional degree like Accounting, or Engineering, or Law. Instead of something general like Business Studies, which  Tom, Dick and Harry has. It doesn’t matter so much when you are young, but when you hit your late 30s and 40s, you will realise having a general degree, with a general skillset, makes you very dispensable. If you have a professional degree, and then do your MBA, it becomes so much more valuable when you are hitting middle and upper management. That’s how you can get made Partner in a major firm, instead of like me, languishing in some small company because my skills are so general.”

Our friend was an accountant by education and worked as a civil servant in Vietnam. After her MBA, she landed a job at KPMG in Vietnam, and worked her way up to becoming a full Partner, the top layer of the accounting world. A Partner owns a share of the company, with shares to the profit, and the accompanying prestige. Partners are often sought after by other companies to be the Chief Finance Officer etc.

The view from the position of a 20-something, and the hindsight view (20/20, as they always say) of a late-30-something, is therefore almost polar opposites.  So the 3 takeaways I got from my old and wise friend were:

1. A specialized professional degree makes you stand out

If you haven’t made up your mind what to do, a general business degree seems a good idea (in the Singapore context) where you get more choices in terms of the courses you can take. However, a specialized degree, especially when you build upon it with experience and further training (e.g. Chartered Accountant, MBA), can place you in a position far above the madding (or maddening!) crowd. In this day and age when competition is so stiff, you want to differentiate yourself, instead of being one of many.

2. A specialized professional degree gives you the big bucks

Ok, traders and investment bankers on Wall Street also make big bucks, and apparently some of them don’t even have A levels, just a lot of guts and luck. And yes, you can get there with a general business degree. However, it is not easy to get on Wall Street either. The other way is to be a professional something – doctor, lawyer, accountant, dentist, vet….  It may require a lot of hard work and training but the rewards are good.

3. A professional degree makes you less dispensable

Specialized professional degrees often deal with the core functioning of a country, or a company – e.g. the world can do without another Director, Business Development, but it cannot do without its lawyers and doctors and accountants. You need the doctors to take care of the people earning money, accountants to count the money, and the lawyers to argue about who gets the money (OK maybe we don’t need the lawyers…. but then we’d need assassins and bodyguards instead…Now those are old professions.)

So which do you agree with  – a general degree or a specialized degree?

This post was written as a response to Not Sure What To Major In? Go To Business School.” which extols the virtues of choosing a more generalized degree, like Business, instead of something more specialized, like Accountancy.

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