Ditching a Master’s degree to learn more

I want to quit my Master’s at Cambridge. I’ve thought about it non-stop since the induction lecture.

I threw myself into the community; I ran for Graduate Union Environmental Director (and won), I row on The Cam, I participate in philosophical debates and half a dozen societies, I’ve given a guest lecture on Resilience to the Engineers for Sustainability seminar series… the list goes on. I’ve been busy day and night with reading, writing, and socializing in Cambridge style.

Still. The feeling of wanting to quit is overwhelming. Why? Not because it’s too hard, or too much, or that I find Cambridge drab and boring (it’s not!)

Quite simply—I could be learning more elsewhere. I have some burning questions. I can try to answer them here; but quite frankly, it would be easier to work towards solutions with proper guidance and mentorship, with people who share a common vision.

I was afraid of voicing my opinion too loudly—since I realize my position is unique, and privileged… (particularly as a grateful scholar supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).  But, it appears I’m not the only one thinking like this: Phillipa Young, in The Guardian, describes why she ditched her Master’s degree at Oxford to get a better education elsewhere. While I really do admire Phillipa Young’s courage and steadfast position in quitting her Master’s, I have chosen (after a number of sleepless nights and incredible support from friends …thank you!!) to stay on at Cambridge and milk this place for what it’s worth. I began writing this blog with the utmost approval of Phillipa’s disposition: the collegiate system has failed me, the history and tradition is more often smothering and lends to ineffectiveness rather than stimulating creativity, and agree WHOLE-HEARTEDLY that the University is not offering cutting-edge knowledge (I learn more at an-over-tea-time glance at Twitter), but, I would like to contend that intellectual exploration is still possible.

I am awful at math. But see the beauty and utility of differential equations. I am not a physicist, and never will be. But maybe the way galaxies collide, or the mechanics of the accretion disk that surround the black hole can provide interesting insight into the way that institutions form around a violent norm…

The problem is, nobody is sitting at the dinner table holding a sign saying “I do Pure Mathematics… let’s talk to see how it might be relevant to the system you study.” Initiating and finding these dialogues is difficult. The usual answer after asking “Why do you do pure maths?” is a slightly (or very) awkward blank stare and “…because it’s easy and fun.” That’s when I reach for another glass of Port.

I’m a nerd, and choosing where to study is a pretty big deal. There were colour-coded matrices, long discussions with mentors, professors, consultants, diplomats and friends and family. All things weighted, Cambridge won. But then, why has nothing ever felt so wrong? My external academic, professional and informal change networks are what are keeping me going.

It’s hard for people like Phillipa (I presume) and myself to come to Oxford, or to Cambridge or to any other traditional institute with high expectations. I have been extremely privileged (and yes I’ve worked for those opportunities too) to be part of networks of truly inspiration scholars, leaders and thinkers. Having discussions with Buzz Holling, dreaming and acting towards a sustainable and happy future with the Balaton Group and feeling the energy of Donella Meadows through her friends and colleagues, listening to fascinating debates about cutting edge science at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, or tackling global issues of violence with the European Climate Forum, or learning from a Medicine Man in the Pamir Mountains… I have high hopes and aspirations that we can collectively change the world for the better.

So yes, hands down, no doubt about it, I would learn more this year of what excites me most, if I quit my Master’s at Cambridge and spent more time with these networks; with these people. But, I’m Here. Now. So what can Cambridge give me? Space. To take a step back and learn the basics. I write about Institutions. But, I haven’t read the full seminal works by Coase, or North, or even Ostrom. I quote them extensively. But I haven’t really read them. So, having dropped my expectations that Cambridge is going to provide any type of stimulating discussion on Global Earth Governance, Resilience, Systems Dynamics… or any other topic I am intrinsically interested in, I will fall back to the theory, try to hide from the OH SO stimulating world that is passing by   while I try to create my own academic reality. Plus, it can’t be as bad as Kabul… right? (and RyanAir is only a 40 minute train ride away…)

So, I’m not dropping out—but, I would recommend to others, as alternative education choices… check out an institution like CEMUS in Uppsala, Sweden. Or just go hang out with some of your academic idols and listen to them. Or, learn how to farm and bake bread.


5 Responses to Ditching a Master’s degree to learn more

  1. Buzz Holling says:

    You have terrific good judgement in your decision and its reasoning. I used to say to students “always do two jobs- one that is traditional that satisfies the university system, and one that is bold, novel , experimental and FUN!



  2. Smriti says:

    I guess no one thing will satisfy wholly, especially for a brilliant mind like yours J! see you soon…


  3. Alan says:

    Jamila, thanks for your full-hearted candor here. I bet other students will be very grateful for it. My own year at Oxford, many years ago, was easily the most frustrating year of my foreshortened academic career, for similar reasons, and was one of the factors that accelerated my way out of the Academy and into the (so-called) Real World. But in a weird way, I look back on Oxford now with an unexpectedly huge amount of gratitude. Not only did having Oxford on my resume open other important doors later in that Real World; the frustrations I experienced there were very useful propellants. (I actually learned some useful things as well, it turned out.)

    Universities are meant to be launch pads. Sounds to me like your rocket is getting pretty well re-fueled … “milking it” for all the fuel you can get seems like a wise conclusion to me!

    warm best

  4. Magnus Tuvendal says:

    Interesting read. I was curious and wanted to know who you were, I read a tweet on planet2012 just now and yesterday a couple of friends from Stockholm Resilience Centre mentioned you. To my pride 😉 and joy you mentiond Cemus here. An organisation I have a close history with as the founding director. See you in Stockholm.

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