From Singapore to London

When I started researching Public Policy and International Development programmes in the UK, it never crossed my mind that I would apply for LSE. When I eventually filled out the applications in October, I thought “no harm trying” and submitted one to LSE apart from 5 other universities. Even then I did not imagine I would get in. I did not graduate from an Ivy League school or with a First Class degree, I did not volunteer or work in a poor or conflict area, I was not the president of a debate club, nor did I spearhead a community initiative.

Perhaps some of you are wondering why I did not apply for US universities. Master programmes in the US are typically 2 years in duration and given that I am making a career switch, I reckoned a 12-month programme was more suited to me.

By mid-November I got admitted to all of them except for LSE. At that point I was pondering between Warwick and UCL. One Saturday morning in January I woke up to the email tone of my phone. It was about 6am. I grabbed my phone, read the email, acknowledged that LSE admitted me, then went back to sleep. At 8am I woke up, realized what I read and started murmuring OMG to myself.

That could have been the most beautiful dream I ever had. But it was not a dream. Soon after emails started streaming in regarding document submission, offer acceptance, scholarship and accommodation. The offer package was mailed to me a couple of weeks later.

In retrospect I suppose these are the factors that led to my admission:

1. I applied early.
Admission to UK universities usually starts early October. I submitted my application to LSE in end October and got the result early January the next year. I guess they review the applications in batches so early applications may stand a better chance given the fewer number of competitors.

2. I wrote a candid personal statement.
I would imagine most candidates have a First or Second Class degree and impressive records of volunteer and/or extra-curricular activities, so personal statement is what makes you stand out. I don’t think mine was an outstanding one but what probably made me stick was that I wrote candidly. I did not have a challenging childhood or any “wow” factor and I did not try to “dramatize” stuffs. I was honest that I was brought up in a well-to-do loving family and was fortunate to pursue my undergraduate studies in Singapore. But I witnessed poverty in the neighbourhood and I talked about how it affected me since childhood and shaped my world views.

I also talked about my course work, essays and extra-curricular activities that demonstrated my interest in economic growth, human development, poverty and inequality. I described the skills I acquired from work and my professional achievements that I believed were highly transferable across sectors. I talked about my influencer, the challenges I would face working in development policy research and consulting in Vietnam and how I was going to tackle them (which largely mirrored the way my influencer has done). I concluded with what drew me into the university and the programme. I customized my statement for each school and included some key details of the programmes to show that I did my homework.

3. References count, too.
I started to reconnect with my dissertation advisor and a professor for whom I worked as a research assistant months before I submitted my applications. At that point I had graduated 3 years ago and I was anxious as to whether they still remembered me. Luckily they did. I asked them for advice with respect to choosing programmes and application.

I suppose working with (a) professor(s) in your undergraduate is highly useful – the connection tends to be deeper and s/he has more to write about your qualifications and qualities. Meeting your advisor frequently is crucial as well. I had fortnightly meetings with my advisor throughout my final year. Even when I did not make any significant progress in the first term, I discussed with him what I had read, my understanding of the literature, possible research methodology and how I might proceed. I reckon sharing my thought process with my advisor provided him with more inputs to write me a letter of recommendation.

4. Most importantly, aim high!
Many successful women have pointed out that women tend to think they are not qualified enough and/or they are not cut out for a particular job. In other words, as women we more often than not discount our ability, and that usually results in us failing to realize our full potential. Ultimately, we learn by doing, and by refusing ourselves an opportunity to do something we may never know how to do it. So I’d say we women should always aim higher and believe in our ability to pull things off.

I dream a dream

I’m probably someone you can call a planner, that is I plan ahead whenever possible. So in my third year in college, I did research on the types of jobs that might be of interest to me. My major was Economics and since I was a foreigner in Singapore, it was virtually impossible for me to work in policy, research or statistics for the government or public agencies which were what I was formally trained for. Finance was in fact a very viable option given the proliferation of multinational and local banks, investment firms, hedge funds, etc in Singapore. Let’s face it: it pays well and is considered an “esteemed” profession. So with the student loan baggage, there I went.

It was by no means a smooth journey for an introvert without a formal finance degree, especially in the midst of the Great Recession of 2008-2009. I graduated at the time when the recession was in its full swing, affecting all the major financial capitals in the world. Massive layoffs at banks and financial firms were the daily headlines. There was a hiring freeze in the industry except for some big banks and boutique firms. The central bank came up with a clever scheme: they sponsored a handful of banks to hire fresh graduates on the basis of a 1-year contract, paying each a below-average salary and banks may or may not pay an additional amount. I got into a local bank via this scheme.

My 8 months there was an eye-opener, albeit in a largely negative way. Being reprimanded by senior colleagues for simply doing your jobs collecting data from them was definitely not a pleasant experience. I told myself, that was real life and I’d rather experience shit sooner than later. I did shed a tear or two, but I tried not to let it get to me. All I could do was to make the most out of my job. Ultimately what I could control was what mattered.

One time I met with a good friend of mine and lamented about my job. She said her firm was hiring and told me to check the website. Hers was a financial data and analytics provider. And so I tried my luck although I did not meet their requirement of working experience and I knew nuts about fixed income which I was supposed to specialise in, and I got in.

My new firm was pretty cool. I worked closely with some senior colleagues who had worked there for over 10 years. They treated me as their equal and assisted me whenever they could. I could ask to talk to my bosses any time. It was something called a flat hierarchy where there was no cubicle, no corner office and no “senior” in the titles. I progressed quite fast: coordinating a group of more than 20 colleagues three months into the job and leading several projects in Asia Pacific after six months. I was selected to attend a course for potential managers after 2 years.

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I never intended to make finance my career. Not even after one, two and three years at the firm. Not even as my social circle comprised of primarily bankers and financiers. Even until now I have not met my role model who has a career in Policy or International Development, but I have this probably naive belief that if I wholeheartedly set my mind on something, I will get there some day.

My dream came about in my second year when it struck me what Economics was truly about. That “enlightening” moment came when I read about Amartya Sen’s “development as freedom” framework in which he argues that development is about enhancing people’s capabilities in a number of fronts and enabling them to shape their destiny and influence the world. That said, economists’ concerns about the boom-burst cycle, inflation, unemployment, Pareto efficiency and so on are all very legitimate and crucial. But ultimately Sen’s somewhat utopian view is what we all should aim for, isn’t it? Shoot for the moon and we may land on the stars rather than doing nothing and remaining on the ground.

So even as I was anxiously looking for a job as graduation neared, I was determined to make it to the United Nations, World Bank and/or Asian Development Bank some day. I may not get there in 5, 10 or 15 years. I may not land on the “moon” at all, but the idea that I would do my very best and would eventually arrive somewhere along my dream path kept me moving forward. In other words, being a shiny tiny grain of sand amidst the vast ocean is better than not trying to shine at all.

And so after I paid off my student loan, I found myself staying up until 2, 3am several nights writing my personal statement.