My Year at Cambridge University
Punting to Grantchester
"Are you punting in a zig zag fashion?", remarked my Vietnamese friend Zung as i punted reluctantly along the River Cam to Grantchester. "But that's all right as long as you are moving forward!", an encouraging remark from June, my Thai friend. My friends and I wanted to experience the finer aspects of Cambridge life. The intense nature of the nine month MPhil course made us thirsty for fun and partying.
For anyone who wants to pursue a postgraduate programme at Cambridge University, i would strongly urge you to apply for a scholarship to finance your studies. I applied for many scholarships and was fortunate to obtain the Shell Centenary Chevening Scholarship to pursue a MPhil Management Studies at the Judge Institute of Management.
England Revisited and Change
To me, it was England revisited and brought me fond memories of my six-month stint at Hydraulics Research Wallingford. That trip to England was the first time i took a plane flight in my life and it was a 13 hour trip from Singapore to England!
I knew that the scholarship and doing the MPhil was a significant milestone and my life was going to change. In fact, the change was timely as it rang the knell of my three year civil engineering career of churning out results from computer models and designing offshore oil platform structures. Somewhere along the line, i realised that i was not a specialist but a generalist who likes to do different things.
My brother, who did his PhD from Cambridge warned me that the MPhil programme will be intense. But it is difficult to imagine what awaits you until you are there physically. The course gives you no wiggle room whatsoever because of the time constraint of a 9 month MPhil programme. It demands you to hit the ground running from day one.
Upon arrival at Cambridge, i was greeted by the silence of Wolfson Court, the postgraduate accomodation grounds of Girton College, a pretty college on the outskirts of Cambridge.
The next day i was geared up for two hour long lectures at Cambridge University's Management School, The Judge Institute of Management Studies. The Judge is a building built out of an old hospital and exudes a more modern style compared to the Gothic architecture of the university.
The teaching style at The Judge was broad based and interactive. I particularly enjoyed Professor Peter Nolan's (who eventually became my supervisor) passionate discourses on China, globalisation, big businesses and development economics. This was just before China became a force to be reckoned with!
Some might question the relevance of development economics to management . But that is where the beauty of Cambridge lies. Apart from the intellectual rigour, Cambridge's distinctive style is to draw on diverse disciplines and equip one with well rounded knowledge. Judge's research goes beyond mainstream management studies and make forays into the fields of finance, economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology and mathematics.
Do not expect to be spoon-fed at Cambridge. The learning style is liberal and you are expected to think on your own which might disappoint some who want a more structured, hand held approach.
Critical thinking, independent reasoning and coming up with your own solutions is what one will face in real life and i feel Cambridge encourages and trains you to do that.
Most MPhil degrees at Cambridge are nine months long which is relatively short compared to a standard one year Masters programme. The nine months is further split into three terms, Michaelmas, Lent and Easter. Be rest assured that each term will see you working very hard. I covered the advanced statistical techniques in just 2 months. The qualitative research methods course kept my nose to the grindstone and saw me digesting everything from symbolic interactionism to organisational theory and coming up with a 4000 word critique of a piece of academic research.
Up against the best
Don't ask me how many books i've read. I have simply lost count of them. Half of my time was spent pacing up and down the Cambridge University Library which is one of the greatest libraries in the Western world. I'll never forget the endless row of books, stuffy book stacks and the "infamous" ancient lift. The nine months seem like nine years! The amount of information i assimilated was tremendous. Imagine the happiness when i ended up as one of the highest scorers for my MPhil Thesis. I considered this a personal victory because i, an engineering and quantitative person managed to excel in an area different from my prior background. But the going was tough, especially when you are up against top students from Princeton, Wharton and top universities from Europe who have substantial background in finance and business.
My philosophy in life has always been to get out of the comfort zone and strive to excel in areas where I think I am not good at. That's how one ultimately succeeds in life. I wouldn't want to do anything twice and i chose the soft qualitative approach at Cambridge. Qualitative subjects are extremely tough and it tests your ability to read, assimilate, summarise and critique the information. There are no wrong or right answers as long as your argument is well supported. This is useful when it comes to the real world.
It's about the people
However, what i really gained academically from Cambridge is secondary. Where else can you have the chance to meet, network and rub shoulders with some of the brightest people from different parts of the world.
Another striking feature is the internationalism of the university. I will always cherish the friends i met here and without coming to Cambridge, i would have never had the opportunity to make life long contacts from Zambia or Vietnam.
Furthermore, where else can you have the chance to come face to face with famous international dignitaries. Attending a talk given by the then World Bank President James Wolfensen at the Keynes Forum, attending the choral service at the world renowned King's College Chapel and dining alongside with Noble Laureate Amartya Sen are experiences that will not have materialised if i had not come to Cambridge.
I will definitely miss the formal halls, black gowns, May Balls and lively street buskers because they brought an element of socialisation and fun in an otherwise quiet shire. I always though that London was 'the cool' place to be in. But a few trips to the crowded and busy city made me realise that i have taken the tranquil and clean atmosphere in Cambridge for granted.
Cambridge has given me the physical and mental space that i yearned for and helped me to become a better person. Even now, 19 years on, i felt that it had an impact on me. The experience pushed the envelope for me and opened me up to an international career in commodities risk management.
Looking back i have no regrets about my year at Cambridge. In fact, i wouldn't hesitate to pursue my undergraduate degree at Cambridge if i were to go back in time.
© 2019 Sivakumar Sathiamoorthy