By Alvin Leung, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

A conversation that repeatedly occurred in my MPhil year:

‘Morning Ma’am, so… one fruit scone, one cream and a jam. Any hot drink for you?’
‘Coffee, please.’ ‘Sure, one sec.’

This happened at The Orchard Tea Garden in Granchester where I worked during the second half of my MPhil year. The Orchard is a popular place among Cambridge students, who usually punt there as a group and enjoy a sunny afternoon. I didn’t punt to work, though. I cycled there for 25 minutes thrice a week to serve tea and coffee. 

In my previous post, I wrote about the perks and drawbacks of doing a theoretical PhD study. Drawbacks include researching alone in libraries and getting out of touch with ‘reality’ – as well as the risk of not acquiring sufficient experience working with empirical data. Now, I’ll share an eclectic mix of things that I partook in to alleviate some of these drawbacks, including the work at the Orchard I just told you about, as you might wonder how serving coffee helped my study.

Tea garden

Working at The Orchard is probably the strangest thing I did as a student at Cambridge. My motivations for finding this job were that I was bored, I was working by myself, and I wanted some extra money. While I thought the job wasn’t the most exciting, I had time to talk to the mums and six-form students who worked there with me. From them I learnt a lot about England’s education system. Their voices were important as they helped me begin to understand education issues not only from books but also from those who experienced them. I never imagined that those small talks with my co-workers would be helpful in supervising undergraduate students.

At The Orchard

I was not born in Britain, so my knowledge of its education system is mainly from books and journal articles. That is alright, but students can soon tell that you probably don’t have close familiarity with it. I am therefore glad that the small talks with students and mums working at the Orchard gave me different perspectives. Other than those, my interactions with teachers and students as a research assistant were also very helpful. They told me so much that I could never have learnt from books.

Undergraduate supervisor

In the second year of my PhD, I was fortunate to supervise a final-year sociology of education course on social inclusion in Britain. The Faculty of Education doesn’t always post job advertisements for these roles. In the summer leading to my second year, I therefore actively sent out emails to lecturers and professors to find teaching opportunities, and luckily, I was given this chance. (I recommend Karen’s post on this blog, she explains the importance of having teaching experience.)

Research Assistant

Celebrating the launch of the UM website

The most valuable work experience during my time in Cambridge was with Underground Mathematics (UM) as a Research Assistant for 2.5 years. One day, a classmate of mine in my MPhil class sent me a job advertisement; she was working in the UM project as a full-time RA and the project was hiring two part-time RAs. My friend CJ and I got the job.

As part of the project, we had the chance to design surveys, conduct interviews with teachers, and write reports to schools and the government. This made my resumé more balanced, in that I now have experience in collecting and analysing empirical data. I was also able to work in a team environment again – and this is something your future employers will appreciate. Regularly check the university’s job listings and your inbox, and you will find these opportunities.

MCR committee member

Leadership skills are important, but my resumé didn’t have much to convince others that I had them. Also, because I worked on my own all the time, I needed a sense of community.

I had a hard time the first summer I spent in Cambridge. I found resources, saw my GP, fought the battle and got myself back on track. After that I was determined to join the Fitzwilliam College MCR– the association for graduate students – as a Welfare Officer to help other students in my college by providing information on dealing with mental health issues. It certainly gave me a sense of community as I worked with the committee and bonded with other college members in the events we organised (I also recommend checking out CJ’s blog post on the benefits of getting involved in an MCR.) 

‘How about welfare of others in Cambridge – not just students?’ I thought to myself. Out of the blue, our Academic Officer came to me and suggested that we could organise a talk on LGBT+ rights. That thought started my role as an evening conferences organiser. I then organised another two evening conferences on homelessness (it was a cold winter) and prison education. To my surprise, 60 people turned up each time. 

Through this, I realised the importance of taking initiative. It not only gave me a sense of achievement, I was also thrilled to see the speakers interacting with students attending the talks and to have the chance to give out leaflets to promote volunteering for helping homeless people. And now, I can tell my future employers I have leadership experience and dare to start new initiatives. Just like Stine and Tyler who started this blog! Do you see something that you can contribute to in your college or your Faculty? Do it. It is unimaginably rewarding!

Consulting events

To close this post, I would love to introduce you to two workshops where I was thrown out of my comfort zone and had the opportunity to develop skills of being a consultant. Perhaps these can be of interest to you too?

I saw Cambridge Hub, a local NGO, advertising their events on email. I had the chance to work with postgraduate students in other departments to help our client, ARM, to improve their CSR footprint. They taught me how to better use social research to support decision-making in a more business-like setting.

UNLEASH is less known to Cambridge students. I knew about it through my undergraduate scholarship funder. I was flown to Singapore to learn how to start a social enterprise in a team environment. Every year, talents from more than 100 countries are invited to come up with ideas to help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, one of which is Quality Education. Everything is paid for, and the experience will no doubt be rewarding. It is also a great networking opportunity.

UNLEASH opening ceremony 2018

All of the above experiences – working in a tea garden, teaching, being a RA, joining MCR committee to working on projects – made my PhD journey much more unforgettable. They also helped me tackle some of the drawbacks of working on a theoretical study, such as always working alone, not having experience collecting and analysing empirical data, and no leadership training.

A PhD at Cambridge is a luxury in that it allows you to explore so much more outside your study. So, seize odd opportunities, keep an eye on posters and emails, take initiative, throw yourself out of your comfort zone, and you will have an amazing 3 (or more) years in Cambridge! 

Alvin Leung works as a Project Consultant specialising in education, development and humanitarian aid. He was a Cambridge Trust Scholar and completed his MPhil in 2014 and PhD in 2018 in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. His work examines the ideas of nation, citizenship and border in education policies in Britain and Hong Kong. During his time in Cambridge, he worked for Underground Mathematics as an Evaluation Assistant. Previously, he also worked as a financial journalist and a schoolteacher. You can know more about his work on his LinkedIn page and contact him by email.

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