So You Are Starting Your First Year at a Research University…

It’s August—and while that means a dearth of news about American politics, it also means that across the country, recent high school grads are getting ready to start up at a dizzying array of colleges and universities.  I’d be surprised if this blog has much of a readership among people in their late teens.  But having spent some 15 years at research universities, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts about starting undergraduate life at one, and would be curious to get others’ takes in the Comments.  I must have learned something in those eight years living in undergraduate dorms, right?  (Don’t worry—I wasn’t on the eight-year plan.  I was a residential adviser for most of my time in graduate school.  Hm, you still look worried.)

Research universities aren’t just a scaled-up version of a high school, with more students and better sports teams—they are organized differently, and understanding that organization is one of the first tasks of the entering undergraduate.  Case in point: in my high school, any study of literature would have been in the English Department, from Thoreau to Tolstoy.  I knew I liked literature, so when I got to college, I sought out a well-reputed class in the English Department.  But it was only months later, over the winter holidays, that I actually had time to read the course catalog, which was several hundred pages long.  And I realized, belatedly, that literatures written in foreign languages were taught in separate departments—Slavic Languages and Literatures, Germanic Languages and Literatures, etc.  Or else in the Comparative Literature Department.  I also realized that there were whole fields I had never encountered in high school—computer science, sociology, anthropology, to name just a few.

If I were starting again, I’d spend a lot more time reading (or now browsing) the course catalog, to get a better sense of how the fields at a university are organized.  I wouldn’t just read up in the fields I was most interested in.  In fact, I’d read up mostly in the fields I knew nothing about.  The less familiar the Department’s name, the better.  And I’d also spend more time asking people about the different fields, their main tools, their driving questions, their intellectual progress.  High schools are frequently organized by topic area, while universities are organized in part based on different disciplinary toolkits.  You might really like a subject like European history, but also find that the tools you want to use to make sense of that history are actually those of an anthropologist.  Or a computer scientist.  Or an economist.

In that is also a thought about picking classes, to the extent that first-year requirements leave room for choice.  Good classes convey facts, sure.  But they also convey ways of thinking and ways of learning.  More than the specific facts, it is those ways of thinking and learning that you are likely to retain years later.  So if the instructor of a course thinks about problems in a novel or compelling way, give the course a shot—even if you never imagined taking a class on pre-modern Chinese diets.

OK, so I would have spent more time asking people about the academic disciplines—but who, exactly?  Research universities are massive and busy, and some aren’t exactly brimming with people who will stop and explain the intellectual organization of the contemporary university to a wayward first-year.  But that’s where your advisers, teaching assistants, professors, and deans come in.  Harvard professor Richard Light has studied what makes for a successful college experience, and one of his main take-aways is that the students who get to know their instructors have richer college experiences.  His advice: make it a goal to get to know one instructor a semester.  That might mean balancing a few of those big lecture classes with smaller seminars.  It might mean thinking hard about a problem, and then heading to office hours to ask about it.  It might mean asking your teaching assistant why she went into a particular field.  Or it might mean asking a professor about her research, and seeing if you can get involved in it.  They’re called “research universities” for a reason—and yet, many students spend years on university campuses without getting involved in one of their signature activities.

Which brings me to… getting involved in general.  But not getting too involved.  In my high school in the 1990s, and maybe in yours today, a lot of people got involved in a lot of activities: sports teams, student government, religious groups, high school newspapers, weekend jobs, you name it.  But whereas high school life is highly structured, starting at dawn and going well into the evening in some cases, undergraduate life is much less so.  You might find yourself in class for 15 hours a week, leaving a lot of time for other pursuits.  Three weeks into college life, I’ll bet most first-year students couldn’t physically go back to their high school schedules if they tried.  (And having taught classes early on Monday mornings—well, 9:30 am—I have solid evidence of that.)  But the organizational and extra-curricular life at universities is a lot more specialized than that in high school.  It’s not the same people running every activity or doing every on-campus job.  So learn about lots of activities, organizations, and jobs, sure—but plan to devote your time to just a few, and to do those well.

11 Responses to So You Are Starting Your First Year at a Research University…

  1. Jonathan Bernstein August 15, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    Agree on all the excellent academic advise.

    Disagree on the last paragraph. I don’t know how universal it is, but at least here in Texas high school activities tend to be more specialized than the activities spectrum I encountered in college (granted, not at a big research university). Dabbling is discouraged; serious commitment is strongly encouraged, both by the schools and the kids, at least those kids who are spending four years trying to polish their college applications. It’s very different from when I was in high school.

    My advice for college students is: dabble! Both academically (at least a little) and in terms of organizations. But especially organizations, and especially if your high school experience was all about specialization. Try an intermural or club sport you’ve never tried, audition for a play, whatever. If it doesn’t pan out – so what? College is going to be your last chance to try lots of stuff with minimal opportunity costs. So try lots of stuff.

    • Chris Smith August 15, 2013 at 5:22 pm #

      Agreed on trying new things. Undergraduate college should be about diversifying sense of career paths and attainable skills sets.

  2. C.M. August 15, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

    I tried the getting to know your professor thing when I was an undergrad. I regret it. Maybe it’s different at elite colleges, but at my declining flagship state university maybe one out of ten professors had any interest or time in talking to undergrads. Mostly what I got out of it was learning how embittered people can be when they went to Harvard and wind up teaching at a 2nd/3rd tier school.

  3. Jesse August 15, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    All good advice, but as an university student, I would add two other pieces.

    First, work on your general education requirements your first year. Not only will this allow the student to take a variety of courses, but it will allow them greater freedom in later course selection.

    Second, students need to mind the syllabus. High schools, at least in my experience and observation, tend to operate over the short term: is something is assigned on Monday, it is almost certainly due by Friday. Shifting to the longer-term mindset, in which the due dates for all assignments are given at the start of the semester, can be one of the most difficult changes to make.

    Also, in terms of getting to know the professor, it seems to work better at small schools, as opposed to elite schools. It also helps to take very specific courses (e.g. twentieth century Hungarian literature), as the professor is almost guaranteed to be interested in the topic.

  4. Jason August 15, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    Feel the professors out at the beginning and see if they’re worth talking to. If they are, try some casual chit chat if there’s an opportunity. If it doesn’t develop into anything that’s ok. But aside from making each other’s lives a little more pleasant, having a professor or two will help you down the road.

    What’s super important imo is meeting other students. Every class you have scan the room to see if there’s someone you might get along well with, and then sit near them and be friendly with them. Having a friend in the class makes things funner and it’s good to have someone you can ask questions or study with. You’ll also want to get to know people in your dorm. And visit some clubs too. Your goal should be to make as many friends as possible while at the same time doing well in your classes.

    The thing is, after you graduate your entire professional (and social for that matter) network is going to be people from college. The other students won’t be in a position to do you any favors right out of school but a few years later you’ll be able to help each other out. Your professors have connections and can help you get a job.

  5. S.S. August 15, 2013 at 8:43 pm #

    College sophomore checking in. I think you put it very well with the topic area vs. toolkit comparison between high school and college. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I consider different majors.

    Anyways, thanks for this piece. I’ll definitely be sharing it with my freshman friends this year.

  6. The Truth August 15, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

    Specialize, specialize, specialize. I went the route of striking up good relationships with professors from a vast array of subjects and taking a broad array of courses and internships/study abroad trips.

    Then I went to grad school.

    I got a few pats on the head for how “well-rounded” I was, then a bunch of venom from people in political science for actually being interested in things outside the narrow discipline restrictions (+ econ/math/stats) like policy, history, literature, art, music, journalism, etc.

    Don’t believe what anyone else here tells you. Pick a narrow tiny subfield (preferably one with lots of confusing mathematical equations and computer code!) and you’ll get respect and rewards. Be a “well-rounded” individual who cares about things like historical facts and get ready to get told how you just aren’t right for anything in academia.

  7. LFC August 15, 2013 at 10:33 pm #

    To the good advice in the post I’d add a few points that are not specific to research universities but that I think apply somewhat more broadly.

    1) The post hints at this but doesn’t stress it: Often, *who *is teaching a course is just as important, if not more important, than *what* the subject of the course is. Find out what you can about particular profs/instructors beforehand (there are usu. various ways to do that).

    2) Learn how to study and read efficiently, if you don’t already know and esp if you’re going to be studying (one of) the humanities or social sciences in which reading loads are heavy. (I don’t know exactly what undergrad reading loads are like now; I’m assuming they haven’t changed v. much over the years.) Some high school students may not have fully grasped that there are a range of different kinds of texts and different ways to approach them — so distinguish betw. what you must read with great care and what you can read more synoptically. Timothy Burke, an historian who teaches at Swarthmore, has a ‘guide to reading in college’ at his blog Easily Distracted (the link is at his blog’s sidebar, as I recall) which I think, from having glanced at it quite a while ago, is worth a look.

    3) Don’t be shy about seeking advice and help with anything you might want advice on (study skills, writing, personal issues, majors, career paths/jobs, whatever) through formal or informal channels or both.

    4) Don’t program every waking minute. (That may sometimes be easier said than done, esp. for those who have a part-time job in addition to classes etc., but try.)

    • LFC August 15, 2013 at 10:39 pm #

      P.s. speaking of writing: “there is a range” (?) “there are a range” (?). take yr pick.

  8. JL August 16, 2013 at 8:01 am #

    I spent roughly three years in engineering and math before ending up in political science. (Mind you, something that would have been more difficult if not impossible had I not attended a big research university.) My advice is twofold. First, your parents, teachers, community members, and so forth mean well when they push you into a major, but ultimately you are the one who has to do it and live it with it. Explore and make mistakes. Risk disappointing people. You’ll never have a chance to do that at such a low cost again. And second, just because you’re good at math does not mean you’ll sacrifice all your potential if you don’t become an engineer or an actuary. Lots of fields use (and desperately need) people with those skills.

  9. ryesview August 28, 2013 at 11:00 pm #

    My two…err…three cents:
    1. That stressed out, highly hierarchal High School Social Structure is gone. Really. Whether you were a dweeb, jock, nerd, cheerleader, or what have you, if you go to a school big enough or far enough away nobody will give a #$@% what you were in high school. Even if you go to a small school nearby, most people will probably not give a #$@%. Oh sure, the Greek things still exists for incoming freshman who don’t realize that the high school game has changed, but even they, by midway through their Sophomore year, have it figured out. In college, most individuals are more interested in hanging out with people whose company they enjoy or who share their common interests to worry about labels. Take advantage of this early; don’t be intimidated to attempt to make friends with folks who you find interesting no matter how low or high you were or how low or high you perceive they may have been under the old regime.
    2. Maximize your Math. There seems to be a mini disagreement between the dabblers and the specialize-early crowds. I’m with the dabblers…except with math. Push your math skills to the limit of your abilities. Strong math skills will open up doors. Pretty much all the advanced courses in engineering, the hard sciences, computer science, and to some extent the business and the social sciences (especially economics and finance) require medium to high levels of math. And strong math skills will set you apart. Math can give a leg up for some career opportunities and make you a more interesting candidate for many fields when applying to graduate school.
    3. Take a class in quality class in Philosophy (but don’t major in it…you still have to eat when you graduate). Do this in your freshman year and don’t be too concerned with the particulars of the topic/subject matter of the class. A well designed entry level philosophy class will spend the first few weeks going through basic logic and how to structure and formulate arguments in formalized ways. Then you’ll read up on the subject matter outside of class, and use classroom time to pound away at the topic by using and improving on the skills you learned at the beginning. A quality philosophy class near the beginning of college career can help you learn to read, write, and think in ways that will be beneficial throughout.