Meet our graduates | Emily Arbuthnott, MS '21
July 6, 2021. Interviewed by Jim Fabry. Edited for length and clarity.
As part of MS&E's 2021 graduates podcast series, we chatted with Emily Arbuthnott, a recent graduate of the master's program in Management Science and Engineering.
Emily shares how the COVID-19 pandemic led her to MS&E and how the program helped her find practical applications for her background in economics. Emily also shares stories about her time at Stanford and offers advice for future and current students in MS&E.
My name is Emily Arbuthnott; I'm a co-term student in MS&E. I also did my undergraduate studies at Stanford in the economics department, and my concentration is the TEM concentration, or technology and engineering management.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up?
I'm from the UK, from a commuter town about 30 miles north of London. I grew up there my whole life, and I went to school in north London. Coming to the US was a bit of a change for me. I initially came because of the sports opportunities available at colleges in the US. The collegiate sport setup here is a lot more established and the level is higher and the opportunities that you get with the training and all the support network around the team are really great. That's what first attracted me to come to the US, but it was definitely quite rare for my school. I was fortunate to go to a very good school. We had a few students who'd gone to the US in the past, but normally they had a family connection or an American parent or something like that. So it was quite a rare thing to do. I'm really glad that I made that decision. I think it's been great for me because I've been able to keep up with my tennis and get an amazing education at the same time.
How did you become interested in engineering? Are there any experiences you had growing up that you can point back to?
I actually ended up in the MS&E coterm because of the pandemic. I originally intended to graduate after I finished my econ degree last year, and my plan was actually to go and play professional tennis. It wasn't really a planned move into an engineering area of study. I actually had considered MS&E when I was an undergrad, but at the time decided that I preferred the sort of more pure theory of economics, and I decided that's what I wanted to do. But I've always been interested in problem solving, and I've always been fascinated by figuring out how the world works. Growing up, I really liked science, particularly chemistry and maths. I was definitely always inclined to enjoy those kinds of disciplines more with my studying.
We used to have a puzzle club at school, which was a problem-solving club, and I always loved things like that. I remember entering a code breaking competition with some friends where every week they released a code, and we'd have to use all these different things we could think of to try and solve the codes every week. And so that's been what I love doing. I'm not that surprised that I've ended up going into something a bit more engineering-focused because those are just always been the things that I've enjoyed doing. I think I've always preferred that. What I love about MS&E is how practical it is, and I can see how the things that I'm learning could help solve real problems in the world and be applicable to so many different areas of people's lives. I also love working with people and helping people, so I think that's probably why I ended up studying engineering.
Having considered MS&E for your undergrad and then majored in economics—now that you have experienced both departments, would you do the same if you could do it over again?
I would. I really enjoyed my economics undergrad degree, and also studying economics, I really just liked the subjects. I really enjoyed the core courses that we had and all the models and the theoretical side. I really loved being able to blend that in with the MS&E coterm. I'm now seeing how some of those ideas that were talked about in economics, but in this theoretical way, can be used practically in the world to help solve problems.
For example, I took a decision analysis class last quarter and some of the topics that we covered were very similar to a class that I had taken in econ, called decisions and information. A lot of the material was quite similar, but in the MS&E class we spent a good portion, about 50% of the class, on a project where we said, okay, how do we use these decision analysis tools that we've developed to actually go and help somebody make a real decision? So we did a project for my dad's finance software startup that was needing help on deciding who to target for their pilot, identifying a consumer segment. We were able to work with him and to use the framework that we developed and learned throughout the first half of the class, and come up with a proposal and give him an illustration of how he might go about making that decision and what our analysis showed.
I think that moment was quite key for me in realizing it's great to learn how to think in different ways and be able to use models to understand how they work, but it's even more important to be able to say, how am I going to apply this to real life? And how am I going to be able to use these to actually improve the world and do things for people? And so I think, I'm really happy that I have both sides of that now, because I've got this knowledge and I've got this way of thinking about the world from my undergrad, and now I have some tools as well, to be able to apply it to situations. It's been a good combination and I would definitely do the same again.
Can you tell us about your area of concentration in MS&E? What did you work on and how did you get interested in them?
I'm doing the technology and engineering management discipline, which is quite broad and flexible, which was definitely something that was attractive to me. As I said before, I kind of ended up doing the coterm because of the pandemic. I was fortunate that I was allowed to stay another year to play on the team, so I didn't have as much forethought with planning my classes which would have been nice. That made it slightly restricted in terms of which concentrations would be the most manageable. But I think the thing that really attracted me about TEM is that it's very broad. I've been able to take decision analysis classes, finance classes and really dive into the classes on strategy and entrepreneurship.
There were two reasons why that's been really good for me and why I was interested in doing that. The first one is that, over the summer during my undergrad, I played professional tennis, and so I don't really have as much work experience or sort of business exposure as some of my other classmates. And so it's been really eye-opening for me to be exposed to those ideas that people see in business and learn a lot more about how businesses work and how people identify product-market fit, go-to-market strategy, and how to build a business and an idea. So I think that's probably the first thing.
And then the second thing is really seeing how the engineering principles can apply to the real world. I think the TEM concentration in particular has a lot of group projects, and that's common across the whole master's program. But TEM in particular, I found that there were a lot of group projects which I've really enjoyed working with other people, and it's something that I hadn't done that much before. I feel the things I was learning could be applied to help real businesses and real people. It's been good for me to try out those classes because it's something that was new for me to start with, and it has definitely opened my mind with respect to what I think I might do in the future, which has been really exciting. There's a great sort of mentality at Stanford, and especially in the MS&E program, that anyone can be an entrepreneur. I feel more enabled. If I ever have a good idea, I'll feel a lot more confident with thinking I actually can pursue it. So I think it's kind of a mindset thing and that's really great about the concentration. It wasn't the most pre-planned, but I think it's been a good choice for me and I'm really glad that I've ended up taking those courses.
What are your career plans after Stanford and how did you decide on them?
Things were obviously, as they were for many people, thrown up in the air a bit by COVID. So I originally planned to play professional tennis and then get a master’s later on, probably back in the UK. With coronavirus, that made playing tennis not really feasible in the short term. But I was lucky enough to be able to stay at Stanford for another year and play on the tennis team here again. I still want to test the waters with professional tennis, because I have invested a lot of time and I really enjoy playing. I think I would regret it if I didn't give it a go now. So that's my immediate plan.
It’s been really fascinating in MS&E 276, a class that I'm in currently. We talk a lot about culture in businesses and how to build a team and a culture in a business that can be successful. And one thing that's really stood out to me is how similar many of the attributes that you would look for are similar to sports teams and especially the experience that I've had on the tennis team at Stanford. I would like to carry on playing tennis and see if I can be successful as a professional, but aside from that, I'm also considering doing a master’s in the UK still. And then long-term, I feel like I've broadened my horizons a little bit with what I'm considering doing work-wise, so that's a little bit scary, but it's also quite exciting because I'm not entirely sure where I'm going to end up. I could definitely see myself in a traditional consulting or finance role to start. But I also have an interest in working in policy. I would also be interested in starting a company if I found the right people and we had a good idea. I think that could be a very exciting journey to go on.
Is there anything that excites you most about your future?
In narrowing things down, I think because I haven't really had a chance to do any practical work experience yet, I haven't been able to really rule out anything, to try something and say, okay, I know I don't enjoy that so I can cross that off of the list. I think it will take some time to figure out. I'm honestly quite excited by the fact that I don't really know. And I think I could enjoy a lot of things. But I definitely know that I like working in groups, I like working with other people, I like problem solving. So any job that could encapsulate those things would be great for me. I'm hoping to see where things go.
You briefly mentioned the pandemic allowing you to stay on the tennis team for another year; how else has COVID affected your last year at Stanford?
I wouldn't have been here this year without the pandemic, so it's definitely changed things a lot for me. There's a couple of things that have really affected this last year. One, which has been the case for everybody really, is online learning and the kind of challenge that that presents. And as I mentioned, in MS&E there's the opportunity to work in groups with students a lot. And so having to sort of tackle those group projects from remote learning has definitely been an added challenge. It certainly makes the scheduling easier, but it's quite odd working for a full quarter on a project with some people and never meeting them in person. I've been fortunate to be on campus since the middle of winter quarter, so I've actually retrospectively met up with some of the people that I've worked with, which has been really nice and really fun. But I think just online learning, Zoom fatigue, can really weigh into your motivation. I think across the board, people have been struggling with that a little bit. I'd say that's definitely one thing that's made learning a little bit more challenging than it was before.
Another thing that really changed for me is that in the autumn I was at home in the UK, and I was very fortunate to be able to live in the Stanford house at Oxford for a quarter. They opened the house up to people who were British residents. I was still registered as an undergrad at that point, which was why I was allowed to do it. But that was such a fun experience for me as someone who grew up in the UK. And I thought about applying to Oxford before I got into Stanford, so it was really nice to live in that alternative universe for a while and live with students when everything was still very restricted. So that was, again, a silver lining for me during the pandemic.
The one other thing that really stood out to me from the whole COVID experience so far is it's given me a newfound appreciation for what is special and what is unique about places like Stanford. We focus so much on the classes and the teaching and everything, and of course that's brilliant, but being on campus with such an amazing group of people is what brings Stanford to life and what gives it that extra edge and makes it so special. It really made me treasure those four, three and a half years that I did have, where I had the full experience. So that’s kind of a bittersweet memory. I definitely feel very grateful that I had so long with everything being normal given the last year.
What advice would you give to future and current students? How can they make the best use of their time in MS&E and at Stanford?
Your time here is short—I've been here five years and I'm saying that—so for people who are just doing the master’s program, especially, you aren’t here for that long. There's definitely a few tips I have. The first would be, try and connect with as many people as you can because it's such a fantastic environment to be in. The people are so great, so engaging with other people. I found, particularly since I started the coterm, that the MS&E students are some of the most motivated, engaging students that I've ever met. I think everybody really wants to learn and also share their experience. Treasure that as much as you can while you're here.
Also, make the most of the breadth of classes that is available within the MS&E department and the master's program. In hindsight, I maybe have stuck to what I was familiar with. I tended to choose the more econ, similar classes, because that's what I knew I would like, but also because I was more comfortable with that material. Now that I'm in my last quarter, it might've been good for me to test another class that was on a different topic, or just test the waters a little bit more. I maybe would have uncovered something that I really enjoyed that I didn't realize beforehand.
And then, finally, it just comes back to the people again. I think class is obviously extremely important and really enjoyable, and we have fantastic professors and fantastic classmates, but there's definitely a payoff from investing in spending time with other people. Joining a club, joining an initiative, those are some of the really great benefits of studying at a place like Stanford. It makes you happy and enjoy your work more. So I would say, take the classes that you're going to enjoy and then also invest in those relationships with other people.
What will you miss most about Stanford or the Bay Area in general?
Well, the short answer is the weather. Coming from the UK where it rains a lot, it's amazing how used to it I got, being able to do things outside all year round. So that’s definitely going to be something that I will miss. And then of course, the friends I've made here and my tennis team. Especially when you're an international student and you're living so far away from home for so long, I think you build up a community and I'm going to miss the people that I've had the pleasure of spending time with since I've been here.
More generally about the Bay Area, there's a kind of unique attitude that people have. People have a very strong belief that if you want to achieve something, that you can. I've definitely seen that in myself since I've lived here—a greater confidence, becoming more outgoing, just believing in myself a lot more. Looking at it from an outside perspective, I can see why this area is such an incubator for so many great ideas and great projects and companies. It's almost self-fulfilling in a way, that people here encourage you that you can do things if you want to, and then people believe it and then they are successful, it keeps going and going. I'm lucky that I have friends and family at home who also share that mindset, but I do think it is quite unique to this area. I'm going to miss being surrounded by that because it's so motivating, but I hope to bring that with me wherever I end up in the future.
Is there anything else that you want to add?
It’s been a sort of a whirlwind for me, as I said, because this time last year—12, 13, 14 months ago—I thought I was going home in three, four months, but I ended up being here a whole entire year, doing another degree in a subject that I wasn't planning on studying. Given how long everything lasted with the pandemic, I'm so glad that I made that choice. It's definitely been a really good thing for me to try something different. I've loved the fact that the skills I have are now actually useful in life. Having started with econ, which I loved and enjoyed, it gave me the theoretical knowledge to start. Then I asked myself, how can I actually use this to help people, and how can I use it to change things in the world? My MS&E experience enabled me to apply that theoretical knowledge.