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Advice for Undergrads

If you are an undergraduate at Yale (or, for that matter, anywhere else), here’s some advice you may find useful. Some of it — maybe most of it — is very general, probably stuff your parents, high-school teachers, advisers, etc., already told you a million times. Still, I often talk with students who seem never to have heard it. So here it is again…

General advice

Your undergraduate years should be about growing as a human being, not acquiring professional training. (Of course you are more likely to make a better living — though perhaps not to live a better life — in IT or finance than in medieval Portuguese literature — but that’s not the point. You can always acquire the professional skills in grad school.) So think of your college years from the perspective of your old age — say, thirty five. What will you regret more from that vantage point? Not having read the classics or not having learned the ins and outs of the latest [fill-in-the-blank] technique? (I’m stretching, but you get the point.) Above all, make sure you refine your thinking skills, because the opportunity cost of not acquiring these in college is higher than that of mostly anything else. This means learning two kinds of things: those that are hard to wrap one’s head around (such as math and physics) and those that will stay fundamentally the same throughout your life (such as philosophy and, I dare say, politics).

This approach to your undergraduate years has two big upsides. First, you will become a better thinker and, one would hope, a better person. You will acquire a sense of how things, in the broadest sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term. And that sense is important. Second, you will not close any doors (or, perhaps better, you will close as few doors as possible) professionally or otherwise. It also has little downside. The critical skills and fundamental knowledge you’ll acquire will enable you to learn any specific subject-matter later in life with ease.

Choosing courses

The most structured part of your college education is, obviously, the courses you’ll take. Most students I know choose courses according to the topic. That should be only one of two criteria for choosing courses. The other is the faculty who is teaching the course. Use the class shopping period to try classes by renowned professors — and that means both brilliant research minds and those who are known to be great teachers. Then take a risk and, say, take one course a semester outside your area of focus with a professor who will really open up your mind. I would never be doing what I’m doing if I hadn’t done that. (And I hope that’s a good thing.)

Furthermore, you should try to find at least one professor that possesses all of the following characteristics: sharing your core interests, being a great mentor, being a muckety-muck in their field, and teaching undergraduate courses, including seminars, regularly. Once you do, take more than one course with them, go to their office hours, perhaps get to work with, or for, them; in short, try to build a relationship with them. This way, you’ll maximize your own intellectual growth and — no negligible detail — get the best possible recommendation letter if and when you apply to professional or graduate schools. (Also see my advice on recommendation letters.)

Beyond courses

I have no taste for “resumé building.” Perhaps you’d be better-off thinking of your time outside class as professional dating. (No, that’s not what I mean.) Part-time jobs and summer internships are opportunities to try out a job and see how you feel in a particular line of work, or industry. You will be around the type of people that would surround you throughout your professional life were you to choose that career; you will be doing the kind of stuff you would be doing — or at least you’ll be seeing other people doing it. In sum, you’ll get a “feel” for that way of life. Oh, and do travel. A lot.

Finding an adviser

The best way to find an advisor is, as I mentioned above, to develop a professional relationship with a faculty member that will gradually and naturally evolve into an advising relationship. Start early and nurture your contacts with faculty. If, alas, you find yourself scrambling for an advisor at the last minute, keep in mind two things. First, think about your project enough to make it appetizing by the time you present it to a prospective advisor. Second, do not commit to working with someone the first time you talk about the project. (Again, the dating analogy works here; treat a first meeting like a first date…) Present it to several possible advisors and try to talk to your first pick at least twice before you formally ask them to supervise your thesis. This way you’ll get a sense of how working with someone will be before you are committed to working with them. Finally, the worst thing you can do is not to take your advisor’s advice seriously. (Duh!) You don’t need to heed it. But you must present a good intellectual case against doing so. Otherwise, you’ve just spoiled any chance of getting a good recommendation letter in the end.

If you think my research interests would be a good fit with yours, schedule an appointment during my office hours and let’s discuss your ideas.

Feel free to comment below.

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2 Responses

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  1. Nancy Chapman says

    Wow, spot on. Very wise and generous advice!

  2. Kristina says

    The first advice “growing as a human being” is all about developing your EQ level, remember that the process is about balancing your EQ and IQ and not just about grades.

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