After graduating from Oxford in summer 2020, I took a year out from university and academic life. I chose not to follow the “path of least resistance” and do a Master’s degree. Instead, I decided to pursue internships, to get an idea of potential work sectors in the future, do some travelling (as much as the pandemic permitted) and reflect on my future path.
My motivation and willingness to do this gap year had already formed throughout my studies. It was around the middle of my second year that I knew I wanted to explore something else before continuing with my studies. It was a very “gut-feel” decision (by that I mean that my gut told me it was right), but it also made sense to me: Since I started my Bachelor’s at the age of 17, I graduated when I was 20. This meant that I had the luxury of taking the time to explore what I really wanted. I feel lucky and privileged to be in that position and wanted to use this chance to the fullest.
Overview: What Happened?
A short account of what happened from July 2020 (end of my studies at Oxford) to August 2021 (now):
- Jul-Aug ‘20: spent the summer with Zhenghong in Germany at my parents’ house, did a short vacation in the Black Forest
- Aug ‘20: completed a 3-week Chinese language course as part of my application to the China-Stipendium, a scholarship for one year of full-time study in China
- Sep - Dec ‘20: moved to Berlin, lived in my own 1-person apartment for the first time, interned full-time at Sinolytics, a China-specialized consultancy
- Jan - Feb ‘21: moved to Munich, lived with my brothers’ family, completed remote internship at the an economic research institut, ifo Institut, in their Climate and Energy department, did a lot of cooking and trying out recipes
- Mar ‘21: Completed another 3-week online Chinese course, after successful application for the China-Stipendium, travelled to Iceland for the first time
- Apr ‘21: Stayed again in Munich with my brothers’ family, re-built my personal website and supported the Jugend debattiert competition
- May - Aug ‘21: Went to visit Zhenghong in Singapore, first quarantined for 3 weeks in a hotel, before being reunited with Zhenghong and exploring Singapore, started freelance consultant work for GIZ China
- Aug ‘21 onwards: preparing for a new chapter …
What did I learn about the world?
When working in the China consultancy sector, I learnt a great deal about a wide range of policies and trends in China: the Corporate Social Credit System, dual carbon targets, the policymaking process and drafting of Five-Year-Plans, free trade zones, trade relations with ASEAN countries, the semiconductor industry, cybersecurity, phase-out of subsidies for SOEs…
I got to know the working of a young consulting company with flat hierarchies, had a glimpse of what Berlin as Germany’s cultural and political capital is like. I understood that whenever you cater to clients, you are being more reactive than proactive.
When working in an economic research institute, I learnt about environmental economics-related topics: economic recovery measures, economic costs associated with the Paris Agreement, the role of Central Banks in fighting climate change, as well as the tools and methods economists employ to study these and other topics. I also broadened my view of what the “economic discipline” is about, and started to learn about the plurality of economics - looking at economic approaches that differ from the neoclassical lens I was taught at university.
I saw that private and research / academic sector are different in their working styles, pace, output. I probably knew this before, but had the chance of experiencing this myself.
I learnt about the pros and cons of working from home. Conducting one internship with regular office visits and another one completely from home, I got to appreciate the more comfy, time-saving home environment but knew that this had to be weighted against getting to know colleagues and deeper insight into the organization. I understand now that online coffee chats will just never replace the face-to-face interactions that happen serendipitously at the coffee machine.
Living with my brothers’ family taught me many lessons for what it means, on a daily basis, to raise kids, to manage a household as well as working and social life. I witnessed the before and aftermath of giving birth, with all the biological, logistic and emotional impressions that this entails.
I learnt much about the art of cooking. I tried out many new recipes and through a lot of practice, learnt that the real art is not to follow recipes step-by-step, but be able to adapt and deviate from them as appropriate. I started to compose meals in the first place based on their macros (protein-carbs-fats-fibre), rather than their ingredients.
I saw and enjoyed the beauty of nature. Going to Iceland and visiting Singapore allowed me to experience completely different climates than at home. One being always cold, one always hot and tropical, I learnt about the individual characteristics of the region. In Iceland, I learnt about geothermal energy, volcano eruptions, polar lights and how mass tourism can ruin natural heritage sites.
What did I learn about myself?
I learnt that I want to leverage my competitive advantages for important and impactful problems. For me, this topic area has become the China-Climate or China-Sustainability Nexus more broadly. I know that my language skills are valued and want to use these for contributing my share to the global climate challenge. It is important to me to do something that not everyone can do, or easily learn to do.
I learnt that people value my communication and organization skills. My consistently structured and proactive approach is appreciated by colleagues that have worked with me. I want to further hone and develop this and be a valuable member of any future team that I will be working with.
I understood the importance of always having a Plan B, in case Plan A is not feasible. I value planning security, whilst uncertainty makes me feel exposed and anxious (though I have gotten better to endure this and even embrace the uncertainty sometimes). Once it became clear my original Plan, to study a year in China, would not be feasible anymore due to closed borders, I made alternative plans by applying to internships and Master Programmes. If I hadn’t done this, the opportunities available to me at the start of 2021/22 would perhaps not have been so plenty and promising.
I realized that I work better in fixed structures and learning environments than I do on my own. As much as I love the idea of self-studying a certain skill, language or discipline, I find it quite hard to motivate myself and to retain the knowledge that I gain through lectures
I had the luxury of learning that for me, money’s purpose is to convert it into memorable experiences. From a frugal perspective, I never wanted to spend more than “really necessary” and rather save my surplus in my bank accounts. But my travels this year have not exactly been free, either. I don’t miss a single Euro that I spent last year on flights, accommodation, food and drinks shared with friends. In the end, I look back at experiences and the feelings that I associate with it, not the budget plan.
I learnt once more that I am what you may call a social butterfly that can integrate very fast into new social groups and environments. This was the case with my friend’s friendship group in Iceland, as well as with my arrival in Singapore. Wherever I go, I am confident I can adapt.
I learnt to trust my gut more. This meant listening to my intuition and doing what feels right and good to myself, not what some supposedly rational arguments tell me is. This was the case with the entire gap year, going on my trip to Iceland and also deciding for what I should do next, in lieu of my China year.
Where do I stand now?
Compared to a year ago, I am now richer in knowledge, beautiful photographs, friendships and contacts.
With my work experiences in the bag, I am now better equipped to work in climate or China-adjascent sectors, as I can also signal to future employers that I have gained competency in these sectors. The year allowed me to dip my toe in a variety of fields without committing to anything in particular.
At the time of writing, I am approaching the end of my summer in Singapore, which also marks the end of my gap year 2020/21. For the time afterwards, I am holding a scholarship offer for conducting an internship at the United Nations Environment Programme in Geneva, which I am planning to do from September 2021 until March 2022.
Where do I want to go next?
I started this gap year thinking that after this year, I would have a better clue about what it is that I want to study and pursue as a career.
While it would be exaggerated to say that I am now perfectly set on my future path, I do think that the diversity of locations, sectors and topics that I engaged with in the past year has really opened my eyes to the many, many things that are still out there in this world. On the one hand, this of course makes my decisions harder, as I fall prey to the paradox of choice. But it also is a blessing, since I don’t think I could have learnt all this if I hadn’t taken a year out for exploration.
Regarding my further studies, I am still intending to pursue an Economics Master with some focus on sustainability, so this hasn’t changed too much. But I am now more keen on developing my methodological skills more (hard skills?) and working on cross-disciplinary topics. I also realized that the skills certain jobs require are not necessarily taught in university, but you rather pick them up on the go. So in that sense, my view on the “necessity” of formal education also changed a bit.
Having said that, if the last year has taught me anything, it is that we have to remain flexible and adaptable. You never know if there isn’t a global pandemic around the corner that can torpede your plans.
That’s why going forward, I want to remain open-minded and curious about the world and the things I can still learn. Second gap year, here we come!