Oxford Calling

A blog about working full time and studying part time

Just back from my first module at Oxford with new friends, new perspectives and new skills! Here’s my take on how returning to university will benefit me…

Breathing new life into my career: Outdated skills can end the most promising of careers. No matter what your age, knowledge is king, and embarking on fresh learning cycles is a key part of maintaining success in the new digital workforce.

Networking: It’s a great place to meet people who want to meet you back! My classmates’ companies ranged from global heavy hitters through to one man enterprises, all of us linked by the desire for self-improvement. Bringing such professionals into the classroom to threw up fascinating insights and perspectives that I simply would not have encountered anywhere else.

Finish what you started: I was a pretty poor student the first time round, but i’m now more mature, motivated, and determined to do things right. In addition, my teenage years were dominated by my parents divorce, and coping with this came well ahead of scoring top grades. Winning a scholarship was therefore extra special for me, making up for potential that I couldn’t fulfil back then. So if you’re thinking of going to study, don’t hesitate! The benefits are already kicking in, and I’m enjoying every second!

I’ve finally hit the road and am on a coach bound for Oxford! Pre-reading is done, and case study prep is safely in the bag. It’s been super helpful to treat this initial study as practice, trying out different note taking techniques and testing out mind mapping apps to see which work best for me. It’s helped make me as prepared as I can be to absorb the lectures, and hopefully got my focus where it needs to be.

Only other problem now is i’ll miss my kitties immensely while i’m away. Luckily my grief will be assuaged somewhat by the presence of the esteemed Professer Biscuit and Admiral Flapjack at my accom! So if you happen to see a crazy lady roaming the corridors of St Hugh’s College shaking a bag of Dreamies, do stop me and say hello!

With only a week to go until lectures start I’ve been cracking on with my pre-course assignments, but in the process my own personal Auld Enemy has put in an appearance – that inner voice that stays ‘you’re really not smart enough to do this’, and ‘everyone else is going to be WAY better than you’ , otherwise known as the Imposter Syndrome.

This is not a new experience for me. Entering the finance industry as an arts graduate meant frequently finding myself in rooms full of maths grads, MBAs, and economics whizz-kids, all discussing mind bogglingly complex subject that while I sat there feeling smaller and smaller. Its intimidating, its debilitating, its disheartening. I did eventually find my feet, but that small critical voice has never really left me, and still shows up from time to time to remind me of my shortcomings.

Interestingly, I was part of the hosting team when WIBF ran a workshop on the Imposter Syndrome a while back, and it proved to be one of our most attended events ever. When the facilitator asked the audience who had experienced IS, about 80% of hands shot up – I was astonished! The room was full of accomplished, successful women performing the most complex roles, how can they all have the same chronic self-doubt as I do?

Thankfully, Imposter-ism has become a well studied phenomenon. It affects people at every level of industry, and appears to be linked to perfectionist traits, as well as an inability to really internalise external success. Perhaps this explains why so many of my high flying colleagues have felt it too.

There are a number of articles out there on how to overcome IS, but I’ve found my own way of dealing with it: simply by ‘owning’ the imposter! Finance professionals come under great pressure to be the ‘smartest guys in the room’ (thanks for that Goldman Sachs!), and are terrified to speak up in case they’re unmasked as a ‘fraud’, but I have discovered that being the dumbest person in the room has its own special power!

Firstly, it allows me to ask lots of questions. I don’t pretend to have superior intelligence, so in presentations situations am comfortable prodding and poking away until I get an answer that is clear to me. As a consultant this often led to me exposing flaws in the concepts that the speaker was explaining that he was either not aware of, or was hoping would be overlooked.

Second, I’ve generally found that my ‘stupid’ question was also on the minds of many of the other listeners, but who were unwilling speak up and ‘look stupid’ in front of everyone else.

Finally, even the most complex ideas tend to have a simple logic at their core, and any financial specialists worth their salt should be able to strip their explanations back to this. If they can’t (or won’t) it should ring alarm bells. Asking presenters/lecturers to stop and explain things again in more simple terms may not be particularly comfortable, but it’s helped me enormously over the years, and I’ve never been judged for it (not to my face, at least!). In fact, i’ve often said to graduate trainees ‘explain this to me in a way your grandmother would understand’ to help them become better communicators.

So this is me. An imposter – and proud of it!

Less than two weeks to go until I start lectures at Oxford! I’ve been getting stuck into my (rather lengthy) pre-course reading list, and putting together the case study I’ll need to bring to class. The case study will be on my own employer, and since starting work on it i’ve learnt more about my own organisation in two weeks than I learned in the previous four years!

Had you asked me before Christmas if I knew a lot about my firm I’d have said ‘yeah…definitely’, but it turns out that there’s a big difference between passively taking in what’s going on around you and actively hunting out information. This, I’m sure, is one of the many fantastic benefits of going back to education after many years of work, and I can feel old parts of my brain (probably not used since my undergraduate years at Bath Uni) being dusted off and fired up in response.

How does this feel? Fantastic, invigorating, and makes me totally up for the challenge!  

A late Christmas present had arrived when I got back from my New Year break, a fat textbook-filled envelope from Oxford with my name on! In addition, I discovered that the pre-reading list for the course had been published, with instuctions to get through a number of articles and chapeters before kick off. So with only a few weeks to go until lectures start, I’d better get down to business!

First job has been to assemble and download all the articles I’ll need to get familiar with, and make note of the textbook chapters I have to review. Theoretically I could blast through the articles in a few hours and have the whole thing wrapped up in a couple of days, however the purpose of this is really understand and absorb, rather than get to the end as quickly as possible, so I’m using these last few pre-lecture weeks to test out a weekly study routine that fits around work, and practise my new note taking techniques.

But its not all hard work, this month I have a womens banking network event to introduce, a new year Wassailing, and a Burn’s Supper to attend. May as well enjoy the lack of exam stress while it lasts!

In November 2019 I received the fantastic news that I had been awarded a scholarship to help fund my studies while at Oxford. Since then I’ve had a number of people asking how I did it, and what advice I would give to other professionals looking to complete applications for courses and funding. If this is you, here’s what i’d suggest…

Start early

Even if the deadline is months away, it’s never to early to get cracking on your application. My application closing date was in September, but I made a start in June, giving me plenty of time to think about the application essay questions and work through a couple of drafts.

Reflect upon your life story

I needed to answer three short essay questions: two for my course application and a third for the scholarship. I took some time to think about why each question was being asked (what are they really after? Evidence of motivations? Background? Individuality?), before planning the main thrust of my responses.

To identify the key points I wished to make, I reflected upon my own life story and the experiences that had made me who I was. I noted down the things that had shaped my world-view, and the passions that drove me forward in life. I also thought about how I could contribute to the world, and what I could teach others to help them overcome their own obstacles. In essence, I simply planned to show the reviewers who I really was, and crafted my responses around conveying this.

DO NOT RUSH THIS PART, as I believe that the way you plan and structure your replies will make all the difference between an OK application and a great one.

Work through several drafts, and take time out

This is where starting early really helps. Once i’d planned the structure I started working on my drafts, following the outline i’d created beforehand and getting some text down for each essay. Once i’d finished all three to my satisfaction I walked away. Quite literally. Downing my pen and leaving it sit for days/weeks. When I came back to the text with fresh eyes, the weaknesses in the drafts really stood out, giving me plenty of time revise, and go through the whole process again.

Gather a crack team of essay checkers…

A bit like when the Avengers Assemble, outcomes can be massively improved when others help out! In my case I roped in my sister and a mate to review my later drafts, with instructions to not hold back on their constructive criticism. They didn’t disappoint! Questioning the meaning of certain paragraphs, picking out typos, and helping me see my own writing in a newer, clearer way. Finding out how others viewed my responses TRULY made a difference, and I feel is the best thing you can do to understand how your work may be perceived.

...but don’t accept everything they say!

My sister really took exception to the way i’d written couple of passages in my essays, but after considering her comments I left them as they were. Everyone’s preferred writing style is different, and what’s great to some is awful to others. There’s no way (and no need) to second guess anyone on this point. If you feel your words say what you want in the way that you want, then don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Which leads me nicely to my final point…

Speak with your own voice

Do not allow anyone else to take over the writing process, and limit the input of others to constructive criticism and typo spotting. You are the best person to tell your unique and intriguing story, so make sure it’s you that’s doing the talking and not someone else (after all, writing convincing essays is part and parcel of most coursework these days, so you’d better get used to it!)

Good luck, and good writing!

Happy Hogmanay! I’m in the Scottish highlands for a week to celebrate the new year, and to take some time out from my hectic London schedule. December was a whirl of social events and family gatherings, so a week in a remote log cabin on the ‘bonny banks’ of Loch Lomond was just what I needed to reflect on my upcoming year of combining work with study.

Part of me is still wondering if I have the ability to manage it all. The work will undoubtedly be tough, and there’ll times when i’ll feel stressed out, tired, and overloaded. But being in this lovely place, surrounded by nature, peace, and the elements, is proving to be a great place to think about these moments, and develop mental strategies for coping. One popular recommendation for such occasions is to picture a place of calm and reflection to retreat into until the stress and anxiety subside. So whilst I leave the highlands and return to reality in a few days, my mind will come back to visit when times get tough.

Happy Christmas! My family got into Oxford spirit by buying me a few essentials for my studies. First up was a robe and ribbon that’ll form part of my sub fusc – the academic robes which i’ll be wearing to each of my term exams, formal dinners, and graduation. This batlike garment consists of a waist-length robe with a pair of long streamers falling from the shoulder wings, which wouldn’t like out of place in a 1980s Adam Ant video. It also comes with a velvet ribbon (for women only) that is knotted quaintly around the neck. This, along with a white shirt, black skirt and black tights form the uniform of an oxford student, which I’ll be doing my best werk as I stroll down the halls (I’m not sure Jimmy Choos are traditionally part of the getup, but I’ll definitely be taking mine!).

I also got my college scarf, an Oxford mug, and most usefully, a Cornell method notebook. This is the method i’ve chosen to take notes in lectures as it appears to lend itself well to active learning. With term starting in exactly a month it won’t be long before I find out!

Black Friday has been and gone, and while I usually regard it as a nauseating marketing ploy, this year it’s allowed me to grab a much needed new laptop in preparation for my studies.

I did initially consider using my current office laptop for my coursework, as it would cut out the need to carry around two machines (and after 15 years of lugging heavy bags to and from the office, my back won’t tolerate much more punishment). However my work device appears to have been selected for its lack of appeal to thieves (being rather brick-like and ugly) rather than for portability, and also carries the risk that I’ll accidentally save my work onto the office drive rather than my personal – giving several thousand colleagues the chance to gawp at my half finished work!

So a new laptop it was. I spent a couple of hours reading review sites for student friendly machines, and having ploughed through the jargon, the key points boiled down to covering a few essentials…

Not too pricey

No need for top end capabilities

Lightweight but not fragile

Decent amount of memory

Good camera for Skype calls

Good battery life to avoid lugging around power cables

So with £150 off, the ACER E406MA 14″ Intel Pentium Laptop seemed like a decent punt, and appears to be robust enough to take a bit of abuse (such as being dropped, chucked around a bit, and used occasionally as a drinks tray). It doesn’t have any Microsoft office capabilities on it yet, but this will be purchased once my new student card arrives, any day now!

The application for my university student ID card arrived today, taking me a step closer to full student status! The main benefit of this is that I’ll soon be eligible for student discounts (which is just as well since studying is so EXPENSIVE!).  

A quick scan through some current discounts reveal that sadly there are none for Selfridges or Jimmy Choo (how unfair!), but plenty for bars and restaurants near my office. These will come in handy for cocktails after post-work study sessions, and are possibly most useful ones for student-professionals whose days shopping at Topshop and Miss Selfridge are long gone. Waterstones and Foyles are included, as are several cinemas and other service providers, so definitely worth the time and effort.

Accessing these discounts these days is less straightforward than during my undergrad years, and most require holding an additional form of student ID. The Totum card/app (the modern version of an NUS card) appears to be the most comprehensive, but the UniDays app has a good range too. There are other cards worth checking out too, such as Student Beans, and the internationally recognised ISAC card, which would come in handy when travelling to see clients overseas. 

While it’s nice to be free of student financial pressures, I’ll still be making the most of any discounts on offer, and even if they’re not, I’ll be whipping out my card, flashing a grin, and asking for one anyway (one thing my time in the City has taught me – if you don’t ask, you don’t get!)