Wednesday, September 16, 2009

9 good bits of advice I've gotten as a student

I'm (hopefully) in the last year of my PhD, and along the way, I've gotten a lot of good advice from people at Carleton: students, profs, admin staff. Here's a few bits that I'd like to share:

  1. Making friends is important, not only for your sanity but also for academic success in later years. You need people you can trust for those group projects!

  2. If your TA can't speak English, complain. A few years ago, they made it possible for TAs to be sent to remedial English training. It's free for the TA, and they don't lose their future TA jobs, so you're pretty much doing everyone a favour by helping them learn to do their job better.

  3. It may seem that everyone else is way ahead of you in class. But actually, a lot of other people are just stupidly arrogant. You're probably way more awesome than you think, and other people are probably struggling with the same things you struggle with.

  4. Your course schedule may not work out every year. If you're in a smaller degree program, you might even find that it's not possible to complete your degree without substituting things because your required courses are offered at the same time! If you run up against a wall, talk to the undergraduate/graduate advisor in your department. They can help figure out what to do.

  5. If you have any problem with registration or any other administrative thing, make sure to talk to the admin staff in person. Our administrative staff is excellent, and they can solve a lot of problems that the computer systems deem impossible. Just remember to be polite, and try to show up when they're not busy!

  6. You can skip classes by challenging for credit. It costs money, but can get you out of stuff that would be a waste of your time. That said, easy As are great ways to buoy up your scholarship marks if you're willing to sit around being bored. (that's what I did in first year.)

  7. You can take upper year classes early, sometimes without prerequisites, if you're willing to work for it. Sit in on the first few classes and then ask the prof to sign the necessary paperwork when you're more sure, or just ask them for their advice. You can also take graduate courses as an undergraduate! (I did this, and it's how I wound up doing graduate school!) Graduate courses sometimes have an easier workload than the undergraduate ones, but you'll have to do a lot more independent thinking, so be prepared!

  8. If you're struggling in a class very early on, it's perfectly ok to drop classes and take them later. Sometimes the prof's teaching style won't mesh with your learning style and you should take it with someone else, sometimes you're just too busy with other courses. Before you drop anything, though, make sure you do it properly in the system before the drop date so you don't get an F, make sure you can take the class later or substitute another class, and make sure it's not a prerequisite that will mess up your schedule for the next term!

  9. Find a few good places to hang out and spend more time on campus. Having a place you can sit where you can let off steam with a game of cards, meet up with your friends, curl up on a couch for an hour, or even just buy cheaper snacks/coffee can be invaluable. I lived off-campus as an undergraduate and tended to go home frequently in my first year, but I didn't really find a love for Carleton until I started hanging out with the Math Society.

And nowadays, obviously I recommend you all join WISE, too!

So welcome to the new students this year! And for those of you returning, I'm sure you've gotten some great advice too. Got anything you'd like to share?


Anonymous said...

Great post all around! I've only a few bits:

On #4: you might be surprised at how willing professors are to offer readings courses (courses where you cover the material on your own and just submit assignments and exams) or directed studies courses to make up gaps in your schedule. Also, if (for instance) you're in the situation where you need an additional elective in your major, but you're not a huge fan of anything that's being offered before grad, consider pitching a directed studies course to one of the faculty. The worst they can say is no; it never hurts to ask.

One additional point I'd add: remember that you have recourse if an instructor grades you unfairly. Most schools establish a standard process to go through to dispute a mark or grade. It can be daunting to confront one of your profs, but most campuses have resources (academic support services, counselling services, or the Dean of Student Affairs) that will help guide you through it.

Terri Oda said...

Two additional tips, on similar themes, from a couple of my friends:

Katie: "Also: keep at least one copy of every important piece of paper, just in case! Computers aren't infallible and proof is important."

Guillaume: "I'd add that you should always back up all your work. Maybe even to the cloud (gmail)."

Gail Carmichael said...

One piece of advice I wish I had received was to give research a try before finishing undergrad. Even if you don't think you'll end up going to grad school (and even if you don't), you can do research that develops transferable skills (it doesn't have to be theoretical!). I got a pretty late start on research and wish I didn't now.

Oli said...

One thing I've found (rather obvious when recognized) is that things go so much easier when you have direction and motivation. Walking into research without any idea of a larger goal or how to go about it leads to a lot of mucking about trying to figure out "what am I doing?" However, when you have that golden carrot atop the pyramid always in mind, the progress practically makes itself happen.

Short version: if you can think of something you'd be passionate about, find a way to get some facet of it approved as a research topic.