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Flip Tanedo | USLHC | USA

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Welcome to college, future colleagues (advice for science undergrads)

It’s the beginning of another academic year, which means another generation of young people entering universities across the US. As a grad student one feels a sense of nostalgia when realizing that some fraction of these students will be following in your footsteps to become your future colleagues at the scientific frontier. Of course, the nostalgia fades away when you realize that those students are hidden among the other hundred or so that are just taking the class you’re teaching only because it’s a requirement for their major and just want to figure out how to pass the final exam. 🙂

With slightly more seriousness, a warm “welcome to college” to all of the freshmen out there, and a special ‘hello’ to all of the future scientists among you. I have a strong belief that one of the roles of the graduate student community is to provide mentors for undergraduates, especially those who are interested in pursuing academic careers. To that extent, there are a few things that I always thought I would have appreciated knowing when I was a freshman and that I’d like to share with the blogosphere.

(Random factoid: the first mention of my name on the blogosphere came from a Cosmic Variance post about applying to grad schools. I really appreciated that post and write this in the same spirit.)

These tend to be physics/science-oriented, but I hope at least some of it is broadly-applicable:

1. Figure out what you want. There’s no single definition for success in college; this all depends on what you want to get out of your undergraduate years. Depending on whether you pursue an academic career, go into industry, professional school, politics, start the next great rock band—whatever it is you end up following, you will be judged on different criteria. College is a time of self discovery—and that can take time—but it helps if you discover yourself sooner rather than later since that gives you more time to prepare for the next step. Once you find what it is you want to do, dive into it with enthusiasm.

2. Find mentors. No matter what you end up doing (but especially if you want to pursue scientific research), find people who can provide guidance and inspiration. For scientists this usually means faculty and grad students. They’ve been where you are and they’re bursting with advice about how they navigated their path through academia. Make a point to talk to them! Go to office hours and ask about their research. Invite them to lunch. Be pro-active about this.

3. Do research. Undergraduate research experience is practically an unstated prerequisite for a strong grad school application. Research is where your coursework comes to life and you find out what it’s like to work on open-ended questions. It’s also a chance to try out different fields: not sure if you’d enjoy particle physics? Spend a summer (or better: a year) as an undergrad research assistant!

Actually doing research will help you figure out what you really want to pursue (theory or experiment? condensed matter or high energy?). Even if you end up deciding that you never want to set foot into a condensed matter lab ever again in your life, at the very least you’ve learned something new and valuable about yourself; maybe you’ll find you are more drawn to the nuances of developing theoretical models rather than the ingenuity required to construct experiments. That’s great! And if you get a few publications and a nice letter of recommendation from a respected professor out of it as well—then all the better.

Keep an eye out for undergraduate research opportunities in your department. Talking to faculty is really important here. If there aren’t many options at your university, look for summer research opportunities at other universities or national labs.

4. Be lopsided. Forget the idea of a “well rounded” university student, be “well lopsided!” Find the things that you are really passionate about and devote yourself to them. You don’t have to join every single club, be on every single committee, and juggle three majors. Your passions don’t have to be all academic things, either: even if all you do is party and research (with a reasonable division between the two), then you’ll still be a better researcher than someone who is split ten ways between several extracurricular (even academic) activities.

As a caveat: while you’re being lopsided, try to keep your balance. You might want to do nothing more than eat, breathe, and physics. This isn’t enough. Make time to socialize, exercise, and otherwise challenge yourself in ways that you wouldn’t be able to outside of college.

5. Do your problem sets. I cannot over-emphasize how important it is to practice your science. This is especially true in mathematics and physics. Problem sets are more than just ways to make sure you do your reading; they force your brain to apply what you’ve learned to new problems. This is—at a very fundamental level—what scientific research is all about. I will go so far as to say that you only learn something meaningfully when you’ve used it to generate new (at least to you) ideas, such as when you solve a hard homework problem. (In grad school this becomes: “… when you’ve used it to write an academic paper.”)

While we’re on the topic: do your problem sets with friends. You should always be able to write up a solution on your own, but it is good to discuss with others to learn how to generate solutions. Again: this is how real science is done, though collaboration and communication. Anyway, it’s always good to find friends with similar goals: it forms a kind of “support group” to encourage one another. ((It’s also important to make friends with people who are doing completely different things from you!))

6. Learn to communicate. This holds universally no matter what you want to do, but somehow this ends up being understated for scientists. A big part of science is communicating your work to a broad range of people. Whether it’s a colleague whom you are working with on a particular problem, a funding agency that needs to be convinced that your line of research is a good investment, or the general public (whose tax dollars fund research, from whom future scientists emerge, and who really do want to learn about the frontiers of human knowledge), you need to be able to explain your work. Be comfortable discussing, presenting, and writing about ideas in your field.

7. Learn to think. This is a little more abstract, but I think it’s important in a very general way. This generation of college students grew up with Wikipedia at their fingertips. Information is cheap and readily available. You don’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars in tuition to learn facts. The value of being at a university is to learn how to generate and use those facts. This is the “transformative” nature of education; you need to be able to parse information and generate meaning.The professors giving your lectures aren’t trying to make you memorize facts from their textbook; they want you to interact with those facts: question them, generalize them to principles, apply them elsewhere, cross-reference against accepted dogma, etc.

8. Develop tools. The other thing you should get out of your classes are a set of tools that will be valuable in the future. If you’re going to be a physicist, then you will certainly need to be well versed in quantum mechanics, for example. One often under-appreciated skill: programming. Also, for those who will be working in physics and mathematics, learn how to use the LaTeX typesetting system. (For particle theorists in particular: differential geometry, complex analysis, and group theory!)

9. Go to academic talks and read academic papers. You don’t magically learn how to read papers and listen to talks when you become a grad student. These are skills that you have to develop. Challenge yourself—even if you only understand the first five minutes of a talk, you’ll at least begin to familiarize yourself with words and ideas. Start with what’s accessible: departments usually have colloquia which are meant to be accessible to a broad audience within the department, and look for “review articles” which are meant to be pedagogical introductions to current research. If you’re just starting out, read the American Journal of Physics (which has lots of undergraduate-level discussions) or Physics Today. (Everyone who reads this blog should follow Symmetry Magazine.) As you learn more, start attending seminars in the fields that you’re interested in and start to peruse current research on the arXiv.

10. Have fun. This is an amazing time in your life where you have professors who will teach all sorts of things to you, a vibrant community of young people around you, and no responsibilities other than to make the most of your time. Do it!