Switching from average success in Moscow to opportunities in Tartu

I have lived all my life in Moscow, the huge, metropolitan city of 15 million. I got my bachelor’s degree in geography at Lomonosov Moscow State University in 2008 and my master’s degree in geography at the same place in 2010. For several years afterwards, I worked on a project developing an enterprise GIS in public organization “Mosvodostok,” which focuses on developing, building, and maintaining stormwater sewer networks. After this project was over, I continued my work as an employee in the company’s GIS department.

Ivan in Moscow
Me in Moscow. Photo from a private collection

By the end of 2016, I had started to feel a dead end in my life and further career and thought that it was time to move forward, or I would be stuck in the same place and position until retirement. Also, I got tired of living in an overcrowded, polluted city and spending 2-3 hours every workday commuting. That is how I became obsessed with the idea to move somewhere to live and work for a longer period. 

It was obvious to me that in the world of the global economy and international labor market a significant and almost necessary step in a career and with the possibility to travel at the same time would be a job in an international company. To be successful in this endeavor, it seemed crucial to be fluent in English and to have an education that would be competitive enough on the international level.

So, I came to a decision to complete an academic program in GIS abroad to get a more solid foundation in this field, extend my job opportunities, and simply travel. It was not an easy decision at all. I had to drop pretty much everything considered to be attributes of successful average big city life. I quit a stable job, sold my car, rented out my flat. But, although it might sound too cinematic, when looking back I can confidently say that it was the best decision in my life so far.

I didn’t have sufficient skills to pass the IELTS exam for a score sufficient for foreign universities, so I decided to finish English courses first. By that time I became so sick of living in Moscow that I decided to do that in New Zealand, the furthest place in the world which you can go from it. Looking back, it wasn’t a reasonable decision in financial and logistical terms, but travel wise it was remarkable.

After half year of English courses and successful IELTS exam, I realized that I would like to continue further with my plan somewhere closer. I started to look through master’s programs offered at European universities. I sent applications to several universities and because of several factors and circumstances, decided to choose the Geoinformatics for Urbanized Society master’s program at the University of Tartu.

Ivan with groupmates in Tartu
Celebration of the end of the second semester in Tartu with groupmates in June 2019. Photo from a private collection

Studying in Europe and close to my family at the same time appealed to me greatly. The high quality of education approved on an international level, career opportunities in international companies, proximity to major European countries, relatively low cost of living – these were the reasons I began to start looking forward to it. Also, when I was visiting Estonia as a tourist, I liked the Baltic nature, calm and friendly people, and the city of Tartu itself.

As soon as I settled in Tartu, I started to enjoy living in a small, walking-friendly city without crowds, massive buildings or thousands of cars. At the same time, the city appeared to be completely without provincial boredom, with lots of cultural events, places to spend time, and a quite diverse international community. The most enjoyable part for me was the possibility to reach all important places by foot in a reasonable amount of time without even using any kind of transport. 

The first year of studies was quite intensive, even though I already had some skills in technical aspects of GIS and computer science. Still, it was difficult to catch up with the university’s study pace after almost eight years of being outside of academia and a foreign language environment. I can hardly imagine how hard it was for some of my groupmates who didn’t have enough prior experience with software and programming languages. The long and cold Estonian winter and a lack of daylight appeared to be a significant benefit in this case, as it helps in concentration on studies and removes many disturbing factors.

The compulsory part of the program is an internship in an organization which we were supposed to have during summer break after the second semester. Already having some work experience, I realized how different skills and qualifications obtained during studies might be from those which are necessary in a real job. That is why for me this summer internship was probably the most anticipated part of our first-year studies. I aimed to extend the required three weeks of internship and spend most of the summer break doing it.

The work placement process was well organized and we got a great deal of support from the department’s supervisors. In the second semester, we received a list of potential companies to choose a place for the internship according to personal interests and skills. During the application process we were provided with guidance on different aspects such as CV and motivation letter compilation or what to expect on the job interviews.

I chose to do my internship at Positium, a company whose main business is delivery of statistical information on the population and mobility based on data from the mobile phone operators. The office of the company is located on the 13th floor of one of the tallest buildings in Tartu, and since the first interview I have fallen in love with the bright and spacious workspace with outstanding panoramic views on the city.

During the internship I have been working on a challenging task which involved a lot of practical and theoretical problems to solve. Apart from technical skills, I have obtained valuable experience in work and interaction with colleagues in a non-native language environment. I worked as an intern at Positium for almost two months.

Ivan at Positium
The last day of internship at Positium in August 2019. Photo from a private collection

During the second year of studies, students are encouraged to participate in the Erasmus mobility program and spend one or even two semesters at one of the partner universities. There was a lot of freedom in the choice of university and courses, and it was mostly dependent on students’ preferences in the country and chosen subdomain of geoinformatics to extend their competence in.

Initially, I wasn’t confident about using this mobility window. I enjoyed living in Tartu and was satisfied with the university program. Plus, I already was abroad and didn’t really want to go through moving and settling again. However, my opinion changed after I met some foreign Erasmus students in Tartu and talked with older university mates who had returned from their semester abroad.  All the feedback was really exciting, and I realized that I had to use the opportunity. I chose the University of Salzburg, Austria, as a place for studies during my third semester.

All administrative processes were very well organized from both sides with a lot of personal support from Erasmus coordinators in answering a vast variety of questions and related paperwork.

The geoinformatics department is very advanced at the University of Salzburg, so I gained a lot of new experience and insights on further studies and professional development. Apart from studies, I used the opportunity to be in the center of Europe to travel around and visit new places as often as possible. Another great benefit of studying as an Erasmus student is meeting a lot of new people and making new friends and connections from all around the world.    

Ivan in Switzerland
Travel to Switzerland during the Erasmus semester in January 2020. Photo from a private collection

By the end of my semester in Salzburg, I was surprised by a job offer from Positium, which gave me motivation to return to Estonia as soon as possible. It was the middle of February 2020, so the timing was just right. I was lucky enough to get back to Tartu just the day before the national emergency was declared and travel restrictions were imposed.

I probably couldn’t imagine a better set of circumstances to end up in during the global pandemic: having a job which does not require you to be present in the office and living in a country with one of the lowest population densities in Europe. Plus, as an Erasmus student I had an official extension of studies for one more semester, so my thesis defense was about to happen in almost ten months, which seemed like a lot of time to be able to finish it while keeping a full-time job. So, during the year when the whole world was falling apart, I was fortunate to do the work which I like, finalizing my thesis and enjoying Estonian nature and calm Tartu without strict lockdowns.

Recently, this 2.5-year journey has come to its end, with a successful thesis defense and graduation. The last couple of months have been quite intense because of a traditional underestimation of the amount of work still to be done and an overestimation of time left before the defense. For now, I am willing to dedicate myself to my job, enjoying a less crazy pace without thesis work on evenings and weekends. There is a lot of potential for professional development while working at Positium, so I am planning to stay in Tartu for a while and enjoy another Estonian summer.

This entry was posted in Career, Estonia, Student life, Studies, Tartu and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.