First day high as a Ph.D. student

For the past few weeks (or months), I have been preparing for my first day of Ph.D. classes. I have been accepted into a ladderised Ph.D. in Economics program where I go through the entire 63-unit coursework covering both M.Sc. and Ph.D. Economics in eight terms.

Being a non-Economics major back in my undergraduate studies (I studied Humanities and Integrated Marketing Communications at UA&P), I was, and still am, anxious about pursuing an entirely new discipline, which comes with an honest admission of weakness on my part when it comes to mathematics. I call it my known handicap in life (despite having graduated from Manila Science and its robust Math programme; also, that was 18 years ago!). A note aside, one advice I read is to take these subjects as though one were learning a new foreign language.

Too anxious that I started reading a bunch of advanced undergraduate and entry graduate-level books on Mathematical Economics knowing that it is already lucky for me to enter the programme at Term 3 which will wet my feet in graduate Labour Economics and the Economics of Regional Integration, rather than diving right into a six-unit course in Mathematical Economics in a couplet with a three-unit course on Economic Statistics. In my head, I have about 16 weeks to prepare for that; it would  be a serious matter of commitment, however, to prepare properly for these Term 1 courses.

The ladderised programme at DLSU, I have been told, is largely empirical thus the focus on mathematical rigour across the eight term-plan study including two terms equivalent to twelve units of dissertation (the right to go into it is contingent to passing a comprehensive exam by the sixth term).

A few weeks ago, soon after having enrolled in Labour Economics and Regional Integration, to quell my ‘fear’ of the unknown, I started reading both undergraduate and graduate-level materials to prepare me for Day 1. I realised that my strength, at least for now, is in understanding the theoretical dimension of the study whilst I stumble once too often on the empirics of it.

I have spent, more or less, a good 14 years of work in the industry mainly on managing a business through digital marketing, advertising, communications, brand management and commercial and in general everything that had to do with bringing to market products and services through strategy and creativity. Then now, I have gone full time in my pursuit for a terminal degree (ironically called so when I see it as only the beginning of what I would call my Fourth Act, professionally and personally; I will write about that in a separate post) in Economics.

I have also read blogs and articles weeks ahead of my first day back in school after 14 years of being out of it — all of which have been successful in giving me practical take-aways or advice.

Several posts on James Hayton, Ph.D.’s advice website are invaluable. It sets a common ground for students embarking on their Ph.D. journey earlier on: that one takes on the awesome opportunity and challenge to earning a Ph.D. because she wants to pursue original academic research that will contribute to the field’s body of knowledge. It helps in orienting the mindset appropriate for doctoral work which is very different — or it should be — from how we approached undergraduate studies whose objective was simply to gain knowledge, earn the diploma and go out into the job market (and earn from it). This helped me a lot in embracing the new role I need to internalise and practise as a full time doctoral student.

A Guide (and Advice) for Economists on the U.S. Junior Academic Market by John Cawley and Being a Graduate Student in Economics by William Thomson (who in large part referenced Cawley’s advice) were also equally helpful in preparing me for starting this academic endeavour. They provide practical advice on a broad spectrum of topics like choosing your advisor, what to expect on a daily basis, research work, teaching and, in general, almost about anything essential to make my Ph.D. journey an informed choice (so that what can be controlled and aligned from the onset is addressed leaving less to surprising moments).

Yesterday is what I considered Day 0. I spent the afternoon in the university’s impressive eight-floor library looking for materials I have marked the night prior via the library’s online database service (that made it so easy to plan the walk-around the library); materials I would be reading for my two classes this term. The perks of being an entirely new student in a university different from where you earned your bachelor’s include being like a child on a day out in the museum; you just see things with the curiosity of a child. I checked out nine books, which I am going to dedicate the next 14 days (unless I extend my loans) to reading.

Today was Day 1. I arrived on campus about an hour prior class which gave me time to visit the chapel (which I think I will be doing on a regular basis; separate post on this one) and down a double shot whilst reviewing my pre-read of the initial topics in Labour Economics.

I entered the classroom first by checking if I am in the right class. Just as I expected being a new student coming in Term 3 of the academic calendar, my classmates already knew each other save for one who is also starting her studies from this term. What a diverse group – age-wise and, I am certain, personality-wise as well.

By the end of the class which was an hour earlier than scheduled, I am glad that a group had invited me and the other lady who, like me, was also just getting started to dinner. It was a great way to get to know my new classmates from various cohorts of the programme and to know that I also have someone in my cohort. I realised that even in this group we joined, people came from a diversity of background. Some have had prior teaching experience, some have come straight into the programme from their undergraduate and a few who currently work in the industry as practitioners of the discipline.

Later tonight, I told my husband Rhex that I feel like a new man mainly because I find myself in a world, a new universe where my role is different from what it had been — professionally and personally — in the last 14 years.

I know that this programme is going to be tough. But I also know very well that, based on my experience, the best way to deal with it is through practice, repetition and ‘grinding’ (the sum of which is hard-work). Embracing a handicap and turning it into a place of strength has always interested me in very surprising ways. It is not a perfect comparison, but relevant just the same: I have often found myself performing good, well, or better when I am out of my comfort zone because of my ability to first admit a weakness or dislike for something then I embrace it wholeheartedly until it becomes a passion. This is how it was for me in weightlifting and, more recently, CrossFit.

I used to hate ‘leg day’ because it meant doing heavy back squats or other versions of the squat. It caused me pain — that ironically made me love it more over time. When I joined Central Ground CrossFit, it was not as though I was into it. In fact, each time I went there felt like I was proving to myself even more that it is not for me. Yet, I persisted and through the pain of the daily ‘grind,’ I learnt to love it more that I started to dream of competing ‘Rx’ someday soon.

There is a Lominger leadership competency called assignment hardiness which is typically about the ability of the leader to adjust in new international assignments given the hardships in her new market/domicile. I have a modified view of it — a measure of one’s hardiness in a new assignment (or project, venture, or endeavour; i.e. like getting a Ph.D.). I would like to think that this attribute will help me endure this journey knowing that my handicap will be put to test and everything I am as a person will likewise hang on the balance as I go through the rigour demanded of doctoral students.

I cannot thank my husband enough for supporting me in this undertaking. A hero in this story whose kindness and love have allowed me to embark on this new pursuit. We both knew that this time would come — and it did as though the ‘universe conspired’ for it. The support of my family and friends have been overwhelming; something I know I would need to sustain myself in this new venture I have just started.

Someone (well, a couple of them, actually) asked me two questions tonight that stuck with me. What made you decide to study full time? And, why economics? I will address that as well in my future posts.

For now, I am glad to relish the beauty of Day 1. Day 1’s do not happen quite often; so, here’s to that and the years ahead of me (and my classmates)!




me ampersand &; a refresh

me ampersand &; is my personal blog, an exposition of a life in conjunction. This blog has gone through several changes by way of look and feel, change in name, layout and, substantially to a certain extent, content. I believe this reflects that several major episodes in my life that have vastly influenced the way I see myself in the context of the world around me.

This refreshed version reflects what might be a penultimate (not knowing when the ultimate is) approach to this blog. I hope to journal my thoughts and commentaries, all personal, about my life in conjunction with the different facets of my life. me ampersand &; is a platform for me to expose my thoughts on, for example, me and the married life, me and fatherhood, me and my journey towards a Ph.D. degree, me and being a son, me and culture, me & CrossFit and the endless journey (and struggle) towards fitness achievement… the permutations are almost endless, which make it all too very exciting. I only hope I can live up to the calling of writing again.

Back in the early days of the internet which I was glad to have enjoyed in high school then later on as an expat living and working in Vietnam, I used to write regularly albeit on what we might consider being trivial today. I would probably still find myself writing about trivial matters of life as is afforded by an all-encompassing theme of a life in conjunction, but only in better form and with a stronger command of the language. (I hope.)

I am also on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

So this is Christmas…


Twenty seventeen.

What a year.

There are so many things to be so proud of from this year. But life offers many surprises in so many dimensions. Life is a complex situation unraveling, at one point, piece by piece then all at once.

Life requires a good understanding of its complex nature. Life requires a profound appreciation of the complicated emotions it plays with.

But if there is one thing I have proven that I am capable of is kindness and maturity. It could be my age (I am turning 35 after all). But kindness is such a powerful theme. It describes my year — sometimes the lack of it, but never totally lacking.

I learnt that kindness saves everyone of the pain and gives us so much perspective. And perspective allows us to see meaning when there seems none. Perspective allows us to feel when there seems a drought of it. Perspective allows us to see more when it seems there is none.

Perspective allows us to cherish what matters most especially this time of year.

Family. Friends. Love. Laughter. Lightness. Spontaneity. Joy.

Perhaps those are all that matter in life. And this season alongside its complexities beautifully handhold us to embracing it fully.

That, whilst there is so much turmoil, there is love.

That, whilst there is much reason to be angry, there is forgiveness.

That, whilst there is much discontent, there is happiness.

Maybe, just maybe, that’s all that matters. Especially this season.

Goodbye 2017. I shall be writing more about you, but in memoriam.

So this is Christmas… and it is good.

Dentsu Digit DNA is looking for top talents in digital experience

Dentsu Digit DNA, the digital and activations brand of the award-winning creative agency Dentsu Jayme Syfu, is looking for top talents to take on exciting challenges in transforming digital marketing through digital experiences fuelled by powerful, life-changing creativity the agency is known for.

If you thrive in an environment where pressure to deliver only but outstanding work and could commit to learning and true collaboration amongst peers and real partnership with clients, then these roles might be of interest to you:

– Digital Group Account Director: we're looking for someone who is business savvy and has a stellar track record of winning new businesses and deepening relationships with clients. This candidate must possess strong leadership skills, willing and open to be a mentor to peers and colleagues and has the intellectual horsepower to engage senior clients through sharp strategies and powerful creative work. 10+ work experience is desirable.

– Digital Planning Director: we're looking for someone who can navigate through oceans of data and crystallise these data into powerful human insights that can leapfrog our creative work. You may have been on similar roles in planning, but may very well have been on more technical aspects of digital such as but not limited to customer experience, IMC, CRM, data and analytics, performance and innovation strategy 7+ years work experience is desirable.

– Digital Account Director: we're looking for someone who has a proven track record in fostering great teamwork to produce outstanding work for clients. This talent may have earned citations, awards or led projects that have exceeded client and agency expectations. This talent has also excelled in bringing to life projects amidst challenges in the day to day work. We're looking for someone who has an excellent work ethic that inspires everyone he or she works with to deliver only the best all the time. 5-7+ years work experience is desirable.

– Social Media Manager: we are looking for someone who has a fine blend of expertise in channels, platforms, emerging technologies, content and most importantly conversations managing communities that humanise brand propositions building stronger engagement and brand love. This talent is both the voice of the brand and the customer and is able to bridge strategy and creative in community and content engagement across a variety of platforms. 5+ years working experience is desirable.

Please contact me directly if any of these roles excite you! Send me a direct message or email me a link to your profile and portfolio. Email is pao dot pena at dentsujs (dot) com.

Why do we get teary-eyed when leaving Amanpulo?

Why do we get teary-eyed when leaving Amanpulo?

Is it because any departure from this island is an act of ‘returning to reality?’ It certainly has that appeal because even a short 4d 3n stay gives one a legitimate reason to escape from reality and, even by choice, disconnect from the real world which then makes the flight out – and boarding the plane alone – a reminder of the truth that the best things indeed don’t last because if they did, they wouldn’t be the best anymore (inspired by Barbra Streisand, somehow).

Pablo now running around the hangar lounge before departure

Is it because you get used to the kind of service that is unparalleled fromp pre-arrival arrangements to the arrival formalities and rituals including people who seem to know you just enough to call you properly by name, welcoming you back to the island and being warm like meeting an old friend, to the day-to-day upkeep of your casita that is impeccably brought to order, spotless and even personalised according to how, as it seems, the staff understands you and your needs, to the checkout and departure formalities that include seeing your guest assistant, management team and all those who truly wanted to send you off (some really make it a point to go out of their way to say goodbye and see you soon, some even hug and kiss, again like old friends leaving each other for now) wave their goodbye as your plane takes an inch off the ground en route to Manila?

 Still amazed each time we see cold bottles of water waiting for us in the club car – how did they know we would be leaving the casita around that time?

Is it because of the seemingly effortless beauty of the place and the warmth of the people making it even more special? There is a cast of thousands that make this place beautiful – edit – even more beautiful (because the no-exaggeration powder white beach and clear, pristine waters are already beautiful as-is, one could argue), yet you don’t see them run the show as though they were stressed to bits. In the rare occasion that you would see them working, you would appreciate how effortless everything seems to be, which is strange because the place tries very hard to please yet doesn’t impose itself upon you as trying too hard. That’s partly where the magic is.

 Pablo’s monkey plushie is staged under the sheets on our last night. The housekeeping staff moves it around the casita on turndown so it’s never found on the same spot every night

Is it because, on third visit, the place has known enough about you and has been witness to your growing family that it has surprising touches like the main waiter confirming, even after five months since the last visit, if you would like to have a large bottle of sparkling water; your guest assistant who has exhibited authentic fondness of your son that when you see them together it is like watching your son meet an old time playmate; is it because the place knows your style already that the housekeeping staff would tuck a large towel on top of the baby’s bedding because they know already that you would use it to cover the sides of the crib so that the baby is not disturbed by lights at night?

 It rained on our last sunset on the island. But no rain could take away the fun of being with family

Is it because our trips to this place have always been accompanied by reasons to celebrate which  are then followed by only beautiful memories befitting the place? And to leave it is to somehow put an end the pleasures of celebrating?

 Easter Egg Hunt with Pablo at the Lagoon Club beachfront

There are indeed many things that could make you teary-eyed when leaving Amanpulo and all the reasons above are true to how I – or we, including perhaps Pablo – felt as the plane was taxiing around and we were looking back at the Amanpulo staff waving even way after the plane’s wheels have gotten off the tarmac.

 These moments are golden – priceless.

It was a truly memorable visit – much like the first and the second time we did – but quite more special being with Pablo who now runs around and enjoys playing at the beach, and having celebrated Rhex’s birthday this long Easter weekend on the island. We sure look forward to visiting again, hopefully some time soon!

Nurture not torture – work-life balance needed in agency work

It is saddening to hear of a promising talent succumbing to martyrdom in the eternal pursuit of maintaining business and keeping clients happy. I agree to the many posts I have read on this same incident and the collective plea of an industry to reassess its work culture. It is indeed sad that it takes deaths like this for many to realise it is time to pause, stop and make a change. 

I believe the real solution to this problem is to work towards greater transparency between clients and agencies on the work and how to work together the right way. Oftentimes the real culprit is the lack of work processes with reasonable and standard turnaround times across the stages of the work coming to life. And because of that, expectations are not managed upfront and the first to take a hit on this is the agency being treated like a factory without some clients realising that this sort of way of working together, in fact, is to their disadvantage: poor quality of thinking, poor execution, and poor results. It is a vicious, ugly cycle. And what for? For accounts that are constantly hanging by a thin line on threat of putting the business on poorly organised and unfair pitches?

And then there are bad clients. These are clients who treat the agency as a sweatshop. All in the name of submission regardless of who and how the work was done. Unfortunately most schools only teach how to be a great ad person, but rarely how to be a good client. 

The relationship between clients and agencies is critical to solving this issue. It is what spells the difference between simply having a client-supplier relationship and a true partnership between client and agency. A true partnership is one that takes care of the people on both sides of the table, and not just numbers nor egos gracing the meetings. I am still hopeful as there are still relationships out there that run on the principle of true partnership.

As a client in my past lives, I admit I have been demanding of the agencies I worked with but I also know my limit and up to what human levels I could push the work to. If in the end it is not possible anymore nor healthy for anyone, together with the agency, we stop and pause and accept the reality that it is indeed not possible. Great work after all is a two-way road. The same is true for rubbish work. 

Now being back on the agency side, I have better appreciation of our role as agency leaders. I think it is imperative that we find and make time to nurture and not torture our people – our talents, our main assets driving this business of ideas forward. Putting the business first, on the agency side, I believe, equally means putting our people first.

Arrival (movie): a proper challenge from Hollywood

Arrival (movie) was a surprise. 
Not knowing exactly what it would be about – no prior research whatsoever before settling into the lazy boy – the movie is not just any other alien plot, but a story that beautifully conveys the message of the need for a common language that unites more than it now divides us. 
It also talks about the concept of God not having a sense of past, present and future and how gaining that ‘tool’ or ‘weapon’ unlocks a transcendental perspective which in this lifetime we may never truly achieve but nevertheless strive to learn. PERSPECTIVE is so powerful that it answers our profound human need to find meaning, to find purpose, to discover answers to questions we may never at all be strong enough to handle or comprehend. 
Arrival is also proof that you can always take a concept so commonly abused – like alien invasion stories – to a much higher plane. It also proves that Hollywood can and should serve a role so critical to the formation of the world’s collective intelligence by constantly challenging the audience to think and not to wait for laughter, tears, or ideas to be served on a silver, lazy ass platter. 
It is worth watching and absolutely deserving of a reflection or two soon after one steps back into the real world.