BSc Economics and Political Science (2011)
I've recently started to study a graduate degree in Economics and Statistics at Columbia University. Up to that point I had been working for two years as a Political Adviser for Economic and Foreign Policy at the Prime Minister's Office in Sweden.
I started working at the Prime Minister’s Office during my second year at Birmingham. In my final year I tried to manage overseas work with full-time university studies. It was hectic at times, but it worked out in the end. After I graduated I continued to work for another year while I completed my applications for graduate studies in Economics and Statistics. A year later, I am now a master’s student at Columbia University in New York, and my next plan is to go to law school in the autumn of 2013.
I am very happy with where I am today, and I think it is a combination of three factors: my experience at Birmingham and everything that it involved, sheer luck, and not missing out on opportunities when I had the chance to grab them.
I have always wanted to study in America. To be able to do that and also study something that I am passionate about is something I am very grateful for. Regarding my two-year work experience, I think what I liked the most was the fact that I worked for a person whom I most strongly believed in. Two other important factors were wonderful colleagues and the fact that it felt like I was working for a good purpose; it felt meaningful.
I knew I wanted to study Economics and Political Science (UCAS code LL12) . I then simply picked the five universities offering this program with highest rankings in Economics and Political Science, respectively. When I had to make a choice in the end after getting admitted, three factors were faculty, size and city. I researched the faculty, and was impressed with what I saw. I also thought studying at quite a large university would be a good idea, because it generally means there is a large and vibrant student community, with a lot of diverse student societies and events. Finally, I preferred studying at a university close to a city. In the end, choosing Birmingham was not a difficult decision.
Even though I studied very theoretical courses I found that I have been able to really apply much of what I learned at Birmingham later in my job. International Political Economy is a great module to understand more about international economics and politics. Political Analysis for me was "applied philosophy", because I learned to reflect upon the concept of truth, and what is as contrary to what we can actually know. This module is essential for anybody who wants to either understand or conduct academic research. I also really enjoyed Game Theory because of its practical relevance in almost any situation where people interact. Lastly I would recommend Political Economy and Economic Policy, since it helped me understand more about how politicians act in different situations, and how such behaviour can be frustrating for the public, but also rational at the same time. Nevertheless, I would like to end by mentioning what I think for many is perhaps the greatest learning experience, and that is communication skills.
Do not wait until the day of the deadline to write your essays. Start early, bring outlines to your professors and get feedback, write drafts and let your friends read them, and then revise and rewrite before you hand them in. The same goes for seminars; do not only the required readings, but also recommended readings, and readings that you find on your own in the library or in academic databases.
If you see your stay at Birmingham as a multiple-year writing and debating exercise you will be so much better prepared when you graduate. Great communication skills are essential not only when you apply for jobs or graduate degrees, but also in almost any job that you do.
I think what is easy at Birmingham is to get a lot out of it, by which I mean that it is almost guaranteed that you will learn a lot. Because the more you learn about something the more you realize how little you actually do know. In the modules I chose, I think the load of course work was manageable; sometimes it was demanding, and I liked that because the only way to grow is by challenging yourself.
Something that might be a bit difficult that requires some organizing on the student’s behalf is doing the reading. At the university you want to go for depth, but you also want width, so you need to learn how to read many different academic papers in a short period of time. Many people are used from high school to read only one book or so per subject, and this transition in reading habits can be challenging for new university students.
If you get stressed, remember that most people have been in your situation before, and that it is often better to read fewer papers and make sure you understand them, rather than speeding through many papers but not really knowing what they are about.
The Careers Centre was very helpful when it was time for me to apply for a graduate degree. They helped me with my CV and gave me feedback on my personal statement. I went there a couple of times to ask for advice on how best to promote my working experience when I wrote my applications, and whom I should ask for letters of recommendation. It was convenient and I always received great assistance. On the matter of my degree, it has been helpful both in my graduate coursework and in my professional career. I mean, first of all I would have got neither of them if I had not graduated, and also had performed fairly well. Second, the skills that I attained, which I mentioned before, have been crucial – especially my improved communication skills.
I think what is most memorable in particular from my time at Birmingham is all the choices that were available that I earlier thought were only available at American universities. You have the big and beautiful campus area, the second largest city in the United Kingdom, more canals than in Venice, and (at the time when I was studying at Birmingham) four Premier League football teams. In the same day you can attend an academic conference, watch the latest exhibition at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, meet up with friends at the Guild of Students, and later go and watch a football game. I think diversity is the key word here, and that is what I would recommend.
I think it is common for most people to feel like 5-10 years older when they graduate from university. At least that is what I did. Since I came from another country, there were so many things I need to take responsibility for, such as finding accommodation, opening a bank account and register with a GP. And then there were, of course, the studies, and looking for jobs and graduate degrees. All these experiences helped me grow.
Starting at university is a gruelling experience, and it can be either a euphoric or a depressing time depending on how you handle it. I think the most important thing is to not be a control freak, because there are so many new things that it is easy to get overwhelmed. Remember that your life begins where your comfort zone ends.
Advice for current students?
Occasionally you may either have a clear goal with your studies, or want to keep as many doors open as possible. Then you need to choose certain modules. For example, if you know that you want to do a PhD in Economics you need to take modules in Mathematics. Or if you think that you might want to work as a researcher in the future, modules in Research Methods are obviously highly recommended. But as a general advice I would really recommend current students to choose modules that they are passionate about.
It does not matter if you think what you will learn has little direct value for your future career. Someone might ask, why would I need English Literature if I want to become a lawyer? The answer is: you never know. I think in almost any job a broad reference frame is crucial. By reference frame I mean what you have read, seen, experienced and can relate to. I wanted to be an economist or an economic adviser – which I was for two years – but it turned out that I had almost as much use for my passion for classical literature as for my skills in economics as I had to write many speeches in my job as well. So you never know what will be useful in the future or not. What you do know, however, is that the probability is really small that you will become good at something that you are not actually interested in. So as a general rule of thumb when choosing modules, jobs or graduate degrees: follow your passions.
Another advice that I would give is to build good relationships. Aside from the fact that many friends is always a good thing, relationships to other students is important because you never know who your future boss is going to be. Alumni in hiring positions often recruit other alumni. And when it comes to relationships to professors, it is crucial because you will one day most certainly need letters of recommendation, and if they do not know you they will not be able to write strong letters.
My last advice is to move out of your comfort zone. If you are from Birmingham, or have applied and been admitted together with friends from sixth form, meet some new people – do not hang out with the people you already know. If you are an international student, do not "self-segregate" with people from your home country or with those who speak your native language – practice your English and meet people from other cultures with different backgrounds.
Attending a big university often means a lot more anonymity than when you attended high school or its equivalent. See this as an opportunity to "redefine" yourself. Many people end up in roles in high school that they do not feel comfortable with; now is your time to pursue your real interests and passions. Make a list of all the new things you want to try during your time at the university, and make sure your try to complete it. Remember that when you are older, the things you are most likely to regret are not what you did, but what you did not do because you were too afraid.