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Seth Zenz | Imperial College London | UK

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More Than a Checklist

I’d like to make a few comments on Flip’s excellent post on advice for undergrads. I’m an argumentative sort, but none of this is disagreement as such; every time I wanted to argue, his entry anticipates it by giving caveats or suggesting sensible priorities. And it really is a great checklist, if you want to be a physicist some day. But I still want to caution you: college, like life, is more than a checklist. You can be a physicist some day even if you don’t do it all perfectly. I’m going to be a physicist, at least for a while yet, and here some confessions about my time in college:

  • I was well-rounded, sometimes in random ways. I took a course on the history and philosophy of science; even if it makes me a better physicist somehow, it won’t help my academic career. I took a course on Fairy Tales with some friends my senior year just because I was tired.
  • Talking to professors was hard. The ones I talked to were the ones I did research with, and one who reached out to classes to an unusual degree. (But yes, this makes doing research even more important.)
  • I didn’t learn LaTeX.
  • I didn’t go to very many talks. I read hardly any papers. In retrospect, I wish I had. But your time in college is yours, not an opportunity to make good on things I missed — and anyway I’ve read enough papers in grad school to make up for it.

My point isn’t that you should skip those things. My point is that you won’t do everything exactly the way you could have, or should have, or the way Flip or anyone else recommends. You do have to be pretty damn good to be a scientist, but you don’t have to be perfect. After all, the people you’ll be competing with are just bozos like me.

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