Sunday, August 24, 2008

Non-obvious advice to freshmen (and their folks)

Probably too late but here it is (the ground rules may differ in various places and this is VERY US centric)

1. Take EXACTLY 15 credits. You need 12 to be full time and you need to be full time to keep your financial aid. Taking 15 leaves room to drop one course. Berzerk professors are a risk, high school was a lot easier, the competition is harder, so you need to leave room to drop one. Your college is a new place with new rules. You don't want to be learning the rules with a 24/7 load.

2. Professors are called Prof. Rabett or Dr. Rabett, not Mr. Rabett, and unless they specifically tell you to do so, never Eli. Most teaching assistants are graduate students. They should be addressed as Mr. or Ms. Adjuncts can hold the doctorate or not. Check and address them appropriately. This is college, the ground rules are different.

3. Someone told you to look your professor's in the eye, stick out your hand and say, "I'm Mr. Bunny", so they will remember you. Someone told you wrong, this doesn't even work for salesguys. Most academics are introverts, they hate this crap.

3a. OTOH when you talk to your professor the first couple of times, say "Hi, I'm Ms. Bunny and. . . ." or if you encounter your professor outside the class "I'm Ms. Bunny and I'm in your 3PM lecture class. . . "

4. There are important differences between secondary school and college. In secondary school the burden of your learning is on the teacher, if you are "not getting it" the teacher is obligated to work with you until you do. In secondary school the teacher follows a syllabus that is mandated locally, often statewide. In college, the burden of your learning is on you. The professors present the material (hopefully clearly, tho not always) on a level that they decide is appropriate for the course. (Google helicopter parents for more)

5. Get a study group for each course. The group should be no less than 4 and no more than 5 students so that if one person can't make it you still have a group and no one can hide. Meet at least once a week. Have an agenda about what you will do/discuss. You should have read the materials and at least tried to do the assigned problems. That way you can spend time on the points/problems that gave most of you trouble. If all the points/problems give everyone trouble, you have the wrong study group.

6. You want to develop a professional relationship with your professors. This means talking to them about the subject. In particular, you will get extremely short shrift if you go up to them and say something like: "I don't understand anything", the correct approach is more like, "Yesterday you talked about adiabatic expansions of an ideal gas, how does that apply to the atmosphere" or "I had some trouble with this point (name inserted here) in the lecture, went home and studied the material, but I still don't get it, could you point me in the right direction".

7. You want to visit your professor no more than a 3 or 4 times a month. Some professors are very picky about their office hours, and don't want to see you outside of them, others are more welcoming, but may ask you to come back. IEHO you want to avoid the first kind, but YMMV.

8. Check how many majors there are in a department compared to the size of the department faculty. You will get a lot more care and feeding if the ratio is smaller, compared to larger. OTOH you want to have an idea of how intellectually active your professors are. Look them up on Google Scholar.

9. Towards the end of the year (not semester), if you are doing well in your major, you want to talk with your professor about doing undergraduate research. You should have a clear idea of what area of the major you are most interested in and talented in. The professor may pick you off for his or her group, or may steer you with a recommendation to a colleague. If you are not doing well in the first course for your major, you may want to reconsider your major.

10. Start thinking about what you are going to do in the summer in November. Applications for summer programs open in November and close in January/February. The deciding factor for an internship is going to be recommendations "Bunny Foo Foo was in my class and got an A, one of five in a class of 20" is the kiss of death. See 6-8. Undergraduate research, internships, the recommendations you get from them and the work that you have done are what gets you jobs, into professional school and more. See Bunny Foo Foo letter above.

11. Books are going to cost you $1K per year. In some courses the books cost more than $200/yr, in others pretty close to it. Reselling books sucks, you get less then you do at a car dealer, and besides which books are useful to keep. Many course/colleges have on line syllabii which list the books. Bookstores increasingly have on line sites that allow you to pre-order books. If nothing else this may help you avoid the line from hell that forms outside the bookstore before classes start.

The bad news is that publishers have a whole bunch of tactics to stop you from buying used books, including bundling on line homework systems (these systems are actually a very good thing) at low price with new books and selling the license at high price alone. Several states have now passed laws forbidding such bundling but they are not yet in force. Next year.

Another tactic is for publishers to change editions every three or four years. Most of the time all that they change is the problems. Ask the professors if it makes a difference if you buy the old version, a lot of time it does not.

Non-obvious places to buy textbooks are outside the US, the same books (watch the editions tho) are much less expensive elsewhere and available in paperback, this includes such third world countries as England, France and Germany. Shipping may be an issue, but if someone you know is going over there and willing to lug the book back (textbooks are increasingly the Osborne's of portable books). . .

Primarily for science majors:
12. NEVER take non-calculus physics. Physics without calculus makes no sense.

13. If your math SATs were under 550, take a college math course (probably algebra) before you try chemistry. Eli has been tracking this for years, as have a number of friends at the Carrot Bar Around the Corner from the Chemistry Building. Our experience is that SAT's, math pretests and such show that there is a minimum grade you need to have any chance of passing chemistry, but if students are above that minimum the course grades do not correlate especially well with the math grades. Taking college algebra and getting a good grade (if you don't you probably should not take chemistry) improves the odds no end.


Magnus said...

Go, Swederszwichland... Go, Green... Go, Nice chicks... Go, Mumbeling strange words like systembolag and smörgåsbord... Go, Adlibris...

Anonymous said...

To all the new students who have read Eli's advice: pay attention. Read it again. Then read it again. *Follow* the advice. He knows what he's talking about.

And, I quite agree that physics without calculus is like a BLT without the bacon. Or the lettuce. Or the tomato.

Anonymous said...

The Capital Weather link in your blogroll gets to do climate only when they tell their new Corpulent Media masters, "Pretty please". The real DC climate blog has spun out to CapitalClimate.

trrll said...

One additional bit of advice for science undergraduates: You do not have to major in the field that you hope to do graduate work in. It is perfectly acceptable, and often advantageous, to major in a related field of science. Generally this works best if your major is in a "harder" or more "basic" field than the one you choose for graduate school. So you can start with math and then go to graduate school in physics or biology. Or start with math, physics, chemistry, or engineering and go to grad school in some field of biology. You will get focused courses in graduate school anyway, so you really only need to nail down the prerequisites, and maybe take a few courses in what you think will be your ultimate area of interest to make sure that you are on the right track.

Anonymous said...

Things might be about to change though. Slightly related article I ran into...

EliRabett said...

CC Changed.

Anonymous said...

If all the points/problems give everyone trouble, you have the wrong study group.

... or the wrong professor.

Just because you are a Nobel-caliber thinker does not mean you are good at explaining things to undergraduates -- or that your Nobel thinking will "rub off" on your students (I say this from personal experience. I had a (future) Nobel-prize winning physics prof once who left everyone in the class scratching their head at the end of each lecture hour)

Those who can do and those who can't teach shouldn't (IMHO)

Many colleges have student assessments of profs. If one or two students say a prof sucks at explaining things, it's probably just sour grapes, but if half the class says it, there is probably something to it.

Anonymous said...

I was a top math student, so I signed on to help others.t The first time I helped a student, I knew all about the question he had but I suggested looking at the textbook anyway. It had been written by a member of the math department. After reading that book, suddenly I was confused about a topic I knew perfectly well!

Later, I got that same professor for abstract algebra. After a week I decided it would be much more educational to drop the course and just read the book; it's the only time I ever dropped a course. I turned out to be right; the other students started coming to me for help.

On the other hand, my professor for atomic physics probably spent 2 to 3 hours or more preparing for each 1-hour lecture. He had a knack for imparting, not just knowledge, but real insight.

If at all possible, definitely check out the professors for you classes. Most work hard to be good teachers, but some don't give it enough effort and some just don't have the gift for teaching.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


In Eli's humble opinion?

Anonymous said...

In my school when we did get to do experiments, usually they wanted to cram in so much in limited time that the instructions for what to do were far too detailed, you followed a cookbook and didn't really have to think for yourself. (You did get to familiarize yourself with a lot of different instruments)

If you recognize the situation, try to find a course with simple experiments but where you are supposed to design them from scratch: decide what to measure, how to measure it and how to analyze the data. The subject doesn't really matter, but learning to do experiments where the answer isn't a given is very helpful.

Anonymous said...

Professors are called Prof. Rabett or Dr. Rabett ...
Would somebody mind elaborating on this? I struggle to understand why people care so much about being addressed with their proper title. I have the impression that it's a cultural issue. At least in my recollection no Prof. or PhD at my (German) university did really make a fuss about it. Ages ago, in an email to an Australian scientist I referred to another scientist as Mr. X and in the reply was told that "it's Dr. X btw." which struck me as being rather petty. OTOH English people seem to be less formal and address each other with their first names more or less immediately, whereas in Germany you need to know each other before you drop the formal Mr. or Mrs./Miss.

Magnus said...

The Dr. Prof. thing is really frustrating to "learn" as a Swede where it not even in the army is that important to get it right... never mind the universities...

EliRabett said...

Frank and Magnus, the student issue really is in the large introductory classes, classes that people in other countries take at the end of their secondary schooling and correspond in level to US first and second year college courses.

Part of it is that a not insignificant number of those freshman are going to be disappointed in their grade, even fail the course so one wants to maintain distance.

Part of it is social. Informality is negotiated. Members of your group will call you by your first name. When Eli was in Germany, the rule was that in the group you referred to the professor by his first name, to outsiders as Herr Rabett, and to strangers as Prof. Rabett. Occassionally as Prof. Dr. YMMV

In the US, Mr. just sounds wrong in a university setting. It;s either Prof. Dr. or just plain Joe.

The other side is that it is a lot better for the prof to start off talking to Ms. Bunny, or Mr. Foo Foo rather than Rachel and Jim.

The take away is that without permission, you start at the formal level if you are a student. It is never wrong, but calling someone Eli right off can screw the pooch.

Anonymous said...

Should we refer to you as professor on your blog too, Rabbit?

Anonymous said...

Is it odd my calc-based physics course involves very little calc?? It's primarily for derivation of equations. and once you derive them in class, you are allowed to just use the end result for plugging in numbers.