My time in Utrecht

In the second half of 2015, about a year after finishing my undergradate degree, after spending six months in working in Burma for Rocket Internet, I was unsure of what to do with myself. One of the default options (for people like me) is to go into further education, which meant getting a graduate degree. This was something encouraged by both my parents and some (but not all) friends. I was unsure whether I wanted it, so I wrote down my own motivations for doing so:

The aim of a graduate education is to provide me with the pleasure of further education, more experiences, and opening doors to opportunities requiring a more quantitative background.

More than two years later, I am writing these lines I have finished my graduate degree. By quirks of history and custom, I am now the proud owner of both a Master of Arts and a Master of Science. I thought I’d take the time to summarise my thoughts about the experience in order to evaluate the extent to which I managed to fulfill these motivations.

The plan and logic behind it

The first question that needed resolving was whether to study for a Masters or a PhD. The way I saw it then is that the advantage of the PhD is that you get to put the letters Dr in front of your name. The advantage of the Masters is that it takes a lot less time, the disadvantage is that nobody will call you master. What appealed to me was that in a way I was buying time to figure out what to do whilst doing something respectable.

In the end I applied for a Masters in the Netherlands. My motivation for studying and living in the Netherlands were: high quality of education, high quality of life and good value for postgraduate degrees. Whereas higher education in the UK is about 15k EUR in tuition, in the Netherlands it will only set you back a few thousand. Student financing in the Netherlands is generous and it is not hard to find a part time job. In fact, the Netherlands is one of the best places in the world to work part time. A secondary consideration was that I had the feeling that the Dutch are less tolerant of overworking students than in Anglo-Saxon countries, which meant I had more time to persue whatever else I decided to do.

My primary choice in the applications for the Masters in Methodology & Statistics at the University of Utrecht. I also applied to a course at the University of Amsterdam, but my application there was not taken into consideration as they requested hard copies of documents and did not recieve all of them in time in the post. My experience with that institution suggested the Universtity of Amsterdam was unprofessional and very last century (in a bad way). I still feel like they owe me the 100 EUR application fee.

Utrecht on the other hand, had a fully digital application process and was at all points a modern institution. Why did I choose Utrecht University? Primarily the programme. It was flexible, had interesting courses and matched my interests. Moreover, I was hoping it wouldn’t be as intense as my undergraduate education (it wasn’t, but perhaps because I’ve become habituated to the university system, not because it wasn’t as hard). Plus, I had been to Utrecht before (briefly) and it seemed like a good place to live.

Evaluation

To what extent was my thinking justified? Was it the right choice to make?

Life in the Netherlands

First of all, I’d like to confirm that the Netherlands is a great place to live. I did not regret living there, and would gladly move back to Amsterdam for the right opportunity. However, I did learn that Dutch life isn’t as simple as I imagined it to be. The country is set in its own ways, with its own system for everything, from banking to e-commerce to public administration. Normal VISA cards and MasterCards, accepted from Rangoon back alleys to Havana cash machines, are useless in an Amsterdam supermarket. Not having a Dutch bank account puts you at a serious disadvantage. To get a Dutch bank account you must register with your local government. Registering with your local government takes approximately three months, assuming you find a landlord willing to let you register at their address (more on housing later). Until then, you won’t have cards that work. Many places don’t take cash.

The systemic burocracy is overwhelming, but is mostly carried out online. This is an advantage in many cases as it works well if you are within the system (i.e. are born and raised in the Netherlands and speak good Dutch), but starts creaking as soon as you reach unusual cases, such as moving into the country from abroad or moving out. For instance, just now I am getting notifications of letters from the Dutch Education ministry. I cannot actually access these letters due to a security requirement that requires sending a letter to an address to the Netherlands where I am officially registered (I have no such address). Moreover, based on the title of the letter I have a feeling that the the document itself is an automatically generated administrative mistake. In all fairness to Dutch burocrats, the system proposes sensible solutions as soon as you manage to speak to an actual human being, but this isn’t always a simple task. During my time there I discovered that the tax authority seems not to have an actual office where you can speak to a person.

Another pet peeve are the policies which make it impossible to find housing. Housing is so hard to find that homeless students are concurrently interviewed by fellow students (non-homeless students with an available room) in an awkward bizarre popularity contest to determine who gets to stay there. International male students are at a true disadvantage, to the extent that most advertisements explicity say “FEMALE ONLY” or “NO INTERNATIONALS”. Policies which are supposed to keep prices low also encourage regulatory hoop-jumping, for instance the private student housing where I spent half a year charged me a low rent, but then added the same amount in all sorts of made up charges every month (“common area maintanence”) and gave me back only part of my deposit for no sensible explanation. If you ever come accross the name of BHW I recommend you avoid them as they seem to be run a handful of locations across the country with only two incompetent individuals with an excel spreadsheet. In practice, the student housing system favours you if you are a Dutch female who spends an eternity in higher education. Unsurprisingly, I found Dutch universities have a large population of females who view private companies (such as those that would build affordable student housing) as evil and tend to vote for parties which encourage these restrictive housing policies for “moral” reasons. I was actually lucky to live at the dorm managed by a greedy company, as at least they were more-or-less legit. Many international students often live at the whim of illegal, exploitative landlords in small, cold and damp rooms. They refuse to let you register at their property, as they aren’t supposed to rent it out, leaving many students in a legal limbo during their education. Luckily this wasn’t the case for me, but some of the places I saw fellow students live reminded me of what I’ve read about the worst excesses in housing during the industrial revolution. Back in Cambridge, our heating broke for a few days in winter and we had to sleep in our coats. Many students sleep like that every day.

That being said, the Dutch have figured many things out. The system mostly works if you manage to squeeze yourself into it and don’t do anything too unusual. My experiences with healthcare were excellent. Some measures are tough, but fair: foreign students get the subsidies Dutch students get if they work for 56 hours a month. Taxes are reasonable if you work a single part time job, but again, the system gets confused if you have two part time jobs (too complex!) and ends up keeping half your income for the second job for an entire year. Luckily, the entire country is open to part time work. This is an advantage to both employers (who often get more work done per Euro spent) and employees (who want some money). Transportation is excellent and makes a lot of sense. People are encouraged to cycle within cities with world leading cycling infrastructure. I’m baffled that other flat cities have not figured out that having more people cycle is a huge win for health, quality of life, the livability of a city, etc. Public transportation in the entire country requires a single travel card (which you can only get if you get a bank account and are legally registered). It isn’t cheap (Dutch students travel for free), but it works quite well.

Academics

Overall I feel happy with my degree choice. The curriculum is up to date, and it offers a great degree of flexibility to do your own thing, which was an advantage to me. This flexibility meant that I could travel to South Africa in January 2017 with my grandfather, spend six months in Singapore on a semester abroad in the latter half of 2018, and write a thesis topic of my own choice. The staff are motivated and friendly, and aren’t afraid to deviate from the usual routibne. You can genuinely tell they are making an effort to continuously improve the course, and unsurprisingly the course has been voted the best Research masters by student satisfaction often.

There is a great cultural difference compared to Cambridge University, the only other university where I have had any experience. First of all, it is much less competitive in all areas. From sports to academics, there is little spirit of competition, people are generally happy to cooperate and make no less effort to compete. This is not to say that people do not try to distinguish themselves through good work, but rather that there is less of a cultural encouragement of extraordinary achievement. Instead, there is a much heavier emphasis of collaborative work. In fact, I was probably given more group tasks in my first semester at Utrecht than over the entire course of my bachelors at Cambridge. There are advantages to this, some say it more closely models professional environments, but also disadvantages, as it is well-known that the more people work at a task the less each individual works. Moreover, there is a strong emphasis on work life balance. Deadlines are set to 5pm or noon (opposed to midnight as customary in Cambridge) to prevent students from pulling all nighters. Holidays are emphatically holidays, not “work-at-home”-adays. Most of these cultural differences have their advantages and disadvantages, but overall I felt contribute to a high quality of life at the university and do not impact work output significantly.

Where Utrecht underperforms compared to Cambridge in that there is a lot more non-useful human Proof of Work (PoW) problems. What I mean by human PoW are tasks which are given to students with no purpose other than for students to demonstrate that they have invested time and effort into solving them. Some of it is well intentioned and sensible: if you do not prepare certain practice sheets you are bound to have a bad time further on. Nonetheless, some of it was a clear waste of time, such as excercise sheets which ask you to parrot back word by word definitions from the text book, asking questions that can be clearly answered from the text (e.g. Text: If X then Y. Question: What happens if X?). I find these sort of tasks counterproductive, as they require no true engagement, but rather encourage the skimming of the text in order to get the answers. Cambridge had very little of this. Utrecht comparatively had a lot. My Hungarian friends tell me Hungarian universities have a lot more.

The course did a good job at teaching my fellow students R. We spent approximately 25% of the first semester learning how to program in R, and by the end of the masters all of my coursemates seemed to be highly proficient (I already had significant prior experience). I managed to learn quite a lot in the course however, and I found it quite useful. My only observation is that it would benefit from some updating, as Tidyverse tools are too useful not to be taught to beginners. There was also dabbling in Mplus, openBUGS and SPSS. The argument for doing so was that it is an advantage for us to learn how to be proficient with a wide variety of tools. I suspect the true reason is that the lecturers are set in their ways and are unwilling to change them. I am aware of my potential hypocrisy here, as perhaps my unwillingness to change my ways is the true reason for my criticism. Learning a declarative language like BUGS was definately useful, but perhaps it would have been better to do within the R framework (JAGS ? STAN?). In fact, the toolkit most used within statistics that isn’t R is Python (many of my course mates ended up using it for one reason or another) but this was ignored throughout the course.

In terms of mathematics and mathematical statistics, I felt the course should have spent more of the first two semesters on it. That being said they let us take electives, which I took in undergraduate mathematics courses, so it was fine. The mathematics were well taught, albeit not by a mathematician and thus missing the mathematician’s enthusiasm for it (this is not to say the teaching was unenthusiastic however).

So was it worth it?

Perhaps simply working in an R/data field for two years would have made more sense financially/in terms of my interests. However this did provide me with the opportunity to do a few things which I would have not been able to do with work (e.g. January trip with my grandfather / living in Singapore), work on my business. Overall, I do not regret it, but I regret not exploring options other than university two years ago.

Steps ahead

After graduating I will work full time on my business until at least December, when I will reevaluate my goals and achievements. The goals remain financial independence and creating value.

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