For Students

General thoughts about learning

These aren’t tips like “go to office hours” or “get started on the homework early.” I don’t know anyone who appreciates offhand advice like that anyway. This list is just a few things I’ve concluded after reflecting on how I could become a better learner. Thought I’d share.

  1. Don’t expect to understand everything immediately

    Learning is supposed to be uncomfortable! Not understanding something is a precursor to truly understanding something. I mean, it’s great if everything comes naturally for you, but eventually you’ll find something that’s pretty hard to grasp right off the bat (and will take some real effort outside of the classroom). If you acknowledge that this is to be expected from time to time, there’s suddenly no reason to feel frustrated with not getting something, and that makes it easier to enjoy the process of figuring something out.

  2. You wouldn’t find a lot of those things so difficult if you weren’t so busy

    Do less. I remember how hard undergrad was. I also look back at my notes from time to time. Some of the stuff I suffered through isn’t really that hard, I just didn’t have enough time to learn everything. I’m not any smarter now. I just acknowledge that if I want to go back and read some notes from statistical physics that I’m gonna need to set aside a lot of time for it.

  3. Write your notes in your own words, and revise them often

    I try to codify concepts in a way that captures the “feel” of what I’m thinking about. I seek out lots of other people’s thoughts too, to refine my own. Colloquial definitions (1) make things more interesting and (2) demonstrate a deeper level of understanding. Formal definitions can be found in a book.

  4. Share your thoughts with other people

    I learned this one in grad school. Find a captive audience—friends, roommates, parents—and talk about your ideas. Tons will flop, and you’ll know to work on those. And when you find out which people are receptive to this kinda thing—because some people are not—recognize how valuable they are. And try to sit through their ideas, too.

  5. Redefine your “best” to whatever it was you were able to accomplish

    That was your best. Even if you think you could’ve skipped that party or another hour of sleep to do marginally better on an essay or cram a bit more for an exam, you didn’t, because this combination of work/party/sleep was what you were able to do. It took until my last year of undergrad to really believe this, so start early. You’ll feel much better.

This is a short list that will one day be a long list.

Also, consider making a habit of reading reputable news sources every day—like the New York Times, which frequently covers environmental/resource stories, and frequently gives me research ideas.

I will eventually make a second list for recommendations of books of all kinds. That list will certainly start with An Introduction to Graph Theory (1993), by Richard Trudeau, which is a wonderful introduction to pure mathematics. Although this math isn’t very useful in my work, the enjoyment and positive development that came from working through this book rivals that of any of the books above.

Another list, for the curious mind. Never stop learning.

Letters of Recommendation

If you have received an A in one of my courses and/or were an active participant in class or office hours, I am happy to consider writing a letter of recommendation. That being said, I should know more about your aspirations by the time you’re emailing me about a letter. If I don’t have this background, I’m not sure how you’d look any different from your competition in a letter. Consider me as a potential letter writer sooner—way sooner than the application date—so I can write something of use to your reviewers. If you think I would be able to write a strong letter, please email me with the following, and we can set up a meeting: