Ph.D. candidate of Oxford University. Consultant of the World Bank and other institutions in Lesotho, Ghana, South Africa and Tunisia. Expert at the OECD in Paris. This is Matěj Bajgar, a man whose life led him from a small Czech town through Oxford, Cape Town, London, San Francisco to Paris. Be inspired by his story.
Matěj, when did you first realize that you wanted to study at Oxford?
When I was 13, I visited Cambridge with my parents and since then I had a deeply subconscious dream to study at this university. During my Bachelor’s degree at the Institute of Economic Studies at Charles University in Prague I had good results and I wanted to make use of them and study abroad. In the first year I attended a lecture organized by several former students of the university who made it to the London School of Economics and Cambridge and that motivated me. My close friend Petr Janský who was accepted to study M.A. in Developmental Economics at Oxford University a year before me played a big role in inspiring me to apply.
It was a combination of a dream and favorable environment, right?
Yes. It was he who inspired me to study at the Institute of Economic Studies and then at Oxford. When I was preparing the application a year later, I already had detailed information on how to apply, how to search for a scholarship and most importantly that it was possible. We actually did similar work in Africa. One could say I followed in his footsteps. It is an exemplary case of what a great role friends and acquaintances play in one’s life. If one wasn’t surrounded by these inspiring people, one might have never considered these options. But I was also incredibly lucky to get full funding and great support throughout my studies from the Weidenfeld Scholarship and Leadership Programme.
Do you also try to inspire people?
Yes, I participate in the project Discover. It is a one week summer academy for 200 talented high school students from the Czech Republic and Slovakia run by graduates of Czech and foreign universities, many of whom graduated from Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard. Students can attend classes and meet interesting people. It helps them figure out what they want to do, how they want to live and how they can develop. In January, we are starting a new project named Yoda Mentorship Programme where skilled college students will mentor high school students. One of the previous participants of Discover came up with this idea – it is wonderful to see, how one thing leads to another.
Photo taken by Vojtěch Indráček.
How do students find out about Discover?
We promote the projects in Czech and Slovak high schools. We hope that previous graduates will recommend the program to their friends. Slovak Debate Association, which organizes debating competitions at high schools, helped us to spread awareness about Discover in Slovakia. Most of the students come from big cities (Prague, Brno, Ostrava), but we would like to have as many students from smaller towns as possible.
What advice would you give to young students who would like to study in a similar university?
To have an axe to grind, I would definitely recommend them to attend Discover and Yoda, because it is an opportunity to personally meet people who either already studied abroad or are planning to. It’s also a good idea to think about whether they want to enroll directly after graduation or after obtaining a Bachelor’s degree from some other university. It might be easier to apply for a Master’s degree because you can prove your skills by referring to grades, showing involvement in various projects and provide recommendations from professors. But both options are possible. I would also suggest that they spend a lot of time on preparing a cover letter and other required documents. They can find more information here – Oxbridge.
Photo taken by Matěj Bajgar.
How did you prepare for the entrance exam?
What definitely helped me were good grades from my Bachelor’s degree. I spent a lot of time on preparing applications, passing language tests and arranging for recommendations. For most of the degrees there are no entrance exams at Oxford but in my Department of Economics there are. They are called GRE and they are similar to Learning Potential Tests at Masaryk University.
What were your first impressions of Oxford?
In autumn I was totally euphoric. Suddenly I was surrounded by thirty people from around the world who enjoyed what they studied and discussed it for long hours. I had excellent professors, interesting lectures and the city was also amazing. It was an intellectual adventure. In addittion, I was part of an amazing community of Weidenfeld Scholars.
What happened next?
Needless to say, it was not always rosy. When I was writing my Master’s thesis in spring, I felt lonely. It was difficult to cope with pressure. I think that the majority of people at Oxford suffer from “insecure over-achiever” syndrome.They are extremely successful and talented people, but they doubt themselves. Some people leave and some take a gap year. Many people suffer from depression. It is obvious because the study load is huge and they place high demands on themselves. People often think they should be perfect like everyone else. They want to be great in lectures, write excellent essays, manage 10 activities, travel, run marathons, row, speak five languages and have their own charity. On one hand this pressure makes you better, but on the other hand it makes you feel insecure.
Photo taken by Radek Bajgar.
How did you cope with the pressure?
It was hard. When I was writing my Master’s and doctoral thesis I often felt that it was a mistake that I was accepted and that somebody will find it out. This is called “impostor syndrome“. What helped me were psychotherapeutic methods and jogging. Furthermore, it was the sincerity of friends, who in my eyes were better than me, but they were willing to open up to me and say that they are unsure about themselves. This helped me realize that many of the students suffer from these feelings.
You also worked as a consultant for the World Bank in Tunisia, Ghana, South Africa and Lesotho. What have you learned during these trips?
I am convinced that people are quite similar everywhere. They want similar things, even if they wear different clothes, listen to different music and have different income. The symbol of status of successful middle class in Lesotho is being able to afford to eat lunch at a local fast food. On the other side of the globe in the US McDonald’s is nothing fancy.The middle class wants to eat in trendy restaurants and do yoga. We all do things that relate to our class and symbolize that we are successful and that we belong somewhere.
Photo taken by Matěj Bajgar.
Was there anything else that intrigued you?
Only thanks to my visit to Ghana and Latin America, I have fully appreciated how appaling role Europe has often played in the history of some other parts of the globe. It is different reading about slavery in textbooks than visiting slave forts. With regards to the current refugee crisis in Europe I am not afraid of people from other parts of the world. I know that the situation is more complex than just Christians against Muslims. I believe that many Syrian refugees would be humanly closer to me than many Czechs.
You are now working for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. How do you like it there?
I am expanding my horizons. Previously, I was interested in developing countries but I want to return to the Czech Republic in a few years. The knowledge of countries similar to the Czech Republic will be more helpful to me than of developing countries. If I wanted to dutifully dedicate my career to developing countries I would have to live there for many years. I am far too comfortable and lazy for that.
Last question, what do you want to achieve in your life?
(long pause) This is definitely the hardest question. What I really want is to be happy. As much as it may seem obvious, it took me time to come to this conclusion. We will see about the rest.
Copyright: Matěj Bajgar and cover photo by Maria Friedmannová