Monday, May 31, 2010

How to Get First Class Honours in Economics at NUS

How to Get First Class Honours in Economics at the National University of Singapore (NUS)

I noticed that this is the most popular post on my blog, with thousands of views each year. I've made some edits to this post for language, clarity, and context on 24 April 2020. I've also added bonus material to enhance the post. Hopefully, this keeps this article relevant and useful. 

I am delighted that I received my First Class Honours [equivalent to obtaining Honours (Highest Distinction) in today's context] and can finally graduate from NUS. 

My education has been an enriching experience for me in terms of meeting many interesting people, going on student exchange, and all the things that I have learnt there - German, economics, history, USP modules, and relationships. So, it is time to give back and share some pointers on how to get First Class or Highest Distinction in Economics. 

How does one get a First Class Honours in Economics at NUS?

I think no one can say definitively how to get a First Class or Highest Distinction in any discipline, let alone one as difficult as Economics. 

But I can share some strategies or experiences, and those can maybe inspire or help you achieve your goal. 

1. You have to be willing to work long and hard. I mean really long hours and hard work. Long hours: I spent between five to twelve hours in the Central Library every day - on top of lectures and tutorials. Hard work: for instance, for Econometrics - a bane of existence for most undergraduates unless they're math majors - I did the entire textbook... at least thrice. 

In any case, the harder something is, the more valuable it is. In a similar vein, the harder it is to get First Class or Highest Distinction, the more valuable the final result. 

2. You need to get help for mathematics and statistics. Unless you're a math major or a stats major, it is very likely that you're in the same position as I was - you know some math and some stats, but you can't seem to prove the Stolper-Samuelson theorem or Rybczynski theorem. 

I mean, even though I did the module and once knew how to do to the Rybczynski theorem by heart, it was thanks to getting good help from my trusty friend, Mr Quek. He helped me out also for Econometrics 2 - a killer module. Get help from real mathematicians or real statisticians. They can help us. 

I have to point out that getting prepared for university economics by doing mathematical economics is useful, but insufficient. University economics is a lot harder than it seems, unless you are once again a math or stats major. 

Taking this to a broader point, you have to will yourself to do better in maths and stats. Brush up on whatever fundamentals you had earlier, and commit to doing as much math and stats as you can stomach. It has worked for me, and will likely work for you too. 

(There's a related point here, on econometrics. The vast majority of human beings do not find econometrics easy to do. Only a certain rare breed breeze through econometrics, or can understand the beauty of vectors. I was not one of them. But through hard work, paying a lot of attention to my weaknesses, and hours in the library, I managed to overcome not one, but two, econometrics modules and obtained good grades for them. This just goes to show you that it is possible if you try. Don't give up on econometrics just yet.)

3. You need to get friends. This is related to point 2, but point 2 is about the importance of mathematics and statistics and how your A level math or whatever isn't going to give you any advantage. 

Friends on the other hand... help you with tutorials, help you with lectures, lend you materials, give you heads-up... what else can I say? Get friends who are good at economics! Quod erat demonstrandum. 

Taking this to a broader point, you'll come to realise that studying is not entirely a solitary event. If you are able to have a group of friends who can inspire you, help you, and even better still, challenge you, you will learn and grow. Think of it in a positive way. 

4. You need to get a good supervisor, and start working early on your thesis. 

This is because in NUS, when I was a student there, one needed to get an A- or better for the thesis to get First Class Honours, on top of a sterling CAP of above 4.5. 

Nowadays, I understand things are different. 

But it would not hurt to get a good supervisor, who cares about you and your grades, and who wants to help you succeed. I have been blessed to have had a supervisor who cared for me and wanted me to do well. I have also been blessed that two of my ISM Professors (Independent Study Modules) helped me hone my research skills with their care, concern, and content. It just goes to show that it makes a lot of sense to search for a good supervisor early. 

In a similar vein, if you start working hard on your thesis earlier, and get a head start on understanding what it is you are researching on and compiling your datasets, the race is half won. 

These are relatively self-evident arguments, so I won't explain further. 

Finding a good supervisor and a good thesis topic, fruitful for research, are all topics that can take up entire posts or even entire blogs!

5. You need some luck. If you're reading this post, I'll have to be really honest with you and say that luck plays a small but significant role. 

As the years go by, and I look back upon my academic achievements, I can honestly say that it pays to be lucky. So perhaps, pray hard for luck. 

Not everything is due to you. We cannot know everything. Be intellectually humble. 

It was luck that I found a substitute topic for my behavioural economics thesis on reference points.

It was luck that when I ran econometric models, they turned out well after all and I found loss aversion, the result that I was looking for.

It was also luck that despite me not being able to solve the mathematical problems inherent in my research methodology, I still got a First Class as the examiners were willing to see beyond the mathematics. It was a challenging yet interesting topic, after all. It was a hard fought battle but luck was on my side.

I have to mention this: I can't find the site, but there was once a girl called Audrey (Lin? I believe) who wrote about her getting First Class Honours at NUS as well. She had a challenging last semester, doing all sorts of hard modules on top of the thesis, and then eventually she got her degree. She seemed to have a harder time than me (I completed the USP in Year 4 Sem 1.) 

However, she attributed it to God helping her (in addition to thanking her family). I think that was humble and correct of her. She is absolutely right. When it comes to studying and research, hard work is important, but luck plays a significant role.

Anyways, I've to conclude now. 

Once again, thank you to all my friends and your kind support! 

If you're an undergraduate at NUS seeking that elusive First Class (Highest Distinction) at NUS, good luck to you and do keep my advice in mind. 

We "old birds" know how hard it is, and respect you if you're willing to give your degree your best shot. Consider it a tournament. Consider the degree valuable. After all, I myself did enjoy my research before getting my honours. 

And best of luck! 

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