Rahul Simha
Professor of Computer Science


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There are two types of advice that I think are useful. The first kind has to do with academic logistics and answers questions about curricula, registration, which electives to pick and so on. You already have an advisor assigned for his purpose.

Therefore, I will stick to the second kind of advice: the how-to-live advice that isn't officially provided by anyone on campus. Below is a list of things to think about; stop by if you want to follow up on any.

  • Learn effective time-management. If I had to make a list of reasons why students fail or get bogged down, poor time management would be at the top of the list. Initially, this is understandable - you come from a highly structured environment (high-school, helicopter parents) to one in which you are the only one dealing with the onslaught of course requirements, extra-curricular activities, social pressures and the like. At times, it seems impossible, and sleepless nights appear to be the norm. However, this need not be the case: with effective time management, you can succeed not only in your courses, but also thrive in your other activities. The essence of time-managment is to plan ahead, to reduce hours frittered away on irrelevant stuff (can you do with fewer hours online?), and to be regular in your schedule. For example, try not to come tired to class - your attention will be weak, which will mean spending that time again to re-learn.

  • Take up a challenging long-term project. There's only so much you'll get out of courses. In a university where you have so much opportunity to work on a mentored research project, it would be a shame not to avail of this opportunity. Start early, possibly in the summer before the junior year. Find a professor willing to supervise a project and dive in, expecting to spend approximately two years on the project. A deep, challenging research-project experience will give you the benefit of learning how to integrate what you've learned in courses, will teach you to learn material by yourself, will help you stand out, and is often just plain fun.

  • Practice reflection. How often do you sit down in a quiet space and reflect? Reflection is actually an effective time-management and "focus" technique. All you have to do is spend a few minutes each day, and an occasional hour a week. Think about what you are doing (which courses, which major, what is your life plan) and why you are doing it. You don't have to have ready answers each time, but the practice builds over time and helps you get focused.

  • Don't blow off writing. Most science and engineering students think of writing as a hurdle to get over and forget. They think ... I'm not going to be a writer, so why bother? Nothing could be further from the truth. The older you get, the more you will write and the more strong writing skills will help you advance your career. Often, writing proposals (usually short white papers) is how you convince others of your ideas. Writing has one other very useful purpose - it helps you think. This seems strange, but it's true. Writing your ideas down helps clarify and crystallize your thoughts. So, take your writing courses seriously - this will pay off many years from now.

  • Learn as much theory/math as you can. It's well-known that the best time to learn a new language is when you are a kid. It gets progressively harder, if not impossible, with age. Something similar holds true for math and theory. If you avoid hard math now, it's highly unlikely you'll get back to it later. This is the time to take the challenge and build a skill that can last a lifetime in almost any discipline, but particularly so in engineering and the sciences.

  • Repeat a key course if needed. Repeating a course is often equated with the F-word: failure. But in many cases, it's not a bad idea. In fact, repeating material, even by taking a closely-related courses, is a great way to revisit and think through an important body of material. We are culturally conditioned to think that repetition is "bad", or a sign of weakness. But, in fact, that's how our brain is wired to learn. After all, repetition is the key to how we acquire language, how we learn a musical instrument. So, why shouldn't we repeat a body of intellectual material? We professors know that the best way to learn something is to teach it - a form of repetition.

  • Read deeply, not browsily. The kind of lazy, idle reading when browsing online is to be avoided. In fact, why not avoid it altogether during busy times? Instead, spend time reading a few good books that might change your life.

  • Experience another culture. If you can, study abroad. If not, try to work a semester abroad after graduation. There is just no other way to get this kind of valuable, horizon-broadening, life-lasting experience.

  • Slow down, if needed. Ever feel overwhelmed? You might be able to get through short bursts of intense busyness by sucking it up and working harder. But sometimes this feeling can last longer and lead to feeling unmotivated and without purpose. Talk to a counselor or advisor. It may be that you need to slow down, take a semester off. Better to be focused in school than to trudge through without learning.

  • Build a social network. Maybe nobody's told you this yet, but social life after school can be difficult to grow. You could be in a new city, with few friends and caught in a lonely life that revolves between your office cubicle and one-bedroom studio. It seems all too easy in college to make friends and always have something to do, and indeed it is. But it's different in the outside world - just ask your friends who've graduated. College is an ideal place to build social networks. But this takes some effort beyond a breezy, casual attitude. Social networks built now last a lifetime.