My undergraduate education is coming to a close, but I hope that what I have learned over the past four years will help you in your quest for the most enlightening and enjoyable undergraduate experience possible. Here are the three most important things I wish I had known when I first arrived as a freshman in college:
Take time to explore, but settle down as soon as you know.
As a naive freshman I sought to accumulate as many majors and minors as my university would allow, simply because I could. Thus, my college experience started off as an assortment of computer science, chemistry, and math classes, which were interesting but did not serve any sort of cohesive goal. By sophomore year, I had taken enough classes to understand that chemistry was undoubtedly something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I still held off in declaring my major for another year. What would have been more helpful to my undergraduate experience? Declaring a major in chemistry as soon as I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
What’s the point of this story? It is important to explore your options and find your passion – that’s what college is all about. However, when the point comes that you realize you love something above all else, don’t hesitate to settle down. Declaring a major doesn’t set your future in stone, but it often opens up doors that are not available to undeclared students. For example, professors may be more apt to accept you as an undergraduate researcher in their lab if they know that you are committed to getting your degree in chemistry or a related science. In addition, sometimes certain levels of prerequisite classes are specifically required for a major in chemistry – you don’t want to have to take two variations of the same classes, right? Plus, once you know what you want to do, why hesitate?
The years coming up are going to be tough, but you have resources!
Majoring in chemistry or a related science is no trivial task. There will be times where you’re locked in the library at 3:00 a.m. wondering why you ever chose this major. Just remind yourself that you really do love the challenge. Through the good times and bad, you have many resources available to you – some of the most important may be sitting less than three feet from you!
That’s right, some of the most valuable resources you have available to you are your classmates. These individuals may be the only ones that truly understand what you’re going through, and you’ll be seeing them quite often over the next few years. Don’t be the quiet, sullen student struggling alone – make some new friends, and you’ll improve your undergraduate experience two-fold: You will have a lot more fun studying and you will learn a lot more from each other than you possibly could if you were disconnected from your peers.
Yet another resource available to you? That professor standing in the front of the class! It took me until senior year to understand that professors really do teach because they love seeing their students learn. Attend office hours and ask questions when you’re confused in class. And above all else get to know your professors – they may just be some of the coolest people you have ever met, and they may pull out a pretty funny chemistry joke every so often.
Finally, multiple resources are available in addition to your new friends and professors. Undergraduate institutions often have chemistry or other physical science clubs (like an ACS Student Chapter) that you may find interesting. Not only will joining these groups allow you to expand your network, but it will also put you in contact with others that enjoy science as much as you do. ACS Student Chapters, for example, host fun activities that will allow you to spread your love of science throughout the university and your surrounding community when you need a break from being a studious bookworm.
You’re not too young to gain experience!
A major limitation I gave to myself in college was the belief that I did not possess the skills necessary to land an internship and gain experience outside of school. Although you have some lab experience and a number of classes under your belt, companies understand when they hire you that you are still a student. Many companies hire you with the expectation that you will work hard, contribute to a project under the supervision of a senior scientist, and will learn a lot along the way. What do you have to lose? Send in some internship applications in an area of chemistry that you’re interested in and see what happens. No one is going to judge you if you don’t end up getting the job, and the experience you gain just by applying and interviewing puts you a step ahead of the rest. The ACS Get Experience website is a great place to start your search.
What’s more? Chemical & Engineering News cites a lack of network connections as a major limitation for new graduates (both undergraduates and graduate students) as they seek jobs after graduation. By searching for an internship early on in your academic career, you not only gain experience that you will use as a professional chemist, but you will also expand your network of contacts for your life after your academic years. And don’t simply give up without trying. According to the article linked above, companies like BASF are expanding their recruitment efforts at universities in an attempt to gain the talent necessary to compete in an ever-increasingly competitive market The jobs are out there, you just have to actively seek them out – so get to it!
If there’s one thing I can relay to you about your upcoming undergraduate years, it’s this: Have a blast, work hard, and learn as much as you can along the way. Never be afraid to ask your classmates and professors for help, and make as many connections as you possibly can. Here’s to the next four years of your education!