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.

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.

3. Good scientists are often bad teachers.

Remember who's doing the teaching in most science classes scientists. Now, that professor may have been hired because they published sixty papers in five years, but they may not be able to teach their way out of a paper bag. In short, a good researcher does not necessarily (and in fact, not usually) make a good teacher. This is good to keep in mind for some perspective when a class seems confusing or overly difficult. It's not that you don't have the capacity to learn quantum mechanics, it's just not being presented in a manner that gives you much chance of learning it. Ask the professor, during an office visit, to try and put things in a different way, or start from more basic principles. Try talking to a graduate student or a tutor, anyone who can communicate more effectively, instead.

4. Get under someone's wing.

Try hard to find some professor who can act as a mentor to you, even if you're not actually in one of their classes. I did a couple of individual research projects with some of the astronomers at Harvard, which turned out to be extremely worthwhile. Not only can they help you with questions or problems you may be having in class, but they will often become an advocate for you. Individual relationships are key. A faulty advisor, either formal or informal, can help you get help, provide emotional support, suggest resources, and provide advice. My advisor (still love you, Dave Latham!) even helped me apply and get into graduate school.

5. Take a minimum number of classes in your area of study.

This may seem like strange advice, but let me explain. In most colleges, there are prescribed courses that you need to take to fulfill a "major." I majored in astrophysics, so every semester there were two or three courses I had to take. There was also a smattering of required, general education courses, like writing, history, basic philosophy, and such. But then there were some unassigned credits, where I could take any class I liked. Most of my friends who were doing a physics major decided to take extra physics courses. I took Icelandic literature (no joke!), Japanese art, and human behavioral biology, among others. I can not tell you how much the random, extraneous classes I took in college enriched my life. Not only did these classes provide welcome variety to my education, they've also provided me with a good understanding of many different fields, and gotten me started on some wonderful, life-long hobbies. Believe me, in graduate school I had the opportunity to take any and every course in physics I could ever have wanted. In retrospect, I should have learned more languages, practiced more art and studied more history.

6. Mistakes and failures will not ruin your life.

Life in college feels overwhelmingly, painfully, latent. Your performance now, it seems, will set you on a path or either wild success or dismal disappointment for the rest of your life. Baloney. Don't delude yourself into making college such a be-all and end-all. Yes, work hard and get the best grades you can, but remember that nothing you do, even totally screwing up an exam or failing a class, will lead to a life of misery. For science students, I offer this small but significant statistic: everyone I know who wanted to go to graduate school did go to graduate school. No one, not even people who picked up a few bad grades (including myself) was left out in the cold. Doing well in college is no guarantee that your wildest dreams will come true, and conversely, making a few mistakes in college will not ruin the rest of your life.

7. This is not the best time of your life.

Our culture puts those "golden college days" on quite a pedestal. By all accounts, this is the time of our life when we are at our most beautiful, most promising, most talented. This is where we form friendships that will last the rest of our lives, find our mates, even find ourselves. Talk about stress! There are some truly unique joys about being in college. Living in the dorms and having a ready-made social life was a blast. Learning new things every day, burning the night oil in dusty old libraries, walking over the Charles River to the stadium on a gorgeous fall day to watch a football game. Great stuff. It would be fun to do it all again, but only with the confidence, strength, and wisdom that I've found long since my college days. Would I go back to that same time and be that same person? Not on your life.

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