Advice to an undergrad
As a staff scientist at The California Institute of Technology (CalTech), I'm pretty isolated from the undergraduates. Caltech has many more graduate students and post-doctoral research fellows than actual college students, and we often joke that it's difficult to spot an actual undergraduate student around campus (are they all in the library or the lab all the time?) But the other day I happened to attend a meeting across campus and ended up having lunch in the main dining hall, surrounded by chatty, active, lovely undergraduate students.Skip to next paragraph
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It was great to be back in a real dining hall again. The conversations going on around me were just like I remembered from college: part gossip, part trying to impress each other with how deep and philosophical you are, part shared-anxiety and comfort seeking about the stresses of college life ("Did you hear about the quantum mechanics mid-term? I heard the class average was 35 percent. Someone got an 80 percent, though ..."). It was amazing how familiar it all seemed, but I guess it shouldn't surprise me. I went to Harvard for my undergraduate studies, and the atmosphere of any selective, competitive school is bound to be similar to any other one.
Now, don't get me wrong, I had a wonderful time at Harvard, but recently I've found myself thinking about how I would do things a bit differently if I could go to college all over again. In many ways, I wasn't very well prepared, as a young Midwestern woman, for the atmosphere and challenges of a prestigious university. I could have used some good advice about what to expect from college, and what to watch out for.
The real problem I faced in college was intimidation. Strangely enough, the source of this intimidation wasn't the world-class Harvard professors, the highly competitive students, or the amount of work expected of me. It was me. Somehow, during the course of my college career, I managed to work myself into this extreme state of self-doubt, anxiety, and abject fear that I was about to ruin the rest of my life. I bit my nails to the quick, hid from professors in the hallways, and lived, constantly, with the utter certainty that I was screwing everything up. I know it didn't seem that way from the outside (I did manage to complete an astrophysics major, and many of my friends thought of me as self-confident and well-organized), but my main memory of undergraduate life is fear.
Now, with a doctorate and a good amount of professional success under my belt, I can't help but look back and wonder what the heck I was so worked up about. Why was I so worried? How did I ever get the idea that failing a test would somehow ruin the rest of my life in the first place? To be sure, universities don't usually go out of their way to alleviate the stress. It was constantly reinforced that being at Harvard was a 'Huge Honor' and a 'Great Opportunity.' That may be true, but it's also worth putting things in perspective. So, from the vantage point of someone who survived college and beyond, here are a few things that I wish I knew before I started.
1. You are not an idiot if you don't understand something right away.
Wow, there were so many classes where the professor had lost me in the first five minutes, but I never asked a single question. Everyone else was studiously taking notes and nodding like they understood everything (which, by the way, I was too), that I was sure I'd be stoned if I asked a question. I know that sounds strange, but somehow I'd gotten the idea into my head that I was the only one that was lost. I spent entire courses, lecture after lecture, completely lost and sure it was all my fault.
2. You have a right to extra help.
In college, I felt that asking questions and getting extra help was an admission of failure, as well as a nuisance for the professor (and it was way too embarrassing to start out with "I haven't understood a single thing you've said this semester ..."). What I would do now if I got lost during a lecture, seriously, would be to go to the professor's office after class and refuse to leave until I understood the lesson. It is their job to teach you, and speaking as someone who has now taught college physics, I was never offended by a student spending extra time, even hours, with me to learn a lesson. It may be inconvenient for the professor, but you (or more accurately, your parents) are paying good money for this. You are the customer; never forget that.