Updated: Jul 4, 2022
Matthew Hurst (Oxford '21, Manchester '15) completed his MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. His professional background is in operations roles with a focus on UK-China projects. He has been a member of delegations between the UK and China, spoken at conferences, and published articles about UK-China. Matthew earned a First Class BA in Philosophy from the University of Manchester, receiving the Dean's Award and three other awards.
This is the third part in a 4-part series featuring Matthew's advice and experience.
I graduated with my undergraduate degree in 2015 and did not start my Master's degree until five years later, in 2020. There were vast differences between the two experiences. Computers have become ever more central in the academic ecosystem; libraries have become less a place for locating physical books and more of a quiet study space; the most relevant ‘hot topics’ have evolved… But one unforeseen difference between the two experiences was, of course, the covid-19 pandemic and the imposition that social distancing and lockdowns placed upon all communities in universities and beyond.
There is value in the spontaneous.
Something I learned from the somewhat isolating experience of the pandemic was the importance of serendipitous interactions and of forging connections with the right people. Serendipity - the chance occurrence of something positive - cannot be easily recreated. We all learned how to schedule an event, send an invite and communicate via webcams during lockdowns, but organized interactions afford little chance for the unexpected.
"...the importance of serendipitous interactions and of forging connections with the right people. "
You cannot ‘bump into someone’ over a web call or spontaneously go for a coffee, and veering off-topic becomes more difficult within a schedule of appointments. Over the internet, one misses the chance of the unexpected occurring. Some of the most remarkable lightbulb moments and unexpected conversations I had during my undergraduate studies happened without pre-planning - precisely because you cannot schedule a revelation.
But it takes more than sheer serendipity to enliven a university experience. Forging and deepening interpersonal relationships has value beyond socializing. Finding what I would call the ‘right people’ is essential to university success.
"Finding what I would call the ‘right people’ is essential to university success."
What do I mean by the ‘right people’?
To me, the right people are those whom you can trust to give you honest and informed feedback about your ideas. One goes to university to learn and develop - there would be little point in going to university if one already had all the answers to all the questions - yet revealing our ignorance can leave us feeling more than a little vulnerable. The ‘right people’ know this and will listen patiently as you discuss your ideas as they evolve, knowing that they are a work in progress.
Moreover, the ‘right people’ will see your blind-spots for you and, where you have a good idea expressed badly, help you to find the right form of words. Often, the web of ideas we hold in our heads makes much less sense when we start committing them to paper. As humans, we are able to hold contradictory concepts simultaneously - and we often fail to even notice the contradiction! We need those outside of ourselves to identify our contradictions, highlight them, push us to justify our ideas, and identify weaknesses.
"We need those outside of ourselves to identify our contradictions, highlight them, push us to justify our ideas, and identify weaknesses."
Imagine university without these sorts of people. Ideas would float around in your head until you came to putting them down on paper, at which point either you would recognize that something wasn’t quite right or you would blithely submit your work and only see its mistakes once the final grades came out! It is much better to be gently criticized before you submit than afterwards.
The ‘right people’ see study as a group exercise - one from which they benefit just as much as you do via mutual assistance. And you can grow from seeing and hearing their ideas develop. They will bring to you information and angles you never knew existed. They will have read papers and books you had never heard of. They will employ a form of reasoning or use a method or draw upon a source that might be relevant to you.
So, why is it important to surround yourself with the right people?
To foster opportunities for serendipity;
To identify your weaknesses before your examiner identifies them for you;
And by seeing university and learning as a collaborative experience, to develop yourself, your peers and all of your ideas.
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