Reflections on my difficult year abroad.
My 3 principal goals during my intercalated year were as follows:
- To become fluent in French and immerse myself in French culture
- To study measure theory and probability theory
- To see whether data science is a career path I would be interested in
I am glad to say that, in regards to these 3 goals, this year has been a success, although to varying degrees for each.
My ICY was split into two halves: the first 6 months were spent at Ensai, a graduate school for data science, and the latter 6 as a junior data scientist at QuantCube, the Parisian research arm of a fintech startup.
My time at Ensai was turbulent. Indeed, at the start of the year I had hoped to spend my entire time there, but after little time I realised that perhaps this institution would not live up to my expectations. The year started with a 2 week integration period for international students, all 6 of us (dare I say it is rather difficult to integrate when the only people around you are foreign), but after that we dived headfirst into advanced mathematics. Along with the rest of the first year erasmus students, I was placed onto their economics track which offered remedial courses in maths, along with having easier courses in both maths and computer science due to the relative lack of experience in these subjects that students admitted from a less mathematical background would have. Feeling up to the challenge (and thinking back on my 2nd principal goal) I asked to be moved to the maths track. Given my sufficient performance on the arrival placement test the school obliged.
In hindsight, this decision was a mistake, but the best mistake I have ever made. I was swamped with things to learn. Instead of remedial maths we studied sociology, our lecture notes were twice the length, our computer science classes assumed high levels of programming experience. It seemed at every corner they had strived to make the maths track significantly more difficult. I would have loved to say that I revelled in the challenge and to a certain extent I did. I found that the python classes and those on the complexity of algorithms very interesting and well taught, additionally the high level of mathematics made the abstraction of relational databases and SQL quick to grasp, and the seminars could flow much faster because everyone was on the same page. I was, however, betrayed by my own reasoning. The pure maths classes of measure theory and probability theory became too much for me to handle. I stopped going to the lectures entirely and instead spent the time in the library mulling over the lecture notes themselves. My lectures were entirely in French and this would normally not be a problem, but given the extremely high level of the maths taught (and assumed) on the maths track I found myself lost in the lectures. Everything I took for granted in the UK became everything I wish I could go back to. My ability to ask questions in lectures disappeared due to lack of confidence (in french, in what we were studying, and to speak in front of my new cohort), and sloppy handwriting went from a nuisance to a completely impossible challenge as I tried and failed to decipher the scrawls of theorems and propositions on the blackboard. Had there not been notes I would have given up.
The class that I enjoyed and benefited from the most was my free option: Intercultural Communication. In the class we learned and spoke about the differences in different cultures and how they can manifest themselves in communication and management settings. Finally my hardships felt validated. I also met my two best friends in this class who helped me through much of the rest of the year.
One morning some time after the reading week I went to my classes and the building was filled with stands peddling their internships. The 2nd and 3rd year (4th and 5th in the UK HE system) students were all dressed up in suits and were sitting down to talk to the various companies, CV in hand. At this point during the year I was seriously feeling like staying at Ensai would not be the best way to spend the rest of my year so I mustered up the courage to translate my CV and go on the job hunt myself.
I found a quiet stand labelled Quantcube and spoke to them about my experience at Warwick, Ensai, and my URSS scheme I did the summer prior. To my surprise they seemed very keen to hire me and told me to email them my CV and that they would be in touch. Later that day I received an email from them setting the date for the first interview to be in two weeks. I made the decision then and there that my time at Ensai had come to an end. I wanted this job.
I studied non-stop for the next 2 weeks learning everything I could about machine learning. Which model to use when, how each model worked, their advantages and disadvantages, their implementations in python. I was reinvigorated by the prospect of making something more of my year: to live and work in Paris would be a dream. I was all in.
My time at Ensai was turbulent, but I do not regret going. For the friends I made which I will undoubtedly keep for the rest of my life, to the skills I developed programming in SQL and python (and SAS…) for the first time (and hopefully the last time in regards to the latter).