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Advice to a young college student

By Vinh Pham

One unique value of a university is the diverse range of people and disciplines concentrated in a small physical location. As a student, you should wander around campus, slipping into classes and events, sniffing around for something that grabs your attention: Clues to a satisfying career.

A miniature version of the university is the university library, specifically the trade/academic journal section. Flip through journals to see which problems/solutions are currently being discussed. If you find something mildly interesting, don't be afraid to approach a friendly reference librarian for help in finding more information. Grab these books, videos and web sites and explore them.

Now that you've educated yourself a bit, it's time to make human contact with an expert in the discipline you're curious about. First, walk to the department and look at the bulletin boards for announcements. Maybe you'll overhear an interesting conversation in the hallway. Look at pictures of students and professors. Associate names with faces.

Next, fire off a short e-mail to the dean, introducing yourself and expressing interest. You're seeking a referral:

"Dear Dean So-And-So,

I am a [year/major/whatever] student who's interested in [whatever]. Specifically, I'm curious about [a few specific things]. Could you refer me to a few of your professors, whom I could contact for further questions?

Thank you, [your name]"

The dean should give you a few names. Now you can use the dean's name to get a professor's attention:

"Dear Professor,

I am a [year/major/whatever] student who's interested in [whatever]. Dean So-And-So [it's important to mention the dean] said you would be an excellent source of insight. At your convenience, I would like to schedule a short 15-minute meeting with you next week. I'm very interested in your thoughts and opinions.

Thank you, [your name]"

(Please, please spell check all your e-mails, no matter how short they are.)

After you get a positive response, it's time to do a little more research before your meeting. Your goal isn't to prove you know a lot, because you know nothing. What you want to do is gather enough information so you can ask educated questions. They don't have to be mind-blowing questions. You just want to demonstrate that you're serious about learning and you're worthy of the professor's time.

One goal for this first meeting is to turn you from an anonymous person into a face the professor can attach to your name. You also want to ask the professor for other sources of information (professors, students, events, lectures, etc.). Ask for a copy of the professor's syllabus and required reading list.

A syllabus can be used to guide your own personal research, because the professor has already figured out the best order things should be taught and learned. Also you want to scan upcoming class topics, and if one looks interesting, ask the professor if you could sit in on one of them. Why wait four years to get a taste of higher classes, when you can sample them now?

Avoid violating the 15-minute limit, even if the professor is smiling. You need to respect people's time. Of course, if they are very excited and won't stop talking, then stay longer. And if things aren't clicking, feel free to politely bow out early. Tell them how much you appreciate having a moment of their time.

The basic philosophy is to start at some source of information and let it lead you to new sources. At each step along the way, make contact with more experienced people. Ask them for referrals to even more people. People are the truly valuable resource.

If you start to lose interest, it probably means the discipline isn't for you (or this university isn't the best place to learn it). If you find you're getting more excited, you might be on the right track.

People rarely know what will make them happy until they bump into it. With this simple philosophy, you can keep it from being purely accidental, and be a little smart about it.

Please tell us what you think of this article.

Vinh Pham is an electrical engineer who has been programming the Xilinx FPGAs found in many of today's high performance test equipment. After spending over a decade designing products which keep data networks happy and healthy, he's ready to work on products which make people happy and healthy. Drawing Power Point slides is his guilty pleasure; he enjoys the challenge of taking complicated, technical concepts and distilling them into easy to understand visuals. Lately he's found himself playing marriage counselor to his diverse set of online friends. If you're curious about what it's like to live in Hawaii, or want to chat about any other topic, drop him a line at vinh.q.pham@gmail.com.


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