Advice for university

September 18, 2009

I was solicited for advice for someone's son who wanted to go to a big state university to study science or engineering. This is a revision of what I told him.

First, some thoughts on higher education in general, of the kind I wish someone had told me before I went to university:

"The main purpose of higher education and making all the smartest kids from one school come together with all the smartest kids from other schools, recursively, is to show every smart kid everywhere that they are not the smartest kid around, that no matter how smart they are, they are not equally smart at everything even though they were just that to begin with, and there will therefore always be smarter kids, if nothing else, at something other than they are smart at." -Erik Naggum

A dialogue between an astronomy professor and two students who came to his office for help on homework:

"Why are you in university?"
"To learn."
"Wrong. Why do birds sing in the spring?"
"To attract a mate."
"Right. That's why you're in university."

As well as the ego breaking function Naggum pointed out, university also puts kids of the "right" upward mobility together to pair off and produce more little beasts to go through the same motions again in a few years. This produces an enormous potential for drama during your four years, which you will want to keep to a minimum. It also produces enormous potential for sexually transmitted diseases, stalkers, and unpleasant emotions. With basic precautions these can all be avoided, but be sure you take said precautions.

This may seem horribly cynical, but to keep it in perspective, the process of emancipation of youth from the family home in western Virginia consists of getting (someone) pregnant, getting married at 17, moving into a trailer, getting divorced, and then getting on with life. University is rather more expensive but also much more fun.

Your education is your problem. If you have a bad professor in a subject, that's not his problem. You still need to know the material on the syllabus in a timely fashion. This is why undergraduates are allowed access to the libraries.

If you are thoroughly organized and understand why you're at school, you will be ahead of about 95% of your fellow students. I recommend getting David Allen's Getting Things Done, and implementing the system described therein. You don't need to use the latest, fanciest gadgets. A paper planner is plenty. If you must use a gadget, the Palm Tungsten T5 or Palm T|X are the only sane options available now. I can't recommend using your computer. You will be something of a nomad for much of the day, and must have your system with you.

Approach university as a very intense job. Expect to work eight to ten hours a day, five or six days a week, with a lunch break. Class will occupy a small fraction of this, and between classes your classmates will goof off. They will hang out and chatter, and then work like the devil at night trying to catch up. If you get up at 8AM every day and work steadily until 5PM or 6PM, you will not need to pull all nighters.

The best advice my grandfather ever gave me was "bribe the typing pool," or, today, the secretarial staff. When you settle into a department, make a point of getting to know the staff who make it run by name. Stop by occasionally to ask how they're doing, or bring them home baked goodies (if you can bake) or the occasional flowers (needn't be fancy, a bouquet gathered from newly blooming things outside is plenty). These people can make problems vanish. I could tell you tales of misentered grades changed without paperwork, late registrations or withdrawals quietly entered into the system, little reminders sent out, and sundry other favors which saved the recipient a trip through bureaucratic hell. And they're usually really sweet people.

Before you go away to school, make sure you can cook, clean, and do laundry. Arrange this with your parents. You should cook at least one meal a week for the whole family unassisted, you should have done the grocery shopping often enough for it to be routine, you should have cleaned everything in the house - counters, floors, windows, toilets, bathtubs - often enough to make it a reflex, and you should do your family's laundry. At home you do these tasks for several people. After that, taking care of just yourself at school will be a lighter load and give you more time and energy for work.

The intelligence of the students at a good state university is as high as at any school in the US. Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Caltech cost more, and their students are more pretentious and/or dysfunctional, but the level of real mental ability has already plateaued. The mental ability of professors plateaus long before. Hard science and math professors are extremely intelligent way down the rankings. The only data I'm aware of on the importance of the school to the student's ability after graduation unequivocally shows that the school irrelevant. Only the individual matters. However, ability isn't everything. Schools carry varying degrees of cachet. Good state universities have also reached the plateau of useful cachet. The Ivy League is really pretentious, but not much more. Everyone just wishes someone from Oxford or Cambridge would wander in to show them what pretension really means.

There are alcohol campuses and drug campuses in the US today. Alcohol campuses are probably preferable. It means lots of trashed kids and lots of loud parties, but nothing more sinister and fewer really crazy people. Many schools have strong and ancient fraternity traditions, which you should eschew completely, as they skew the alcohol consumptions statistics by an implausible amount, and they are almost the fastest way to destroy your academic career.

Engineering schools everywhere share certain characteristics. The students are mostly male and mostly socially dysfunctional. They tend to be very ill rounded. Home work often consists of endless repetition of the same problem with tiny variations in the numbers used. The workload is a form of hazing ritual. All students are cogs in the machine. The walls between engineering schools and the colleges of arts and sciences are usually very high. Taking classes back and forth is often difficult, except for engineers wanting to take high level physics and math.

Pure sciences are often better to their students, since they can more easily leave and study English. Anyone who has the math background to do engineering would be driven to distraction by biology, so "pure science" means math, chemistry, and physics (just as math is better preparation for graduate school in economics than economics, chemistry and physics are actually better preparation for graduate work in biology than biology). Unless you can find that rare creature, an applied mathematics department, the students in physics end up with more real calculational chops than those in mathematics. Failing an applied math department, pure math and physics together is a acceptable substitute.

Faculty are generally friendly to students, but you must make the effort. Go to their office hours, ask them questions. Don't stalk them, don't harass them, don't ask a question for the sake of asking a question or sounding smart. But remember, if you're totally confused about something in class and you weren't asleep five minutes before, chances are your classmates are, too, but don't have the guts to raise their hands.

One of the advantages of being at a research university is that there is research going on. There are seminar series and colloquia. Most departments have a general series once a week, often with food, and more specialized series in specific areas. You should go to the general series in your subject. You won't understand what's going on for a long while, but sit there, keep your mouth shut, and try to understand. If you can formulate a coherent question, pose it to your professors afterwards. You will be amazed how much material you will learn by osmosis. The important parts of engineering and science tend to be transmitted orally and informally, as the background current of how people think. Similarly, you should look for a laboratory. You may not have time during the year to do more than a few hours a week, less in heavy semesters, but come summer you have the time to do good work. This has several benefits:

  1. What you learn in the lab, you remember forever. Coursework tends to be more ephemeral.
  2. It gives you a "home." There is a place where you have a bit of space that you can call your own, and where you are surrounded by experts in your field. In exchange for this home you are supposed to help with the research, but if you worked hard for a summer, and you maintain a toehold during the year while your courses take priority, everyone will be understanding.
  3. The professor is a useful source of recommendations, since he is in a position to know what you can really do. For graduate school or job applications, his letter will carry weight.

Students in the first year generally lack time and expertise to do this, but in the spring of your first year you should find a research position or an internship.

The advice was meant for the son, but sent via the father's email account so that his parents would have an opportunity to be suitably horrified.


Fred Ross
18 September 2009
Lausanne, Switzerland


Did you enjoy that? Try one of my books:
Nonfiction Fiction
Into the Sciences Monologue: A Comedy of Telepathy