Starting University Advice Repository

post by Bryan-san · 2015-12-03T23:51:46.259Z · score: 12 (13 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 94 comments
I know quite a few (12+) rationalists and CFAR graduates who are entering University soon or have just recently started University.

There was a lot of advice I wish I had been given or heard before I entered University and I think having a good repository of rationalist-contributed knowledge/advice/suggestions/information/links/DireWarnings could be very helpful to people in that situation.
 

1. What advice do students starting University need to hear?

2. What advice did your past self need to hear or what advice would have benefited you at that point in time?

3. Many people fail to ask the right questions. What questions do students need to ask themselves and other people?



Any links or guides on any related topics would be helpful. I will be posting some of my own ideas and links in the comments.
 
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94 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-12-04T00:57:54.266Z · score: 18 (18 votes) · LW · GW

Your parents have probably been helping you resist superstimuli (drugs, alcohol, video games) and fight procrastination. If you will be living away from home for the first time, you will need to be especially diligent against letting these forces harm you.

Political correctness is an unfortunately fact of most college campuses, but it's still a fact. You can hurt yourself with your teachers and fellow students if you say or write something politically incorrect even if your statement is true.

Figure out if you will need a high GPA to accomplish your post-college plans since the type of courses you take can greatly influence your GPA.

Not showing up for class because you overslept (especially your first year) is a sign of failure.

If you like LessWrong you will probably enjoy microeconomics.

You can often negotiate your financial aid offer, especially if you have a better offer from a college of equal or greater prestige.

You can take classes over the summer at a local community college to graduate early and hence save tuition.

Be very clear in your writing. Your professor will likely count any confusion he experiences in reading your paper against you.

If you need an extension ask your instructor as early as possible else he will think you are making up an excuse because you procrastinated rather than doing your work.

Doing poorly on an exam will not cause your professor to dislike you.

Before asking your professor a class organization question, check the class syllabus.

I'm an associate professor of economics at Smith College.

comment by HungryHobo · 2015-12-04T13:45:44.664Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I've only ever worked as a tutor but I'll add a couple of "should be obvious but apparently isn't" bits of advice.

Actually go to classes. If you're bright there's a good chance that the first few classes will cover very basic stuff which you may know already. Do not screw yourself over by deciding that it's so simple that you don't need to go to class. It's a surprisingly common failure mode for smart individuals.

If there is any form of continuous assessment or marks that can be gained before the test do the work. 2% or whatever other small fraction each assignment is worth may sound small for something that takes 4 of 5 hours but lots of people screw themselves by not doing the work and thus making it very hard for themselves to pass the module.

Actually go to classes. All of them. Yes, even if you're hung over or feeling really tired. Even if they're at 9am on a monday. I cannot stress how common a failure mode this is.

Turn up to classes on time. Not 20 minutes after they've started. Professors can get very sick of people clattering into the hall and interrupting their lecture due to not being organized enough to turn up on time.

Do try to make sure your questions are good ones. Professors can get sick of individuals who ask a lot of spectacularly stupid questions who then don't absorb the answers.

Take advantage of the clubs and societies your campus has. College is about more than your chosen subject and you can get some great experiences.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-12-06T21:18:54.727Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Political correctness is an unfortunately fact of most college campuses, but it's still a fact. You can hurt yourself with your teachers and fellow students if you say or write something politically incorrect even if your statement is true.

Conversely, don't assume something politically correct is true just because no one is challenging it.

comment by Vaniver · 2015-12-05T17:57:29.914Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

In many residential universities, there's a tremendous amount of social inertia--the people you're friends with a year or two in will often depend heavily on who you met your first few weeks, and who you met in the first weeks of classes. So turn this to your advantage: introduce yourself to people you don't know early on, and try to deliberately figure out who's a good fit and who's a bad fit instead of just trusting to chance. Making homework study groups for all of your classes is 1) a good way to meet people 2) a good way to ensure that you're on top of your classes and 3) a good way to ensure your work is spread out across the week / semester, instead of bunched near deadlines.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-12-07T02:54:30.926Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

the people you're friends with a year or two in will often depend heavily on who you met your first few weeks, and who you met in the first weeks of classes. So turn this to your advantage:

I like this.

Much of the value in college is from the networks you form. Start thinking about that early when the situation is most fluid.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-12-04T16:28:06.947Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

For pure lectures (no real discussion, just the lecturer speaking for a long time) in courses where there are good written materials covering the same content and presence at the lectures is not required, don't bother going to the lectures if they don't feel obviously valuable. Self-study from the written materials is likely to be a more effective use of your time; lectures are generally a terrible format.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-12-05T16:23:58.489Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

lectures are generally a terrible format.

I used to think this, but I now suspect that this is mostly just for "our kind." The failure of online education to replace traditional lectures might be because typical college students gets something significant out of live performances. It's also probably related to why video conferencing hasn't replaced live conferences.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-12-06T17:54:21.892Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I used to think this, but I now suspect that this is mostly just for "our kind."

It's my impression (moderate confidence; have only skimmed a bit of the research here but that's the impression I came away with, see e.g. the link in my earlier comment) that "lectures are terrible" is the general consensus of education research.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-12-06T21:20:04.271Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Isn't "education research" the standard example of cargo cult science?

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-12-05T20:41:29.076Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think a big reason people are uninterested in video conferencing is the fact that eye contact does not work correctly (if you look at the other person's face, the other person does not see you looking at them.)

comment by Bryan-san · 2015-12-04T18:37:26.562Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I might agree with your rationale, but not with following the conclusion. It can be very important to attend lectures in order to hear about most likely topics that will be on tests, any possible changes in test or project details and deadlines, to keep good rapport with the professor (so you aren't one of those "students who never show up to class"), and to keep yourself focused on following the material at the rate from which you will be tested on it.

This may also vary by University and professor since some may care more about attendence and some are better than others at emailing information about test and project changes to students rather than just announcing it in class.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-12-04T19:10:09.996Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This may also vary by University and professor

Probably. There have been a couple of courses where I'd probably done better on tests if I'd attended the lectures, but these have been rare exceptions. For the most part, skipping the lectures has only been beneficial, and I'm far from the only student who has found this to be the case.

I also never got the impression that most professors particularly cared about lecture attendance, if they were pure lectures. Classes that involved actual discussion are different, of course. (There's probably a correlation with the fact that in order to have useful discussion in a class, the class size can't be too large, so pure lectures tended to be mass lectures where the professors were unlikely to notice your presence or absence anyway.)

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T19:47:37.388Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't care about attendance, University isn't high school, it's not a prison.

comment by Manfred · 2015-12-04T06:04:42.815Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Science grad student perspective:

If you like books, it's often a good idea to read a textbook. This skill can be extremely powerful. If you're thinking about taking a class (that does not otherwise contribute to your graduation) because it seems interesting, try just reading a highly-rated textbook on the topic instead, and not spending all that time on the class. Like, classes aren't the end-all be-all of learning stuff. If you're taking a class that will require studying, reading a textbook on the subject ahead of the class will make everything much easier.

Grad school is not for everyone, not even for all smart people. It is however a good default for smart people who are bad at making long-term plans. Side note: attempt to spend some time a few times a year making long-term plans, so that you don't have to settle for defaults.

Social life is very important, but I have little good advice to give about it. Joining a choir went pretty well for me at least.

Research as an undergrad can be very important, but on average it's a waste of time - don't do it just to do it. In order to make it work you have to be above average in finding out what research is currently going on in the field you're interested in and at your university, and pick out groups doing research you are interested in and using methods that you are interested in learning about.

Once you're an upperclassman, if you're in the sciences, you should attend technical talks that sound interesting.

comment by Tem42 · 2015-12-04T19:26:30.922Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I highly commend reading textbooks in your chosen field as well, before taking classes (starting in high school if possible). The less time you have to spend reviewing and pondering basic issues during the class, the more time you have to hear, understand, and follow up on interesting side-notes in class.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T15:41:03.016Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

If you are a technical person, concentrate on metaskills (learning to think algorithmically and learning to do and read proofs is much more important than learning python and linear algebra).

I think more theoretical majors are better for metaskills (even if you are practically minded). But I know some will disagree.


Learn both data analysis and programming -- the world will be your oyster.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-12-04T18:58:27.554Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · LW · GW

learning to think algorithmically and learning to do and read proofs is much more important than learning python and linear algebra

I agree in principle, but am not sure of how to focus on the metaskills in practice. In my experience, I mostly learned these kinds of metaskills by trying to get better at concrete object-level skills such as "python and linear algebra", and wouldn't even know how to practice just the metaskill.

(Legend is that the University of Helsinki's Computer Science department decided that the one mathy thing that CS majors really needed to learn was understanding proofs. So they asked if the Math department might possibly provide a course custom-tailored for just this purpose. The Math department replied that this already existed, and it was called "doing a minor in Math".)

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T19:49:03.693Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I agree. Mathematicians haven't learned how to teach proofs abstractly, they teach by subject. My point was, the subject isn't super relevant. Although if you have specific aims you might want to tailor the subject to that. For example if you want to deal with data, linear algebra and probability theory are probably useful to know.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-04T15:46:57.567Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

learning to do and read proofs is much more important than learning python and linear algebra

That really depends on what you want to do later on. If you are going into math/CS/etc. grad school, focusing on proofs is a great idea. If you'll get a bachelor's and go get a job, I'd much rather be skilled in Python and linear algebra than in doing proofs.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T16:19:33.595Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think you are wrong about this.

comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-04T16:30:13.530Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I have no idea whether to downvote. On the one hand, you don't explain why. On the other hand, neither does Lumifer.

But:

I have never in my career needed proofs, and never expect to; I've needed linear algebra on multiple occasions, and expect to many times in the future. I work as a programmer, and have been programming for around twenty years now. I have developed something that twenty years ago might have been called AI. I have managed dozens of projects, and worked on dozens more.

So, where am I going? Proofs are an absolutely worthless skill to have in terms of "getting a bachelor's and going and getting a job". There -might- be a job where you need to write proofs, but if there is, I haven't seen it.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T16:35:53.385Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What did you develop 20 years ago?


You should know I ignore karma, btw.


Think about the form of the statement you are making: "I don't know X, and it doesn't seem like I need X." Well, how do you know you don't? You have to compare current world to a counterfactual world where you did know X. How do you know you wouldn't be vastly better off? See also: "I don't need this fancy book learnin' I am doing fine in life."

comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-12-04T16:39:06.883Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Think about the form of the statement you are making: "I don't know X, and it doesn't seem like I need X." Well, how do you know you don't? You have to compare current world to a counterfactual world where you did know X. How do you know you wouldn't be vastly better off?

That's not the statement I am making. I do know X; proofs were required coursework for every CS major at the educational facility I attended. I've never needed it.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-04T16:40:26.706Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Which specific work-related (meta) skill do you think doing proofs develops? It's not going to raise anyone's IQ, I don't see why it would be particularly effective at improving, say, the ability to focus or critical thinking or something like that.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T16:46:42.393Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't care about IQ, I think it's a fairly uninformative number. Doing proofs eventually gives you a nebulous thing called "mathematical sophistication" (what I sometimes call "metal struts in your brain") that I think helps enormously for adapting to and solving novel technical problems.

When Heinlein said "specialization is for insects" I think he was making a similar point about metaskills.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-04T16:57:11.106Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't mean IQ as a number, I mean the underlying g.

And people who graduate college and start working neither do, nor are expected to "solve novel technical problems". The closest to that are programmers who do have to solve problems daily, but for them courses in e.g. data structures or just experience with radically different languages will develop much more useful intuitions than "mathematical sophistication".

If you are going to become a mathematician or a logician, by all means go study proofs. Otherwise I don't think they justify the opportunity costs.

When Heinlein said "specialization is for insects" I think he was making a similar point about metaskills.

Aren't you suggesting specializing in a particular metaskill?

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T17:06:01.257Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think g is sort of a mathematical artifact, not a real thing (but don't really feel like getting into a big thing about this). Factor analysis doesn't tell people what they think it does.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-04T17:26:42.018Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The first principal component of scores on various tests is, of course, a mathematical artifact. But it's not the real thing, it's just an estimate, a finger pointing at the real thing.

I agree that people can be both stupid and smart in very different ways, but at a certain -- and useful! -- level of aggregation, there are generally smart people and generally stupid people. There is a lot of variation around that axis, but I think the axis exists. I'm not arguing that everything should be projected into that one-dimensional space and reduced to a scalar.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T17:46:31.180Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Here is how this game works. We have a bunch of observed variables X, and a smaller set of hidden variables Z.

We assume a particular model for the joint distribution p(X,Z). We then think about various facts about this distribution (for example eigenvalues of the covariance matrix). We then try to conclude a causal factor from these facts. This is where the error is. You can't conclude causality that way.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-04T18:19:08.803Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Do you think IQ has to be a causal factor to be a good predictor/be meaningful?

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T18:22:26.395Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

No I do not. I think IQ can be a useful predictor for some things (as good as one number can be, really). But that isn't the story with g, is it? It is claimed to be a causal factor.

If we want to do prediction, let's just get a ton of features and use that, like they do in machine learning. Why fixate on one number?


Also -- we know IQ is not a causal factor, IQ is a result of a test (so it's a consequence, not a cause).

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-04T19:02:47.290Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If we want to do prediction, let's just get a ton of features and use that, like they do in machine learning. Why fixate on one number?

Because it makes sense for many different people to study the same number.

In the last month I talked two times about Gottman. The guy got couples into his lab and observed them for 15 minutes while measuring all sorts of variables. Afterwards he did a mathematical model and found that the model has a 91% success rate in predicting whether newly-wed couples will divorce within 10 years.

The problem? The model is likely overfitted. Instead of using the model he generated in his first study I uses a new model for the next study that's also overfitted. If he would have instead work on developing a Gottman metric, other researcher could research the same metric. Other researcher could see what factors correlate with the Gottman metric.

In the case of IQ, IQ is seen as a robust metric. The EPA did studies to estimate how much IQ point are lost due to Mercury pollution. They priced IQ points. The compared the dollar value of the lost IQ points due to Mercury pollution with the cost for filters that reduce Mercury pollution.

That strong datadriven case allowed the EPA under Obama to take bold steps to reduce Mercury pollution. The Koch brothers didn't make a fuss about but payed for the installation of better filters. From their perspective the statistics were robust enough that it doesn't make sense to fight the EPA in the public sphere on the mercury regulation backed up by data driven argument.

The EPA can only do that because IQ isn't a metric that they invented themselves where someone can claim that the EPA simply did p-hacking to make it's case.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T19:32:02.639Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If he would have instead work on developing a Gottman metric, other researcher could research the same metric.

Life is complicated, why restrict to single parameter models? Nobody in statistics or machine learning does this, with good reason.


If your argument for single parameter models has the phrase "unwashed masses" in it, I wouldn't find it very convincing.


If you are worried about p-hacking, just don't do p-hacking, don't lobotomize your model.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-04T20:05:02.822Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The main issue is to have consensus statistics. That reduces possibilities for clever h-hacking and allows researchers to study how the same metric acts in a variety of different contexts.

If every researcher invents his own metrics you get things like voodoo neuroscience.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T20:09:48.905Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, I don't buy it. Lying with statistics and shitty models are completely orthogonal issues. You can lie with shitty models or with good models.

Also the argument "we should use IQ because people lie with statistics" is a very different argument from the one usually made by IQ proponents.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-04T20:33:45.066Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I wouldn't call the problem "shitty models" but models that aren't tried and tested in many different contexts. We know about how the model of IQ works a lot better than how a new model of intelligence works that a new researcher creates for his PHD thesis.

Once you think that it's good to have a single metric for intelligence because it helps you to make arguments about issues like the effect of mercury pollution on intelligence, there are additional arguments why IQ is a good metric for that purpose.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T20:36:58.548Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Single parameter models for anything complicated are shitty models. Intelligence is complicated. A single parameter model of intelligence is a shitty model.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-04T21:14:09.153Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Do you think it's shitty in the sense that what the EPA is doing with it is without basis?

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T21:18:34.840Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think I am done repeating myself.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-04T20:14:39.504Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I know how the game works, I've paged through the Pearl book. But here, in this case, I don't care much about causality. I can observe the existence of stupid people and smart people (and somewhat-stupid, and middle-of-the-road, and a bit smart, etc.). I can roughly rank them on the smart - stupid axis. That axis won't capture all the diversity and the variation, but it will capture some. Whether what it captures is sufficient depends, of course. It depends on the purpose of the exercise and in some cases that's all you need and in some cases it's entirely inadequate. However in my experience that axis is pretty relevant to a lot of things. It's useful.

Note that here no prediction is involved. I'm not talking about whether estimates of g (IQ, basically) can/will predict your success in life or any similar stuff. That's a different discussion.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T20:24:11.515Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

a finger pointing at the real thing.

I don't care much about causality.

???


To the extent that you view g as what it is, I have no problem. But people think g is (a) a real thing and (b) causal. It's not at all clear it is either. "Real things" involved in human intelligence are super complicated and have to do with brain architecture (stuff we really don't understand well). We are miles and miles and miles away from "real things" in this setting.


The game I was describing was how PCA works, not stuff in Pearl's book. The point was PCA is just relying on a model of a joint distribution, and you have to be super careful with assumptions to extract causality from that.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-04T20:49:18.801Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think of g as, basically, a projection from the high-dimensional space of, let's say, mind capabilities into low dimensions, in this case just a single one. Of course it's an "artifact", and of course you lose information when you do that.

However what I mean by g pointing a finger at the real thing is that this high-dimensional cloud has some structure. Things are correlated (or, more generally, dependent on each other). One way -- a rough, simple way -- to get an estimate of one feature of this structure is to do IQ testing. Because it's so simple and because it's robust and because it can be shown to be correlated to a variety of real-life useful things, IQ scores became popular. They are not the Ultimate Explanation for Everything, but they are better than nothing.

With respect to causality, I would say that the high-dimensional cloud of mind capabilities is the "cause". But it's hard to get a handle on it, for obvious reasons, and our one-scalar simplification of the whole thing might or might not be relevant to the causal relationship we are interested in.

P.S.

The point was PCA is just relying on a model of a joint distribution, and you have to be super careful with assumptions to extract causality from that.

PCA actually has deeper problems because it's entirely linear and while that makes it easily tractable, real life, especially its biological bits, is rarely that convenient.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T20:56:00.442Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think we disagree (?anymore?).


Also in practical informal talk, people overemphasize IQ because it is so fun for hierarchy-minded primates to arrange people from best to worst.

edit re: PCA: Yes, PCA is a super-parametric method, with the usual super-parametric method problems. However, the issue I have with PCA in this context is different, and also occurs in very flexible, fully non-parametric methods. Basically the issue is, no matter how you massage it, the joint distribution simply does not have the causal information you want in it, in general.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-04T21:19:13.608Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

it is so fun for hierarchy-minded primates to arrange people from best to worst.

Yep. You just have to pick the correct metric: the one where you come out on top ;-)

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-12-06T00:43:34.496Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, you can. You can conclude that some causal factor exists. You then define g to be that causal factor.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-06T01:13:24.631Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

No you can't conclude that. I am glad we had this chat.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-12-06T05:32:57.918Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

No you can't conclude that.

So you're saying that the fact that all these traits are correlated is a complete coincidence?

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-06T05:45:04.192Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Look Eugene, I am not super interested in getting into an internet argument with you and your army of downvoting sockpuppets. What I am saying is you don't understand how causality is concluded from data. Maybe you should read about it sometime.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-12-06T21:23:29.622Z · score: -5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, I do. How about you read up on IQ research sometime.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-11T01:17:45.450Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

No, you really really don't. But this is sort for the record of "future you". Start with (Neyman 1923) and (Rubin 1970).

I already had this conversation with gwern who basically eventually noticed that none of the naive causal analysis he was doing actually panned out, and he had to go and start learning all this stuff.

But you are not gwern, you are a demagogue, I don't expect you to actually make scientific moves, or update on evidence, or anything. You need your precious causal factor to order people from best to worst.

comment by Good_Burning_Plastic · 2015-12-07T05:16:47.045Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What if there are several such causal factors?

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-12-07T18:56:09.377Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The correlation studies that lead to defining IQ suggested that there is a single one, or if there multiple, they themselves are strongly correlated with each other.

comment by moridinamael · 2015-12-04T15:40:54.025Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This advice may go against other advice, but it's a tactic that has served me well: in making early-career decisions, such as your choice of major, always ask yourself which choice preserves future options.

For example, let's say you are considering a major, and you are equally interested in Architecture, Literature, and Engineering as careers.

Under my analysis, I would ask, which of these choices preserves the most options?

If you choose to pursue a degree in Literature, it is unlikely that you will be able to parley those skills into any kind of job in Architecture or in Engineering.

If you choose Architecture, you will find it very difficult (though not entirely impossible) to switch into Engineering for a graduate degree. However, you may find that you can try to pivot into some kind of Literary existence more easily.

If you choose Engineering, you'll find that Architectural schools will be eager to accept you for a graduate program, and the difficulty of switching from Engineering to a Literature program will probably be equal to the difficulty of switching from Architecture.

So, under this analysis, Engineering is the choice that preserves the most future options. At the point of choosing your college major, you're too young to be screening off future possibilities. Unless you're completely gung-ho about Literature, and feel a real certainty about what you want, it's best to keep more cards in your hand and let yourself make that exclusionary choice when you're older and wiser.

You may find that reading the classics in your spare time and writing a little bit of fiction now and then more than satisfies your Literary impulses, in which case, you'll be glad you didn't commit yourself to it as a career.

Conversely, if you commit to Engineering and find that you hate it, it's always easier to pivot to the other options.

As a general rule, things that are perceived as more difficult are easier to pivot away from, because the admissions gatekeepers for the perceived-as-less-difficult options will find you impressive due to where you're coming from. This heuristic is valid at all levels, for example, if you decide to go the Engineering route, choose the subdiscipline of Engineering that everybody else says is the hardest, scariest one. You can always punt to one of the easier ones if you don't find it to be a good fit, but it's much harder to go uphill from where you start.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-12-04T16:34:52.420Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Paul Graham has similar advice:

It's not so important what you work on, so long as you're not wasting your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your options, and worry later about which you'll take.

Suppose you're a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.

Flying a glider is a good metaphor here. Because a glider doesn't have an engine, you can't fly into the wind without losing a lot of altitude. If you let yourself get far downwind of good places to land, your options narrow uncomfortably. As a rule you want to stay upwind. So I propose that as a replacement for "don't give up on your dreams." Stay upwind.

comment by ESRogs · 2015-12-07T22:42:56.390Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As a complement to this advice (which I think is good), it's important to make sure you still explore. Don't be so worried about making sure you do the thing that maximizes optionality that you're afraid to fail and don't try things.

So if you think you should study math rather than econ (as per Kaj's comment), then start with math as your default, but make sure to also take an econ class to see if you're so much more interested in it / better at it that it's worth it to specialize.

comment by Bryan-san · 2015-12-04T00:07:20.627Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

80000 Hours
The 80000 Hours Career Guide
An impressive career guide that helps people maximize future impact and future earnings. It gives lots of strong advice on a variety of career choosing topics as well as looking in-depth into a few specific ones. (This website was created for Effective Altruists, but can be used by others very easily.)

Adulthood Fallacy?
This is purely me talking. Do not trust someone to be wise, emotionally mature, responsible, or trustworthy just because they are old. This applies to everyone you meet in the future and everyone you already know. There are people older than you who are worth going to for advice, but they are rare and you will need other heuristics to figure out who these people are.
This is part of Argument from Authority but I think it could be a useful distinction. Most people are not experts on life anyway.

The Planning Fallacy

Social Skills and Networking Social skills and networking are extremely important for long-term success. People start building their skills and networks either in high school or university. Start early. I don't think I am qualified to give specific advice in this area, but I am confident in saying that these things are very important and worth spending time building and learning.

Outside LW Links:
Three Things to Unlearn from School by Ben Casnocha
What You'll Wish You'd Known by Paul Graham

LW Links:
Two More Things to Unlearn from School
College Discussion Thread
Interesting critique of British education by outgoing advisor
What Are Useful Skills to Learn at University
Which College Major
The Best Textbooks on Every Subject

Various books to read:
The Sequences (Start here)
Influence: Science and Practice (very important to learn how to stop other people from influencing you and from influencing yourself through the use of biases)
Thinking: Fast and Slow

comment by Vaniver · 2015-12-04T02:44:25.347Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You will get a lot of advice. Much of it you will agree with. What will probably surprise you is the scale of the advice.

Paul Graham talks at some point about knowing that startup success follows a power law, knowing that this meant most of the value of the Y Combinator fund would come from their single best company, and then still was surprised when, what do you know, most of the value in their fund came from their single best company. It wasn't real until it had actually happened to him. As much as possible, treat the advice that you agree with as if it had already happened to you.

comment by RaelwayScot · 2015-12-06T12:05:36.188Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Some helpful links I've collected over the years:

If you do something related to computer science:

  • https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8085148 (work on some side projects, for example program an economy simulator, invent a simple layout/markup language, implement a LISP-machine in C)
  • Get familiar with the UNIX command line, learn VIM and use Spacemacs as editor. Use org-mode for notes and git/magit for version control of all your projects and notes. Make use of a cloud service to keep all your files accessible from all your devices.

As someone who has developed RSI during their studies: If you feel that you don't have enough time to exercise, ignore that voice in your head and get a minimum amount of 7 minutes intense workout and 1 hour of very light exercise (e.g. walking, cycling or swimming) each day (and consider two sessions of longer intense workout per week, e.g. 60 min. swimming lessons). After each hour of sitting do a 5 minute break to stretch or drink a tea (Awareness.app for OS X is a nice software solution that can help you with that). A bad physical condition will affect your mood and mental performance negatively.

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2015-12-04T16:51:08.704Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

As with a lot of things, there is probably not a lot of good generically useful advice here. For example, the advice "do the absolute minimum amount of school work and spend all your time trying to build a startup out of your dorm" is probably terrible advice for 98% of people and great advice for 2%.

I recommend: 1) find a role model who is older than you, but similar in other respects, and whose lifestyle/career/situation seems appealing and 2) imitate his/her college trajectory.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T19:47:02.309Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think this is good advice. Although I think a lot of successful people similar to (generic) "you" were also very lucky.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-04T17:06:58.105Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

great advice for 2%

That number seems to be off by orders of magnitude.

imitate his/her college trajectory

The problem is that the world changes. At one point nuclear engineering was an excellent high-potential major.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-04T23:08:38.889Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

That number seems to be off by orders of magnitude.

Spending effort on coding a program for a startup can be useful even if you don't have a successful startup.

comment by richard_reitz · 2015-12-04T12:52:26.632Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It has happened more than once that a professor has assigned a textbook, which I bought, only for the professor to say in the first class that the only reason they assigned a textbook is because they were required to, but will never use it. Holding off on buying textbooks until after the first class (or, I guess, emailing the professor to ask if they plan on using the textbook) would have saved me several hundreds of dollars. (Having textbooks to study from is nice—they are, to me, the most efficient way of getting up to speed in math or science—but the ones professors assign because they need to put something down tend not to be the best ones.)

comment by username2 · 2015-12-04T13:14:57.900Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Library Genesis provides a way to access pdf of textbooks. In many cases PDFs are superior than textbooks. They aren't heavy objects that you have to carry around. You can search in them.

comment by TezlaKoil · 2015-12-04T18:22:15.010Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Location-specific advice

Libgen is blocked by court order in the United Kingdom, but if you're a student, you can usually access it through Eduroam.

comment by Fluttershy · 2015-12-04T10:28:30.104Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Do go to your professor's office hours if you go to a school where professors care about spending time working with undergrads. Smaller schools seem to be good about this.

This helps make the professors like you if you are pleasant and ask informed questions. In theory, this can also help with networking later on.

comment by Bryan-san · 2015-12-05T17:27:34.677Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Two important questions to ask yourself about the job a major will get you:

  1. What is the unemployment rate on these jobs?
  2. Will this job be automated in 5-10 years?

Health
-Your health is very important for your success
-Getting enough sleep, having a good diet, maintaining energy levels, and being healthy will contribute to your long-term happiness and success.

Sleep
-Melatonin is a supplement that many rationalists take to get better sleep at night
-Sleep Cycle is a good app that monitors your REM sleep cycles and wakes you up in a 30 minute time period when you are closest to being awake
-Setting an alarm at 9:30pm to be able to keep track of time late at night can help avoid the "oh god, it's already 2am?" effect. It also helps avoid...
-Hyperbolic Discounting

Diet
-You will be determining your own diet for the first time in your life
-Most freshman gain lots of weight after starting University due to poor diet and not knowing how to feed themselves in a healthy sustainable way
-Your diet is important for maintaining your general energy level and keeping you healthy
-MyFitnessPal is your new bestfriend for keeping track of what is in the food you eat and for losing weight
-If you want to lose weight: Avoid getting calories from liquids
-Eat and drink far less sugar. Sugar turns in to fat and has tons of calories. Soda and sugary coffee drinks are your new worst enemy

-Edit-
People on Slack reccomended
Cal Newport
and in the same vein as Cal Newport: Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy

comment by Vaniver · 2015-12-05T17:49:34.925Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

-Most freshman gain lots of weight after starting University due to poor diet and not knowing how to feed themselves in a healthy sustainable way

This actually goes both ways: I always heard the Freshman 15 as "you either gain or lose fifteen pounds your first year." (I know I missed a number of dinners due to inattention.)

Especially if you're used to eating home-cooked food most of the time, eating cafeteria/restaurant food most of the time will most likely lead to weight gain. You may want to prioritize getting access to a kitchen and preparing food for yourself.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-12-05T05:19:14.317Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The most important decision you will make is your major. It is easily in the top 5 of all decisions you will make in your lifetime. Yes, you can move on to a different job later on if you choose the wrong major, but your major will limit your options when you do decide to switch careers if you picked the wrong one. A psychology major simply won't make nearly as much if they later decide to become a programmer as somebody who majored in computer science from the beginning. A wrong decision can cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime.

People say all the jobs are in STEM fields, but it's really Technology, Engineering, Medicine, and Business. Science fields that lead to jobs in medicine pay well, but science fields that don't lead to medicine tend to not do so well. Similarly, math is good because it leads to business jobs, but so does a degree in supply chain management. Medicine has the disadvantage that unlike the other three, many of the best jobs in that area require a graduate degree, and graduate school isn't a good fit for the overwhelming majority of people.

It's easy to think you should choose a career you love, but really you should choose a career you can tolerate that's in high demand. You might say that you're not interested in just making money, but that's limiting your thinking. You are likely interested in whether you like your boss, whether you can work flexible hours, whether you're allowed autonomy in decisions, and whether you can relax occasionally or are constantly bombarded with work with no time to breath. Whether you are able to choose a job that gives you those things or you have to make do with whatever you can get is often reflected in how high demand your field is, and high demand jobs are usually high paying jobs.

If you're in the bottom half of your high school class in both GPA and SAT scores, strongly consider technical school. Your odds of graduating with a good degree are very low. Similarly if you're not in the top 10% of one or the other you probably shouldn't be planning on attending graduate school, and even if you are in the top 10% you most definitely shouldn't consider yourself a shoo-in to succeed at that level unless you're in something like the top 2%.

A lot of career counselors aren't worth listening to. You're getting career advice from somebody who thought it was a good idea to get a Master's Degree for a job that pays about the same as a Bachelor's degree, and with poor employment prospects.

comment by MaximumLiberty · 2015-12-04T22:40:04.849Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

My advice is probably better suited for a liberal arts major (compared to a STEM major, say).

Learn more than you know now about the jobs that your field of study might support -- especially salary and life style. This seems like a big blind spot to a lot of students.

Go to professors' office hours. They are fascinating people and know way more than you do. (P.S. I'm not a professor.)

Audit classes that you wish you had time to take.

Actually do the homework before the class in which it is due. (This is less of a problem for STEM majors than in humanities and many liberal arts; in the latter, homework is often just reading.)

Do the optional reading, even if it really is optional.

Take extensive notes on the reading. In class, focus on listening. Good lecturers are synthesizing the facts you should already have consumed. Your notes from class should be much briefer. You should be able to study for tests strictly from your notes, without needing the book, except as an occasional reference.

Sit near the front of class.

If you have to choose between one semester of microeconomics and one semester of macroeconomics, take micro.

Take at least two statistics classes.

Leave your video games at your parents' house.

Learn an exercise routine that you can stick to for the rest of your life.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-12-05T15:09:19.627Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Leave your video games at your parents' house.

This sounds weird. Obviously you don't want to be constantly addicted to video games, but everyone needs to relax, too.

comment by Bryan-san · 2015-12-06T04:41:53.040Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Let's go with a minimum of:

  • Immediately delete or throw away all MMOs and games that require regular time investments
  • Stick to games that can be picked up or put down easily so that they don't cause harm to your study schedule, sleep schedule, or social commitments
comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-12-06T17:51:09.680Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Immediately delete or throw away all MMOs and games that require regular time investments

Would you also recommend giving up all other hobbies that required regular time investments?

comment by Bryan-san · 2015-12-06T22:08:22.135Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Depends on the amount and specific interval of time investment. MMOs create demands like playing 3-4 hours every tuesday and thursday evening without fail for raids. This now requires a 6-8 hour time investment a week minimum with strong social pressures from online friends. That's not going to be helpful if you have a test on wednesday or friday. If you had a normal RPG or other hobby you could pick it up and put it down without social pressures and regular time investments at intervals in the middle of the week.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-12-09T10:41:52.637Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Given that I know plenty of people who play MMOs and participate in raids while still managing to pursue their studies/work/parenting/etc. successfully, this description of the absoluteness of the MMO time demands seems a little overblown.

Granted, I don't actually play them myself, but it seems hard to believe that you couldn't have a good time playing an MMO while also finding an in-game social group that was reasonable about participation requirements.

comment by Bryan-san · 2015-12-09T15:07:26.128Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

From our different observations of anecdotal evidence on this and the other comment thread I think that the university environments and populations you and I were exposed to were very different from one another. My environment was not with exceedingly intelligent people (likely below LW average) and was at a decent but not great university. My observations were from when I was a Freshman in college and observing other people that age though.

I've seen and heard of people who were older (grad school or working) and had much better experiences managing their time. However, I also remember meeting plenty of people when I was in high school who were much older and seemed to be playing far too much. Statistics on the topic would likely be useful at this point and people who are better at managing their time and dealing with

At this point for giving advice to Freshman aged students, I'd rather put out a warning and see how they handle it than not say anything at all. If someone isn't already adept at managing their time at that age then I honestly think that playing an MMO on a regular basis could be detrimental and far more addictive a hobby than they should be testing themselves with at such a crucial time in their life.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-12-09T15:29:39.294Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's reasonable. And admittedly, I've personally avoided MMOs precisely for the time management reasons, so one might say that my words were in conflict with my actual actions... but then I've also gotten the impression that other, less addiction-prone people than me have gotten a lot of genuinely valuable things (e.g. friendships, management and organization skills, etc.), so I'm inclined to object if people present what seems to be an unfairly negatively slanted view of the genre.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-12-06T21:21:58.603Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

MMOs are optimized to be superstimuli in ways most hobbies aren't.

comment by TheMajor · 2015-12-04T09:51:56.996Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You are paying for the classes, i.e. the attention and time of your teachers. Make sure to get your money's worth: if you don't understand something speak up, or contact the teacher after the class. If your class has teaching assistants contact them (for example by email) if you get stuck on the homework/exercises or don't understand something from the lecture. All of these people are literally being paid to answer these questions, be aware that this is a resource you have at your disposal at all times. A common failure mode is thinking: "It's embarrassing to speak up in front of the whole group and/or I don't want to waste their time, I'll just figure it out on my own later" - if you have this thought contact the teacher/assistant after the course about the part that wasn't clear.

comment by gjm · 2015-12-04T10:22:53.046Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

On the same theme, note that if you don't understand something then almost certainly there are other people there who also don't understand and will be glad you asked.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-04T14:05:56.091Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

When it comes to asking question, take note that asking questions is a skill. Asking good questions is a skill worth developing.

comment by pianoforte611 · 2015-12-04T03:54:45.964Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Ask for help when you need it. If you're struggling with a class, ask the professor or your advisor where you can find help. If you're struggling with life, find a counsellor. If you're struggling with a paper, find a writing tutor.

Take introductory Calculus, Chemistry and Physics in your first year*. At least at my school it was somewhat difficult to complete a science major in three years, so best to start off as though you are going to do one (unless you really don't want to).

Find a way to contact and talk to people who are where you want to be in the future. That might mean law students, engineers, med students, people working in finance.

*Unless you are doing Engineering in which case your schedule is mostly decided for you.

comment by Sarunas · 2015-12-05T15:45:26.932Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It seems to me that one reason why some people behave irrationally is that they start implicitly thinking about themselves in terms of a particular identity, particular archetype. If people of that archetype tend to be bad at a X and one is also bad at X, one might not feel the irresistable urge to fix it, even though intellectually one might agree that it would be better if they fixed it.

In a university setting, at least at the beginning, two such archetypes are "hard working (but not necessarily talented) student" and "talented, but lazy student". You might even observe a negative correlation in your university. However, most likely this is a result of Berkson's bias, because people who are both hard-working and talented are probably studying at a more prestigious university than yours, therefore you don't meet them. Thus whenever you notice that you are very talented yet work very little you should not think about how efficient you are, instead think in terms of not using your potential to the fullest.

If you are able to find people who are passionate about learning about similar things as you, team up with them (an example), create your own unofficial book club or your own unofficial seminar.

Try to be strategic. Use Paul Graham's heuristic "always produce". Write a diary where you can log what you have learned and what you still don't know.


Currently, most of the advice is very abstract and a lot of it is common sense. Perhaps someone from countries with a lot of prestigious universities (US, UK, Germany, Switzerland, etc.) could post more concrete advice, for example links or step-by-step instructions how to apply to a university, how to apply for scholarships and internships in your particular location, what other useful educational resources do you know? Even if such advice is not as generalizable as the more abstract advice, it might still be useful for some people, and even people from different locations to whom the exact wording of an advice might not be directly applicable might still find enough similarities that reading it is still useful for them.

comment by Bryan-san · 2016-02-03T00:36:54.442Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Very impressive article by Sidrea on the real reasons and value behind university
http://siderea.livejournal.com/1261773.html?format=light

comment by Davidmanheim · 2015-12-07T17:45:09.932Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There are very few majors / areas of study where a single focus isn't significantly improved with a minor - and frequently, if it's not your major, Comp Sci is a great additional skillset. This is especially true if you need to take the credits anyways, and can choose between random course, or completing a minor with just a bit more work.

You want to do science? Almost no area doesn't need programming as well - it will help you get into grad school. You want to work in business? You'll spend half your day working on spreadsheets, and a CS background is invaluable for making that work better.

You want to do computer programming already? Great, what type? because a minor elsewhere will be a bonus! Video games? Comp Sci + Graphic Design or Literature Corporate work? Comp Sci + Business, Accounting, or Finance.

comment by iarwain1 · 2015-12-06T15:31:13.626Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

On the science of how to learn: Make It Stick.

comment by Princess_Stargirl · 2015-12-04T15:42:27.584Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

On the margin I think its usually better to take less and/or easier courses. It is better to do very well on an easier schedule than do "ok" on a hard schedule. If you apply for a job or grad school everyone will look at your gpa. If a semester is too easy this is not a serious problem. You can always read an extra textbook or do some coding projects in your spare time. Next semester you can up the difficulty. If a semester turns out to be too hard and you do badly the penalties are real (though survivable).

comment by Vaniver · 2015-12-05T17:41:34.352Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

On the margin I think its usually better to take less and/or easier courses. It is better to do very well on an easier schedule than do "ok" on a hard schedule.

I was uncertain, coming from high school to university, whether or not I would adjust well. So I did the cautious thing and hedged: I only took 12 credit hours (the minimum load) the first semester.

About three weeks in I was talking to one of my professors, complaining that I was bored out of my mind. They offered me a research position in their lab, and getting involved in student research my first semester was much more helpful than a class would have been. Similarly, if you find yourself with spare time and energy, find a productive outlet for it. Get used to building in pad time for yourself and then using that pad time flexibly. (This is a key factor in avoiding burnout during your adult life, I think.)

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-12-04T16:38:13.469Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you apply for a job or grad school everyone will look at your gpa.

This might be cultural/regional; in Finland it's common for employers to not care about grades, just whether or not you have a degree. (Though grad school will definitely care about the grades.)

comment by moridinamael · 2015-12-04T17:48:07.688Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is one of those "depends" pieces of advice. At some schools, the entire Freshman year GPA is completely forgiven, ignored, or given specific exemptions in how it's factored into the final GPA. In this case, why not go for broke? I always suggest starting out with the hardest thing and then ratcheting down instead of vice versa.

In reality, I think people usually underestimate themselves. It's better to try the hardest possible path and then find your limits, than be cautious and never discover them.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-04T17:00:42.059Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you apply for a job or grad school everyone will look at your gpa.

That, I think, is false (though universities encourage the undergrads to believe this). Employers don't care about GPA at all.

comment by moridinamael · 2015-12-04T17:49:40.851Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I found that the first employer cared, and it was tricky to get a first job with a bad GPA. After the first job, they don't even ask about it.

Unless you're trying to work for McKinsey or something, yeah, I wouldn't worry to much about it.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-12-04T16:50:31.537Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As a professor looking for promising graduate students, I don't care about GPA very much. Well, I suppose a super low GPA is a signal (but even then does not rule you out).


Admission committee might care.

comment by Tem42 · 2015-12-05T20:30:34.836Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In many programs you may also be able to take fewer classes during the full semesters and take fluff classes over the summer semester. If your program requires, for example, music appreciation or a physical ed class, these are good summer class; they are easy, you don't loose much by having the class shortened/modified, and they aren't distracting you when you need your attention for more important classes.