Lily Foster speaking at the Annual Courtauld Scholarship reception

I am currently a first-year research student, studying early-twentieth-century British and French painting. But two years ago, I was sitting at my desk in the offices of a hedge fund on 45th Street and 5th Avenue in midtown Manhattan. In front of me was a private equity model: an Excel workbook, each cell of which I had probably sweated over, cried over, or worse, which, in the moment of great reveal, would show how much money my firm would likely gain or lose by buying a particular business. In one hour, I was scheduled to unveil the workbook’s revelations to my boss.  In four hours he hoped to act on said revelations and leave the office for a holiday weekend. Unfortunately, no matter what number I put in the cell for the business’s ‘current value,’ my spreadsheet insisted that the ‘future value’ would be ‘##?!’. I did not panic.

Or rather, my panic was already directed elsewhere, since I was also planning to tell my boss that I would be leaving the job I’d held for four years in order to get a master’s in British Modernism at The Courtauld.

This isn’t the story of an exuberant escape from the corporate grind. I loved my job -- the content was stimulating, the environment collegial and rigorous --  but the urge to continue studying art history seemed to only get stronger over time.

As an expert in tortuous decision making, I continued to chew my nails over the pros and cons of leaving my job even after arriving in London. But there was also an immediate sense of gratification, or of finally scratching a persistent itch, when I got to The Courtauld, and began spending my days reading, writing, and looking at paintings by Walter Sickert, Gwen John, and others at the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery. And this unmistakable, fundamental satisfaction made it clear that I did not want to go back to my job in September 2012.  Rather, I wanted to pursue a doctorate in art history. But it was not obvious that continuing my studies would be a financial possibility for me. It is only thanks to my donors’ contributions that I had a real choice between starting a PhD in London, and returning to my Excel workbooks in Manhattan.  And I think this must be among the greatest privileges, to be able to select the profession that you most want to do.

To my donors, I would like to extend a deeply felt thank you, and say that, over the next few years, I will be doing my best to live up to the gift my donors have provided.


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