Whatever happens to me in this lifetime, I can always tick an achievement box with my shiny 1st class degree from Oxford University. It’s true that this line of my CV tends to open doors, and it conjures respect. It’s also true that my degree isn't what keeps me warm at night, and I am not one of those people who frame their diplomas or put their graduation photographs on a mantelpiece. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that a 1st from Oxford is a double-edged sword.
Graduating from Oxford has surprisingly limited my career choices. I was obviously expected to land a well-paid corporate job with my degree in Economics & Management. It wasn’t my tutors who implied so, but mostly my peers, City firms, marketing themselves at Oxford career fairs and my own perception that it would somehow be a failure not to join the ranks of some important-sounding institution.
I don’t regret getting an offer from the City’s most prestigious investment bank at a time, but I feel sorry that it did not occur to me to probe other opportunities with a bit more diligence. Then again, I needed a working visa, I had to pay my overseas university fees, so Merrill Lynch it was to be.
I received a sharp poke under the ribcage from my Oxford sword very shortly after I’ve started my job. We were in New York on a training course, and the final assignment was to build a model in Excel, put together slides in Powerpoint and present our merger case study first thing in the morning. The deadline was deliberately unrealistic, so we’ve ended up working through the night, which was the first of many, many occasions when my Oxford graduate pride did not let me question the circumstances but rather spurred me on to deliver the work no matter what. I got 1st from the best university in the world - I could not possibly fail.
Meanwhile, some of my Oxford peers were doing something very strange. One guy was temping as a barista at Café Nero, one girl was working as a secretary in the City, and a few people stayed at Oxford to do Masters because they could not decide what else they wanted to do. I feel sorry that in my own confusion I could not see that they too were undoubtedly feeling the pressure, and chose to deal with it the best way they could.
A less sharp but no less painful sensation is guilt. My father’s business collapsed and never recovered after the Russia’s default on its debt in 1998, yet he financed my first year at Oxford and supported me during the next two years. There was something forbidden about dreaming about finding a job I would genuinely love, so I chose not to. It takes some soul-searching to allow yourself not to be dominated by the responsibility to care for your parents, but to realise that seeing you happy may be the best gift your parents ever hope to receive.
The mindset to succeed, the fear of failure, the peer pressure (reunion, anyone?), perhaps even snobbery together sound so heavy that I doubt any airline in the world would call it hand luggage. Yet, this is what some end up carrying on their shoulders for decades after the graduation day. And if this is the case, stop competing with yourself, roll down your shoulders and loosen your grip on that double-edged sword. There is so much more to life than a mortarboard.