The University of London allows you to have your cake and eat it too
BSc Economics graduate Teemu Alexander Puutio on working for the UN, teaching at NYU, and why there's always room for one more book
You were born in Finland. Tell us a bit about your life journey that has now taken you to live in the United States.
I was lucky to be born in a country that takes education as seriously as Finland does. I went to high school in a small west-coast town (Pomarkku) with 2,500 inhabitants. The class sizes were around 12 students, with all of us receiving individual attention at every stage. I remember studying French in a class so small that in the US it would probably have been called private tutoring! I had already started working during the last year of high school and have had my hands full, usually with full-time studies and work, ever since.
After high school I moved to a somewhat bigger town called Turku where I studied Law, worked in management consulting, operated a nightclub and met my wife as well! Around the final years of law school I moved to Helsinki where I worked for one of Scandinavia’s biggest law firms, Roschier, in the area of transactions, disputes and IP until December 2011 – which is when I received an invitation to join the UN on a temporary basis in its regional headquarters in Bangkok (UNESCAP).
I couldn’t have had a more wonderful start to my career than working on international transactions, trade agreements and economic research and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working in Asia which certainly lived up to its image as the most dynamic continent in the past decades.
Once my wife and I felt that we had accomplished as much as we could in Asia in the early phases of our careers, we started to look around for options to move closer to the action, which put London, Paris, New York and Singapore right on the list. While it was pure coincidence that New York was the first location that opened up for the both of us simultaneously (we both managed to be fully employed from the day we landed), I am happy that everything happened like it did. New York has been a thoroughly career-altering experience for the both of us, and while the city certainly comes with its trade-offs (from its antiquated subway system to congestion) the positives outweigh the negatives 10 to 1. I think a colleague of mine said it best when he compared Austin and New York by saying that in both cities you are running, but in New York you are running on an escalator!
The degree was exactly as rigorous as one could expect from the fact that it was curated by LSE.
You already have Law degrees from universities in Finland and the US. Why did you decide to study for a BSc with the University of London?
I’ve always wanted to understand our society and socio-economic behaviour, and for me my legal studies were the first step on a long road to accomplish that goal while still making sure that I have marketable skills that would keep me gainfully employed from day one.
However, legal studies were never going to be enough for me given that modern legal practice is quite often confined to descriptive analysis and research, while economics and psychology keep all the juicy theories and questions to themselves. After graduating with my first master’s degree in Law from Finland I set out to do a postgraduate degree from King’s College on the topic of economics and competition law as a “halfway house” on the way to a more rigorous degree in economics.
In 2015, I felt that the time was right to take on the BSc with the University of London and I am glad that both my supervisor and my wife agreed, given that it was not always easy to manage a full workload and full-time studies on the side, in particular given that the degree was exactly as rigorous as one could expect from the fact that it was curated by LSE.
The reason I chose the University of London at the time was rather simple – there was no other programme that offered a similarly rigorous and academically fulfilling programme that could be undertaken without dropping out of work, which would have been impossible simply for visa and financial reasons alone. The fact that the University of London provided an incredible amount of support both before and during my degree made the choice even simpler, and if there were MSc degrees in economics with LSE curation available I would already be enrolled!
The US LLM degree from Fordham came on top of my studies at UoL and work at the UN during 2016/17 which, needless to say, was an academically challenging period overall. However, both programmes were wonderfully flexible and the admin staff in both universities found ways to accommodate my situation without making me fall behind the overall graduation schedule, for which I am grateful to both institutions. The main reason behind doing a local legal degree was to be eligible for the NY bar exam, which I passed in 2017.
Tell us about your role with the UN.
In the past years I have been blessed with the opportunity to support the work of the UN in various capacities, including as a contracts and grants consultant, economic affairs officer, procurement officer and, most recently, as an administrative officer in the front office of the Assistant Secretary-General for Supply Chain Management.
In all of my positions I have worked on international transactions, contracts or financial arrangements, with my most recent tasks being focused mostly on making complex deals happen and providing compliance oversight in virtually every country in which the UN has presence. Having the opportunity to serve the UN at such a level is sincerely beyond anything I had dared to hope for when I left Finland in 2011, and I only hope that I will be able to continue on this path for much longer.
In terms of actual real-world tradeoffs when working for the UN, the only one that comes to mind is that the private sector and academia rarely has a good understanding of what people such as myself do in the organization, with quite a few being utterly surprised to hear that the UN conducts billions of dollars’ worth of transactions and has a pension fund with more than 60 billion in assets under management. However, when we get the chance to explain what some of us legal/economics experts are doing it is easy to find a common language with our peers on Wall Street, Big Law and beyond.
Do you think that your University of London degree has helped you progress in your career?
Absolutely! To begin with, the BSc Economics degree is a wonderfully rigorous experience that has its academic bar high. The LSE-delivered content prepared me to take on increasingly complex transactions given that I gained real, hands-on experience in statistics, econometrics as well as mathematics which have helped set me apart from others in my field.
In addition, I gained a comprehensive and deep understanding of economics which has allowed me to progress in academia much faster than I otherwise could have. Based on the feedback from some of my previous interviews with the UN, I know for a fact that employers have taken note of the University of London credentials, and in some cases have specifically mentioned that they had selected me from the long-list exactly because of how I had demonstrated a knowledge of both law and economic modelling which was essential for the task they had available. Given that I did not need compromise between work and my studies to accomplish this I am very happy indeed!
I never needed to compromise on work and I also had time to spend on other things to my heart’s desire.
How did you balance working at the UN and studying for your degree?
I was lucky to have an extremely supportive supervisor in Bangkok when I started my studies. In fact, she had been a Professor of Economics herself and had long promoted the idea of going the full mile and doing a BSc in Economics. Because the study modules and periods of in-person teaching were extremely well laid out and timed in a predictable manner, combining studies and work was never too difficult logistically. All it took was some pre-emptive scheduling of my annual leave days to coincide with visits to London, as well as to accommodate for exam days and the lead-up preparations.
The actual studying, however, took a fair amount of self-discipline which I managed to outsource to my study routine which consisted of readings and problem-sets every evening with 4-6 hours of studies each weekend. I am sure that I could have passed my exams with a somewhat easier study plan, but I was gunning for First Class Honours which I ultimately managed to achieve, and I didn’t want to take too many chances knowing that the LSE curated exams can be tough!
Hopefully the above doesn’t sound like I didn’t get to do anything else than studying – the fact that my supervisors were on-board and equipped with a routine that was clear and worked for me, I never needed to compromise on work and I also had time to spend on other things to my heart’s desire.
You said when you were studying at university back in Finland you couldn’t have dreamed of having this job and achieving so much. What did you think you might be doing?
Back in Finland I really didn’t have a clue about what I could accomplish if I applied myself in the right frameworks and with the right support. My first real job outside our family software engineering business was with ISS Facilities Management, and I was really content in progressing in that field while I studied in high school and shortly thereafter.
For a time, I thought that I would learn all there is about the trade and make something of myself in that industry. After some soul-searching, and a serendipitous friendship made in the Finnish army where I met an older law student, I decided to try my luck with the entrance exam for law school which I ended up passing. From there, I continued my habit of working and studying to the point that my closest friends were wagering, and rightfully so, that I would never graduate and instead end up in management consulting or later on in operating my own nightclubs, which I did for a while.
Towards the final years of law school, career conservatism got the better of me and I interviewed successfully with a law firm – which of course gave me the idea of one day being a successful partner in transactions or litigations. Right after finishing my graduate thesis, I sent out an uncertain application to the UN with the idea of perhaps seeing the world for a few months before settling down in Finland. Seeing that the three months have now turned to almost a decade I guess it would be a good time for me to stop making guesses about the future of my career and to focus on doing the very best I can at each task I have, and enjoy the ride wherever it may take me!
I remain curious about so many areas of life and our society that 30 books could not even begin to scratch the surface on any one of them.
Organising consultant Marie Kondo has sparked internet rage by saying you should never have more than 30 books. As an avid reader, do think this is possible?
I’ve taken great care to live a life that is the exact opposite from Marie’s suggestion. On any given day I typically have 6-10 non-fiction books open and in various stages of digestion, most recently in the areas of anthropological studies of native tribes in the 60’s, classical writings on didactics and memorization, economic theory, as well as electromagnetism.
From an organizing perspective, this approach certainly has its challenges, and there certainly are days when I wish I would have heeded Marie’s advice given that there are only so many ways you can stack your bookshelves. However, I remain curious about so many areas of life and our society that 30 books could not even begin to scratch the surface on any one of them, and for anyone suffering from the same itch I wholeheartedly recommend jumping into the open arms of the second-hand books section on Amazon feet first and eyes closed. There is always room for one more book, even if only on the TV stand or bedside table.
We all have that one book that touches us or impacts on us – what is yours?
For me, the most important book was Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational from 2008. Professor Ariely has a gift for writing about complex behavioural topics in a way that laymen find easy to approach, and his experimental approach sparked my interest in understanding human behaviour in ways that no other book has ever since.
You’ve lived or worked in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Ethiopia and Morocco. Do you see yourself settling in the US, somewhere new, or will the lure of home take you back to Finland?
What a dangerous question to answer without co-authorship from my wife! We are both lucky enough to have landed jobs at the UN and for the time being our careers are in a place where there are only a few meaningful alternatives to working in the US. New York in particular is a uniquely welcoming city, and I recall that both of us felt at home after the very first weeks of being here. Seeing that the majority of complex transactions and compliance matters are either conducted from the US, or otherwise interface with the local markets, I do hope to spend as much time here as possible. However, I wouldn’t say no to retiring to a Scandinavian cabin on the lake one day!
You’ve switched sides and you are no longer the student but the teacher. Tell us about your role at NYU.
I’ve always enjoyed teaching and found that I had some budding gifts in the area at a rather young age when I was teaching Sunday school in Finland. When I was studying in Finland I was a peer-tutor and was the president of my intake class, which further cemented the idea that I would really enjoy teaching.
After joining the UN in Bangkok I was given multiple courses and seminars to teach, at times with the UN and at others with partners such as WTO, ADB or local universities. As soon as we moved to New York, I began canvassing local universities for opportunities to join as an adjunct professor, and towards the end of 2018 my hard work paid off when NYU invited me to teach macroeconomics and finance, which I now run once a semester.
I am also preparing a summer course on international taxation which will be the next assignment I will start writing after this interview. It is rather clear that I could not have accomplished this without my experience with the University of London, without which all of the legwork required to catch an adjunct position would never have materialized in an actual offer.
In such a short time you have gained quite a few qualifications. Do you see yourself studying again in the future?
Yes! I am currently putting the final touches on my PhD Law dissertation for the University of Turku and plan to begin a degree in management with Harvard’s SES next fall. From there, my hope is to graduate with my master’s around 2021 and proceed towards a doctorate in economics. In terms of fields of study, I have saved the best for last and intend to take on psychology once I have capped off my tour in economics. I am not as picky about the timelines as I am about the fact that the studies need to be rigorous enough to make an academic impact on my career – as well as flexible enough to allow for studying while working, as I do not intend on compromising my career with further studies given that programmes like the BSc at the University of London allow you to have your cake and eat it too.
You’re a member of Mensa – tell us about the SIGHT programme that you manage.
I joined Mensa at 31, and frankly before I went to the test I had no serious indications that I could even pass. However, after speaking on the topic of memorization in one of Mensa’s events I noticed that the local group was putting together a range of interesting discussions and seminars that I would love to be a part of.
After I became a member, I reached out to the chair of the local board who thought that the SIGHT programme would be a great match for me. The programme essentially brings together Mensans from across the world during their travels, with the SIGHT coordinator in each city making the necessary connections and arrangements to accommodate for visits by members as well as VIPs. I’ve loved my work with SIGHT thus far, which has me meeting a bunch of new people from all across the world almost every second week.
I find myself in a wonderful position where many of the things I spend my time with, be they studies or reading, are more passion projects and hobbies than they are chores.
Do you find time for any hobbies?
Yes. I find myself in a wonderful position where many of the things I spend my time with, be they studies or reading, are more passion projects and hobbies than they are chores. In recent years I have started playing the piano and I hope to make my first, simple classical composition in the next few years. I also spend a lot of time with our boxer, Nelli, who we’ve trained to help around the house with her neatest parlour trick being cleaning her own toys after herself. In addition, I’ve continued writing both non-fiction and code which I started on in my early years, and today I am planning two books as well as developing a few applications on the cloud just for fun.
Where do you hope to be personally and professionally in five years’ time?
I hope that both personally and professionally I will find myself in a place where I am as happy as I am today. Knowing my poor track record of seeing where I will end up, I prefer not to make any firm guesses – but what I do know for sure is that I will most definitely be studying towards an advanced degree in either economics or psychology, and hopefully teaching as well as working as I go along.