Nov 19 2021

By Willow Wong, Research Associate, Centre for AI and Data Governance, Yong Pung How School of Law, Singapore Management University 

Twitter: @SleepySapien

When I graduated from Royal Holloway in 2020, I felt unsure about which career direction suited my passions and interests. More than two years later, I work as a researcher in the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI) and data governance. I hope my reflections can help current students who are still in the early stages of career-planning.

Study well, but do more than just studying

Looking back at my university journey as an international student, I realized the times I’ve grown the most as a person were outside of the classroom. The extra-curricular events that were organized by the university and the Students’ Union gave me the opportunity to meet a wide range of people whose backgrounds and interests vastly differed from my own.

In 2016, I volunteered and signed up to be the international students’ representative – now a collective supported by the Students’ Union – where I collaborated with other students to organize events in support of campaigns and awareness weeks. It was a good way to practice communications skills and build up my confidence within a safe and informal setting, which encouraged me to come out of my shell.

Between 2017 and 2019, I was elected as the Vice President Welfare and Diversity of the Students’ Union. Although it was not my plan to take two years break from my studies, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity turned out to be my biggest turning point. I had to step up to the challenge of being an elected student leader and try my best to make student life better. The greatest lesson I learned was that it a team effort – not the ambition or motivations of any single individual – that made it possible to organize successful campaigns and lobbying efforts. Being in a leadership position was a deeply humbling experience that has made me a better collaborator and more compassionate person than I was.

When I returned to my final year of studies in 2020, I was a more diligent student than I had been at the start of my degree five years ago. With the helpful advice of my then-colleagues, I took a work-focused approach to my studies: in a 9-to-5, I would prepare for lectures and seminars like they were important business meetings where I needed to do well. I also saw my research assignments as if they were official reports I would (hypothetically) present to an external stakeholder and convince them to agree with my ideas.

Dramatic and eccentric my approach might’ve been, it worked for me as I was the recipient of the Edmée Manning Award (2020) for excellence work!

It’s worth it to take the road less travelled

Job-hunting amidst a pandemic was not easy.

I kept an Excel spreadsheet of the job applications I’d sent out and spent many weeks feeling the doom of not hearing anything back (even a rejection was better than no news). Job interviews were, at least for me, few and far between. I kept myself busy by signing up for volunteering activities, as it was also a good way to network with other people.

After signing up as an academic peer reviewer at a 100% volunteer-run and open-access journal (The Rhizomatic Revolution Review)[1], I finally decided to pursue my passion in research where I had previously tried to convince myself to pursue a more conventional career (e.g. in public relations, communications and even human resources). My final-year dissertation topic in philosophy was the perfect launch pad for my role as an AI ethics researcher at the Centre for AI and Data Governance[2], where I apply my knowledge in philosophy and critical theories to examine foundational questions in AI ethical design.

I couldn’t have achieved this without having built a good relationship with my lecturers, who were knew me very well and acted as my work references My research have also deeply benefited from my work at the Students’ Union on equality, diversity and inclusion, as my knowledge of wider social justice issues have deeply influenced my understanding of the intersections between technology and power.

Concluding Thoughts for My Younger Self

Be open-minded – look for opportunities to grow as a person everywhere! Whether you’re hoping to develop your professional or social skills, there are plenty of ways to build your capacities inside and outside of the classrooms. Just remember to keep an open mind on where learning can take place (hint: it’s everywhere, as long as you’re willing)!

Be adventurous – if you’re given an opportunity to try something new, give it your best shot! Imposter syndrome is real, but you can learn to tame the critical voice within you every time you choose to be brave and push against the confines of your comfort zone. Don’t let your desire to avoid failure come in the way of your chance to practice being a little better at something. As with an essay or a painting, done is better than perfect (the next time you’ve done another piece, you would’ve worked a little closer to perfection).

Be kind to yourself – it’s okay if things don’t work out according to your expectations. Part of being human is learning when to take a step back to rest, reflect and regather yourself. You can always try again, slightly wiser from the day before. Remember you don’t have to face difficulties on your own; lean on the support of your close ones and use the resources available to you (like the wellbeing and career services)!