AAPT.org - American Association of Physics Teachers

A letter to newbie nerds

Advice on how to get the most out of your college years.

By Alaina G. Levine

Dear Freshman Nerd,

So it's your first day as a STEM major. You’ve already learned where your classrooms are located, how to access the campus Wi-Fi hot spots, and the schedule of all the upcoming cosplay opps on campus. You’ve hit the big time: You are officially a college nerd.

Now it’s time to get serious. No more solitary, mindless, binge-watching The Big Bang Theory. If you do partake of the show, you will do so in the company of other nerds to leverage both the networking opportunity and the chance to collaboratively identify the real science conference posters positioned in the background of the set (by a real physics professor!) No more spending all your time contemplating the unified field theory and quantum computers. No more pondering the possibility that the Higgs boson created a black hole that “the government” is keeping secret.

The best part of college is just like the best part of the Borg: being assimilated by a collective of bright minds who, like you, consider science to be brain chocolate. Even though I went to college in ancient times, I still remember the joy of being around so many other nerds who were mission-driven and excited about the pursuit of knowledge.

Although things have changed since I was a first year student (for example, the advent of Facebook and electricity), some things remain constant. If you want to improve your skills, learn new fields, develop relationships with peers and mentors, and fulfill your own potential for personal success, check out these tips and remember that, for the most part, just as with the Borg, resistance is futile.

Pursue an undergraduate research opportunity ASAP
Don't think that you have nothing to offer, or that the professors don't want to work with first-years. They know you are green, but they also know you are greedy – to learn, to contribute to the subject, and to feel like the scientist or engineer you are destined to be. Do not be afraid to approach your profs about research opportunities for credit, pay, or volunteer status. Most major universities have some sort of formal research program in place for undergraduates.

For example, many US academic institutions participate in the NASA Space Grant Internship program, which gives interested students research opportunities in any space science-related field on campus, including cosmology, aeronautical engineering, planetary science, electrical engineering, science journalism, outreach, and physics.

At my alma mater, the University of Arizona (UA), there is also a special program for students interested in biological research. It pays students to work in labs across campus and at the medical school, and even has a related fund that sends students abroad to collaborate in research groups at universities outside the US. As a student I was also able to participate in a formal undergraduate research program, in which I proposed original research to be completed under a mentor in that field.

Check out your college dean’s office, honors college, and even the career services center for info about research opportunities. Even if your campus doesn't have a formal program, muster the courage to meet with a professor and ask if there is a path to learn more about their research and to work for her or him. Believe me, they’ll be impressed that a first year took such initiative. That’s how I got my first research job!

Get to know your department and help them get to know you
Meet with your department head, volunteer to do outreach, and get involved in the student club associated with your major or area of interest. For instance, I served as Treasurer of the UA Astronomy Club and volunteered for the Society of Physics Students in my first year. These clubs help you get to know your peers and the culture of the department that will be your home for the next few years. And the group leaders, faculty advisors, upper-division students, and graduate students should get to know you and your work ethic, enthusiasm, and desire to serve your discipline.

These interactions go a long way in establishing your brand (promise of value) to the right decision-makers in the department and can give you access to hidden opportunities, such as research projects, upper-division classes (that are normally not open to first years), and even pockets of money, which you can use later to attend conferences. Furthermore, if you ever have a problem, you’ll already know who to go to and how they might be able to assist you.

Form study groups early on
The homework is going to be hard (much harder than you expected), so these groups will be your lifeline. They will not only assist you (and vice versa) in solving problems, but also keep you sane and remind you why, when you feel like banging your head against the wall because your EM homework is especially difficult, you declared physics as your major in the first place: it’s a banging good time!

Find the quiet spots on campus
There are nooks and crannies on every campus that only nerds seek out. Become a campus geographer and find those treasured, sequestered locations for when you need to study for your tests or pull out your hair.

At UA, there was a tree that I fell in love with. It was gorgeous and shady, with gnarled branches that reminded me of a topology problem. Most importantly, I could often commandeer a nearby table and bench for homework. I also sought out private rooms in the library where I could openly discuss matrix theory with myself, since I liked to think out loud.

Don't (only) take classes where you know you’ll get an easy A
To maintain your nerdiness and to improve your chances of fulfilling your dream of becoming a scientist or engineer, you must challenge yourself. You are at university not for the grades, but rather to learn information, techniques, tools, and strategies.

One of my favorite undergraduate experiences is when I got a B on my abstract algebra final. I studied for three days straight. I knew that material backward, forward, and through whatever wormhole I could potentially access. But I made a stupid mistake on the test, focusing on X instead of Y, despite the cautioning of my instincts. I wasn't surprised when I discovered that I had gotten the lower grade, but I honestly didn't care because I had such a great time studying for the exam and I knew that I knew that material.

I was proud of the achievement of developing my understanding, and even though I erred on the test, I recognized the essence of my blunder. The level of expertise that I gained in the course and from studying for the final stayed with me for a long, long time, and that feeling of having access to this knowledge was worth more to me than an easy A that I could have gotten if I had taken a different class.

Find and stick with good teachers
If you find that you have a good rapport with a teacher in your department, stick with her, no matter what she teaches. I learned that lesson from my mother, who, as a student in English literature, would enroll in any class her excellent professors were teaching.

A great teacher is hard to find and when you do discover one, register for multiple classes with them, if possible (so long as you are still taking advantage of all of the talents your department has to offer). Good teachers will appreciate your dedication and enthusiasm. You may ultimately craft a mentor-protégé relationship with them that lasts a lifetime.

Start arming yourself for further opportunities
Whether you want to study abroad, attend the NASA Academy, go to graduate school or pursue a career outside of academia, you'll need credentials. All the opportunities that you pursue as an undergrad will lead to greater, more exciting, more pleasurable opportunities. But you have to start thinking about these things early so you can plan for them.

Make time in your first two years to visit your study abroad office, for example, if you want to pursue opportunities outside your home country. Troll the scholarships website. Many universities have offices dedicated to aiding students in applying for elite scholarships and fellowships, such as the Fulbright, Goldwater, Truman, and Rhodes Fellowships. Introduce yourself there, and learn what types of prestigious opportunities are available to you, so you can start preparing for them down the road.

Think strategically about activities outside class
It’s easy to lose steam while studying STEM, so it’s critical for you to create balance with outside activities that allow you to gain inspiration from new sources, nourish your soul and recharge your batteries.

So whether you are a musician or an athlete or a nerdlete (with an interest in activities such as cosplay, or communal Doctor Who marathons) do pursue other interests. Your campus is full of clubs to join. Early in the fall semester, many universities host club fairs where you can learn about the different organizations on campus.

Participating in these other opportunities will also give you opportunities to meet non-STEM students, with whom you can form friendships, and also generate ideas as to how to approach your STEM problems. A diversity of inspiration sources will serve you well your entire life, so start crafting these important relationships now.

Take writing classes

Classes in English literature and composition are invaluable. Don’t eschew them even if you’ve met your college’s entrance requirements and don’t have to take them. You will be able to improve your writing and other critical communications skills, and, since literary references and elements are everywhere, it will make you a better citizen of the world. Science can sometimes seem Draconian , but reading and writing about the Great Works opens your horizons and makes STEM more understandable and even more exciting.

Don’t forget to have fun!
You chose STEM, and this is fantastic, because STEM fields are inherently fun. You are, after all, discovering how nature works and perhaps even changing the course of nature with new scientific applications and engineering innovations. So even though you will encounter challenging outside forces, such as bad professors or heavy workloads, and these may cause you to question why you’re majoring in a subject that most people can’t spell, let alone comprehend, always remember why you selected STEM: You are smart and you enjoy solving hard problems. This is fun for you.

So enjoy being a nerd inductee into your particular institution. I am thrilled for you, and I can’t wait to hear of your next adventures.

Best wishes,

Alaina

PS: For all you seniors who are about to leave the university and embark on an even bigger quest, stay tuned. I have a column for you, chock full of brilliant wisdom, ideas, and Star Trek jokes. Kapla!

PSS: Join me for a free webinar designed for you! Network Yourself to a Great Career will take place on 1 October 2014. To watch the webinar, click here.

Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. Networking for Nerds, her new book on networking strategies for scientists and engineers, will be published by Wiley early next year. She can be reached through her website or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine.