When I had started my undergraduate studies in Israel, I was 17 years of age and had little to no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Surely, most 17 year olds are in the same position; and yet, one is expected to declare an academic concentration at around that same age.
Thirteen years later, I know that my initial academic concentration could have little to do with my job choice — I started out in computer sciences, then moved to neuroscience and am now a filmmaker (who makes films about science…). I have come to look at the academic experience as a safe platform to learn about the world and not necessarily the place where all the decisions about your future will be made.
How does one prepare for such a place? How can we make sure that we make the most out of university?
My answer to these questions, as is my answer to most big questions, is do some research. You think you want to study physics? Why? Being good at physics in secondary school or even sixth form doesn’t necessarily mean you’d want to dedicate yourself to it at university, let alone spend the rest of your life practicing physics research. It’s important, therefore, to understand what you can expect from your physics degree: what kind of lifestyle do physics students have at the universities to which you’re applying? What kind of problems do they solve? What kinds of jobs do they get when they graduate?
Some of these questions could be mitigated by a Google search, but that alone will seldom help you make an informed decision. The most important part of research, I have found, is reaching out to people. Indeed, each university has an entire team dedicated to answering prospective students’ questions; they’re called the admissions office, and they get paid to help you understand what your university experience might be like. I suggest emailing them, calling them or even scheduling a meeting if you can make the trip. In exchange, you’ll probably improve your overall chances of admission; there’s nothing admissions officer like better than a student who’s keen and proactive.
Beyond the admissions department, universities often have academic clubs. These clubs’ members are often the most passionate students about that particular field of research. If I were considering Neuroscience today (which was my concentration in college), I would reach out to one of my alma matter’s 3 Neuroscience-related club presidents and ask them questions. Their emails are often conveniently placed on their club’s website.
Of course, it’s important to know what to ask and that’s when a tutor, or another kind of experienced and academia-savvy mentor could come in handy. At 17, few of us knew what kind of issues we should be asking advice about; that comes with age. But that’s when your tutor, your high school teacher or your parent could really come in handy!
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