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Seeking general undergrad advice

  1. Jun 24, 2015 #1
    Background: Undergraduate majoring in physics to work in research, hopefully in astrophysics or cosmology. 1.5-2 years behind where I should be academically and (if all goes well) about to start courses relevant to major. My questions are these:

    1) How should I study basic mathematics? (Calculus, etc.)

    I have the interest and the aptitude, but I am under-performing and would like to change. Something that happens frequently is that I find the material trivial and studying consequently boring, and then forget crucial parts of what I studied on exams. What are some successful techniques you learned / wish you had known during undergrad?

    2) How should I approach my instructors with questions?

    I've never attended office hours out of paranoia that the instructor will find my questions revealing of bad work ethic/ poor comprehension, and judge my work in that light. Do instructors do this and if so how can I avoid it?

    3) How to get more involved in my program?

    Most general of all of my questions, what can I do, once I'm 300 and 400 level courses, to position myself for opportunities within the department? I have befriended others in it met through STEM clubs, attended talks given by faculty, etc. but I would like to know if there's any critical advice I can make use of.

    Thanks so much!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 24, 2015 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    Have a good work ethic.
  4. Jun 24, 2015 #3
    Do practice problems until you're blue in the face. Don't focus on quantity, though.... focus on quality.

    The only way a question would reveal a bad work ethic is if the question were "Can I have an extension? I forgot the assignment was due." And trust me, as a TA, I get this a lot. On the contrary, questions about material show that you have a good work ethic, and care about learning the material as opposed to just passing the class. Don't just go in with "I don't get this" though, have specific questions. If you are having issues with a particular problem, go in with your work so the professor can point out where you went wrong instead of having to walk through it with you.
    The best thing you can do is not wait until 300 and 400 level courses. Join a research group in your first semester. Join STEM clubs and attend seminars, as you said. But seriously, do research. I never understand why people think they can't get involved until they are an upperclassman.
  5. Jun 24, 2015 #4


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    My technique for this is to just study anyway. But I'm a double major in physics and math, and I never found anything in my calculus courses to be boring. There's no special technique for it in my experience.

    This shouldn't even be a concern. The only stupid question is the one that remains unasked. You are a student, and the instructor is there to instruct you. You paid for those office hours. If you don't go to them, then that part of your tuition is just being wasted.

    And as Vanadium50 pointed out, the way to avoid looking like you have a bad work ethic is to actually not have a bad work ethic. Given the limited information we have here, it seems like your work ethic could use a bit of work. There will be things in physics research that you'll find boring too. Like plotting endless streams of data and then replotting the data differently, and then taking the difference between those plots...and plotting it again...then taking the data and plotting it as a normal distribution, and then taking that data and fitting it to a Gaussian and....etc. Most people don't 'enjoy' these tedious tasks as such, but they come with the territory. It's part of the bigger picture and it's absolutely crucial.

    One of the best ways to get involved in research and things like that is to get to know professors. If they recognize your face or your name, your chances of getting involved in their research increase quite a bit. One way to make sure that they recognize you is by going to office hours.
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