What my master’s degree really taught me: Success is not a straight line

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A lot of times, we want to take as much control of our lives as possible so that everything will go according to plan. That definitely sounds good, but harder to achieve. In reality, one must make unpredicted turns and take daring chances when life puts them to the test. Our contributor Astrid Kusumawardhani shares her wisdom from her master’s and career journey thus far.

 

When I was asked to write this post to reflect back upon my 1.5 years in Scotland, I had to sit and think about what I really want to say. Studying at the University of Edinburgh was intellectually rewarding, living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world was a privilege, and exploring the UK with the friends I made was truly an adventure! Granted, there were some less fabulous aspects, read: grey and ghastly winter weather, harsh winds, constant sheet of rain that means you’re always wet when you’re outside.

Yes, those would be fun to write about. But what is more important for me to share with you is how my Master’s degree – from the process of getting it to where I am today five years later – reinforced a lesson that life is not straightforward no matter how carefully you try to plan for it. Understanding this was important for me because it allowed me to not be afraid to go down a career path I wouldn’t have otherwise chosen and be rewarded for taking these life-risks.

In 2013, I received a Chevening scholarship to take up a Master of Science in Environmental Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh. At that time, my career was a mix of different things but all related to environmental science. I had worked as a staff training police officers in disaster management, an environmental consultant in various development agencies and the Indonesian government, and an Assistant Manager of sustainability program in a multinational company. That neat career path secured me the scholarship. I envisioned the Master’s degree will only reinforce this path and allow me to climb up the career ladder.

Indonesian Astrid Kusumawardhani with her Chevening group
Astrid with her fellow Chevening scholars

I enjoyed learning about environmental sustainability, especially in Scotland! The country is much more progressive about its climate change mitigation targets compared to the rest of the world. Like a sponge, I absorbed everything I could from this country that is taking concrete steps to save the planet. I loved every minute of learning and highly recommend that if you do take a Master’s program abroad, really earn your place. It is a one-time shot (unless you plan on getting a second or third Master’s) so honor yourself by being the best person you can be.

After my Master’s ended, I was presented with an internship opportunity at the UK Green Investment Bank. The world of finance was not really in my plan (that straight “life itinerary” I had) or even related to my studies, but I took it anyway. It was a risk and it wasn’t easy. I drew upon everything I learned from my degree, read up all that I could about UK policies, and made sure I caught up on the latest industry issues. Bending the straight line rewarded me with a very valuable experience: the confidence that I can make it in another country, that I can swim in the big pond.

When I returned from Scotland, I immediately looked for job opportunities in Jakarta. Ideally they would be in environmental science, else I would have wasted my years abroad (or so I thought). I kept looking but there was nothing quite right, then I stumbled upon a role at a political consulting firm, which had nothing to do with environmental science. Again I took the risk.

Beautiful Edinburgh, where Indonesian Astrid Kusumawardhani went to school and live for a year
Beautiful Edinburgh, where Astrid went to school and lived for 1.5 years

The process was not easy; I learned everything from scratch about each and every industry where our clients operated, trained my problem solving skills and read books to deep-dive into Indonesia’s politics. Throughout my years there, I found myself drawing upon the discipline and academic rigor of my Master’s degree and that investment bank internship. It dawned upon me while it’s not a straightforward path, everything I have done can be used to forge the next part of my (now very squiggly) path. Past experiences are not wasted just because you decide to take a hard left turn from where you are now.

That could not be more true about where I went after. An opportunity came for me to join a large tech company. The role was only slightly related to my political consulting experience. With my not-straight-anymore career path, I took the risk and again I was rewarded. I am enjoying my role now, I grew and became a senior leader in the company, driving impactful change while creating real social impact. I even got a chance to put my environmental skills to action when I was called upon to spearhead a sustainability project!

Throughout my professional journey, I did find myself having to explain to multiple recruiters the rationale behind my “all over the place” career path. Many asked why I took a Master’s degree in environmental studies if I am now in public affairs and politics? Was it not a waste of time? Did I wish to do things differently and take different risks?

Indonesian Astrid Kusumawardhani enjoyed the beautiful scenery of Isle of Skye, Scotland
Astrid loved the majestic scenery of Isle of Skye, Scotland

I learned that we need to give up this delusional belief that our career paths should be a straight line made up of a logical sequence of moves, for us to be truly successful. I was proven time and time again, that is no longer the case. The career world has changed so dramatically where neatly-boxed academic disciplines that are Master’s degrees are no longer entirely relevant!

The takeaway for you is to not be afraid to take risks and explore your curiosities. No knowledge or experience is ever wasted, so don’t be discouraged if you end up doing something entirely different from your studies or your plans. There is always a way for you to apply your skills! Besides, there is nothing more boring than a straight line.