Steven McIntosh




Cayman Islands


Recruitment & HR Consulting


Jan 2019 - Sept 2020

By Steven McIntosh

The five things I learned in my first week at Oxford

Ambling clumsily along Oxford’s Broad Street whilst gawping up at some of the University’s most historic landmarks, I was bowled over by a tremendous sense of inspiration and wonder.  Either that or it was an undergraduate on a bike. Hard to say.

All I know is that when I came to I was in the Divinity School, one of Oxford University’s most ancient buildings, wearing a tuxedo, mortarboard-cap and gown, (or “sub fusc” as it’s known) standing among my 70 or so EMBA J19 classmates beaming from ear to ear, engaging with one another like life-long friends. A few times that evening I had to wonder whether I really had come to.

While it may sound like a robot from Star Wars, “EMBA J19” is really just shorthand for the Executive MBA class starting in January 2019.  (Worry not jargon fans, when it comes to obscure Oxonian nomenclature, I can assure you that a) these examples are the tip of the iceberg and b) decoding all the jargon will seem a breeze compared to calculating t-statistics on Friday morning after a couple of warm pints on Thursday night!)

So, what did I learn in my first week at Oxford? Allow me to offer five key take-aways.


1. I definitely made the right decision. 

In fact, I’ve never been so sure of anything. The first week of my EMBA course in Oxford was easily in the top five weeks of my life so far.

I’m never quite sure if “being in your element” means being really good at something or being immersed in something you love (and being halfway across the Atlantic I can’t google it) but assuming it’s the latter, I was. And so, quite clearly, was everyone else.

If I had to sum it all up, I would describe it as being like summer camp for grown-ups if:

  • You prefer inferential statistics to kick-ball.
  • The camp counselors were all leading academics in their field.
  • The other kids were all subject to the stringent entrance requirements of Oxford’s Saïd Business School (which would be quite a harsh bar for fifth graders).
  • You prefer a double room at Oxford’s Malmaison to a bunk bed in a log-cabin.
  • The dinner lady had a Michelin Star.

OK, apart from making lots of new friends, having all your meals provided, and missing your family a lot, maybe it’s not all that much like summer camp.

Anyway. Who am I? EMBA Student 24601, the part I was born to play!


2. You can enjoy the days; you can enjoy the nights; it’s very difficult to do both.

To be fair, some of my classmates gave it their very best shot. But by the end of the week the cracks were starting to show.

It’s extremely hard to resist the temptation to eat, drink and get merry while getting to know your fellow travelers.  Also, highly advisable. The schedule is nothing if not relentless, starting each day with breakfast at 7.30, classes through 6 or 7pm, then dinner with the class, tutors and business school staff. That’s a 6am start including ironing.

And while I found the mealtimes immensely enjoyable, at times it felt like the social equivalent of being a Red Arrows stunt pilot. Lose concentration for a split second and you’ve mistaken Nurislam from Kazakhstan for Nazrin from Azerbaijan, a faux pas from which your standing in the Near East may never recover.*

This certainly isn’t student life as I remember it. For starters, I’m wearing a suit and I’ve recently had a bath.


3. Oxford is a unique MBA experience.

A phrase you’ll hear a lot in your first week is “The Oxford Experience”. And I can assure you, it’s a real thing.

While there’s no doubt many other business schools offer a first-class education, it’s hard to see how they could possibly compete with Oxford on sheer… Oxfordness.

What do people mean by “The Oxford Experience”? Three things by my analysis.

First, inclusiveness. This isn’t just reflected in the attitude of the business school or in the diversity and friendliness of your class but in the attitude of the entire University towards EMBA students in general. Although you’re in the swankiest (and if I may say, best dressed) department in the University you never feel remotely isolated or marginalised. I’m fact, you feel a little tiny part of this thriving, immense, dynamic, historic, great institution. In large part, thanks to…

Second, the Colleges. Let me start by acknowledging the one question everyone has about Oxford colleges: “WTF is a College?”.  Well, potty-mouth, Colleges are ancient fraternal houses first established almost a thousand years ago to significantly improve Oxford’s chances of winning BBC Two’s “University Challenge”.

Before students can be formally admitted to the University, they must also have been admitted to a college. The order this happens in, the college of choice, and indeed the range of options, depend on whether the student is an undergraduate or a postgraduate. And, I’m sure it goes without saying, on the legilimency of the Sorting Hat.

To really understand the role of colleges, imagine, if you will, that each department of the university is represented by a single pizza ingredient. Faculty and students in the Engineering department would be your dough, providing structural integrity; language studies your tomato paste, providing rich colour and flavour; business studies your herbs bringing out the other flavors, and so on. Now think of each college as a finished pizza – a unique culinary collage of ingredients produced by randomness and design in equal measure.  Got it?  Never mind then.  Just think of them as fancy old buildings with well-kept lawns.

The final, and some may say the most vital, ingredient in “the Oxford Experience”, is, well, Oxford. Come for the University but stay for the town!

What a wonderful place. I’ve traveled far and wide but few places rival Oxford for historical beauty, atmosphere, amenities and – kamikaze cyclists notwithstanding – manners. (If you’re reading this, I’m sorry Glasgow but it’s time you knew the truth.)

People are so friendly in Oxford that during my first week there I didn’t see, get into, or start, one single bar fight.

I did make the mistake of asking a freshman American student (purely for the purposes of conversational research you understand) if he’d ever been in a fight whilst in Oxford, which he reacted to by stepping gingerly backwards till safely out of arms-length and then legging it. True story. He must have thought it was one of those questions liable to be followed up with “Well you’re about to be, cos ye just spilled ma pint!”. He probably went back to his college and told everyone about the mental Scottish EMBA student that wanted to fight him. Obviously, I didn’t. You’d think the perfectly-pressed tuxedo I was wearing would have been a clue but, since most Americans’ prior knowledge of Scots comes from Mel Gibson and groundskeeper Willie, I can’t blame him for his over-cautiousness. It could keep him alive if he ever visits Glasgow (although I wouldn’t recommend a staycation there if you’re easily frightened by Scottish people). I thought about running after him to apologise, till I realized how much worse that might look. While he clearly fancied my chances in a fight, I fancied his in a steeplechase. “First he challenged me to a fight!  Then he chased me shouting through the streets of Oxford!”.  Not the kind of reputation I wanted to acquire in my first week.

So, yeah, Oxfordness: the only thing I can say with authority you won’t also get from an MBA at Harvard.


4. I’m not an outlier and neither are you. 

I have to admit, for the first time in a couple of decades, to spending the last few weeks of my life with a bad dose of imposter syndrome, which I had thought was something you couldn’t get again if you’d had it as a child. Symptoms include self-doubt, paranoia, insomnia, weight loss, mild nausea and in severe cases, verbal diarrhea. Although few people talked openly about it, I sensed I wasn’t the only one.

Were people going to be more senior than me?  Work in larger companies? Were they going to be younger, more experienced, better-educated, more intelligent, better-spoken and better-dressed? To put your mind at ease, the answer to all these questions is a resounding “Yes”, but not all at once.

Some people were indeed more senior, some younger and better-spoken, some better-educated, others more intelligent and others still better-dressed. Thankfully, no one was all of those things. OK, there might have been a couple.  (Note to class-mates: you know who you are!).  Regardless of their pedigree, they could not have been friendlier.

If you’re thinking of applying, or indeed about to start, and experiencing a touch of imposter syndrome yourself, allow me to offer some words of comfort in keeping with one of the main themes from module one analytics. Most of these attributes are normally distributed among the class-members and if you’re even thinking of signing up you won’t be an outlier.  It’s a statistical impossibility.  At least that’s what my gut tells me.


5. There’s a BIG world out there!

Did you know it’s a 9 hr flight from Miami to São Paulo?!  I know, right!  How about this one. São Paulo is only GMT – 3 hrs!  No, I swear. It’s true. Look it up. It’s further east than you think. Did you know the population of Nigeria is almost 200 million?!  I’ll bet you a hundred quid!  Here’s another: it’s pronounced “Ah-zer-bah-jhan”, not “Ah-jher-bah-jhan”!  What?  I was the only one that thought that?  Well, not anymore!

There’s something about meeting and spending quality time with amazing people from all over the world that gives you a better sense of your place in it. Not just where you are or where you can go, but where you might one day end up.

It was said many times that the real value of the EMBA programme isn’t in the course content but in the people you meet and the conversations you have. If you work that out, and I have, the value of each person is a little over a grand sterling apiece in today’s money. And while, sure, you could argue that some people owe me a bit of a refund based on their informational and/or entertainment value to date, it’s still early days and there’s plenty of time for them to make up for their slow start.**

Moreover, I can already tell that many of the friendships and connections I’ve made in week one will have a profoundly positive impact on my life. How exactly, I can’t say.  But I’m excited to find out.  And, while I admit I haven’t read all the way through the Analytics textbook quite yet, I just don’t think you can put a value on that.

* Some details have been changed for anonymity.

** Note to non-British classmates: this is an example of so-called “dry British humour” which I’m assuming will be covered in the “Global rules of the game” module.


Back to top of article

Share this post:

follow us in feedly