Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Studying in the UK: What I Really Learnt

"If you could study/specialize in any subject of your choice in the UK, what would it be, where and why?"

How about some context before I answer this question?

As a young professional working in Mumbai, I wasn't doing too badly. I had a decent job with decent pay. I'd been doing more or less the same thing for a few years, with a slight increase in skills over the years. The next logical step would have been to get a MBA degree, which would have enabled a my transition into a management role, with better job prospects and pay.

But before dong so, I took a good look at my life thus far, my current situation, and what I expected of myself in the future. A MBA would get me better pay, but how long till I felt stagnation in my new role too? Would the only thing keeping me motivated at my new job be the promise of a promotion every few years, with even greater responsibilities and pay? Could I really see myself doing this over the next 25 years of my life, inching my way up the corporate ladder in the pursuit of happiness without ever finding it, until I retired? What was happiness? Is it getting what you want even though you know you're going to be bored with it in two years?

I looked at my other options. Was there something I could do that would keep me reasonably motivated about my work without having to resort to daydreaming about the future to satiate my job satisfaction needs? So I looked towards academia and Psychology, a subject I've been dabbling in on and off since college. Getting a Masters would allow me to continue my studies in the field and prepare me for further research or help me return to the corporate word if that's what I chose. So I left for the UK for a year of study.

My experiences? Well, it was my first time in Europe. Everything clicked for me right from the start. The view from the plane as it descended into London on a clear day. Waking around London. Taking a train to Scotland, also on a clear day. Studying at a university with thousands of students from around the World. Making new friends, sharing a house with 40 interesting people, sharing a classroom with bright people, learning so much from your teachers and fellow students. Learning about different cultures, learning about local cultures. Living alone, cooking, cooking for friends, new food, drinks at the pub, playing in the snow, working at three part time jobs over the course of a year, applying for over a dozen jobs just to get one (I even applied to be a room surveyor at one point). Hiking, exploring the countryside, practising photography in a new environment. Learning about history. Volunteering. Late night discussions about ideas. Long lunches discussing ideas. Taking extra classes just because they were fun. Joining different clubs. Trying new things. Exploring new cities, walking around, talking, laughing, learning, taking it all in.

But here's the thing. I expected to have these experiences. As much as I enjoyed them, I knew they were coming. It's what I didn't see coming that really left it's mark on me.

Experiencing absolute quiet everyday. Like nothing back in Mumbai, with its constant drum of ceiling fans & ACs, traffic and other people. A quiet room, a quiet walk to uni, quiet corridors, quiet car parks, quiet surroundings, quiet environments. Learning that nothing is perfect. That academia can be as convoluted, petty and dirty as the corporate world. Learning to see yourself through this new World. That nothing is really exactly as what you thought it would be. That you can't know what you can't know. Discovering that you need to work twice as hard as your classmates just to catch up with them because they've got Bachelors degrees at universities with a higher standard of education than the one you went to and have taken courses you did not (like Evolutionary Psych, Animal Behaviour and Advanced Stats) and so have skills and domain knowledge you don't, along with practical research and writing experience that you don't have either. Attending seminars about things you've never heard of before. Learning more in 2 months than you did in 2 years back home. Thinking of concepts you never thought of before. Questioning your underlying assumptions about everything. Being exposed to new fields of thought, new sciences, new topics, new interests you never knew you had. Exercising new skills you never knew you had an aptitude for. Developing your own research interests. Becoming so good at something that you start helping other people out. Travelling all the way to a foreign country to study Comparative Psychology only to discover you are also interested in machine learning, consciousness, artificial intelligence, economics and advanced probability.

So to get back to the original question, if I could specialise in any one subject, it would be one of the above, a PhD this time, and again, it would be at a university that would truly challenge me with respect to everything I know.

This post was written in response to the http://knowledgeisgreat.in/ contest on http://www.indiblogger.in