Thatchu Selvarajan: Reaping the Benefits of Studying & Working Abroad

Pursuing a degree outside Malaysia can be an expensive option these days with unfavourable exchange rates and rising education costs worldwide. However, students with a desire to study abroad can always look into the possibility of undertaking a partnership programme with a local university which may mean reduced years abroad but all it matters is the eye-opening experience and the journey it takes you right through to that mortarboard moment. Over the years, many universities have adopted such partnerships for various programmes, be it Engineering, Law or even Pharmacy. Having experienced this myself pursuing a twinning programme with SEGi University and the University of Sheffield, UK, I can attest to the cost effectiveness and practicality of this path. In fact, it can be more of a plus point as you wouldn’t have to deal with the first year of university being so overwhelming thousands of miles away from home. Get the hang of university in Malaysia for a year or two and then venture out to complete the second half of this exciting adventure.


As with any degree programme, there are always opportunities to expand your horizon while abroad besides studying abroad. Most Universities abroad these days are so well equipped with top notch systems in place to provide more than an education for students. As I mentioned earlier, it is not only about that wonderful certificate at the end of the degree programme, but also discovering opportunities to find yourself: your passion, an alternative career or even life path, learn new cultures, meet exciting personalities and build a lifetime of friendships. Get a part time job while studying, be it waiting tables, working as a volunteer at the University, or help out in a local shop. If you think having a part time job during term time is challenging, remember that semesters abroad only last 12 weeks. That’s only 24 weeks of facing the books in a year! Don’t forget there is over half a year remaining for you to do all of this.


Summer internships or placement years in the industry are a fantastic way to dip your toes in the water to see if you like a certain career path or the idea of working abroad. Although the idea of working abroad is always glorified, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I had zero intention of doing a year in industry or a sandwich course (as some may call it) or even pursuing a career in the UK when I first landed here 5 years ago. But seeing my friends apply for a placement years or summer internships in Autumn for opportunities in the following Summer or Autumn got me thinking (Yes, jobs for Sept start getting advertised about 12 months before and assessments begin almost immediately). Why not try it out? If I don’t, will I regret? If I do, will it be a waste of time? Very close to the end of my 3rd year, after not making the cut in 3 assessment centres in 10 days, I succeeded in my very last one for a summer internship at a company in Bristol, UK. After some thought, I requested for a placement year instead of a summer internship, and it was arranged fortunately. If I had any doubts on where I’d like to pursue my career going forward, my first couple of months into the role quashed all of it. This then begs the question, how many students abroad are missing out on the opportunity of gaining this experience while trading off the comforts of home, having familiar faces around and a familiar spoken accent?


As much as the fear of being left out, being the odd one out, or not fitting in, people are more friendly, open and accepting than you may think. Call it luck, but there was never a day at work I felt like I was left out, or did not feel at home. Colleagues do acknowledge the different origins and cultures, and they actively show a genuine interest in learning more about it which creates a healthy relationship. 12 months is not a long time, and it is crucial to make the most out of this to decide what your best option after graduating is: what role would you like to be in, what industry would you like to be in, etc. This can be done by speaking to senior people in the company and your line manager who is usually the most dedicated person in helping you grow and develop. Take up different roles, secondments, suggest ideas, participate, ask questions, most importantly have fun, it’s all that matters at the end of the day honestly. I was thrown in the deep end during my placement, and by the end of the year, I was negotiating prices with suppliers in deals worth more than I could even imagine. This progression is due to the consistent mindset I have noticed in the way management is done abroad, where they allow you to make mistakes and fall but will never let you fail.


I swear by this piece of advice from my personal tutor at University – it’s asking “Why not?” when an opportunity arises. Every kid would have heard the words “If you never try, you’ll never know,” and it is something that resonates very close with me now. After my year placement had changed my opinions on my career aspirations, the next challenge was to get a graduate job out of University. A common trend I have seen in students studying abroad is the expectation of landing one without perseverance. There were one too many times where I was close to calling it quits in the endless applications for jobs for both internships and a graduate job. Rejection after rejection, as frustrating as it sounds, is inevitable but I hadn’t stopped applying. It may sound fictitious, but to land my industrial placement, I applied to almost 80 companies and failed numerous times. And every time I got rejected, I learnt something new about myself that I needed to improve: my style, my lacking areas or even roles that I may not be suited for in truth. That immensely helped me in my final year’s search for a job as it took me just about a month or two into the semester to get the job I am in right now.


Speaking to various people on the best practices of job applications, I learned a couple of main strategies. I call it quantity or quality. Firstly, quantity. As the name suggests, you would apply to as many places as possible but TAILOR your approach to each company. This can be time-consuming and frustrating at times but can be effective when the applicant has skills gaps and a lack of experience. Quantity was my approach when I applied for the placement year. The other approach which I employed when applying for a graduate job is quality, where you would research into specific companies you’re interested in and apply to roles in which you genuinely have an interest. You spend days or even weeks perfecting an application but only apply to a handful of potential employers with high-quality applications. Again, this is only from my experience and is very much dependant on the situation and the applicant’s circumstances.


The reason I advocate having experience abroad especially in times where regulations are getting tighter is to encourage you to have tried it, tested it before deciding that it is not something you see yourself doing. The moment you leave the country where you have pursued your higher education, the chance of landing a job there again diminishes significantly. Whereas, if you were to give it a try abroad, there is ALWAYS a safety net in your home country where you can head back to any day when you decide that this may not be something you enjoy. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.


Summarising my point of your study abroad options when the finances are tight, twinning programmes are an excellent cost effective way, make the most of it if possible! The experience you would gain is unrivalled, what’s the worst that could happen? You discover that you hate everything abroad and simply come back to Malaysia for your next step in your career. And when abroad, double up on the experience by doing an internship or a year in industry, your views will change one way or another. Never let regrets have a chance of getting to you 🙂


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 Written by: Thatchu Selvarajan

Thatchu is a Malaysian engineer currently working in the UK. Before, he was a student at the University of Sheffield who was relentlessly applying for jobs. He was in your shoes very recently and knows how intimidating and confusing it is. That’s why Thatchu is a mentor on FutureLab who is happy to help you land your first job after college.