Personal Report, 2021
What a year!
At the beginning of 2021, I was completely lost in both personal life and career prospects. Now, I am doing cutting edge research in a field I have never heard of a year ago, involving in organising some of the most exciting entrepreneurial events in Cambridge, and also waiting to hear back from my PhD and Master's Degree applications to some of the best universities in the world.
Thanks to the weekly 'personal log' that I started doing in April 2020, I was able to trace back my ad hoc experience this year from the 14,677 words of logs I wrote in total. In this very first annual personal report - with hopefully many more to come - I will try to wrap-up my 2021 and summarise some key take-aways for 2022. I'm doing this primarily to help myself internalise all that has happened in this extraordinary year and create a more realistic record for future reflections. If any part of it happened to resonate with you, well, that will be my greatest pleasure and serendipity.
Where I started
2021 started in the middle of my second year at Cambridge, when I had just transferred from Education Studies to Psychological & Behavioural Sciences for one term. Academically, I was receiving mostly 2.i's (~3.7/4.0GPA) in my essay assignments, but have rather negligible clues on what specific field I want to dive into. Career wise, most of my attention was still in online education for the Chinese market as it had been since 2018. Frankly, I found myself lost between exploring a new career direction and digging deeper into an education industry that doesn't really encourage me to develop more skills, as well as between the Chinese-speaking world where I had an established personal brand, and the English-speaking world that I was increasingly growing into.
I. Moving On
The first transition I had in 2021 was to move on from the education industry. I had done quite a lot in this field and built a good network and personal brand around it, which inevitably meant that it was the sole source of my sense of career security. When I realised that I wouldn't grow much more if I keep doing what I'm good at, facing between exploiting existing resources "存量" and exploring new frontiers "增量", rationality compelled me to explore something new, and move on from the only field I understood.
Initially, I entertained quite a few ideas, and applied to a range of summer internships including consultancy, journalism, venture capitals, and more. I didn't get any of them, understandable as I had just switched major, and the UK hirers were perhaps less open to diversity than they were concerned about my lack of institutionalised track records. Naturally, this launched me into an 'early-life crisis'.
I decided to ask for help, and reached out to people I see as mentors for advice. One of them was Dr Weigang Wan, a U.S. Physicist turned Chinese educational influencer, who advised me to think about what is my most unique advantage where I can grow from, instead of fixating on what I have and what I can do right now.
Taking his advice, I started analysing my situation. It became clear to me that my most unique advantage at the time was the academic resources of Cambridge. Therefore, to fully capitalise this unique advantage, I started planning to go into academic research, even though I had no practical understanding of psychological research at the time.
What happened next could be said to be the luckiest thing that happened to me in 2021. After sending emails to two dozen social psychology research groups in Cambridge and other universities, I was taken in by the then lab manager of Cambridge Personality and Social Dynamics Research Group, Dr Andrés Gvirtz, who saw my earlier experience in programming and dealing with data potentially helpful to their research. There, we worked on multiple data-intensive research projects that opened my eyes to the field of Computational Social Science, where I am now diving into and hoping to pursue in my postgraduate studies.
I really can't give enough thanks to Andrés this year. He gave me a chance to participate at the frontline of social science research, an opportunity to dive into advance quantitative methodologies, and the guidance I desperately needed to sort out a new direction for my career, aspiring to become a computational social scientist. This intensive research training allowed me to now able to maintain a 1st class predicted grade (~4.0 GPA) in all my final year papers. Now, Andrés is the supervisor for my undergraduate dissertation paper, where we are working with Prof. Friedrich Götz of UBC to use some of the coolest data science and machine learning methods in social psychology, aiming for publication.
II. Going Beyond
2021 was also the year where I started actively going beyond one academic discipline. Or perhaps, it was me returning to my more multidisciplinary past after a lost 2020 in failing to adapt to the mono-disciplinary focus of Cambridge. After finally moving on from the education industry, I realised that I can decide how I want to grow, instead of blindly following the path that the university has chartered for us, and started strategizing.
Initially, I identified three major fields I needed to develop into: 1) Behavioural Science, my new primary discipline, and an important foundation to understand people and societies; 2) Computer Science, my personal interest since high school, and crucial to understanding our future as a digital humanity; 3) Innovation & Enterprise, my past in coming up with random projects, and what I thought was key to translating insights into actions.
I sat out to develop these three fields simultaneously for the first half of 2021. I planned to start a Behavioural Science YouTube channel or blog to push myself further into the field, but it was dropped as I found actual academic research in the field to be more effective in my development. I got help from my friends who study Computer Science in Cambridge, Lawrence, Alex, and Marcus, to dive deeper into their field by first going through their publicly available lecture materials on my own, and later directly attending their Data Science lectures as allowed by my membership of the university. As for innovation and enterprise, I mostly read on the topic and looked into potentially going into business schools for PhD in organisational behaviour, but later abandoned the line of pursuit as I found it more efficient to directly involve myself into the community.
Towards the latter half of 2021, my pursuit in these three fields became more and more integrated thanks to my introduction to the nascent field of Computational Social Science / Social Data Science, and specifically the world of Social Network Analysis, where one can use the mathematical language of graph theory and behavioural economics to model human social and organisational behaviours, and I hope, foster personal and organisation wellbeing and success.
I had actually read about social networks years before, but never thought I'd go into the field myself. In that, I must thank my 'college father' (college family is a strange buddying system in Oxbridge) Rowan who led my attention back to social networks. Rowan graduated from Human, Social & Political Science, and we spent the entire summer ranting about the limitation of Cambridge's social theory focus, exploring empirical methodologies in social sciences, and helping each other with postgraduate application plans. It was our conversations and comradeship that led me to actually read a textbook in social network analysis and directly start quantitatively assessing networks in a later research assistantship with Prof. Patrizia Vecchi at the Cambridge Judge Business School.
Social Data Science and Social Network Analysis were the perfect integration of Behavioural Science, Computation Science, and Entrepreneurship. They look into human social behaviour, which links to my core studies in Psychological and Behavioural Sciences; They use heavy data analyses to reach quantifiable predictive insights, which ties into my exploration in Computer Science; most importantly, they provide mechanistic models that could lead to real-life interventions that facilitates both personal and organisational success. I'm grateful that my exploration this year has led me to this wonderful interdisciplinary field.
III. Making Impact
In the final quarter of 2021, I started to think back to what's been driving me all these years. Despite studying psychology, I still don't fully understand why I have this uncontrollable urge inside me to do so many unnecessary projects; I guess I find it fun and hope to do something meaningful.
One project I tried to do this year was to organise entrepreneurial events in Cambridge. When I got here in 2019, I was quite disapointed by how detached the undergraduate community was from the real world, and how uninterested the university was in integrating the industrial resources in Cambridge (being UK's largest innovation hub!) into teaching, which Stanford and MIT have been doing for years.
So, when I got back my bearings in academics and careers, I decided to stop complaining and get my hands dirty to tried to find solutions. I took over the Enterprise and Innovation Society in my own college, and joined CUTEC - the university's largest entrepreneurial student society - as the co-director of growth. We have organised a number of well-received events in the last two months of 2021 and have more cool events lined up for Q1 2022, and I personally organised a cross-society social with the aim to strengthen collaborations between different Cambridge entrepreneurial societies and industrial organisations.
Perhaps naïvely, I have been practicing what I learned from social network analysis in engaging the undergraduate communities in these entrepreneurial events, hoping that I could use my unique network local bridge position to create cool collaborations and initiate cultural cascades. But no matter what result I get in this campaign, I hope this spirit of trying to make an impact with what I do - that 赤子之心 - never dies within me.
Frankly, I should put more thoughts into how I can make an impact with my academic career. As sharply observed by Dr David Good in one of my Cambridge MPhil interviews, one challenge I will face in my academic career is how to balance doing quantitative research from afar with making social impact up close. I was also reminded of the importance to think about what positive impact I can make towards tackling social issues during my application to MIT's Social Systems PhD, as well as in my earlier consultation with Prof. Hugh Wilson of Warwick Business School.
In 2022, I hope to figure out an action plan towards my aim of "tackling social issues like social stratification, negative enculturation, and empowering social mobility and innovation", as I sat out for myself in my statements to all the postgraduate programmes I applied to this December.
What would 2022 be for me? I certainly hope that I will receive offers for postgraduate studies, that my current research on cultural values and societal outcomes can reach publication, that I could put up cool events for my peers in Cambridge, and that I can figure out an impact plan in my career. But just like I wouldn't be able to imagine my growth in 2021 a year ago, I hope that my journey in 2022 will be unimaginable for me right now.
I shall try to embrace the infinite possibilities that come with uncertainty, to grow myself through creating values for others, and to be genuine and grateful to every moment in 2022.
December 31st, 2021