Life, Study

Five things I’ve learned studying the Internet at Oxford University

June 25, 2016
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Eight months ago, I moved from Edinburgh to Oxford to study Social Science of the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute. These eight months have been some of the best of my life, but they have also been busy, stressful, and quite challenging at times. I don’t think I was quite prepared for what this year would have in store for me, and since I’ve got exactly one month left to be a student, get my thesis done, and enjoy all those beautiful old libraries that surround me, I thought now would be a good time to write up some thoughts (and also a prime opportunity to get back into blogging).

1. You’re most likely not the only imposter in the room

I like to believe that I have built up a solid self-confidence over the years, to the degree where I can take a pretty good blow to the ego without falling out of love with myself. When I started the course last October, however, I wasn’t in the best place, with a draining summer behind me and a healthy portion of uncertainty and confusion about my future ahead. Consequently, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit like a fraud, like the Mike Ross of Internet School, who had snuck into this course with a charming personal statement and little to offer beyond an intense passion for the Internet. Naturally, during our orientation week, everyone else seemed to know exactly why they belonged here and what they were going to study during the next year, already eagerly planning their valuable contributions to the discipline.

Of course, as I later learned, many of my lovely classmates felt the exact same way I did and were maybe just slightly better than me at concealing their imposter syndrome.

2. Coding is fun

When I was 14 and first started to develop an extensive social life online, I taught myself the most essential basics of HTML and CSS to be able to create my own customised blog designs and later host my own website. I remember enjoying the endless possibilities that coding seemed to offer, and I’m gutted that I put my coding career on hold well before I left school; alas, I never went beyond website design 101.

Broadly knowing what I was getting myself into, I was still pleasantly surprised when I started at the Oxford Internet Institute and realised that I would be able to make coding (this time in Python) a big part of the upcoming year.

At first, I was excited. Then I felt slightly overwhelmed, in the same way that I feel overwhelmed whenever someone tells me instructions to a board game too quickly and my brain doesn’t know how to process the information. Then, slowly, I started to figure out a few things, such as: Python is a lot like translating (they call it a coding language for a reason), you can recycle old code an awful lot (something I actually still remembered from my early adventures in coding), if you can logically envision something, it’s probably possible to write it in code, and – when in doubt – head over to Stack Overflow. And then I stopped feeling overwhelmed.

For me, coding has been kind of therapeutic when it works (rarely at first), insanely frustrating when it doesn’t (which is most of the time), beautifully satisfying when you finally detect and get rid of a bug, and – most importantly – really quite a fun way to spend your time. Coding – in my basic understanding – is essentially putting things together until they make sense, and thus reminds me of arts & crafts, solving puzzles, and translating texts; all activities I enjoy.

I’m so pleased to have this awesome tool at my disposal to use independently of any software I will be provided with at future jobs. I doubt that I will ever be a data scientist; I think that some of my other skills are more unique and valuable in the job market than my rather modest affinity for coding. But it can’t hurt to be familiar with their craft.

Plus, never say never.

3. A lesson in prioritising

My degree has proven to be quite intense; certainly more intense than any of the commitments I’ve previously had to juggle during my undergraduate studies. Many of the courses I chose to take relied heavily on self-taught learning, and the high pressure and intense bursts of work (never before had I resorted to proper all-nighters before – I love my sleep dearly) were painful at times, but in hindsight also an excellent lesson in prioritising what really matters. Realistically, that’s not always going to be coursework.

In first and second term, I had to invest quite a bit of time to get a job. Coming straight out of uni with no financial padding, industry connections, or a place to stay in London, but instead £10k in Oxford tuition fees to pay back (my warmest thanks to Scotland for handing me my first degree tuition fee-free; I know my loan is nothing compared to what other people had to pay for education), I knew I had to secure a job ahead of time if I wanted to stay in the UK – and I really, really wanted to.

A few months later, at the beginning of third term, I realised that I now desperately needed to look after myself a little more than I previously had since moving to Oxford. Over the years, I’ve developed some very solid self-care mechanisms that I know work for me, and that I need to create space for in my life. I didn’t have the mind space to work on my Pick-Up Theorist arts & craft project, nor was I able to focus my spare energy on cooking nice meals due to the minuscule excuse for a kitchen in my accommodation. I have, however, managed to start working out at least three to four times a week, I’ve picked up reading novels again, and I get up early to make use of those magic morning hours. Maybe most importantly, I’ve established that what I want to get out of this degree are solid coding and analytical skills, and a thesis that I am interested in and proud of. I also want to establish a healthy and productive routine that I can keep up once I start work in September. I don’t need to be perfect during this year; putting perfection on hold is tough for any perfectionist, but sometimes it’s necessary.

To sum up: Oxford is intense. Be nice to yourself, whatever that looks like.

4. No one has heard of your degree? No need to worry

After a job interview in January, I was disappointed that the interviewers didn’t ask me any questions about my degree, and convinced I would therefore not make it through to the next round. After all, I thought the fact that I was studying the Internet (so relevant, so useful, kind of quirky, right?) was one of the main factors that would set me apart from other applicants (that, and maybe The Pick-Up Theorist). In hindsight, I’ve realised that wasn’t quite true. But studying an unusual degree – one that makes people question whether it’s a real degree in the first place – doesn’t have to be dead weight; in fact, it’s a great opportunity. I was (to a certain extent – I’m still wondering where the Meme Studies are) able to turn this degree into what I wanted it to be, soaking up all the coding & quantitative skills I could get my hands on, and I think it has the potential to be a degree that employers (at least in my area of interest) should value in future employees, but might not yet know exists.

I’ll never know how my life would have unfolded without this opportunity, but I’m so grateful I don’t have to live in that parallel universe.

5. There’s always space for more people in your life

As an introvert, this year has definitely been challenging. With only 30 people on our course, we’ve been a close-knit bunch from the start, and especially in first term I often found myself exhausted after a full-on week of classes, chatty coffee breaks and social lunches, effectively too tired to socialise outside of our 9 to 5 schedule.

But the rewards have made up for the challenges. At Edinburgh, I mostly made friends outside my course, and it’s been lovely meeting bright and brilliant people who study the same thing I do but come from completely different backgrounds and bring new perspectives, opinions, and skills to the table. Despite my well-designed plan to exclusively stick to the one friendship I already brought with me from Edinburgh (and maintain professional distance to everyone else), I’ve made some friends for life.

The great thing about the social intensity of this course is that you warm up to people more quickly; it feels as though you’ve known each other for ages rather than just a few months, including the support, warmth, and familiarity that comes with years of friendship. Plus, never before have I felt like I properly belonged to a university department in the physical sense, and our little orange MSc room in the Oxford Internet Institute really does feel like home now.

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7 Comments

  • Reply Eli June 25, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    Love you Ilinca! It’s been such a journey. You will always be my favourite coding partner & committee chairwoman!

  • Reply Judith June 25, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    Ilinca, this text is magic

  • Reply BREXIT: When politics break your heart - tea & twigs June 25, 2016 at 6:38 pm

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  • Reply Amrita Sengupta June 27, 2016 at 8:56 am

    “You’re most likely not the only imposter in the room” – a good reminder on a dark Monday morning.

  • Reply Greg Taylor June 28, 2016 at 5:17 pm

    Remember: there’s an imposter stood at the front of the room too!

  • Reply Sivaranjani S August 1, 2017 at 10:47 am

    Great blog! I’m applying for the course this year. Can you give some insights on which college to choose?

    • Reply Ilinca August 13, 2017 at 11:19 am

      I was at Balliol and absolutely loved it! :)

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