Advice for undergraduates

This week, I’m in northern Georgia for InterVarsity’s Southeast Chapter Camp for undergraduates. I don’t have an official role – I’m just here to help out, talk to undergraduates about the Emerging Scholars Network, and find out ways that ESN can help prepare undergrads for grad school.

So, I’m interested in your thoughts. If you were once an undergrad, what do you wish someone had said or asked you at that stage of your academic career? If you are an undergrad, what kinds of questions do you have about grad school and the life of an academic? What kinds of resources would be most helpful for ESN to produce or distribute?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    Amy commented on May 12, 2009 Reply

    1) Go to office hours and talk to your professors and TAs. Most of them are not as scary as you think. (A select few are as scary as you think, but

    2) It’s better to do a few things well, than too many things halfway. As a grad student, I can’t tell you how many topics come up that I know I learned as an undergrad, but didn’t learn well enough and now have to re-learn.

    Amy commented on May 12, 2009 Reply

    Hm, I left a thought unfinished there. (A select few are as scary as you think, but it’s worth a few minutes with them to develop great relationships with people who are truly invested in your education.)

    Chris commented on May 12, 2009 Reply

    1) Be humble. Regardless of academic disciplines, teachers want to teach students willing to learn. This will help with Amy’s wise first suggestion.

    2) Don’t overreach, especially in written assignments. It is far better to write a great paper comparing two figures, ideas, theories, events, etc… than trying to intellectually vomit on a page and put everything you think you know in a paper that is too short to actually reflect an issue respectfully. Again, Amy’s wisdom, only expanded a bit.

    Andrew commented on May 12, 2009 Reply

    I’m about to start a Master’s in September (aiming at the Ph.D.), and would definitely echo the above advice. I would suggest additionally that you should try to find a few professors whose teaching style engages you and encourages you to grow, and to take their classes and get to know them. You’ll need them for references when you’re moving on to the next thing. Also, do your readings. Seriously.

    This is slightly off-topic, but my current question is whether I’ll ever be able to get a job as an academic. Right now, I’m basically going through on the assumption that I’m doing graduate school for its own sake. Hope that holds up for the next six years.

    Hannah commented on May 12, 2009 Reply

    I think the skill I would most want to impart to my own students is the ability to pay deep and sustained attention to things – academic subjects, projects, classmates, etc. This sounds elementary, but it is one of the hardest and most important skills. The discipline of paying attention to one thing, say chemistry or English literature, can be great practice for the discipline of paying attention to something else, for instance other people. Proverbs frequently associates learning wisdom with paying attention.

    I’d also say look for opportunities to combine what you love studying with serving others. Many schools have classes or programs that incorporate service, but there are ways to do it on your own, too. For instance, choose paper topics that let you research ways of serving others – research a microloan organization in the developing world or a musician who plays in underprivileged schools.

    Dave Snoke commented on May 13, 2009 Reply

    As a prof at a major university, I definitely agree that undergrads should take advantage of meeting professors more. In general, when I post office hours for a course, most of the time nobody comes, or else one or two come who are the same ones every week. And I would be happy to meet students not only during office hours but by appointment almost any other time. Just a very few have done that.

    I often say to high school students choosing between a small school and a large school that I don’t believe small schools teach better than large ones, in general (small schools focus more on teaching, but they also have _much_ larger teaching load, so they have less time to give to each class, and less ability for profs to travel to learn new things). But at a large school you have to take the initiative to get to know profs, while at a small school they are more likely to take the initiative to get to know you.

    When I was an undergrad at a large school, it didn’t cross my mind to talk to a prof other than my advisor. I guess I thought they lived in some tower of importance. Actually, just about every prof I know loves to talk about his or her work. But very few at a large school are going to single out a student from the crowd and invite that student to lunch.

    Gene Chase commented on May 13, 2009 Reply

    Don’t specialize too soon. As an undergrad I was so focused on mathematics that I missed the opportunity to take a course in linguistics, which I loved and later used in serving Wycliffe Bible Translators. I could have even had “bragging rights” about having a course from world-class linguist Noam Chomsky, who was in 1961-65 and still is (!) at MIT, my alma mater. Then in grad school when I wanted to branch out, a national push in science education gave grad schools the impetus to say: “Get your degree and get out; don’t waste time on irrelevant courses.” How can anyone know in advance what is irrelevant?

    Treat digging into your faith as at least the equivalent of a 3-credit hour course. That was the advice of my IVCF staff person back then. I did it. I didn’t regret it. As IVCF chapter president, I was privileged to host at MIT Francis Schaeffer–whose lectures that became his book The God Who Is There–, Hermann Dooyeweerd, Michael Polanyi, and many others who shaped my Christian worldview. I read voraciously–C. S. Lewis, and J. I. Packer for example.

    Share your faith. I waited until after grades were turned in to talk to my religion prof, Huston Smith, about Jesus, but I did. I led a Bible study among non-Chrsitian math grad students. I counseled teens at John DeBrine’s Boston Youthtime. Some of my MIT classmates became Christians. Others called me years later to say that they too had become Christians, and wanted me to know that I had helped them in that direction. God’s ways are more profound than ours (Isa. 55:8-9), and God’s word accomplishes God’s purposes (Isa. 55:11).

    Katie Weakland commented on May 13, 2009 Reply

    I suggest meeting your major professors early in your career – your first semester – and asking them to mentor you and/or let you do research with them. The early you can get your feet wet with research the better. I also suggest reading the primary literature in your field as soon as possible.

    Matthew Scott commented on March 30, 2010 Reply

    1. Look up everything you come across that you are unfamiliar with. This way you’ll know the context of whatever your studying.
    2. Yes, talk to your professors often. They are paid to teach you. Talk to them before and after you write a paper. Get advise on paper topics, organization, and resources before you write the paper. Reread your paper before you turn it in. Take your paper back to the professor and talk about specifics on how you could improve
    the paper.
    3. Buy a copy of Strunk and White. Read it before you write every paper. It’s a short book but is full of advise.
    4. Get familiar with the scholarly journals in your field of study. Not only will you learn about the latest research, you will see good examples of, hopefully, well-written papers.

  • Kevin commented on August 31, 2010 Reply

    1. Get enough sleep. Chronic loss of sleep actually impedes cognition function and impairs memory.

    2. Be disciplined, but not compulsive. Studying a little on every subject every day (even only 15 minutes!) works better than all-nighters, and doing some work on a project every day produces better results than trying to finish it the day before its due. Our brains have attention spans of about 20 minutes, so relying on a strategy that requires extended periods of dedicated concentration is best avoided.

    3. Most importantly, frame your day (morning and evening/night) with Bible readings and prayer. I particularly recommend cycling through the Psalms coupled with additional readings. The Psalms are a wonderful condensation of dealing with life’s struggles and joys and a very nice way to frame one’s day.

    4. Lastly, NEVER text message or surf the web in class–Professors HATE that!!!!!!!

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