The Well-done Westie’s guide to being an awesome undergrad

Today was ‘info-day‘ at my university, and I spent a couple of hours manning the physics table, answering questions for very recent high school graduates looking to come to our fine institution for their studies. I often do the one we hold in September also. They are always an interesting experience. First there’s always the conflict between what the student wants, or thinks they want, what the parents want, and what they can actually have. Second, there’s always the conflict between what the University wants to market itself as and what the reality of university is. These two conflicts interact, leading to everything from unrealistic expectations to bad life decisions that end in fall-outs with parents and dropping out with a massive HECS debt.

I feel a strong call to be really honest with these kids. So I often like to pepper my formal advice with some informal advice, often with hushed tones of ‘don’t tell anyone I said this, but…’ or ‘what the marketing folks don’t want you to know is…’

After many years, I figure it’s time to share some of this more widely, and I’m going to be just as bluntly honest here too. Much of it comes from my own experience as an undergraduate in a time when kids from my kind of background often didn’t go to university, but is still relevant to many today I’m sure, since I teach kids in first year who clearly don’t know this stuff. So for better or worse (possibly worse if my Dean or Head of School ever sees this 😉 ), here’s my ‘well done westie’ guide to being a totally awesome undergrad.

1. No one gives a rats about you*: “You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else…” I’m going to start with the harshest truth — Your professors still get paid the same whether you pass or fail†. It makes no difference to them. Of course, they’d love you to work hard and pass their course, nothing makes them happier. But if you don’t turn up, don’t work, don’t submit your assessment, flunk the exam, they won’t shed a single tear. Your professors are valued by the system for their research (see #12). Their teaching is secondary and as long as their fail rates aren’t absurdly high (>50%) or there’s massive raucous complaint about them, the failed students matter for naught.

Hell, in the good old days, in some courses, a 50% fail rate was par and too high a pass rate meant too easy a course and ridicule from colleagues. I have fond memories of my first 2nd year higher complex maths tutorial where we were told “This course has a 50% fail rate. Look at the person next to you… one of you will fail this course.” So, accept this as it is and count your blessings for being the students of today…

This is the first major difference to high school and the sooner you realise it the sooner you will succeed. The onus is on you to manage your own learning now, no one is here to hold your hand. It is a great thing because it teaches you independence. It can be dangerous for you because if you don’t, you will waste a lot of time and money on nothing.

Spend time working out how to manage your time effectively, coordinate your assessment tasks so they don’t end up as last minute all-nighters, and teach yourself new things from textbooks, some of which, are almost unintelligible. Learn how to think, reverse engineer, experiment, extrapolate, use logic, argue, write, reason, etc.

2. Cut the umbilical cord: The biggest mistake I see incoming undergraduates make is that they choose their courses or degree because a) their parents made them or b) they think it’ll get them a job. Doing something you don’t like is a guaranteed path to failure, so make sure you are doing the degree/courses because they interest you and no-one but you. Don’t let Aunty X’s comment about ‘you’ll never get a job in Y’ stop you — if you love doing something enough, you will put in the 10,000 hours to be good at it and you will find a way to make a living out of it in the end even if it’s a little bit away from what you first thought it’d be (reality might stop you eventually, but worry about that later, trust me on that).

Personally, I think cutting the umbilical cord should start with info day (i.e., you should come and leave your parents at home). As much as I love meeting your parents and guessing what you’ll look like at 40 or 50, it’s time to start being an adult, making your own decisions and living with them. Going to my own info-days solo was bloody scary but I’m glad my Dad made me do it (including driving solo to ADFA and back more than once at age 18). Still talk to your parents about what you want to do, they need to feel involved in your life, but you make the decisions, ok, it’s your life and you should be living it, not letting them live vicariously through you.

3. Watch for weasel words: Universities are businesses, and in this modern era, they will throw their full marketing arsenal at you. Like any business, they are trying to manipulate you into their custom over the options of their competitors and buying nothing at all. When you are 5, you get sold your McHappy meal with a free toy. When you are 15, you get sold your clothes and stuff by knowing that Kim Kardashian or Kanye West wear them. The key trick the universities use are what I call the ‘weasel words‘. Hey, why get a science degree when you can have an ‘advanced’ science degree? That other university? Well it’s nice, but look at our world-class facilities and exemplary thought-leaders who are the pre-eminent agenda-defining researchers of their generation. Blah blah blah… I’m not a commentator, but welcome to the smoke and mirrors game, kids, you’ll be masters of it by the time you’ve finished your second post-doc, I promise you.

Before you even go near a university, think about what it is that you want to do with your life, what things you want about a university that you won’t budge on, what things you want about a university you will budge on. Work out what really matters to you: for some it’s prestige and ranking, for me it was a mix of quality of education (UNSW beat Macquarie, but also for commute distance) and a good culture that I could see myself fitting into (UNSW beat U. Sydney hands down). Then, and only then, start seeking the right place, and in doing so, always look to cut through the marketing shpiel to the heart of what’s going on. Ask lots of technical questions (‘What makes you the best uni?” is not a technical question, ok, it just demonstrates your lack of imagination), and look for the people who are giving you honest answers about those details (hopefully life and good parents have told you how to pick these people).

When there’s a weasel word attached always ask yourself ‘What’s in it for them and what’s it costing me?’ Sometimes it’s in your favour, fine, go with it, don’t become a cynic (like me). But don’t walk into this blind either. Sometimes it’s stacked to their benefit over yours largely, and you have to spot those situations. Remember, you’re accruing a huge debt for this education, make sure you get what you want and need for it.

4. Stay flexible: I went into first year (via a convoluted route) wanting to do astronomy, by the end of 2nd year I hated it and wanted to do anything but. If this happens, don’t freak out, this is ok and normal. All through your life your interests will change and you will grow as a person — I would be more concerned if it doesn’t happen (if so perhaps you’re destined to be wearing NB 407s in your 40s :P). My advice to any student at info day is to maintain your flexibility in your degree program as much as possible. Delay all decisions that limit flexibility and lock you in as late as you can.

Don’t be afraid to tailor your degree as you go along and don’t feel like you have to plan every course you’re going to do before you start first year, although this can be a good exercise actually, just to get an idea of what is coming and how it makes you feel.

It’s not ok to be fickle and change enrolment every 5 seconds, that’s stupid, but if you get 2 years into a degree and hate it, don’t keep doing it because you feel you now have to. Follow the subjects you love and the professors that inspire you, that’s where the value in your education is. That brings me to…

5. Teaching quality varies, value the good professors: A corollary of professors being valued for their research (see #1) is that some are truly shocking teachers. On the flipside, some are truly fantastic and your time in their class will change your life. The cruel thing is: we get paid the same whether we teach well or teach poorly. Worse, the ones who teach well are often sacrificing a little on their research to do so (see #12), and this can often cost them career-wise. They do this because they care about making a difference for the next generation and you should value it. Put effort into their courses because seeing you succeed is about the only reward they will get from their effort, but it is a reward worth having. They also feed off your enthusiasm — if you are engaged, they will be engaged, the more you put in, the more they put in. There’s nothing more enthusiasm-killing for a lecturer who actually cares than a class full of dead fish.

Note well two things: a) this doesn’t invalidate #1 above at all, ok. Don’t mistake a professor that cares about the whole class for a professor who is willing to spoon feed you specifically. b) Don’t think that ‘good’ equals ‘always nice, easy-going and generous with marks’. Sometimes to be a good teacher you need to be tough on your students, you need to have high standards, expect quality and express disappointment in sub-standard efforts. Much like a good parent, a professor is not there to be your friend. You are paying them to make sure you’re prepared for the workforce.

6. Be willing to get bad marks, take criticism and learn from it: The students I respect the most are the ones who tank an assignment or exam, and rather than come begging/arguing for marks, go ‘it is what it is, what’s the one thing I could have done better that would have made the biggest difference?’ Sometimes you won’t even need to ask this (so don’t, our time is precious — see #12), just work out how to fix it.

The students who excel most at uni are the ones who learn early how to go about improving themselves. I teach 1st year electromagnetism and in my first lecture, I show my first year grades (see below).


Mediocre, huh. Right now, you’re probably thinking: How the hell did that guy get to be a professor? Easy, I worked out how to adapt to university, how to teach myself, how to get good marks in assignments, how to cope with and do well in exams. My marks were much better by the end of 4th year. Every assessment task didn’t end when it was submitted; it was forensically investigated on return to work out how to not make the same mistakes next time. This is the only way to get ahead.

7. Don’t sweat first year: The natural follow up to #6 is to not sweat your first year too much. I hate to say this, but your first year marks will to some extent be a function of your past educational opportunity (note that ‘some extent’ means ‘some’ and ‘not entirely’ ok — you can still influence them with your level of effort, so don’t use this as an excuse to slack off, ever). If you went to a ‘top school’‡, then you will likely be better prepared for uni and first year will be easier. If you didn’t, then you will probably be playing catch-up and your first year marks will suffer accordingly a bit in comparison. Don’t let this fool you into thinking you can’t compete with the better positioned students or get you down — instead use some of your spare time in first year strategically to master the new system you’re in and save your strength for 3rd and 4th year where it really counts. If you can get #6 figured out you’ll gradually catch up the competition, and enjoy watching the filthy looks they give as some ‘rough looking westie kid’ (or you) swoops in and steals what they feel is rightfully theirs. ;P

8. Learn the value of sufficient ‘quality’: Every incoming undergraduate should be forced, at gunpoint if necessary, to read ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance‘ by Robert Pirsig. It is a great book, but what I really value it for is it’s on-going meditation on quality. When you come into uni it’s easy to fall into what I call the ‘correctness fallacy’ — the idea being that as long as the answer is right, it doesn’t matter what it looks like. Students in this trap get to the point of their assessment submissions being some badly scribbled disorganised crap scrawled over some food-stained papers torn from a notebook at the last minute. When they don’t get top marks for this, disappointment and anger follow.

Look, when you buy a car you expect it to drive but you also expect it to look decent. It doesn’t need to be a Ferrari but it can’t be a chassis with a motor and a single seat in it either. If you want good marks, go for something classy, stylish, not too expensive or ostentatious, but with an obvious eye for detail and quality.

Learn how to produce quality quickly, and learn when to stop (80/20 rule).

9. Don’t be a nigel; make friends in higher places: I don’t mean your professors; if they are being true professionals they should be rather aloof until you are a semi-permanent member of their research group (honours min, probably Ph.D.). What I mean here are the students in the year above you, of course! The one blessing I had as an undergrad was that some of the folks in the year above me were great fun to hang out with, more so than my own year with a few notable exceptions. If you hang out with the year above, what you get is a sneak preview of what’s coming in the next year, and you can use this to make really wise decisions about what your next moves are gonna be. Everything from which lecturer sucks/rules to what the ins-and-outs of given courses are can be obtained in this way, and you can use this information to your benefit. Hey, if you have a certain naive Russian physics lecturer, you might even catch them giving the same exam two years in a row, get the paper from last year’s class, spend a few days solving it, and walk into the exam knowing all the answers… 😉

10. Before you enrol in a course, consider who is teaching it: If it’s a core course there may be little you can do to avoid it, but at least you will know that you’ll be teaching it to yourself and to factor the time in for that. Those of you who learned to do this in high school will now have the advantage — this will inevitably be people who didn’t go to a ‘top school’ and therefore sometimes had useless teachers during HSC (see #7).

If it’s an elective, the lecturer sucks, and missing it is not going to be a ‘job-stopper‘ on competency for employment, then skip the course. You can always learn it later independently if you need it (see #6). If it’s an elective that’s kinda interesting and the lecturer is a star, then hey, why the hell not? You might find a new subject to love that you never anticipated, and if not, then at least you’re gonna enjoy the course.

11. This is not the HSC, do the hardest courses you can: One of my colleagues has a great philosophy when it comes to uni students, particularly those doing the sciences (if you didn’t detect the bias towards science, wake up) — don’t respect marks, respect how hard the courses they can pass are. I agree, a credit in 2nd year higher complex maths beats a HD in the normal course. Push yourself to do new things and hard things, it is the best way to learn and broaden your horizons. If you focus on just getting high marks from easy courses, you’re robbing yourself.

When it comes to getting a job, sell the level of the courses and your commitment to pushing yourself by undertaking them. Get an academic to comment on this in your reference letter. I guarantee you, any employer worth their salt will value someone who can demonstrate the ability to push themselves outside their comfort zone even if that compromises their scores a bit over someone who just keeps doing the same easy stuff to get high scores.

12. Don’t forget to have fun: Sometimes you will have to work really hard, the semesters of your honours year are a really good example. Your survival and sanity will depend on your ability to manage time, because this will mean you can still fit the essentials of life in next to getting excellent work done. The essentials are: a) getting enough sleep, b) getting enough exercise, c) having some fun and laughs. Do not compromise on these long term, you will go crazy and destroy yourself. To make c) easier, see #8 and expand to the people in your own year and the people in the year below. Some of my best fun at uni was during the most stressful times, just letting off steam with fellow students.

13. Realise professors are stupidly busy: It might look to you like all we do is stand in front of a lecture theatre for 3 hours a week and then retire to our offices and surf the internet. The reality is quite the opposite. Because we are valued for our research not our teaching (see #1), when we are not teaching we are doing research and it is something that is incredibly time intensive — Essentially we have two jobs, one full-time and another part-time. Most of your professors will instead be closer to insane workaholics than lazy bums. They will have their own priorities, and to close the circle on #1, you are rarely high on that priority list. Respect their time — don’t be afraid to use it when you need it, but be conscious that it’s competing with other things — they will really appreciate it and respect you more in return.

14. You will probably not become a professor: Too many students either come in thinking they’ll become a professor or, by the time they’re done, lack imagination for the job market and decide they’ll become a professor. I can see why, it’s a nice job, has it’s ups and downs sure, but it’s interesting, has lots of travel and pays decently.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but it’s a saturated market. Let’s assume you complete your undergrad and then do a Ph.D. too. After 8 years of uni (minimum) you will be on the track to academia, but it’s a long road from there. When I came in, it was probably 1-in-10 who might get from Ph.D. graduate to permanent academic position that might eventually end up at Prof. At 2016, I would say it’s getting close to 1-in-20 or 1-in-25, and with the rate we’re producing Ph.D. graduates it will soon be 1-in-50 easily.

Just sit down and do this as a Fermi problem, you’ll see what I mean. Don’t let me stop you if you are seriously talented, committed and hard-working — I just want to be honest about what you’re up against. Before you get sold a Ph.D., make sure you’ve thought seriously about whether it’s worth the time, money and heartache for you in the job market you’ll be entering 5 years later. The unis will happily take your money, but is this right for you?

With that I think I’ll stop. Perhaps there’s a volume 2 coming some day. Oh wait, one bonus tip — #15: Don’t be afraid to quietly sneak into the back of a lecture to ‘preview’ a given lecturer unless it’s a tiny class and you’ll obviously be noticed/disruptive (and remembered). It can be a great way to find out what you’re gonna get in future for yourself. If you’re starting as a first year in Session 1, come have a wander around campus before session starts, find your theatres, find where the food is, perhaps even sneak into a summer lecture to find out what it’s like… 😉

Good luck. Happy to take questions in the comments.


* Possible exception is that you are a 99%+ ATAR student in your first year.

†Kudos to Geraint Lewis at U. Sydney who also says this all the time.

‡Probably evident I didn’t go to a ‘top school’. If you did, that’s cool, as a professor I love you as much as the next student and I want you all to succeed to the best of your abilities. My advice to you though is: recognise that you have a starting advantage and that some of your fellow students will use that as motivation to chase you down and beat you. What ever you do, don’t rest on your laurels and get complacent, you will play directly into their hands.





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