Subjectivity in writing and evaluating writing

This essay started its life as an e-mail to a student who wanted to know if all writing was, on some level, “just subjective,” which would imply that grading is bogus and so is much of what we do in English classes. I didn’t have time to offer a nuanced explanation of what makes good writing good, so I wrote to him later that night. He didn’t reply to the e-mail.

I was thinking about our conversation and realized that I have more to say about the issues of subjectivity and skill in writing: as you observed, there’s an element of subjectivity in judging what’s good writing and what isn’t. But it’s also worth noting that dominant opinions change over time—a lot of the writing from the 18th and 19th Century, for example, was considered “good” if it contained long sentences with balanced, nested clauses, and such stylistic preferences are one reason why a lot of contemporary students have trouble reading such material today, because most of us value variety in sentence structure and value less complexity less.

This is normally the place where I could go off on a rant about social media and cell phones and texting speak and how the kids these days are going to hell, but I’ll avoid that because it doesn’t appear true overall and certainly isn’t true regarding writing. The trend, including among professional writers writing for other expert writers, has been towards simpler structures and informality (which may speak about the culture as a whole).

IMG_3049That being said, if you want to write a paper full of long, windy clauses and abstruse classical allusions, I’m not going to stop or penalize you and may even reward you, since few if any students write in such a fashion, and I (like most contemporary people) value novelty. The number of people imitating James Boswell may be too small! As long as the content is strong, I’m willing to roll with somewhat unusual stylistic quirks, and I’m fairly pluralistic in my view of language use.

So how do you, the seeker, figure out what good writing is? You practice, you read, you think about it, you practice some more, like you would if you were learning to play a guitar. You look at how the writing of other people works, or doesn’t. I’ve never heard guitar instructors say that their students say all music is subjective; playing the guitar appears to be transparently hard, in the sense that you know you’re bad at it, in a way that writing isn’t. Still, if you’d like to know a lot more about good writing, take a look at Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s ıHow Fiction Works, and Jan Venolia’s Write Right!

When you’re done with those, move on to B. R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto. When you’re done with that, move on to the New York Times’ series Writers on Writing. Collectively, these books will teach you that every word counts and every word choice says something about the writer and the thing the writer is conveying, or trying to convey. Not only that, but every word changes, slightly, the meaning of every word around it. Good writers learn to automatically, subconsciously ask themselves, “Does this word work? Why? Why not? How should I change it? What am I trying to convey here?”

Eventually, over time, skilled writers and thinkers internalize these and other ideas, and their conscious mind moves to other issues, much like a basketball player’s shot happens via muscle memory after it’s been practiced and tweaked over 100,000 repetitions.

Skilled writers are almost always skilled readers, so they have a fairly large, subconscious stock of built-in phrases, ideas, and concepts. Somewhere along the line I’ve read a fair amount about how athletes practice and how athletes become good (perhaps some of that material came from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience). I know how important practice and repetition are to any skill-based human endeavor. So I combined the idea of skill with writing and skill in basketball, since many students are more familiar with sports than with writing. Where did that analogy come from? I don’t know, exactly, but it’s there now, along with the idea that analogies are good, and explaining what I’m doing is good, and so are many other things.

To return to the athletic analogy, skill in sports also has a subjective element. Is Lebron James now better than Michael Jordan was when Jordan ruled? You can have this argument with morons in bars all day long. I’ve heard it and find it particularly tedious because the outcome is so unimportant. But both players are very clearly good, and at the top of their peers in their respective eras. The comparison at least makes sense.

One could also argue about whether Elmore Leonard or Alain de Botton is the better writer, although I would argue that they’re too different to make that a fruitful comparison; Elmore Leonard would be better matched against someone like Raymond Chandler or Patricia Highsmith. But Leonard and de Botton are both fantastically better writers than most freshmen; for one thing, most freshmen haven’t yet mastered the mechanical parts of writing, like how to use commas consistently and correctly (if they wish to), let alone higher questions about vocabulary, metaphor, and so on.

If you really want to get better, spend a lot of time reading, writing, and thinking about those activities. Then look back at your earlier work and judge its quality for yourself. Few students think the first draft of their first paper is as good as the final draft, and I tend to agree. Few people who consciously work throughout their lives think their work as, say, 20-year-old students is as good as their work at age 30.

With regard to thesis statements, good ones tend to have some aspect of how a text (I hate the term “text,” but it fits here) shows something (“Free-indirect speech in ‘She Wasn’t Soft. . .'”), what a text shows, usually symbolically (“is used to demonstrate how Paula and Jason, despite being a couple, really disdain each other”) and have some larger point to make (“which shows that what people think and how people behave don’t always match”).

That’s not a great thesis statement because I’m doing it quickly and freeform; a better one might say something like, “The use of free-indirect speech in ‘She Wasn’t Soft’ demonstrates that Paula is actually soft, despite her repeated claims to the contrary, and that Jason and Paula’s mutual loathing sustains their relationship, despite what they say.” That’s still not the sort of thesis statement I’d use to write a publishable academic paper, but it’s closer. Many if not most student papers are missing one of those elements. Not every thesis needs all three, but they’re not bad ideas to check for.

Over time and with experience, I’ve developed, and you’ll develop, a fairly good eye for thesis statements. Eventually, when you’re sufficiently practiced, you won’t necessarily use explicit thesis statements—your thesis will be implied in your writing. Neal Stephenson doesn’t really have an explicit thesis statement in “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” although his last line may function as one, and Roland Barthes definitely doesn’t have an explicit one in “The Brain of Einstein.” Thesis statements aren’t necessarily appropriate to all genres, all the time.

When I started teaching, I thought I was going to be a revolutionary and not teach thesis statements at all. I wrote about that experience here. The experiment didn’t work. Most undergrads need thesis statements. So I started teaching them, and student papers got better and more focused, and I’ve been doing so ever since.

Your question or questions are about the inherent challenges of writing, and those don’t have easily summarized answers. The problem also comes from language. Language itself is imprecise, or, alternately, layered with meaning; that’s where so much humor and misunderstanding comes from (and humor could be considered a kind of deliberate misunderstanding). I’ve read about how, when computer scientists tried to start making translation systems and natural-language processing systems, they ran into the ambiguity problem—and that problem still hasn’t been fully solved, as anyone who’s tried to use text-to-speech software, or Google translate, can easily find (I wish I could find any citations or discussions regarding this issue; if you happen to run across any, send them over).

This line of questioning also leads into issues of semiotics—how signs, signaling, and reception function—and the degree of specificity necessary to be good. Trying to specify every part of good writing is like trying to specify every aspect of good writing: you get something like McDonald’s. While McDonald’s does a lot of business, I wouldn’t want to eat there, and it’s pretty obvious that something is lost is the process (Joel Spolsky’s article “Big Macs vs. the Naked Chef” (sfw) also uses McDonald’s as a cautionary tale, this time for software developers; you should definitely read it).

I’m going to interrupt this essay to quote from Joel:

The secret of Big Macs is that they’re not very good, but every one is not very good in exactly the same way. If you’re willing to live with not-very-goodness, you can have a Big Mac with absolutely no chance of being surprised in the slightest.

Bad high school teachers often try to get students to write essays that are not very good in exactly the same way. I’m trying to get students, and myself, to write essays that are good and that a human might want to read. This guarantees that different students will approach the problem space in different ways, some more successfully than others, and different essays are going to be good in different ways. I’m trying to get students to think about the process and, more broadly, to think not just about the solutions, but about the domain; how you conceptualize the problem domain will change what you perceive as the solution. Learning to conceptualize the problem domain is an essential part of the writing process that’s often left out of high school and even college. That being said, if you ever find yourself in front of 20 or 30 novice writers, you’ll quickly see that some are much better than others, even if there’s much wiggle room between a C and C+.

I don’t get the sense that students who are unhappy with their grades are unhappy out of a deeply felt and considered sense of aesthetic disagreement about fundamental literary or philosophical principles. I suspect I feel this way partially because I have a fairly wide or broad sense of “good” writing—or at least writing good enough to get through undergrad English classes, and someone with sufficient sophistication and knowledge to make a good argument about aesthetics or the philosophy of writing would be very unlikely to get a sufficiently low mark to want to argue about it. Rather, I think most students who are unhappy about their grades just want better grades, without doing the thinking and writing necessary to get them.

These issues are compounded by the a meta-issue: many if not most K – 12 English (and other humanities) teachers are bad. And many of them aren’t that smart or knowledgeable (which tends to overlap with “bad”). So a lot of students—especially those on the brighter side—inchoately know that their teachers are bad, and that something stinks, and therefore they conclude that English is bogus anyway, as are related fields. This has a lot of unfortunate consequences on both the individual and societal level; books like C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures are one manifestation of this larger problem.

In general, I’d like for people to try and get along, see each other’s points of view, and be tolerant—not only in fields like religion and politics, but also things like the humanities / sciences, or reason / emotion, or any number of the other possibly false binaries that people love to draw for reasons of convenience.

If you think I’m completely wrong about what makes good writing (and what makes writing good), you have a huge world out there and can judge the reaction to your writing. Twilight and The Da Vinci Code are poorly written novels, yet millions of people have read and enjoyed them—many fewer than have read Straight Man, one of my favorite novels and one that’s vastly better written. Who’s right: the millions of teenage girls who think they’re in love with the stilted, wooden prose that makes up Edward, or me, who sees the humor in a petulant English department? It depends on what you mean by “right.” If I were a literary agent or editor, I would’ve passed on both Twilight and The Da Vinci Code. Definitions of “good” are uncertain, and the ones I embrace and impose on students are worth questioning. If you can at least understand where I’m coming from and why I hold the views I do, however, I’ll consider my work a relative success.

Most people’s conception of “good” differs at different points in their lives; I’m in my 20s and view writing very differently than I did in my teens. I would be surprised if I view writing the same way in my 40s. One major change is that I’ve done so much reading, and probably will do so much reading. Someone who doesn’t read very much, or doesn’t challenge themselves when they do read, may find that their standards don’t change as much either. I could write much more on this point alone, but for the most part you’ll have to trust me: your tastes will probably change.

This email is a long way of saying, “I’m not trying to bullshit you, but the problem domain itself is hard, and that domain is not easy to explain, without even getting into its solution.” The gap between “fact” and “opinion” is blurry, but writers who attend carefully to what another writer says will have more detailed opinions than those who don’t.

The short version of this email is “trust me,” or, alternatively, spend the next ten years of your life pondering and contemplating these issues while reading about them, and then you’ll have a pretty good grasp of what good writing means. Writing is one of these 10,000 hour skills in that it probably takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to get good. Start now and you’ll be better in a couple years.

How not to choose a college: Frank Bruni ignores the really important stuff

Frank Bruni wrote an essay called “How to Choose a College” without mentioning the most important fact about college for the life outcomes of many students: debt. That’s liking writing about the Titanic and ignoring the whole iceberg thing.

In How to Win at the Sport of Business, Mark Cuban writes, “financial debt is the ultimate dream killer. Your first house, car, whatever you might want to buy, is going to be the primary reason you stop looking for what makes you the happiest.” He’s right about debt often being “the ultimate dream killer,” but he should add student loans to his roster of “whatever you might want to buy,” especially because student loans are effectively impossible to discharge through bankruptcy. I don’t think most 18 year olds really understand what tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt will really mean to them five years, ten years, twenty years after they graduate.

To me, the most interesting metric a university could offer these days is the mean, median, and mode debt of students upon graduation.

Money shouldn’t be the only factor in choosing a college, but it should be a major one, unless one has uncommonly wealthy parents.

How to think about science and becoming a scientist

A lot of students want to know whether they should major in the humanities, business, or science, which is a hard choice because most of them have no idea whatsoever about what real science (or being a scientist) is like, and they won’t learn it from introductory lectures and lab classes. So freshmen and sophomores who are picking majors don’t, and can’t, really understand what they’re selecting—or so I’ve been told by a lot of grad students and youngish professors who are scientists.

One former student recently wrote me to say, “I was a biochemistry major with a dream of being a publisher and long story short, I am no longer a biochem major and I am going full force in getting into the publishing field right now” (emphasis added). I discouraged her from going “into” publishing, given that I’m not even convinced there is going to be a conventional publishing industry in five years, and forwarded her e-mail to a friend who was a biochemistry major. My friend’s response started as a letter about how to decide if you want to become a scientist but turned into a meditation on how to face the time in your life when you feel like you have to decide what, if anything, you want to become.

The thing about being “interested” in science is that the undergraduate survey classes rarely confirm if you really are. They’re boring. Rote. Dull. I credit my Bio 101 teacher with making the delicate, complicated mysteries of carbon based life as engaging as listening to my Cousin “M” discuss the subtle differences among protein powder supplements. I spent most of class surfing Wikipedia on my laptop. The next semester I weaseled my way into an advanced cell bio class that was fast and deep and intellectually stimulating, thanks to an eccentric teacher with a keen mind and a weird tendency to act out enzymatic reactions in a sort of bastardized interpretive dance. I dropped Bio 102, which didn’t cripple my ability to keep up with advanced cell bio in any way (showing that survey classes can be unnecessary, boring, and confusing—confusing primarily because they leave out the details that are supposed to be too “advanced” but in fact clarify what the hell is going on), and got an unpaid research position in a faculty lab that eventually turned into a paid gig. By the way: there is significant pressure to dumb survey courses down and virtually no pressure on professors to teach them well; there are still good ones, but don’t let the bad ones dissuade you.

If any field of scientific inquiry interests you, if you have the impulse to ask your own questions and are excited by the idea that you can go find the answers yourself and use what you’ve discovered to tinker and build and ask new questions—which is to say, if you like the idea of research—you’ve got a much better chance of figuring out if you want to be a scientist. How? Go and be one. Or, at least, play at being a scientist by finding a lab that will train you at doing the work until you wake up one day and realize that you are teaching a new undergrad how to program the PCR machine and your input is being used to develop experiments.

I was a biochemistry undergrad major, and I absolutely deplored the labs that were required by classes, but it turned out I loved the actual work of being in a lab. Classes lacked the creativity that makes science so appealing; they feel designed to discourage interest in science. In class, we had 50 minutes to purify a protein and learn to use the mass spectrometer. Big deal. Can I go now? But put me in front of the PCR machine with a purpose? I’d learn how to use it in an afternoon because doing so meant that I was one step closer to solving a problem no one had solved before. You don’t find that kind of motivation in most classrooms. And you don’t need a Ph.D. to contribute to the field. All you need is intellectual appetite. (For an exception to the “class is boring” rule, check out Richard Feynman’s intro to physics lectures.)

So: I didn’t like glossing over information, memorizing for tests, and being told I had till the end of class to identify how many hydrogen ions were in compound X. I wasn’t excited by my major, but I was excited by my subject—and the longer I spent working in a real lab with a professor who saw that I was there every day and willing to learn (he eventually gave me a pet project), the more engaged I became with biochemistry. Sure, the day-to-day involved a lot of pipetting and making nutrient-agar plates to grow bacteria on, but I was working towards something larger than a grade.

I was splicing the DNA of glucose galactose binding protein and green fluorescent protein to try to make a unique gene that could express a protein which fluoresced when binding to glucose. In essence, a protein flare. Then I built it into an e-coli plasmid so it would self-replicate, while a lab in Japan was trying to get the gene expressed into what effectively turned into glow-under-blacklight-just-add-sugarwater mice. The goal was to get the gene expressed in diabetic people who could wear a fluorimeter watch and check how brightly the genetically engineered freckle on their wrist glowed, in lieu of pricking their finger to check their blood glucose.

Do you have any idea how awesome it was to describe my research at parties? I left out the parts where I had to evacuate the whole lab for four hours after accidentally creating a chlorine cloud and especially the parts where I spent an entire day making 250 yeast-agar plates and went home with “nutrient powder” in my hair and lungs. But even with the accidents and drudgery, the bigger goal was motivating. Being part of the real scientific conversation gave my work purpose that a grade did not. I dreamed of building nanobots and splicing the DNA together to build biological machines. It sure as hell beat memorizing the Kreb’s cycle in return for a 4.0 GPA and med school.

That is what I love about science: you get to build something, you get to dream it up and ask questions and see if it works and even if you fail you learn something. What I loved was a long way from the dreary crap that characterizes so many undergrad classes. To be fair, the day-to-day isn’t all that whiz bang, but it’s rarely Dilbert-esque and I really liked the day-to-day challenges. There was something zen about turning on music and pipetting for three hours. That was right for me. It might not be for you; if you’re trying to be a scientist or get a feel for what science is like (more on that below), don’t be afraid to expose yourself to multiple labs if the first doesn’t work out for you.

My own heart will always be that of a splice-n-dicer. I’ll always love fiddling with DNA more than purifying compounds over a bunsen burner. But you don’t know what day-to-day tasks will give you the most pleasure. You don’t yet know that you might find zen at 3 a.m. setting up DNA assays, your mind clear, the fluid motion of your hand pulling you into a state of flow. You find out by doing, and you might be surprised—especially because classes don’t give you a good sense of what the life of a scientist is like. It also doesn’t introduce you to the graduate students, the post-doctorates and the assistant professors who show you what kind of struggle comes from love, which in turn generates internal motivation. It doesn’t take you away from your university into summer programs that show you how amazing it is to be in a lab with real money and the resources to make your crazy ideas possible.

Which brings me to choosing a field: If you like science, but don’t know what kind, pick the most substantive one that interests you, with as much math as you’re willing to handle, and just get started (math is handy because it applies virtually everywhere in the sciences). Chemistry, biochem and biology overlap to such a degree that I was working in a biochem lab on a genetics project with the goal of creating a protein, and biology labs worked with us in tandem. When you get into the real work, the lines between fields blur. You can major in biochem and get a Ph.D. in neuroscience, study organic chemistry and work for a physical chemistry / research firm. Other scientists don’t care about what classes you took or what your degree says—they care about what you know and what you can do and if what you can do can be applied in a useful way. When in doubt, focus on developing technical skills more than the words on your degree.

One summer I applied to the Mayo Clinic Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (something I recommend anyone interested in science do—there are “SURF” programs at almost every major university and research center and they will give you a stipend, housing and exposure to a new lab. It can do amazing things for your CV, your career and your relationship to the larger scientific community. In math and some other fields, your best bet is the NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program). But I didn’t get the job. I had six months in a lab at that point. I had a 3.96 GPA. I had a pretty great “why me” essay. Still, nothing.

A year later I applied again. By that time I’d been in the lab for a year and a half. I knew how to handle most of our major equipment. My CV described the tasks I could perform unsupervised, the problems I tackled by myself, and solutions I’d found. My advisor explained my role and the amount of autonomy I had been given. This time I got the job. When I met with the director of my summer lab in person he made it clear that there were many fine applicants with stellar GPAs. I’d never even worked with radioactive iodine tagged proteins. They picked me because they knew undergrads only had three months to get substantive research done, and they simply didn’t have time to train someone (especially someone who might turn out to lack tenacity). They needed someone who knew how to work in the lab and could adapt quickly. They needed someone who knew how to work the machines my college lab used, and someone who knew how to work with e-coli plasmids. I could do that.

So pick whatever you think you like best, start with that, find a lab, and learn how to be adept at as many basic lab skills as possible. Delve more deeply into the ones associated with your research. Be ready to work when the right opportunity and research lab come along. The new lab will always ask what skills you have and whether they can be applied to the questions their lab is trying to solve, even if you’ve never asked similar questions. A chemistry major could therefore be what a certain biology lab needs at a given time.

A lot of what is frustrating and off-putting about science at first, including working in the research lab, is the same thing that’s frustrating and off-putting about math: to really enter the conversation you have to have the vocabulary, so there’s a lot of memorizing when you start. Which is just obnoxious. But it doesn’t take too long, and if you start interning in a lab early, then the memorizing feels justifiable and pertinent, even if you feel initially more frustrated at a) not knowing the information and b) not knowing how to apply it. If you don’t get into a lab, however, it’s just hard and pointlessly so (even though it isn’t).

(Virtually all fields have this learning curve, whether you realize it or not; one of Jake’s pet books is Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, which describes how people move from no knowledge to shallow knowledge to deep knowledge. It’s bewildering and disorienting to start with no knowledge on a subject, but you have to endure and transcend that state if you’re going to move to deep knowledge. He says that he’s climbed that mountain with regard to writing, which makes writing way more rewarding than it used to be.)

Once you have the language and are able to think about, say, protein folding, the way you would a paragraph of prose, or the rhythm in a popular song, science takes on a whole new life, like Frankenstein’s Monster but without the self-loathing or murder. You start to think about what questions you can ask, what you can build, and what you can do—as opposed to what you can regurgitate. The questions you pose to people in your lab will lead to larger conversations. Feeling like an insider is nice, not only because it’s nice to belong, but because you’ll realize that even being a small part of the conversation means you’re still part of the larger discussion.

Science is exciting, but not until you find a way to break through the barriers and into the real thing, so don’t give up prematurely. Like most things, however, your experience depends on whether you have or make the right opportunities. I went to medical school after a grad school detour. How I feel about that decision is an entirely different essay, and one I’ll post later. I ended up specializing in Emergency Medicine because I had enthusiastic ER docs teaching me. Before residency, I thought I’d do anesthesia, but the profs were boring and it seemed like awful work. I’m on a fabulous anesthesia rotation right now, the medical equivalent of a Riviera cruise, and am thinking, “Hey! Maybe I should have done this.” Same with rehab medicine. It’s a perfect fit for me, but I had two boring weeks of it in a non-representative place and so wasn’t about to sign myself over to a whole career without having any more to base my opinion on.

Some days I think that if I’d had a different lab, which exposed me to different things, if my Mayo summer had given me different connections, I would be pipetting merrily away at Cold Spring Harbor research center, building a nanobot that would deliver the next big cancer treatment on a cellular level. Or maybe I would be a disgruntled post-doc, wishing that I could finally have a lab of my own. Or working for Pfizer. Anything could have changed my path. And just because you choose to study something you love doesn’t mean you’ll succeed.

But not choosing to study something you love is even worse. Point is, most choices in life are luck and chance, but you shouldn’t discard viable options—especially ones in science—based on a couple of survey courses designed to move the meat. Universities do view freshmen as piggybanks whose tuition dollars fund professors’ salaries and research, which is why they cram 1,000 of you into lecture halls and deliver an industrial-grade product that’s every bit as pleasant as industrial-grade mystery meat. Unfortunately, those classes are often the only real way to know if you like something and to be exposed to it unless you seek out more real-world representative opportunities. Most universities won’t go out of their way to shunt you into those opportunities. You have to want them and seek them out. So if you think you like biology? Or physics? Read The Elegant Universe**. The greatest show on earth. The history of the polio vaccine. See if it stirs you.

That being said, if you don’t like science, you don’t like it; I’m just warning you that what you think you don’t like might simply be due to not quite knowing enough or having negative exposures. Still, you can have all the best intentions, follow my advice, find a great lab, try out different opportunities if the first or second don’t work out, and decide it’s just not for you. You probably can’t force it to be your passion, but you probably also underestimate the extent to which you, like most people, have a range of possible passions. I only caution you to make sure that you aren’t basing your choice on one bad class or a crappy lab advisor. This is good advice in any field.

Here’s an example of possible premature optimization: I received an email from Jake’s former student, saying she was thinking about being a judge as a “backup,” in case a career in publishing didn’t work out. Being a judge, that’s a life goal. A big one. And law does not make good on its promise of a comfortable income the way it once did. For more on that, see the article “A Case of Supply v. Demand: Law schools are manufacturing more lawyers than America needs, and law students aren’t happy about it,” which points out that there are too many certified and credentialed “lawyers” for the amount of legal work available. Plus, while society needs a certain number of lawyers to function well, too many lawyers leads to diminishing returns as lawyers waste time ginning up work by suing each other over trivialities or chasing ambulances.

By contrast, an excess of scientists and engineers means more people who will build the stuff that lawyers then litigate over. Scientists and engineers expand the size of the economic pie; lawyers mostly work to divide it up differently. Whenever possible, work to be a person who creates things, instead of a person who tries to take stuff created by someone else. There is an effectively infinite amount of work in science because the universe is big and we don’t really understand it and we probably never will.* New answers to questions in science yields more questions. More lawsuits launched by lawyers just yields fighting over scraps.

Another personal example: I wasn’t just queen of the lab nerds. Sure, I tie-dyed my lab coat and dated a man who liked to hear me read aloud from organic chemistry textbook, but I also wanted to write: not academic papers and book chapters, but novels and essays. I’d always been dual-minded and never bought the “Two Cultures” idea one scientific and one humanistic, described in C.P. Snow’s eponymous book. This bifurcation is, to speak bluntly, bullshit. As a kid I spent as much time trying to win the science fair as I did submitting poetry to Highlights. May 1994’s Grumpy Dog issue was my first publication. You may have read it and enjoyed the story of “Sarah, the new puppy.” Or, you may not have been born yet. That was me as a kid. As an adult, I’m not confined to science either—and neither is any other scientist.

I imagine many of you reading this post who are struggling with whether or not to be a scientist are, fundamentally, not struggling with what you want to major in, but what you want to be and how your decisions in college influence your options. Many of you are likely creatively-minded, as scientific types often are, despite how “poindexter” characters are portrayed in popular T.V. Staying close to your passions outside the test tube gives you the creative spark that makes your scientific thinking unique and fresh. So you don’t have to pick science and say, “That’s it, I’m a scientist and only a scientist.” You become a scientist and say: Now what do I want to build/ask/figure out?

Jake again:

So what should you do now to get into science? Here’s a list that I, Jake Seliger the non-scientist, wrote, based on the experiences described by friends in the sciences:

0) Look for profs in your department. Look for ones who are doing research in an area in or adjacent to what you might be interested in doing.

1) Read a couple of their recent papers. You probably won’t understand them fully, but you should try to at least get a vague sense of what they’re doing. You may want to prepare a couple of questions you can ask in advance; some profs will try to weed out people who are merely firing off random e-mails or appearing in the office hours to beg.

2) Look for a website related to their lab or work, and try to get a sense of whether you might be interested in their work. Chances are you won’t be able to tell in advance. You should also figure out who their grad students are—most science profs will have somewhere between one and dozens of students working under them.

3) Go meet with said prof (or grad students) and say, “I’m interested in X, I’ve read papers W, Y, and Z, and I’d like to work in your lab.” Volunteer, since you probably won’t get paid at first.

4) They might say no. It’s probably not personal (rejection is rarely personal in dating, either, but it takes many people years or decades to figure this out). If the prof says no, go work on the grad students some, or generally make yourself a pest.

5) Try other labs.

6) Don’t give up. This is a persistent theme in this essay for good reason.

7) Keep reading papers in the area you’re interested in, even if you don’t understand them. Papers aren’t a substitute for research, but you’ll at least show that you’re interested and learn some of the lingo. Don’t underestimate the value of knowing a field’s jargon. Knowing the jargon can also be satisfying in its own right.

8) Take a computer science course or, even better, computer science courses. Almost all science labs have programming tasks no one wants to do, and your willingness to do scutwork will make you much more valuable. Simple but tedious programming tasks are the modern lab equivalent of sweeping the floor.

If you don’t have bench research experience, you probably won’t get into grad school, or into a good grad school. You might have to pay for an MA or something like that to get in, which is bad. If you’re thinking about grad school, read Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas as soon as possible. See also Penelope Trunk’s Don’t Try to Dodge the Recession with Grad School and Philip Greenspun’s Women in Science. Ignore the questionable gender comments Greenspun makes and attend to his discussion of what grad school in the sciences is like, especially this, his main point: “Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States.”

Another: Alex Tabarrok points out in his book Launching The Innovation Renaissance: A New Path to Bring Smart Ideas to Market Fast that we appear to have too few people working in technical fields and too many majoring in business and dubious arts majors (notice that he doesn’t deal with graduate school, which is where he diverges from Greenspun). In his blog post “College has been oversold,” Tabarrok points out that student participation in fields that pay well and are likely “to create the kinds of innovations that drive economic growth” is flat. On an anecdotal level, virtually everyone I know who majored in the hard sciences and engineering is employed. Many of those who, like me, majored in English, aren’t.

According to a study discussed in the New York Times, people apparently leave engineering because it’s hard: “The typical engineering major today spends 18.5 hours per week studying. The typical social sciences major, by contrast, spends about 14.6 hours.” And:

So maybe students intending to major in STEM fields are changing their minds because those curriculums require more work, or because they’re scared off by the lower grades, or a combination of the two. Either way, it’s sort of discouraging when you consider that these requirements are intimidating enough to persuade students to forgo the additional earnings they are likely to get as engineers.

There’s another way to read these findings, though. Perhaps the higher wages earned by engineers reflect not only what they learn but also which students are likely to choose those majors in the first place and stay with them.

Don’t be scared by low grades. Yes, it’s discouraging to take classes where the exam average is 60, but keep taking them anyway. Low grades might be an indication that the field is more intellectually honest than one with easy, high grades.

In the process of writing and editing this essay, the usual panoply of articles is about topics like “science majors are more likely to get jobs” have been published. You’ve probably read these articles. They’re mostly correct. The smattering linked to here are just ones that happened to catch my attention.

Science grads may not get jobs just because science inherently makes you more employable—it may be that more tenacious, hard-working, and thus employable people are inclined to major in the sciences. But that means you should want to signal that you’re one of them. And healthier countries in general tend to focus on science, respect science, and product scientists; hence the story about the opposite in “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science.”

If you’re leaving science because the intro courses are too hard and your friends majoring in business are having more fun at parties, you’re probably doing yourself a tremendous disservice that you won’t even realize until years later. If you’re leaving science because of a genuine, passionate interest in some other field, you might have a better reason, but it still seems like you’d be better off double majoring or minoring in that other field.

My friend again, adding to what I said above:

As someone who was going to do the science PhD thing before deciding on medical school I agree with most of what Jake says. Let me emphasize: you will have to volunteer at first because you don’t have the skills to be hired in a lab for a job that will teach you something. Being hired without previous experience usually means the job doesn’t require the skills you want to learn, and so you won’t learn them. So you don’t want that job.

I had a paying job in a lab, so you can get them eventually—but I only started getting paid after I’d worked in it for a year, even then the pay was more like a nice boost because the money just happened to show up and they thought, “What the heck, she’s been helpful.” Think of this time as paying your way into graduate school, because if you don’t have lab work, despite how good your grades are, you will not get into a good graduate school with funding.

Here’s why: You have a limited amount of time in graduate school and are not just there to do independent research and learn. You’re there to do research with the department, and they need you to start immediately. If you already have years of bench research experience, the departments and the professors in that department know you can—and there is no substitute for experience.

The place where you really learn how to work in a lab and develop your skills is in one, not in the lab classes where you learn, at best, some rote things (plus, you need to know if you like the basic, day-to-day experience of working in a lab and the kind of culture you’ll find yourself in; not everyone does). Even if you do learn the tools you need for a certain lab, it doesn’t demonstrate that you’re actually interested in research.

The only thing that demonstrates an interest in research, which is all graduate school really cares about, is working in a lab and doing real research. I can’t stress that enough, which is why I’ve repeated it several times in this paragraph. A 4.0 means you can study. It doesn’t mean you can do research. People on grad school committees get an endless number of recommendation letters that say, “This candidate did well in class and got an ‘A.'” Those count for almost nothing. People on grad school committees want letters that say, “This candidate did X, Y, and Z in my lab.”

I recommend starting with your professors—the ones whose classes you’ve liked and who know you from office hours. Hit them up first. Tell them your goal is to be a scientist and that, while academics are nice, you want to start being a scientist now. If they don’t have space for you, tell them to point you in the direction of someone who does. Keep an open mind. Ask everybody. I was interested in nanobots, gene work, molecular what-nots, etc.

I started by asking my orgo [“organic chemistry” to laymen] teacher. Nothing. I asked my Biochem [“biological chemistry” or “biochemistry”] professor and was welcomed with open arms. Point is, if the labs you want have no space, go to another. Don’t give up. Be relentlessly resourceful. Be tenacious—and these aren’t qualities uniquely useful to scientists.

The skills I ended up with in the biochem lab turned out to be almost 100% on point with what I wanted to do later, even though the research was different. The kind of research you end up doing usually springs from the lab skills you have, and it’s much harder to decide what you want and try to find a lab that will give you those skills. So instead of trying to anticipate what research you’ll want to do from a position where you can’t know, just learn some research skills. Any skills are better than none. Then you have something to offer the lab you want when space / funding becomes available. I took what I learned in that biochem lab and spent a summer doing research on protein folding—it wasn’t like my initial research, but the prof needed someone who knew how to do X, Y and Z, which I did, and he was willing to train me on the rest.

You’ll face other decisions. For example, in many fields you’ll have to decide: do you want wet-lab research (this does not refer to adult entertainment) or do you want more clinical research? “Wet lab” means that you’re mucking with chemicals, or big machines, and stuff like. Clinical research means you’re dealing more with humans, or asking people questions, or something along those lines. I would suggest the wet lab if you think you may be even slightly interested (sort of like how you should experiment with lovers when you’re in college if you think you’re even slightly interested in different sorts of things). In fact, I’d suggest wet-lab work or some sort of computational lab in general, because clinical research skills can be extrapolated from wet lab—but not vice versa.

You can show that you can think if you’re in a clinical lab, but in a wet-lab you need to be able to think and use a pipette. Or that you can use modeling software, if you’re interested in the computer side of things. That’s where the programming comes in handy if you’re capable of doing it; if not, then I feel less strongly than Jake about programming, because often labs need someone with serious computer training, like a post doc, if their research revolves around modeling. But it could come in handy for you, anyway, and certainly couldn’t hurt, so if you’re interested it could be an extra perk.

Once you’re in the lab, if you want to learn skills outside what you’re working with. Ask. Ask everyone. Ask the computer guy, ask the woman on the other project. Get whatever you can get get good at it, then put it on you C.V. and make sure you can explain it clearly when someone asks, even if you’re not an expert, just be able to play on on T.V.

As for #3, about figuring out who their grad students are: I also find that less important. You need to talk to the primary investigator, the guy who runs the lab. If he’s not interested in you, it’s not worth going through grad student channels to convince him to take you. Someone is going to want you, and it’s best to go there in both science and love. Don’t fall for the false lead of the pretty girl in the alluring dress who disappears as soon as you get close. You can always try alternate channels later if you really want to get back into lab #1.

Think of it this way: if you’re struggling just to get a foot in the door, you’re going to struggle to get any research done. Not that the research will feel meaningful at first: you’ll be doing tasks assigned to you. But you should feel like this gets better, that you get more independence. And if that’s the not the ethos of the lab to start with, it never will be. As I mentioned before, if I’d gotten into that orgo lab, I’d have been a scut monkey for years.

As Jake said: read your professors’ papers. You probably won’t have any idea what’s going on. I still have no idea what’s going on half the time, but read ’em anyway. Shows you’re worth the effort, especially when you ask for that lab spot. Jake’s 100% right about ways to get your professors attention.

Don’t give up. Just don’t give up. Take “no” for an answer and kiss grad school (at least a good PhD program with full funding, which is what you want: don’t pay for this under any circumstances) goodbye. Scientists are distinguished by their tenacity, whether they’re in grad school or not. And make sure you know what you’re giving up before you do.

What kind of research are you interested in? What gets you going? Even if you’re not sure there are a certain number of fundamental things that, I believe, if you’re familiar with, will get you into whatever lab you want because they are used in most labs and shows you’re trainable for the other stuff. And you’ll know what science is like, which you simply don’t right now. Giving up on it based on some bad grades as a freshman or sophomore is folly.***

* One snarky but accurate commenter said, “There may be an infinite amount of work in science, but there is a finite (and very unevenly distributed) number of grants.

** Although a different friend observed, “Books are a step above classes, but in my experience, many aspiring theoretical physicists are really people who like reading popular science books more than they like doing math.”

*** You can download this essay as a .pdf.

The meanest thing I’ve ever said

Someone asked, and I thought about it for a while: what makes a comment really mean? Context counts: strangers can say cruel stuff that should roll off, because you can’t take everything said by a random asshole seriously—especially on the Internet. Accuracy should count too: people who say mean but obviously false things can be laughed off, so mean things probably need to have enough truth to sting; they could be untrue but the sort of thing you’re worried about being true. Especially from people who know you well. Power dynamics might count too: a nasty comment from a boss or advisor might count for more than one from a peer.

With those parameters in mind, when I was an undergrad I was hanging out a party and this girl who was, uh, not conventionally attractive, began doing a mock strip-tease (I think / hope it was “mock,” anyway). One or two guys offered her dollar bills, and then she came over to me, and I said, extremely loudly, that I’d only pay her to keep her clothes on. The other guys laughed, but she looked like I’d just murdered her puppy.

I was mostly being funny. But women are used to being pursued and having sexual power over men; when they don’t, and when they have their lack of sexual power pointed directly observed, they become extremely upset in a way that I suspect most guys are used to (this is part of Norah Vincent’s point in the fourth chapter of Self-Made Man). This was around the same time I realized that being inured to a woman’s attractiveness yields the paradoxical-seeming result of being more successful with women. And I was realizing how many women are susceptible to status plays in sexual marketplace value, especially if they’re worried that theirs is low. An astonishing large number are. The mean thing is using this kind of status play on someone who isn’t conventionally attractive.

The meanest thing I've ever said

Someone asked, and I thought about it for a while: what makes a comment really mean? Context counts: strangers can say cruel stuff that should roll off, because you can’t take everything said by a random asshole seriously—especially on the Internet. Accuracy should count too: people who say mean but obviously false things can be laughed off, so mean things probably need to have enough truth to sting; they could be untrue but the sort of thing you’re worried about being true. Especially from people who know you well. Power dynamics might count too: a nasty comment from a boss or advisor might count for more than one from a peer.

With those parameters in mind, when I was an undergrad I was hanging out a party and this girl who was, uh, not conventionally attractive, began doing a mock strip-tease (I think / hope it was “mock,” anyway). One or two guys offered her dollar bills, and then she came over to me, and I said, extremely loudly, that I’d only pay her to keep her clothes on. The other guys laughed, but she looked like I’d just murdered her puppy.

I was mostly being funny. But women are used to being pursued and having sexual power over men; when they don’t, and when they have their lack of sexual power pointed directly observed, they become extremely upset in a way that I suspect most guys are used to (this is part of Norah Vincent’s point in the fourth chapter of Self-Made Man). This was around the same time I realized that being inured to a woman’s attractiveness yields the paradoxical-seeming result of being more successful with women. And I was realizing how many women are susceptible to status plays in sexual marketplace value, especially if they’re worried that theirs is low. An astonishing large number are. The mean thing is using this kind of status play on someone who isn’t conventionally attractive.

How Universities Work, or: What I Wish I’d Known Freshman Year: A Guide to American University Life for the Uninitiated

Note that you can also read this essay as a .pdf.


Fellow graduate students sometimes express shock at how little many undergraduates know about the structure and purpose of universities. It’s not astonishing to me: I didn’t understand the basic facts of academic life or the hierarchies and incentives universities present to faculty and students when I walked into Clark University at age 18. I learned most of what’s expressed here through osmosis, implication, inference, discussion with professors, and random reading over seven years.

Although most of it seems obvious now, as a freshman I was like a medieval peasant who conceived of the earth as the center of the universe; Copernicus’ heliocentric[1] revolution hadn’t reached me, and the much more accurate view of the universe discovered by later thinkers wasn’t even a glimmer to me. Consequently, I’m writing this document to explain, as clearly and concisely as I can, how universities work and how you, a freshman or sophomore, can thrive in them.

The biggest difference between a university and a high school is that universities are designed to create new knowledge, while high schools are designed to disseminate existing knowledge. That means universities give you far greater autonomy and in turn expect far more from you in terms of intellectual curiosity, personal interest, and maturity.

Universities are also supposed to help students help themselves. That is, you, the student, are or should be most responsible for your own learning.


This section might make your eyes glaze over, but it’s important for understanding how universities work. If you’re a freshman in college, you’ve probably just received your high school diploma. Congratulations: you’re now probably working toward your B.A. (bachelor of arts) or B.S. (bachelor of science), which will probably take four years. If you earn that, you’ll have received your undergraduate degree.

From your B.A./B.S., if you wish to, you’ll be able to go on to professional degrees like law (J.D.), medicine (M.D.), or business (M.B.A.), or to further academic degrees, which usually come in the form of an M.A., or Master’s Degree. An M.A. usually takes one to two years after a B.A. After or concurrently with an M.A., one can pursue a Ph.D., or Doctor of Philosophy degree, which usually takes four to ten years after a B.A.

The M.A. and Ph.D. are known as research degrees, meaning that they are conferred for performing original research on a specific topic (remember: universities exist to create new knowledge). Professional degrees are designed to give their holder the knowledge necessary to be a professional: a lawyer, a doctor, or a business administrator.

Many if not most people who earn Ph.D.s ultimately hope to become a professor, as described in the next section. The goal of someone earning a Ph.D. is essentially to become the foremost expert in a particular and narrow subject.

Professors, Adjuncts, and Graduate Students

There are two to three main groups—one could even call them species—you’ll interact with in a university: professors, adjunct professors, and graduate students.

Professors almost always have a Ph.D. Many will have written important books and articles in their field of expertise. They can be divided into two important classes: those with tenure—a word you’ll increasingly hear as you move through the university system—and those without. “Tenure,” as defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary that comes with Mac OS X 10.6, is “guaranteed permanent employment, esp. as a teacher or professor, after a probationary period.” It means that the university can’t fire the professor, who in turn has proven him or herself through the publication of those aforementioned books and papers along with a commitment to teaching. This professor will probably spend her career at the university she’s presently at.

Those without tenure but hoping to achieve it are on the “tenure track,” which means that, sometime between three and six years after they’re hired, a committee composed of their peers in the department will, along with university administrators and others, decide whether to offer tenure. Many professors on the tenure track are working feverishly on books and articles meant for publication. Without those publications, they will be denied tenure and fired from their position.

Adjuncts, sometimes called adjunct professors, usually have at least an M.A. and often have a Ph.D. They do not have tenure and are not on the “tenure track” that could lead to tenure. They usually teach more classes than tenured or tenure-track professors, and they also have less job security. Usually, but not always, adjuncts teach lower-level classes. They are not expected to do  research as a condition of staying at the university.

Graduate Students (like me, as of this writing) have earned a B.A. or equivalent and are working towards either an M.A. or a Ph.D. From the time they begin, most graduate students will spend another two to eight years in school. They take a set number of small, advanced classes followed by tests and/or the writing of a dissertation, which is an article- or book-length project designed to show mastery in their field.

Many—also like me—teach or help teach classes as part of their contract with the university. In my case, I teach two classes most semesters, usually consisting of English 101, 102, or 109 for the University of Arizona. As such, I take and teach classes. In  return, the university doesn’t charge me tuition and pays me a small stipend. Most graduate students who teach you ultimately want to become professors. To get a job as a professor, they need to show excellence in research—usually by writing articles and/or books—as well as in teaching.

For all three groups, much of their professional lives revolve around tenure, which brings additional job security, income, and prestige.

Two Masters

Most graduate students and non-tenured professors serve two masters: teaching and research. As an undergraduate, you primarily see their teaching side, and your instructors might seem like another version of high school teachers. For some if not most instructors, however, teaching is not their primary duty and interest; rather, they primarily want to conduct original research, which usually takes the form of writing articles (also sometimes called “papers”) and books. The papers you are assigned for many classes are supposed to help you prepare for more advanced writing and research.

Graduate students and professors feel constant tension between their teaching and their research / writing responsibilities. Good ones try to balance the two. For most graduate students and professors, however, published research leads to career advancement, better jobs, and, ultimately, tenure.

Many of your instructors will have stronger incentives to work on research than teaching. This doesn’t mean they will shirk teaching, but many do. Some teach creatively and diligently, as they should. But it’s nonetheless wise to understand the two masters most of your instructors face; they are usually rewarded much more for research than teaching.

In graduate school multiple professors told me to minimize my time spent teaching and maximize my time spent researching. This isn’t unusual advice. Grad students and non-tenured professors are often explicitly told not to waste time on teaching, since that doesn’t lead to advancement, and often imbibe a cultural atmosphere that denigrates teaching. This is important if you’re wondering why your professors seem distracted or uninterested in the classroom. Professors are often incentivized not to focus on teaching. Professional academics understand these facts well, but they’re surprisingly poorly understood by everyone else:

There is only one problem with telling students to seek out good teaching in college. They’re going to have some trouble finding it, because academic institutions usually don’t care about it. Oh, they’ll tell you otherwise, in their promotional material. But I advise you to be skeptical. The profession’s whole incentive structure is biased against teaching, and the more prestigious the school, the stronger the bias is likely to be. (Deresiewicz 180-1)

I personally think teaching is of great importance and that schools ought to reward teaching, but “what I personally think” and “what is true” are different in this situation.

Interacting with Professors, Adjuncts, and Graduate Students

To earn tenure (or work towards a PhD, or earning tenure), many professors and grad students spend long periods of time intensely studying a subject, most often but not exclusively through reading. They expect you to read the assigned material and have some background in reading more generally; if you don’t, expect a difficult time in universities.

Professors and other instructors have devoted or are devoting much of their lives to their subjects. As you might imagine, having someone say that they find a subject boring, worthless, or irrelevant often irritates professors, since if professors found their subject boring, worthless, or irrelevant, they wouldn’t have spent or be planning to spend their lives studying it.

Most make their subject their lives and vice-versa. They could in theory earn more money in other professions but choose not to pursue those professions, but they are often excited by knowledge itself and want to find others who share that excitement. If you say or imply their classes are worthless, you’ve said or implied that their entire lives are worthless. Most people do not like to think that their lives are worthless.

Professors can sometimes seem aloof or demanding. This is partially due to the demands placed on them (see “Two Masters,” above). Being aloof or demanding doesn’t mean a professor doesn’t like you. Most professors are interested in their students to the extent that students are interested in the subject being taught. Engaged professors often try to stir students’ interest in a subject, but actively hostile/ uninterested students will often find their instructors uninterested in them. Motivated and interested students often inspire the same in their professors.[2] It’s a virtuous cycle.

To be sure, there are exceptions: some professors will be hostile or uninterested regardless of how much effort a student shows, and some will be martyrs who try to reach even the most distant, disgruntled student. But most professors are in the middle, looking for students who are engaged and focusing on those students.

Nearly all your instructors have passed through the trials and tests they’re giving you: if they hadn’t done so, and excelled, they wouldn’t be teaching you. Thus, few are impressed when you allocate time poorly, try to cram before tests, appear hungover in class, and show up late to or miss class repeatedly. On the other hand, many will cut slack for diligent students who show promise.

One reason professors don’t think much of student excuses is because many students have different priorities than professors. As undergraduates, most professors were part of the “academic culture” on campus, to use Murray Sperber’s term (5); in contrast, many undergraduates are part of the collegiate (interested in the Greek system, parties, and football games) or vocational (interested in job training) cultures. The academic culture, according to Sperber, “[has a] minimal understanding of, and sympathy for, the majority of their undergraduate students” (7) at big public schools.

I think Sperber is too harsh, but the principle is accurate: if you aren’t in school to learn and develop your intellect—and most students in most schools aren’t, as Sperber shows—you probably won’t understand your professors and their motivations. But they will understand yours. Academics are a disproportionately small percentage of the student population at most schools but an extraordinary large proportion of grad students and professors.

Another book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, describes how many universities have evolved two or more tracks, but those tracks are mostly concealed from the students. One track is primarily academic, with hard, usually technical, majors that are highly demanding and that usually lead to developing important skills. The other track is primarily social and leaves students with fewer skills but lots of time to party. The latter track works reasonably well, or is at least not catastrophic, for students from wealthy and/or well-connected families that can get intellectually weak, low-skill students jobs upon graduation—even graduation with a dubious degree and four years of intense partying. The party/social track doesn’t work well for students with poorer or disconnected families. The more time I spend in the system the more apparent the two tracks become—and the more I wish students were explicitly told about them.

Requirements for Undergraduates

You can only graduate from a university if you pick a major and fulfill its requirements. Clark called its undergraduate requirements “Perspectives,” while the University of Arizona calls them “Gen Eds” or “General Education Requirements.” There is no way to avoid filling requirements, and most requirements demand that you spend a certain amount of time with your rear end in a seat at a certain number of classes. Fulfill as many requirements as possible as soon as you realize those requirements exist, assuming you want to graduate on time.

You’ll often be assigned an “academic advisor,” whose job it is to help keep you on track to graduate and to help you pick courses. Don’t be afraid of this person: he or she will often help you or point you to people who can help you. At bigger schools, your advisor will often seem harried or uninterested, but even if that person is, remember that he or she is still a valuable resource. And if you can’t get help from your counselor, find the requirements of potential majors or all majors and work toward checking them off, because you won’t be able to get out of them.

As an undergrad, I tried and found that there is virtually no negotiating with requirements, even if some are or seem silly. For example, Clark required that students take “science perspective.” In studying my schedule and options, I figured that astronomy was the easiest way out. Considering how useless astronomy looked, I decided to petition the Dean of Students to be excused from it so I could take better classes, arguing that I’d taken real science classes in high school and that I could be more productively engaged elsewhere. The answer came quickly: “no.”

Astronomy, as it was taught to me, consisted of tasks like memorizing the lengths of planets from the sun, what the Kuiper Belt is[3], and the like. Tests asked things like the size of each planet—in other words, to regurgitate facts that one can find in two seconds on Google, which is how I found out what the Kuiper Belt is again. The professor teaching it no longer appeared to have a firm grasp of his mental faculties; I think he was in his 80s. At least it was relatively easy: the only worse thing would’ve been having to take, say, chemistry, or a real science class.

That astronomy class was probably the most useless I took, and Clark’s tuition at that time was something like $22,000. I received a scholarship toward tuition, room, and board, so my tuition was probably closer to $16,000, or $8,000 per semester. Undergrads took four classes, so the useless astronomy class cost around $2,000. Would I have rather taken another English class, or computer science class, or a myriad of other subjects? You bet. But I couldn’t, and if I didn’t take some kind of science class, I wouldn’t have been able to graduate, no matter the uselessness of the class.

What should I major in?

I have a theory that virtually everything you learn in universities (and maybe life) is the substance or application of two (or three, depending on how you wish to count) abilities: math and reading/writing. Regardless of what you major in, work on building those two skills.

In the liberal arts, that most often means philosophy, English, and history; other majors vary by university, but those requiring a lot of reading and writing are almost always better than those that don’t. In the hard sciences and economics you’ll be left to develop your reading and writing skills on your own. And this does apply to you, whether you realize it or not. As software company founder and rich guy Joel Spolsky wrote:

Even on the small scale, when you look at any programming organization, the programmers with the most power and influence are the ones who can write and speak in English clearly, convincingly, and comfortably. Also it helps to be tall, but you can’t do anything about that.

The difference between a tolerable programmer and a great programmer is not how many programming languages  they know, and it’s not whether they prefer Python or Java. It’s whether they can communicate their ideas. By persuading other people, they get leverage.

So if you want leverage, learn how to write. And if liberal arts majors don’t want to be bamboozled by statistics, they better learn some math.

In short, I have no idea what you should major in. But you probably shouldn’t major in business, communication, sociology, or criminal justice, all of which are worthy subjects that, for most undergraduates, are sufficiently watered down that you’re unlikely to challenge yourself much. Odds are that you’ll even make more money as a philosophy major than a business management major (“Salary Increase by Major”).

Paul Graham wrote:

Thomas Huxley said “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” Most universities aim at this ideal.

But what’s everything? To me it means, all that people learn in the course of working honestly on hard problems. All such work tends to be related, in that ideas and techniques from one field can often be transplanted successfully to others. Even others that seem quite distant. For example, I write essays the same way I write software: I sit down and blow out a lame version 1 as fast as I can type, then spend several weeks rewriting it.

The reality is that your specific major probably doesn’t matter nearly as much as your tenacity, ability to learn, and the consistent application of that ability to learn to specific problems. One way  people—friends, employers, graduate schools, colleagues, etc.—measure this is by measuring the way you speak and write, which together are a proxy for how much and how deeply you’ve read.

A great deal of college is about teaching you how to learn, and reading is probably the fastest way to learn. Once you’ve mastered the art of reading, you’ll be set for life, provided you keep exercising the skills you develop at a university. Keep that in mind as you search for majors: those that assign more reading, more writing, and more math are probably more worthwhile than those that  don’t.

Many people have many opinions about what you should major in, and most of them are probably wrong. This one included. As I said previously, it probably doesn’t matter in the long run, so don’t worry much about what to major in—worry about finding something you’re passionate about and something you love. In Prelude to Mathematics, W.W. Sawyer wrote: “An activity engaged in purely for its consequences, without any pleasure for the activity itself, is likely to be poorly executed” (16 – 17). If possible, find something to major in which you enjoy for itself, or which you can learn to enjoy for itself.

Regardless of what you major in, let me reiterate something I wrote in the introduction: you are or should be most responsible for your own learning. This is true not only in school but in your entire life. You will get some bad teachers, some bad bosses, some bad clients, and some bad situations in your life. Nonetheless it is your responsibility to keep learning, to overcome obstacles, and to help yourself.

Students often want to be spoon-fed everything, but that’s not how the world works. People generally pay other people to solve their problems. Your goal is to develop the skills it takes to solve the problems other people have, so that they pay you. Let’s look at some professions and how, in an ideal world, each profession solves a problem:

  • Cop: Solves the need for public safety.
  • Scientist: Solves the need for learning how things actually work, and, tangentially to that, how to turn ideas and facts into products.
  • Petroleum Engineer: Solves the need for energy, which people require to get from point A to B via car, plane, or train, and for electricity.
  • Teacher: Solves the need for education, and helps turn economically useless children into productive adults (Senior).
  • Social Media Analyst: Solves the need to advertise through numerous electronic platforms.

You can occasionally find situations in which it’s possible to get paid without solving someone’s problem, but they’re rare. There are also important jobs that are nonetheless illegal but can be analyzed through the same method as the bullet above (for example, prostitutes solve the need for sex, and drug dealers solve the need for different experiences). People on the cutting edge of technology and social change often solve needs for themselves—Mark Zuckerberg needed a way to communicate with others online before most people really noticed that need.

Your teachers and professors, including me, are often not that good at identifying such needs.

Finally, note that you often can’t predict what will be useful and what won’t be. It’s also possible that the people designing your curriculum know more about the subject than you do.

How do I get an A?

One thing you shouldn’t do is say that all you want to do is get an A: as stated above, most professors are completely and utterly invested in their subject. When you ask how you get an “A,” they’re likely to be annoyed because you’re indicating you don’t care about learning, which is the best way to earn an A. Instead, you care about the badge. It’s like asking how you become poet laureate, as Ebenezer Cooke does in The Sot-Weed Factor: the question itself is wrong, because the right question is how you become a poet, and the laureateship will follow (Barth 73). If you ask professors how to get an A, they’ll also tell you what you already know: work hard at the class, show up, read the book(s) and related materials, form study groups, etc.

Another grad student in English said that she’s almost relieved when students say they just want to get an A, because it means she doesn’t have to worry about them or their grade. Paradoxically, when you say that you just want an A/B/C, you lower the probability that you’ll actually get it.

To get that A/B/C, demonstrate that you’re interested in the material, do all the reading, and show up to class every day. Go to the professor’s office hours to ask intelligent questions—like whether you’re on the right track regarding a paper—or what you could’ve done better on a quiz. By doing so, you’re showing that you’re interested in doing better, rather than saying you are. Novelists have a saying: “show, don’t tell,” which means that you should show what a character is thinking and why they are acting in a certain way rather than telling the reader. Readers are smart and will figure it out for themselves. Your professors will be able to figure out in a million ways whether you’re interested in a subject, and when you ask how you get an A, they’ll know you aren’t.

Oh, and don’t fear the library—it’s the big place with the books. If you conduct research with books, your professors will be impressed. And learn to use the online journals. If you don’t know what this  means, ask a librarian, who will assist you. They very seldom bite and are there to help, and most schools also conduct library help sessions at the beginning of each year. Indeed, almost everyone at a university is there to help you learn; you just need to a) want to learn and b) ask. Many students never get to point a, and of those who do, more should get to point b.


I wrote this now because I’m old enough to, I think, have some perspective on universities while still being young enough to remember the shock and bewilderment of the first semester of my freshman year. This document reflects my academic training and preoccupation: it contains allusions and references to other work and is structured in such a way that you can skip easily from section to section. As a trade-off for its detail, however, weaker or uninterested students might lose interest in it before they come to the end, which is unfortunate because it describes the world they will largely be inhabiting for somewhere between one week and six if not more years.

Anecdotes from my own academic experience are included because discovering facts about the incentives in university life didn’t occur all at once for me. No one gave me a document like this; I was expected to either already know or understand most of what you just read, and as a result, I spent years drawing a mental map of universities. The professors and graduate students had spent long enough in the university atmosphere that they knew how universities were structured with the thoroughness you know your native language. I’ve written this in the hope that it will better explain to you (in the plural sense) what I’ve explained to many individuals.

My natural impetus is to remember when I have to repeat the same things over and over again, consider how I might convey all the things I’ve said to a large number of people, and then write those things down so that they might be read, which is a vastly more efficient information transfer mechanism than speech. Nonetheless, I realize that this document and my explanations are probably not perfect, so if you’ve read this to the best of your ability and still have questions, don’t be afraid to ask them. One thing universities should inculcate is inquisitiveness, and I hope I do so as a teacher and as a person.

Notice that this document has a version number in the upper-right corner: as time goes on and I receive questions or comments, I’ll probably change this document to reflect new concerns. When you ask questions, you’re not only helping yourself discover something: you’re helping the person you’re asking better understand the subject at hand and the nature of what they’re trying to say. By asking me questions about this document, you might help me ultimately improve it, and ultimately help those who read it in the future. If there is one cultural advantage universities should impart more than any other, it is the ability to ask questions about even the most fundamental things; confusion and uncertainty are often the sources of new knowledge.

As Paul Krugman, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize for Economics, said of his own research (which led him to the prize):

The models I wrote down that winter and spring were incomplete, if one demanded of them that they specify exactly who produced what. And yet they told meaningful stories. It took me a long time to express clearly what I was doing, but eventually I realized that one way to deal with a difficult problem is to change the question — in particular by shifting levels.

He also has a section called “question the question,” in which he recursively asks himself whether the question he has asked is the right one. For him, as for many people, questions are at the center of the learning universe, and if you learn to ask them promiscuously and then seek the answers, whether from me, your other professors, or from books, you’ll be better equipped to find the answers, do well in college, and do well in life. One challenge is often learning enough to be able to formulate the right questions, and with this in mind, I hope you know how to ask important questions about the institution you’re attending.

As noted previously, you can also download this essay in .pdf form.

Works Cited [4]

Barth, John. The Sot-Weed Factor. New York: Anchor Books, 1987.

Graham, Paul. “Undergraduation.” Personal website. March 2005. Accessed 7 December 2008. <;

Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Free Press, 2014.

Krugman, Paul. “How I Work.” Personal website. Accessed 11 November 2008. <;

“Salary Increase by Major.” The Wall Street Journal. Undated. Accessed 7 December 2008. <;

Sawyer, W.W. Prelude to Mathematics. New York: Dover Publications, 1982.

Sperber, Murray. Beer and Circus: How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.

Spolsky, Joel. “Advice for Computer Science College Students.” Personal website. 2 January 2005. Accessed 7 December 2008. <;

“tenure.” The New Oxford American Dictionary. 2010. Mac OS X 10.6 Operating System.

[1] One useful study tip: if you read or hear a word you don’t know, look it up. You’ll expand your vocabulary and, concomitantly, the range of your thinking.

[2] In the hard sciences, for example, it’s often wise to ask professors if you can join their research labs, where you’ll gain valuable experience and make important connections. But most undergraduates don’t seem to realize that the first thing they have to do is ask. The second thing they need to do is show their professors that they won’t be a waste of time.

[3] A bunch of rocks near Neptune’s orbit, for those of you wondering.

[4] Writers include works cited pages so others can draw on the sources used to construct an argument. Contrary to popular belief among freshmen, they’re not just pointless hoops teachers set up, and they become progressively more important as you matriculate.

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