Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Advising, advising, advising

Posted by Arjendu on February 19, 2008

This is advising week — because of travel plans later this week, it is advising 1/2 week for me, so there is a flood of students in here walking in and out. As with everything else I do at Carleton (perhaps grading excepted), I value these conversations, and enjoy them — but the number can get a little overwhelming.

I taught a Cross-Cultural Studies Seminar last term, and incoming students often get assigned to Profs from their first term seminar. So for a change I have many kids with interests clearly on the other side of campus. Not that all my advisees land up in the sciences typically, but since I’ve usually met them through a physics course, I know they aren’t antipathetic to science. Not this year!

Some conversations with first-years are interesting, about why one might choose an Asian Studies major, for example, and how to make choices within the broad range that Carleton offers, with the minimal constraints it imposes.

There’s one student who wants to spend a long time away from campus, and I’ve asked him to convince me that he can do this by mapping out a course of study over the next few years. I tell him that he can argue all he likes that it should be possible to do this, but one example, which would take him a couple of hours at most, would make me happy, and constitute empirical proof that it is possible to do the major he wants even with all that time away from Carleton. It would make sure that there are no ‘oops’-es to address later. But there’s something about this exercise that he simply doesn’t want to do — not a particularly empirical thinker, perhaps?

Sophomores are facing a more dramatic moment: Choosing a major. For them, the world is seemingly narrowing suddenly and I see some students thrash around at this point of decision. How does one choose with confidence that one path through life and expect it to bring happiness? How can one minimize regret? I look back on my choices, and boy did I make it early. I knew when I was a very young kid that I wanted to be a physicist, and the way the Indian system works, my early choice committed me kind of definitively. Given that I hung out with economists all my college life, I am sure I would’ve landed up drifting towards economics if it hadn’t been for that early commitment. Some of my sophomores are still drifting, but most are trying to choose carefully between related fields, or trying to figure out how to double-major, and so on. These conversations end on a slightly nostalgic note, since this is our last advising meeting. After this, they get advisers in their major.

Talking to the seniors, some of their excitement rubs off — they’re getting the grad school acceptances back and the future looks so inviting. There’s a certain amount of reeling back in shock, I have to say, at the fellowships schools are offering nowadays ($25K, wow!) and I am thrilled for them. But they do have to choose. Somewhere in the mists of memory is lost a description of the feeling of choosing a grad adviser at the end of your first year. As a a physicist, one minute you had all the options in the Universe, literally — from studying the cosmos to studying tiny particles, to everything in between. The next, you have committed to one area, and a few months later, to one problem, and very soon after that, you have an incredibly narrow focus. You are the only person in the world who knows your particular research problem as well as you do, and cares about that minus sign with the same intensity that you do.

Boy these kids have a lot of trust in me, asking me to hold their hands through some of this process! The trick of advising, or choosing in general is, as I said in an earlier post, the dichotomy between global statistics and individual chaos: We can reason statistically, make educated guesses about what’s typical or not, but to know what the future will be like for the one contingent case about which we care (that is, ourselves) is impossible. You never can tell the consequences of your choices. And if you did, it would be boring.

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