BA (Hons) University of Oxford; MSc Harvard University
BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics; MSc in Data Science
Public Service Commission Scholarship
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My university application journey
I did my undergraduate studies in the social sciences but my graduate studies are in data science - which is a far more technical STEM field. As such, I think I can address potential questions and concerns NYJCians might have with regards to both fields and along intersectional lines.
1. BA Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Oxford
- why this course: I chose this course because I wasn't all too sure what I wanted to do. I was very interested in how people arrived at decisions, and I enjoyed studying P, P, and E during my time in JC and in the army - so PPE was a very natural and obvious choice. There was also a strong precedent of past PSC scholars taking the course, so I was certain that PPE was going to be good for my career and that I was going to enjoy it to some significant degree without closing off too many options. This is in contrast to more specialized programs that I considered at the time (such as a law degree or an economics degree).
- how you decided upon this course / this university: Oxford was the best school offering the program, so it was a very easy choice. I definitely had a preference for comparable universities in the US, but I did not gain admission into a school in the US that was better than Oxford. I came across PPE by browsing Yale-NUS' catalogue and was really drawn to it since it met all of my above criteria; I decided to aim higher than a local university because I wanted a change of environment and because I was annoyed by how warm Singapore was. I also wanted international exposure and it made financial sense to apply to study overseas, since I won an overseas scholarship during my first-year of National Service.
- the challenges you went through during application: A big challenge is that lack of senior support and support from our school (beyond teachers like Mr Lee Liang Lin and Mr Tan Shin Eik who I happened to cross paths with and had a ton of useful advice and information); I can't really blame the school for this because there aren't too many precedents and it wouldn't make sense to allocate that much resources to such a small minority of students aiming for top UK universities. Interacting with other applicants and candidates, it was abundantly clear that other schools had much stronger alumni networks and admissions counsellors with more experience for these top unis; I had to lean on my friends quite heavily in order to get some tips and insights regarding how to best present myself as a candidate. To be fair, NYJC definitely has supported my application and had relevant resources, but I guess my point is more towards how I still felt relatively disadvantaged because of these perks that other schools could provide. (FYI, Jovin was one of the first students in NYJC to gain entry to Oxford about 5 years ago. NYJC also does not have full-time admissions counsellors in comparison to schools like HCI)
- any other info that you think is interesting for your juniors: You should really leverage on myself and other NYJC alumni to help you get into the course/university that you are interested in; a lot of us are definitely keen on helping and building our own personal network so you should really just ask - the worse you'll get is a 'no'. You should also aim high if the situation allows for it; my grades aren't too different from a lot of NYJCians, the difference is probably just that I actually tried for these universities. Also, if you don't want a scholarship but can't afford to study abroad, consider taking out a loan because the salary you can potentially earn overseas can actually repay your student loan pretty quick.
2. MS Data Science at Harvard University
- why this course: I realized Oxford's syllabus was very theoretical and it did provide me with a ton of practical experience that I can translate into workable skills. I also enjoyed the quantitative aspect of social science that enabled me to actually make stuff (like software, predictions, actual findings) and at a certain point I realized that much of what is moving the world (and, in fact, academia) forward is quantitative and data-driven - and that's where I wanted to position myself. As such, I really wanted to expand upon my undergrad studies by studying a more quantitative discipline in order to get a better ability to translate my ideas, thoughts, and interests into actual products and projects (rather than leaving them as theoretical possibilities).
- how you decided upon this course / this university: Data science is really popular because it is not as dry as computer science and because has a lot of very direct and useful applications; data science is also a very natural extension of my studies in quantitative politics and econometrics, so I chose the course because (a) I could feasibly do well in the course given my slight background in stats at Oxford; (b) it is a discipline that is SUPER relevant in our current workforce and even for people looking to do their own business; (c) data science is highly sought after by the public service (which my scholarship is tied to); (d) with data science, you can easily transition into other fields such as biomedical research, quant finance, software engineering, business analytics, consultancy, etc.; (e) it's really fun. I chose Harvard because it was the best school that accepted me and also because Harvard obviously is great and offers a really good program.
- the challenges you went through during application: Not too many challenges here; the application process is straightforward for graduate programs. The most difficult part was probably crafting a relevant portfolio since the degree is very technical whereas my undergrad discipline wasn't. I did several online coding courses in the summers at Oxford and had to hustle to get two quantitative internships; I also took relatively quantitative courses at Oxford as well to bolster this.
- any other info that you think is interesting for your juniors: The US pays people a ton - if you have the opportunity to do a graduate program or anything that gives you a temporary work visa in the US, you should really consider it because it can probably offset a lot of your tuition fees and because it is really good work experience. Also, I only really started coding in early 2018, so within the span of 1.5-years, I managed to accrue enough technical knowledge (while maintaining an active social life and pursuing my Bachelors' degree full-time) to get a place at Harvard's course which has a 6% admit rate so it's actually very possible. It's honestly not that hard, and a lot of NYJCians are in much better positions that me to excel.
Life after NYJC
Are you able to share more about the company that you are interning with and your area of work?Right now, I'm working at Shopee as a data science intern while also working as a research assistant at Harvard's LIT lab. In the former company, I'm working on a fraud detection model for Shopee's credit/loan platforms where I am to create a model that identifies suspicious activity and generates a credit risk score in order to prevent fraud and intentional defaults - this is all done in Python. In the latter company, I'm working on a tool for education researchers at Harvard that is really a web app that uses a laptop's webcam in order to identify a user's emotion, posture, heart-rate, and tracks eye-movement; the idea is that this software can make educational research cheaper and more accessible to researchers such that they can conduct more experiments and find out better ways to improve educational materials, platforms, and practices.
-How did you manage to secure an internship with the said company?: Many many many applications, a lot of interview preparation, and a lot of technical exercises.
-How do you find the internship program?: Just started so I don't have too much to say here; it's a bit annoying that the work has to be done remotely because of COVID-19.
-What are you doing now in university? At Harvard, the courses are quite intense, so I mostly am swamped with coursework, but I'm involved in a lot of social activities and events with my coursemates, dormmates, and friends there. I'm studying a lot about machine learning - particularly, areas such as Natural Language Processing and Computer Vision.
At Oxford, I was very involved in various extracurriculars. I was president of the Oxford University Asia Pacific society which was really fun; I was vice president of the Oxford Development Consultancy and did two projects (one on the Tanzanian microfinance environment; one on the cost structure of Haiti's largest microfinance company which involved a field study so I spent 2 weeks in Haiti); I was in the Oxford Handball Club and played in the varsity team; I was secretary of the Oxford Philosophy, Politics, and Economics society; I was a committee member for INDUSTRY magazine which is a student-run contemporary art and culture magazine; I was the treasurer of the Hip Hop Society of Oxford; I was a director for a mental health and active listening society at Oxford. Beyond that, I was also very active in my college and in the Singaporean society there.
-Are you in any interesting programmes that you would like to share? There are tons of interesting and fun events and activities; being in university towns mean that I also went to a lot of shows, music festivals, events, museums, cultural sights across the UK and America. There's probably too many to list.
-What are you doing in your free time? I travelled a lot; I hung out with my friends a ton; I worked on my extracurriculars; I actively sought employment and internships; I learnt additional skills in my spare time; I watched a lot of Netflix and YouTube and played videogames as well. In my vacations, I worked in Hong Kong, Singapore, Brazil, Haiti, the UK, and the US which were all really fun and really enriching experiences. I also did a lot of skiing, road-tripping, and running.
My Future Plans
Are you able to share more about the kind of technology companies that you are interested in and also the area of work? So my scholarship requires me to serve my bond in Singapore after my studies - I'm hoping to work for GovTech during my bond service and potentially other ministries in quantitative projects in the area of data science and machine learning. This could be stuff like scam prevention, automated services, quantitative finance roles within the government, etc.
Prior to that, I still have a gap year option, that I hope to spend at a tech company in the US since I have a work visa (though this is going to be more difficult given the COVID-19 situation). I'm interested in companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, etc. as well as start-ups and other large companies; my priority will be to gain exposure to working in a data science/machine learning team.
Tips for Juniors
What and how can they prepare in advance if they want to apply for PSC scholarship / same universities / same courses like you?: Start early; it's actually not that much work - and everything is much much much easier if you spread it out across several months. Try to think about what courses or fields interest you and (don't make the same mistake as me) actively reach out to people within those fields or who are studying in those areas to see if that's what you really want to do. Don't go in with an impression of what Economics or Politics or CS is about; just go and ask people who are studying those courses and hear from them. As a JC student, your exposure is probably very limited and a lot of the narratives online and in the media are actually really skewed and inaccurate. If you really want to do something you enjoy and you want to excel (i.e. you value what you are doing in uni) then you shouldn't afraid to do some primary research. I personally failed to get into Oxford on my first attempt (luckily I have two tries since I had to go through NS), and it was only after speaking to actual Oxford students and economists that I got a stronger sense of what I wanted and could articulate my thoughts and ideas better and with more conviction.