Choosing to Go to the Moon

Seth Thomas

A note for all you potential BSG mature students out there…

Just under a year ago, I received an email from the Blavatnik School of Government admissions team updating me on the progress of my application to the school.  It had been a number of months since I’d carefully put together my application, seeking advice from my referees, writing my first academic essay in a few years, spending much time drafting my personal statement.

But then this message popped into my inbox.  I paused before opening it – just an email – this must mean I didn’t make the cut…I took the plunge and discovered that I’d been accepted!  Yet did this news prompt a shout of joy and a visit to the college bar to celebrate with all my fellow student friends?

Not quite, because when I received that email, I’d entered my forties and had been working full-time for nearly two decades, most recently as a London-based banker to governments at a global American firm.  Suddenly, what had been a dream had turned into a decision.  If I accepted the offer, I was going to have to turn my domestic life upside down and take time out of a well-established career path.  The risks quickly became all too apparent – why change, I had a good life as it was?  It was one of those big watershed moments to face…

Reader, I said yes.

Some of you will hopefully be facing a similar decision if your application to the second cohort of the MPP is successful, or you may be considering whether to apply for 2014 entry.  You’ll have significant career experience under your belt, you’ll be worried that you’re too old for all this.  So you may be wondering what BSG is like for the older, experienced student and whether it is worth the turmoil.

The first thing to say is that this is not a quiet sojourn for a year in order to add the word ‘Oxford’ to your CV.  It is hard going at times, and work of an intellectual standard which you may not have faced since your first degree.  There are new subjects to learn, new perspectives to understand, and new ways to think – this is a place where the comforts of received wisdom are unsettled by empirical knowledge taught by world class academics and practitioners.

It is a rigorous course and if sometimes it seems as if the workload is a stretch, past experience has taught me that learning takes application and not a little perspiration.  But what fascinating subjects to learn about…

The composition of class is very international, something I’ve been used to all my working life and enjoyed, appreciating the diversity of views and experience it brings.  They are a dynamic group of people, nearly all have career experience or significant volunteer roles under their belt.  The age gap can feel apparent at times, but at BSG where I’m the oldest member of the first cohort, I haven’t been made to feel an outsider by the younger students, even if my life outside Oxford means that I can’t often participate in the social side of class (and there is quite a social side if you’re interested).

So what about that other life?  Particularly pertinent for the mature student, as I’m sure that many of you reading this have a number of involvements outside of work, and most importantly, family responsibilities.  Some of the class have come to Oxford with partners, and many continue to juggle their volunteer commitments.  Its tough, but with good organisation, compromise and understanding (not least on the part of the faculty here), it can be managed.

As a mature student, don’t forget that you’ll bring valuable experience and a different perspective to the class.  It may be real-life expert knowledge of a subject, or lessons transplanted from the working world, such as presentation skills, project management, and practical appreciation of the human factor.  I’ve even taught on ‘How Banks Works and the Financial Crisis’ – much to my surprise, my classmates were actually interested…

Knowledge and skills which seem second nature to an older student may be fresh ground for a younger colleague and that experience can be passed on.  And likewise, I’ve learnt much from others outside the formal course, not the least of which is how to use an iPad and Facebook…

In 1962, when announcing Project Apollo, JFK famously said ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

Each day in this first year of the MPP presents something new, whether good or bad.  There are testing days when you just have to smile and get on with it, and fantastic days where you leave a class or discussion stimulated, your mind racing with what you’ve just heard.

I still don’t know where my career direction will take me after the course finishes, but one thing seems clear to me, that for an older applicant, choosing to sacrifice certainty for uncertainty is a personal revolution and life-changing.  It is not easy, it is hard…

…But I’m very glad I did it.

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