Lessons from Undergrad

Categories: Misc

Written on November 26, 2021

Unconventional advice I wish I’d heard entering undergrad.

There is already so much self help on the internet and everyone’s mileage will vary. However, there are a five core things I wish I’d realized earlier during undergrad. I found myself repeating this advice in a number of conversations and don’t hear others suggesting it often. With another reminder that this advice certainly may fail for you here it goes:

1. Take general education requirements you aren’t excited about at the very end of undergrad, not the very beginning.

I always heard you should get your required language class, global history, etc “out of the way” when you start college. If you see these classes as a chore then I argue you should take them as late as you can.

The primary reason is compounding returns. Taking a higher level class a semester earlier than you otherwise would could be the difference between landing a competitive internship or not. Being more advanced in one subject can influence what other classes you take, final projects you work on, and how you see the world more broadly. This sounds dramatic and naive but there are fundamental mental models like learning how to think probabilistically that can really shape your future decision making.

Taking what you think you want to study first also falls into the category of “failing fast”. College, especially in an American liberal arts program, is often the most important and last incubator for the 80,000 hours of your ensuing career. It is when you have the time and resources to become proficient in completely novel domains.

Finally, by the time you are about to graduate and taking that required spanish class in a room full of freshmen, you won’t have to care or waste as much time on the busy-work. You’ll be more mature, your GPA is basically locked in, and your future employer has likely already accepted you so it shouldn’t matter anyways.

I realize that for some, the general education requirements can be a source of direction and inspiration. If you don’t have any idea what you want to pursue then by all means take these classes. But those who have an idea of what they want to pursue should go forth and do it!

2. Take graduate classes as soon as possible.

It is easy to assume that graduate classes are for graduate students. Not only are they often surprisingly accessible but have fewer bull**** assignments and are smaller so you get more contact time with the professor. If you care about things like your GPA, I also found they were generously graded. You can also meet lots of interesting graduate students and smart fellow undergrads here.

A friend had a general education requirement to take a small seminar class that had to be fulfilled in his first year. Instead of taking a “101” class in some subject he didn’t care about, he took a “700” level graduate seminar on meta ethics. He was very interested in the subject, held his own and got a lot out of the class. But this sort of opportunity is totally off most people’s radar.

3. Independent studies are the best.

At Duke you could get a professor to sign off on an independent study as one of your courses. It was up to you and the professor to decide on weekly objectives and the final deliverable. In one case, I did research on nutritional interventions for brain development and wrote a paper at the end, meeting each week to discuss what I had read and learnt. In another case, a group of four friends read this Deep Learning textbook and met with the professor each week summarizing what we had learnt with slides. These slides became the foundation for a new Deep Learning class the professor taught the following semester.

If you have a topic in mind then nothing beats the total freedom and mentorship possible through an independent study.

4. Just because something is hard doesn't mean it is valuable.

It is a generally useful heuristic that if something is hard then it is worth doing. If it was not hard then it is likely that many other people can, or already have, done it before. However, a danger arises in applying this heuristic to endlessly chase the infinite list of esoteric things one can learn. Especially when taking harder classes is great for signaling intelligence and too many students play teacher’s password. This means there has to be some threshold beyond which you stop learning and start applying your knowledge, for whatever end purpose you have in mind. If it is for the very sake of knowledge then ignore this advice but at least be intentional in knowing this is why you are learning. Far wiser folks including Ben Kuhn and Geoffrey Hinton have written along similar lines.

5. Learn frameworks for thinking.

A number of the neuroscience students I met were smart and hard working but seemed to graduate having spent a lot of time being taught the name of every brain region.

Along the recurring theme of there being finite time to learn, I wish I had better prioritized classes to teach me completely different mental models. Learning more about human rationality and cognitive biases; How to think probabilistically and in high dimensional spaces; Seeing the world through information theory and statistical mechanics; Learning about historical trends that have shaped societies and may do so again; Physics, biology and chemistry for the fundamental levers and constraints of our reality. I feel like all of these skills have outsized returns no matter the specific problem or textbook facts of the day. Feynman has made very similar arguments and this post is a great example of this sort of framework based learning centered around being able to understand any system.

Other advice that is more general but I’d love to signal boost is Sam Altman’s “The days are long but the decades are short”. As a taster I am going to quote the first four pieces of advice:

1) Never put your family, friends, or significant other low on your priority list. Prefer a handful of truly close friends to a hundred acquaintances. Don’t lose touch with old friends. Occasionally stay up until the sun rises talking to people. Have parties.

2) Life is not a dress rehearsal—this is probably it. Make it count. Time is extremely limited and goes by fast. Do what makes you happy and fulfilled—few people get remembered hundreds of years after they die anyway. Don’t do stuff that doesn’t make you happy (this happens most often when other people want you to do something). Don’t spend time trying to maintain relationships with people you don’t like, and cut negative people out of your life. Negativity is really bad. Don’t let yourself make excuses for not doing the things you want to do.

3) How to succeed: pick the right thing to do (this is critical and usually ignored), focus, believe in yourself (especially when others tell you it’s not going to work), develop personal connections with people that will help you, learn to identify talented people, and work hard. It’s hard to identify what to work on because original thought is hard.

4) On work: it’s difficult to do a great job on work you don’t care about. And it’s hard to be totally happy/fulfilled in life if you don’t like what you do for your work. Work very hard—a surprising number of people will be offended that you choose to work hard—but not so hard that the rest of your life passes you by. Aim to be the best in the world at whatever you do professionally. Even if you miss, you’ll probably end up in a pretty good place. Figure out your own productivity system—don’t waste time being unorganized, working at suboptimal times, etc. Don’t be afraid to take some career risks, especially early on. Most people pick their career fairly randomly—really think hard about what you like, what fields are going to be successful, and try to talk to people in those fields.

Thanks to Miles Turpin and Max Farrens for reading drafts of this piece. All remaining errors are mine and mine alone.