I’m about a week from being finished with classes and about 1.5 weeks from being finished, more or less. Although I’m not terribly worried finals for myself, I know some people are stressing a lot. I already wrote a list of advice for test-taking that should be applicable for many final exams. But what about handling papers, projects, and just finals period?

  • Organize yourself! I have a list of what’s due when in my calendar and have already begun to decide when I’m working (or can work) on what. Make sure you have everything you need as well.
  • Sleep, eat, etc. No one works or thinks well if they are not taking care of themselves. If you feel like you’re pressed for time now, imagine how pressed you’ll be if you are sick. If you do become sick, talk to your advisor or a dean to see about getting extensions.
  • Speaking of eating, eat well. A little indulgence in junk is okay, but I find almost always feel better when I eat healthy foods.
  • If you’re writing papers (like I am), I’d make sure you have adequate breaks away from the computer. After awhile, my hands need to not type and my brain needs to stop working so hard.
  • If your final exam is in-class open everything, be it a writing or math/science exam, review your notes and have everything organized. Open notes, etc. on a test can be a valuable tool, but they can be detrimental if you have no idea what is where. I like using these little sticky-note strips; they’re a sliver of the size of a sticky note and you can write on them.
  • Along the same vein, even with an open notes/book/everything exam, study before you get there. These items are only tools and are pretty useless if you don’t know how to use them or understand the underlying concepts before hand.
  • Address your grade concerns now. While my advice has always been to address grade concerns as soon as they come up, your grade still has not been submitted. Talk to your professor(s) about ways to improve.
  • My last piece of advice is DO NOT CHEAT OR PLAGIARIZE. The consequences can be very steep for cheating. I know people have successfully cheated, but there are plenty of people who have not. Not even looking at the ethics, the risk is not worth it. If you wish to collaborate with a student on something and are unsure if it is cheating, ask your professor!

Best of luck to everyone who is in finals or is about to enter finals.



A friend of mine with a financial blog posted an entry about a student who is drowning in $200k of undergraduate debt. I began reading more about this student and thought it may be useful to share some practical advice on navigating financial stuff when it comes to college; although I am lucky enough to have not incurred any college or graduate debt, I’ve done extensive reading, navigated financial aid offices (my undergraduate fin. aid office, due to some issues, eventually memorized my student ID), and learned plenty from friends with various amounts of debt. Regardless of how you feel about her and whose to blame for her situation, there is much to learn to protect yourself from that much debt.

  • Seek out financial advice. In this article, this student admits to not seeking out advice and help at her high school. That is a huge no-no, especially for someone who may not have parents with the knowledge to navigate the financial aid scene. You don’t have to parade around the school, announcing you will be a first generation college student. If your college counselor or guidance counselor is MIA (mine was), ask a teacher. They went through the process and may have kids who also went through the process. Other people in your life, such as neighbors or family friends, may also know what to do. If that fails or you’re too ashamed to ask for help in person, look at the internet and do it anonymously. The US government has a site pertaining to financial aid, and there are many, many others.
  • Apply for scholarships. Plenty exist. I already mentioned I am Gates Millennium Scholar, but there are many other scholarships. Even if they are not full-rides, you can piece little scholarships together to help things. Don’t just search the web; your school district or other local entities may offer scholarships.
  • Look at the school’s financial costs and offerings. Not only consider the amount of attending the school (tuition, room and board) but also the amount of aid that the school gives and the percent of students who receive aid packages. Many schools have these statistics on their websites.
  • Consider extra expenses. Books, travel back home for the holidays, laundry, fun all add up. Make sure to include them in the cost. Also, if doing a study abroad program is part of your plan, make sure that your school extends its financial aid so that you can do that.
  • Negotiate Your Financial Aid Package. If your financial aid package doesn’t offer the amount you need, call up the financial aid office of that school to ask if they would reconsider giving more aid to you. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
  • Ask questions! Before you sign anything (loan, financial aid offer, military agreement), make sure you fully understand what’s going on and that it’s all written out. Bring someone along if necessary. You are signing a legal document that someone will collect on eventually.
  • Transfer into a better school. Some students choose to take a year or two at a community college before they go to a bigger name school; some colleges even have built in programs that allow for that. Small warning: check to make sure each semester that you are taking classes that can transfer into your next college. Some people make the mistake of taking courses that will not transfer in and then have to take extra credits sometime. The registrar’s office should be able to confirm what will and will not transfer in.
  • Consider your goals. Ultimately, what do you want to do with yourself? A working teacher in one of my classes made the good point that it may not make sense to go to an expensive school and get saddled with debt if a) you’re planning on entering a career that will not pay well, b) you’ll end up needing more education, and c) the prestige doesn’t matter much in that career. Although he was talking about people going to expensive schools to become teachers, his point is something to be considered. I’m not telling you to skip going to a prestigious school (certainly, there are worthwhile aspects to prestigious schools), but it is something to keep in mind. In my experience with physics, those who get into physics graduate schools are not just MIT and CalTech grads but a motley group of students. A lot of what factors in is what you do with your education there and once you get out (and some of it is simply luck of the draw). Community colleges and less prestigious schools may be a better fit for your goals. I’ve known incredibly bright people who have attended less prestigious schools, who were very pleased with their educations. I’ve also known people at more prestigious schools who were not happy with their educations; I’ve known less than bright people who have attended some of the best schools in the US. Of course, I’ve known plenty in between at all types of schools. A name school doesn’t guarantee a top-notch education or being surrounded by geniuses. It definitely does not guarantee a job.
  • Negotiate your loans. If you are struggling to pay your loans, not answering the phone or responding to mail will not make them go away. This past October, the Boston Globe posted some excellent tips to handle your student debt.

With college application season full in progress, it is important to keep these thoughts in mind. The most important thing to do is be honest with yourself. Weigh in what’s important and what you’re willing to sacrifice. The point of this entry isn’t to dissuade you from going $200k in debt for an undergraduate (or graduate) degree but help you consider your options and realities. With the economy being what it is, landing a job period is tricky, let alone landing a job that helps pay back high debt. Good luck!

In one of my classes yesterday, the professor talked to us about picking a good dissertation topic, advisor, and just in general how to handle the dissertation process. In my education, I don’t think that I had ever had anyone sit down to discuss this with me. Some of the advice would’ve been helpful prior to my thesis issues. There are many good articles out there on picking your advisor and all, so rather than repeat those ideas, I’m going to contribute what I wish I would’ve known that I haven’t seen offered as much or at all. Most of these things are for the absolute worse case scenario; hopefully, your thesis or dissertation has smoother sailing.

  • Save every single email and piece of correction you receive. This just helps keep track of what you’ve done; hopefully, you find the corrections decrease with time. Also, if things become grave, you have proof of who said what. For organization’s sake, I keep a separate folder in my inbox and have a drawer of my filing cabinet dedicated to paper corrections.
  • Find a support person outside your advisor. Very late in the game, I began talking to other professors to seek advice and support. My thesis process was particularly difficult, even for a process that has its difficulties, and these outside folks helped me in so many ways. Even if they hadn’t directly helped me, they were supportive emotionally. Make sure the person understands the idea of confidential conversation, etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up early if things are awry. If your advisor is delaying your finish, treating you poorly, or anything else you think is unacceptable, talk to someone in authority. If you cannot talk to that authoritative person or are still unsure what to do, use your support person to advise you how to go ahead. If the first person you speak to isn’t effective, keep trying.
  • Make sure that all expectations are clearly discussed early on. If your committee wants derivations fully worked out, references aplenty, make sure that’s well known before you hand in what you hope is your final draft. Going back and adding things is painful, particularly if you don’t save all those documents.

I’ve seen that question bringing people to my blog. Well, it really depends on how you do it.

If you enter the conversation condescending and belligerent, it honestly annoys me. I don’t care for arrogance in general or people who are hostile. While I maintain professionalism, they aren’t pleasant conversations for either side. I think generally that it’s incredibly disrespectful to tell someone who has more experience/knowledge in the subject how things should be graded. I really recommend entering a grade dispute conversation calmly and respectfully.

If you enter the conversation with respect, I hope you also enter with a valid point. People who are petty really do bother me, because the issue appears to be based not on merit. Merit goes a long way with me, because it means you actually thought about why you’re arguing what you’re arguing and that it’s beyond wanting a better grade.

Timeliness also plays a huge role for how I feel about grade discussions. The responsibility is on the student to know his/her grade (if the professor isn’t returning work regularly, that’s a different issue). You should have a relative idea of how you’re doing in a class by that work. If you’re failing everything, you shouldn’t expect or demand to pass.  If you start talking about the unfairness of your overall grade at the end of the semester, I generally find that desperate and without merit. I hand out a syllabus, which is my contract/grading policy for students. Every last point is calculated and a general discussion of how the class is formatted is included. An argument about the overall grade being unfair seems even more invalid to me when people in the class do receive good grades.

So there you have it. There are obviously exceptions, but pretty much all grade disputes that I’ve had to deal with have been people who really do not have a leg to stand on. Again, as a final piece of advice, I really emphasize the idea of being respectful. Even if you have perfectly valid reasons for not respecting someone, you still have to demonstrate some kind of respect; you’re more likely to at least be heard and maintain a positive standing in that person’s eyes.

I found through my stats that someone came here looking to find out how to argue their graduate school grade. Because that’s not really a topic I’ve covered, I figured today (especially after receiving an email from a student re. his grade) would be a good day to talk about that.

My short advice? Unless the situation is particularly grave (see the last paragraph of this entry), don’t bother, no matter what level you are in your schooling. Unless it’s points added incorrectly, usually the professor feels s/he has done a fine a job grading/preparing you. Some people react terribly to having their grading questioned, and people leave upset and with no satisfactory results.

There have been a few times in grad school I thought the grading was terribly unfair, as did several other students. By unfair, I mean we were penalized every single point of the problem for not having plot labels formatted exactly as the professor wanted; the plots were only a small part of the problem and certainly not the topic of the class. Why did the bulk of us not argue? Too much to lose. For some, this was their advisor and maintaining good relations was more important at the end of the day. They had about a year or so they needed to work with this professor. For others, they had more things to worry about or knew that they would have this professor again in the future. I’d also add in that if you are expecting recommendations from a person, you should tread lightly. Regardless of whether you should be able to question your grade without fear, we live in a world where people have egos. People also talk, so you also don’t want your reputation viewed poorly by someone gossipy. I reiterate that these things shouldn’t matter, but they can, so you may as well beware. Tread very lightly.

If you chose to pursue arguing your grade, I’d think about the following questions:

  • Why are you arguing your grade? Why do you think your grade isn’t fair? In my story about being given 0 credit for improper labels on a plot, that exam question had more components than just plot labels and the exam was not on plot labels. Do I think that we should have been docked for incorrect plot labels? Absolutely, just not every single point if a student managed to get the spirit of the problem down pat. If you’re arguing your grade because you’ve always been an A student/you can’t fail this class/you tried really hard/you didn’t study hard enough/etc., those aren’t good reasons. Base your argument on something that is substantial to academics and the topic.
  • Are you being petty? Grading is somewhat subjective, even physics (I tend to grade on work more than the end answer). I personally think it’s a waste of time to attempt to argue your A- to an A or argue that 95/100 on your lab report to a 97/100. You’ve done good work, but according to your grader, it could be a bit better. Having discussed this issue with others, this again comes off poorly. Why? None of us have seen a case where the person has a good reason why they should receive a higher grade. For myself, I don’t like when students become more about the grade and less about the learning.
  • What is this professor like? Granted, even personable professors can become irritated easily, but I’d say your chances of having a good conversation with this professor re. your grade are slimmer if the person is already snappish about questions.
  • How are you going to approach the person? Catching them 5 minutes before class or stopping them in the middle of the hall is never a good idea. I’d send an email or ask to meet with the person. I’d be humble and not accusative towards the professor, even if you find the person to be a jerk.
  • Are you capable of remaining calm and professional, should the meeting go sour? This goes back to future contact with the professor. You may, regardless of how you behave, leave a bad impression on a professor, but again, your odds are quite that you will if you become belligerent, whiny, and overall unpleasant. People gossip, and if you need this person to not have a negative view of you (future prof for another class, your advisor, semester not over…), you need to put your best face forward.
  • Are you willing to discuss strategies on how to do better? Before you arrange to discuss your grade, you may want to also ask the professor, particularly if this isn’t your final grade, how you can improve. I like when people ask me how they can improve their grades. Not students who are digging for extra credit but students genuinely interested in learning how to write, solve physics, whatever. It shows that you realize you can improve and that you aren’t necessarily blaming the professor.

I have yet to argue a grade; at most, I’ve inquired why I’ve received some grades when the comments have not been apparent on the work. I’ve had numerous students attempt to argue their grades with me. Typically, they’ve been people who been any of the following: hostile, condescending, hysterical, insulting, or just plain nasty. They also have typically been people who don’t realize that we have the rest of the semester to get through together, and leaving a bad impression on anyone is always a terrible idea. I have yet to see someone argue his/her grade and present a good reason why a higher grade is deserved. That’s why I think it’s important to consider what you’re doing and why.

If your situation is grave (I’ve heard stories where professors allegedly have intentionally given inaccurate grades) and justifiable in arguing, I would talk to your department head or advisor on how to proceed. If that doesn’t go well, talk to a dean on campus. Go up the food chain in your school. While I think grade arguing is often not done for the right reasons, I know there are cases where it should be done. However, always proceed with caution and make sure you have all the information to present a strong case. It isn’t fair, but things can come back to bite you in the butt.

Good luck!

Tomorrow my students have their first midterm. Some of them were thankful to have a practice, some of them- well, not so much. Unfortunately, I’m afraid some of them won’t take the tips and advice that I’ve given to them to heart (I have a few “too cool for school” types). These are actually things that I noticed affect some people near and dear to me or things I’ve learned the hard way.

  • Study ahead of time. No brainer, but I’ve seen this happen numerous times
  • Do your homework. You just create extra stress by trying to learn things a few days before the exam when you should actually start learning the concepts when they’re introduced.
  • Actually do the physics problems like you would on the exam. Just looking over doesn’t help matters. You have to actually figure and struggle a little. Watching the teacher do examples is not learning. I find some students think that watching me repeatedly do examples will make things click. It more than likely will not. I probably could do examples until my hand bleeds and I die, and there’s a good chance that they would not learn the topic at hand that well. Note taking, in my opinion, can be passive.
  • Sleep well before an exam. Cramming the night before (or period) rarely helps matters and just adds to stress.
  • Try not to worry too much after you take the exam. It is literally out of your hands, and you more than likely need some time to recover and work on other schoolwork.
  • If you are concerned now about your grades, speak up! I think grades are like financial debt. It is bad when you are in bad places with them, but you cannot do anything about it until you acknowledge that. Also, like credit card companies or loan people, most professors/teachers are willing to work with students and help them figure out what to do and how to improve their grades. However, they aren’t going to be favorable with that if you are doing this last minute.
  • Believe you can succeed. Thinking you can’t do something is defeating, because you have already convinced yourself of that. Try to think that you can weather the class/exam.
  • There is light at the end of the tunnel. As much as I hope people enjoy school and class, I recognize that people end up taking classes that they don’t like, either because of requirements or because the class turned out differently than expected.
  • You have to keep your eye on the proverbial prize. You may hate the class/professor/topic, but you’re in a class and you should at least be concerned about passing so that you don’t lower your GPA/not meet requirements to graduate/etc. At the end of the day, your lack of progress in a class only affects you.
  • Be nice to those around you. Professors and teachers like helping people who have a good attitude, not the students who are hostile or apathetic. You don’t have to be genius to be liked by many people; effort and the right attitude means a lot. Even if you don’t love the person, you should definitely be nice. Yelling at them, treating them poorly, etc. is really just unprofessional (would you yell at your boss?) and doesn’t help your case for getting help or advice. No one likes dealing with nasty people.

Does anyone else have tips to succeed at school? I know to some people these sound corny, but I think you have to keep all these things in mind.

I wrote yesterday in a paper journal that it’s hard to remain optimistic when your future is so uncertain. I also decided, after this weekend, that it’s almost impossible when you are obsessing. I took time away from Craig’s List and the other job search places I’ve used to take a break. I didn’t job search for half a day Saturday, and I needed it more than I realized. I saw a movie and hung out with my significant other.

Yesterday, I called my undergraduate career development office; I chose them, seeing as how they’re more local than my graduate one. The person unfortunately wasn’t too helpful; while he did re-affirm what I’m doing is correct (custom cover letters, not being picky, good interview answers, etc.), his best solutions is keep up the work and wait it out. Essentially, “it’s not you, it’s the economy.” In principle, that is a relief. In practice, when you have bills to pay and no one to support you, you want something better. I almost hoped that he would say, “Aleksie, you are certainly qualified and will get a job if you do x, y, and z.” I wanted a viable solution that was guaranteed.

I have been getting interviews, but I honestly don’t meet their exact criteria. I learn quickly, though, and I can learn almost anything I put my mind to; I taught my 4’10 self in one afternoon how to shoot a basketball from the foul line for 7th grade gym. I was tired of not getting it at all, so I took time to teach myself. I take pride in my work and can enjoy most tasks for a job. Even if I’m not the real life version of their ad, I think I definitely have qualities going for me.

Weathering the unemployment market seems to be the only solution. But man, it’s hard out there.