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UPenn Alumni Interview w/ Jan N. | Part 1: Don't be Stubborn — Consider Different Perspectives

Updated: Aug 6, 2022

Jan N. is a master's student at the European University at St. Petersburg studying Russian & Eurasian studies. He is also an honors graduate of the University of Pennsylvania in International Relations and Russian & East European Studies. In the Fall of 2019, Jan studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, at Saint Petersburg State University where he undertook intensive language coursework in Russian.

This is the first part in a 5-part series featuring Jan's advice and experience.


Important things Jan N. shares:

  • "Writing theses is incredibly challenging and takes a lot of time, but it is very rewarding."

  • "Our paths haven’t converged since then, although I carry the lessons I learned toward the relationships I have with my other professors."

Q: How would you describe your study-abroad experience? Would you recommend it?

A: I unequivocally recommend studying abroad. I always made fun of people who say it “changed their life”, but for me studying abroad changed my career interests, (to something I really care about), made my social life better, and put things in perspective for me in general. Not to mention, it is a great learning and cultural experience. Coming from a multicultural background and being abroad all the time because of family, I thought that it wouldn’t be a shock or feel very different, but it very much did. It has been one of the best decisions I ever made.

Q: How did you prepare for the study-abroad program?

A: Besides studying the language of the destination in college and majoring in the regional studies of the place to which I was going, I did not “prepare” in any concrete terms. The program administrators will help you with everything.

Q: What challenges did you face in the program?

A: My study abroad experience was in Russia. It was a very difficult emotional time for me as I had just gone through a major breakup. Russia is also a slightly dangerous country which was fairly unnerving and uncomfortable. The workload, however, was very easy. As my program coordinator said––“If you didn’t get depressed at least once while studying abroad, you didn’t do it right.” Studying abroad is stressful, but also an amazing experience. Everyone who has gone always says it was an amazing experience––the only people who say otherwise, or don’t emphasize that much how good it is, are just people who never studied abroad for a full semester.

Q: Can you describe your experience as a marketing intern? The pros and cons?

A: It was a casual professional experience which was a good introduction to the lower-level corporate world. The pros were that I began to understand office conduct, how to relate to your boss, what the private sector is like, and what is expected of “work” in general (I also got paid well, which was nice). The cons were that it was extremely boring, made me realize I did not care about marketing that much, and all my coworkers were much older than me.

Q: How did you find this internship and what have you learned from it?

A: I had zero idea what I was doing as a freshman and thought I wanted to do marketing, and I was fortunate enough to be able to do an internship at the corporate office of the company where one of my parents works. It was not very prestigious but was very helpful in helping me understand what I wanted to do professionally. Getting experience is always immensely useful unless the experience is repetitive or redundant and you are not learning anything new.

Q: As a research assistant, what responsibilities did you have and how did you find these opportunities?

A: Undergraduate research assistantships outside of STEM tend to be fairly informal and hyper-specific to the discipline and project. I had to do lots of reading and skimming of documents and books and I also had to write a lot of reports. I found out that while it was boring, I kind of liked it, and figured that I should explore my interests more deeply and do future research assistantships for projects I really care about.

Q: What do you think has benefited you most from being a research assistant?

A: In all honesty, I was not a great research assistant––but everyone starts somewhere. I learned how to manage relationships with professors, what normal work expectations are, and how to conduct research in the abstract. I had no experience with this before and it was very useful.

Q: How have your relationships with your professors changed as a result of researching with them?

A: I only worked with one professor (during that research assistantship) and I have not interacted with him since. Our paths haven’t converged since then, although I carry the lessons, I leaned toward the relationships I have with my other professors.

Q: Why are you writing a thesis/ what do you hope to gain from it?

A: I have written two theses in college, both of which ended up being about 110-130 pages each. Each thesis was also treated as a special seminar/self-study on my transcript, and I got a grade just like for every normal class. From these projects I have become a much better student, writer, and researcher, I have learned a lot about the subjects which I wrote and developed my research interests. Working on these projects has also helped me understand my career interests better as well. Writing a thesis is incredibly challenging and takes a lot of time, but it is very rewarding. I learned more from writing my two theses than from almost all of my other classes combined.

Q: What are your priorities in college?

A: My priorities shifted during college as I developed my sense of self and professional goals. At first, I really focused almost exclusively on my social life, then more on professional development, and, as I got older, on my academics. My professional aspiration is to be a professor at a research university (very different from my original interests), and as such my “professional development” entails much more things such as class and research as opposed to recruiting and related activities.

Q: How did you spend your summers productively? Weekends?

A: I worked every summer and took classes during the summer after Junior year (in addition to work). In my opinion, there are only really several options for summers––classes (least desirable if you do nothing else), internships, “normal” work, volunteering (comparable to work), or doing an educational and/or study abroad program.

Q: How do you keep a balanced, healthy lifestyle/ are you able to?

A: In all honesty, it is very difficult and still something I am working on. I have chosen to sacrifice a balanced/healthy lifestyle for the past year for the sake of my work. On one hand, I am very proud of my achievements, but on the other hand, it takes a great physical toll.

Q: What are some soft skills that you think are necessary for college and beyond?

A: One thing that I find a startlingly large number of students and peers are unable to do is understand formal etiquette toward professors and “older people” in general. Calling professors “Dr. or Professor ____,” writing respectful emails, and understanding adult expectations are all very important skills to develop.

Thanks for reading!
  • If you were interested in this article, read more about College Life.

  • Connect with Jan N. more here.

Have more questions based on what you’ve read or any you would like us to ask alumni? Submit them here!

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