What Academic Advice Would You Tell Your 18 Year Old Self?

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We asked our PF Advisors to tell us what academic advice would you tell your 18 year old self. Here are their responses…

Talk to your advisor. Talk to your advisor a lot. Especially if you’re at a large school, there’s a fair chance that your advisor won’t even be aware of your existence otherwise.


Follow your heart! I did it too and it turned out right.


If you want to be a physicist, to learn the fundamentals well, and that includes calculus and differential equations, and Fourier transforms and linear response theory. In addition, be sure in get a good background in vector calculus and work very hard in studying the electricity and magnetism. And try to get the A’s in the classes, but more importantly than good test scores is that you understand the material. And try to learn the material well enough that you can repeat most of the derivations without a textbook.

Charles LinkProfile

“Be rigorously neat in your math homework. Use ruled paper and keep columns aligned. ”

Reason – In college, my calculus was good but i made so many mistakes in algebra and arithmetic due to sloppy writing habits that i became frustrated and disillusioned with higher math.
Differential equations i loved because they related so well to what one sees every day life but vector calculus was beyond me. I disdained it as illusory mathematical-tap-dancing so never progressed beyond “Diffy-Q” .
So i’m academically hobbled.

When i get to the point i can no longer physically get around it is my goal to go back and master Maxwell’s equations..
Life’s flotsam gets in the way – last week i learned out of necessity how to make those double-flare tube connections for car brakes. You just have to be rigorously neat .
Maybe i’m finally mature enough for high math.

Jim HardyProfile

In high school, I was strictly focused in starting my college career as a mathematics student. However, due to a number of circumstances, I entered college in engineering (chemical), and have never looked back. My high school courses in science subjects such as Chemistry and Physics really turned me off. I was unaware that the coverage of these same title subjects (curriculum) in college would be so different and so fascinating. I found that they tied in so perfectly with my interest in mathematics, and the combination would carry me through a wonderful and interesting career. So I guess my advice to myself as an 18 year old would be to embrace engineering and not be soured by the poor presentation of the sciences in your high school courses. The complementary synergism between the science and the math will make for a fascinating future.


1) Don’t be too much impressed by smart people having a big mouth. Most of them are just as insecure as your are (or psychopaths).

2) Smartness is often overrated. Discipline and curiosity are just as important.


I would tell him to go for what he really loves to study and do well. Nowadays, several “fashionable” things and jobs tend to dominate good portions of the market but it’s best to do what you’re good at and love it than to put half-hearted efforts into just hunting more money.


Firstly, I would tell my younger self, that I shouldn’t be blinded by the fact that I ended up in a STEM field. It is far more of a language, then one might think. I don’t mean the many technical terms and definitions, I mean the slang in which each specific group of scientists communicate. E.g. if someone says “bounded operator” then there are at once many hidden co-notations: Hilbert spaces, continuity, operator norm etc. One must learn which facts belong to specific terms even if not mentioned, i.e. how the language is used. And physicists have a different slang than mathematicians.

Secondly, I would ask myself, whether my goal will finally be an academic career or an economic career. In either case time in which one gets finished counts: In an academic career many opportunities aren’t open to older persons anymore, and on the job market it is generally true: the younger the better. But the focus is a different one. In the first case of an academic career the study should be as broad as possible. You’re expected to have fundamental knowledge in every field and excellent knowledge in your specific field of competence. In the case of an economic career, the specific contents are far less important, the degree itself counts. Chose the one which gets you finished fastest. This might also depend on specific professors, so ask older students about them. Numeric algorithms or classical physics might be boring but possibly quicker than algebraic topology or quantum field theory.


Find some place away from your home to study and do homework. There are a thousand distractions around your home, ranging from TV to computers to your own family members. You can’t handle them so don’t even try. Just go somewhere like a library or empty classroom on campus every day until your work is done.


0. Don’t assume that, just because you sailed through high school you’ll automatically sail through university without seriously upgraded time and effort. Tertiary education realities can devour you all too easily.

1. Persevere with honors level pure maths. Don’t fall back to the pass-level class because it’s easier, or because pure math is just tedious, pedantic, frustrating and boring.

2. If you find yourself falling asleep in lectures, change your diet and/or get other medical advice. Related: avoid eating in lectures or shortly before. See postprandial somnolence.

3. Do ALL of the exercises specified in lectures, prescribed textbooks, etc, even if you’re not getting formal credit for them. That’s the only way to find out (before your exams) if you genuinely understand the course material.

4. Don’t get absorbed in endless time wasters like Dungeons & Dragons, nor any of the modern addictive online games. It will not end well for your final year results. Try to maintain participation in at least one energetic physical sport or activity (that you actually like, even if you’re very good at it).

5. Be more conscientious in achieving good results for ALL the courses in your curriculum, not just the ones you find especially interesting.

6. (Postgrad studies:) Listen to your supervisor! Try to do what he/she suggests. Don’t branch out on your own private line of research (at least, not yet).


When I was 18, I was accepted to Harvard from a small high school in Tennessee, and I did poorly for quite a while and essentially gave up for a while until I flunked out and then returned and eventually learned the ropes. Much later I read an article by Uri Treisman on why some racial minorities at Berkeley failed out of calculus there, and found it was due to not knowing how to study at a competitive school. It seems that his results would have applied to me as well. I.e. my take on it today is that those of us who prepared at inferior schools, but achieved high success, arrive at college thinking we are better than other students and have to do everything on our own. Hence we dismiss the assistance of other students as well as the assistance of college provided services. When Treisman gathered his previously unsuccessful students into groups who worked together and worked on all the hardest problems, they began to excel. The same thing worked for me at Harvard; when I began to study with other students and accepted that I had much to gain from that, I began to succeed. So that would be roughly my advice to my 18 year old self: be modest and open, work with others and accept that you have much to learn from them, try the hardest problems but share the load, and just keep working.


A lot of people head for college with only a vague idea of what they might do for a living. There is nothing wrong with that. College gives you a chance to sample many different subjects, find some that you are interested in, and make some decisions about which ones to pursue. Taking advantage of that opportunity will open up a lot possibilities – maybe some that you didn’t know existed. Once you do find a field you like, look for opportunities to get experience in it and jump on them. Find people in that field and ask them questions about it. How did they get to where they are? How do they spend their days? What do they wish they had known sooner? It is usually easy to get people to talk about themselves and give advice. (The hard part is getting them to stop.) This will help you find out if you are on the right track.


For me being 18 was 45 years ago and the world has changed massively since then – what I would tell my 18 year self now and way back then are entirely different. I will stick with now. An 18 year old now will not have a job for life like when I was 18. They will expect to have something like 5-6 career changes during their working life. I would tell myself – forget being this lazy good for nothing – which I was back then, and knuckle down and do some work otherwise you will be behind the 8 ball big time. I would go to university and actually do an arts degree – here you can do arts and take pretty much what you like – but you need a major – I would major in math – its pretty much central to everything and will get you into a Masters in most things – eg engineering, physics, actuarial science, the hot area right now – big data, computer science – all the predicted jobs of the future. Then after sampling a few things in what I studied ie some physics, stats, finance etc I will look into the job market. Right now Big Data is really hot here in Aus – so I would do a Masters in that. But I will not expect it to last forever – I would expect to do another Masters in say about 10 years – maybe 3-4 in total throughout my working life.

  • Be disciplined about your sleep habits and make sure you get good, regular sleep.
  • Eat properly — lots of real fruits and vegetables, avoid junk.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Make conscious decisions about the people you socialize with. Spend the most time with those who have similar goals and who are on track with meeting them, avoid the negative ones.
  • Spend time with people who are smarter than you.
  • Be constructive with your down time. You need down time – make sure you fit it in, but manage it. Spend more time writing, reading, playing sports, less time as a couch potato or aimlessly surfing the internet.
  • Make the time to read up on the things that interest you, not just what is assigned to you.
  • Explore little side projects. Write computer code. Build little electronic devices.
  • Seek help when you can’t solve a problem after you’ve really struggled with it.
    There’s no award for the ‘Most Independent Student.’
  • Your major does not define who you are.
  • Your school does not define who you are.
  • You choose who you are and this is not a single bit choice, but a never-ending series of small decisions.
  • You have permission to do well. Avoid negative self-talk.
  • There’s no single optimal path in your education and career. Life has many choices and many of them are actually on par with each other.

Don’t eat the big mint…[sign in high school restroom]. Lecture notes prevent narcolepsy [written on the whiteboard in PHY 101].


As much as STEM courses are important in your life, make sure you take other subjects too. Writing and history are just as important when you get out into the real world. Being well read can be the difference between getting that dream job and not even getting an interview.

Dr TransportProfile

I would tell myself that maintaining a work-life balance is essential, to work hard and play hard.

Andy ResnickProfile

If you obtain a position where you can both teach and do research, don’t downplay the research and make sure to publish. I made this mistake and as a result, I no longer uphold an academic position.


Thanks to all the PF Advisors that shared their academic advice. We have more questions for them in the near future. Stay tuned for another “Ask the Advisors”!



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