It’s Just One Semester at a Time

This is really for students—but maybe it applies to you also.  If so, I’m happy about that.

So there you are.  There’s still a month left in the semester (or quarter) and you are just plain burned out.  You have not motivation to study and your last test score wasn’t quite what you expected.  That thought creeps into your head—maybe you just don’t belong here.

NO. Don’t listen to that voice!

Yes, we all have that voice.  It’s in us all.  It’s the voice of doubt.  You can get through this—surely you can.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider something else.  Suppose you are in a race.  It’s a long race—maybe it’s a 10k.  You haven’t run this far before and you are worried about finishing last so you start off with a quick pace.

Oh, now it’s up to the 8 kilometer mark and you have lost it.  You have to stop.  You can’t keep up this pace anymore.

Has this happened to you in a race?  It has to me (and I hate races).  Of course the problem in this situation is the pace.  You can’t start off too fast or you will run out of energy.  You have to start off with a reasonable pace that you can keep up with the whole time.  It is indeed odd that starting off slower gives you a faster overall speed—but it’s true.

Back to studying.  You can see where this is going.  If you start off at a whirlwind pace at the beginning of the semester, you are going to run out of steam.

Here are some tips for taking care of business during the semester.

  • You don’t have to be perfect in all (or any) of your classes.  That’s like assuming you are going to win in every race.  No one wins all the time—and this isn’t even a race.  It’s not a competition.
  • Take some breaks.  I’m not saying you should just sit around and chill, but if you work all the time your brain can’t process stuff.  Do something fun.  Go see something.  Hang out with friends.  These are the parts of college life that will have a huge impact.
  • Work with others in a study group.  This means you will help others and this means others will help you.  Both of these things are super useful.
  • Exercise.  Go for a walk or hit the gym.  Personally, I like to run—and I don’t use earphones.  Just use that exercise time to sort of meditate and let your brain unwind.
  • Need help?  Get help.  There are plenty of people to help you.  Go talk to your professor (they are most likely nice). Talk to your friends and family.  If you feel like things are getting out of hand, there are probably support services at your university.

Finally, maybe you like dogs.  Go find a dog and pet a dog.

A Quick Note: Packing for College

My oldest daughter is currently in the process of getting her stuff together.  She is moving away for her first year of college.  Hope everything goes well, but I keep thinking of this scene from The Hobbit.

Yes, in college you will have to do without a great many things.  Honestly, that is part of what makes the whole college experience so great.  It’s not just about classes, but all the things in between (if it was just about classes – it would make more sense to stay home and take classes online).

No, you won’t have everything perfect in college (or in life really).  You won’t have the best shoes for a particular event.  You might have to wear the same pants more than once.  You are going to have to share a room with someone – and a shower too.

But you know what?  It’s not just college – real life is like that also.  It’s not about making everything perfect, it’s about living with what you have.  You can never have a perfect life – unless you learn to enjoy the imperfections that life throws at you.


Letter to High School Students: What to Major in

Dear High School students,

How are you? I am fine. I am very glad that I am no longer in high school. Maybe you enjoy high school, but for me, it was not so good. Don’t get me wrong, I went to an excellent high school (Waubonsie Valley HS). There was something in high school that didn’t feel right. Maybe it was being in classes for too long and the lack of time to work on my own projects. Maybe it was lack of freedom in choosing my own classes (there was some freedom to chose). Or perhaps I was just not mature enough to enjoy it. Needless to say, I am past that now.

I think now, how could I help high school students? In particular, how could I help them choose a major in college (if they choose to go to college). So, this will be the topic of this letter today. Please don’t hope that I will write more useful high-school letters such as “how to find a prom date”. That is definitely one area I failed at.

Choosing a major is difficult and even scary. In a way, you are choosing a career – but maybe not as much as you think. First, choosing a major is somewhat a random event. Suppose you choose underwater basket weaving as your major for some reason. It is likely that you have never woven a basket underwater. Maybe you will like it, but maybe you won’t. You won’t really get a good idea of how much you like or dislike underwater basic weaving until you actually go underwater and weave a basket. Unfortunately, the underwater basket weaving curriculum has you taking UBW 101 (Introduction to underwater basket weaving) your sophomore year. You first have to take the pre requisites, history of baskets and introduction to water. After you decide you don’t really like this major, it has already been 1-2 years. So, if it takes you 5 or 6 years to graduate, don’t worry TOO much. Your parents may be displeased, but tell them I said it was ok.

**Major in Physics**

I know. You saw that coming. Why should you major in physics? Here are some of my points:

**It is difficult**

Wait. BECAUSE it’s difficult? Shouldn’t you do something because it is easy – not difficult? Well, it depends on why you are doing it. If you are doing something to improve yourself, difficult is good. Imagine you were going to exercise. Should you walk around the block or run 3 miles? Well, if you find that walking around the block is very easy, it probably won’t do much for you. If you find underwater basket weaving to be easy, maybe it is not really helping you grow. So, physics IS difficult, but that is a good thing.

**What else are you going to do?**

I hate to be a negative person (I am not really) but look at where we are today. There are financial problems, energy problems, problems with that rick-roll stuff. What are we going to do? You could help. Maybe it will be you that contributes to the energy problem (well, we all contribute to the problem, maybe you could contribute to the solution). Physics gives you are start in the fundamentals of nature. We NEED people to understand the basics so that we can defeat the energy problem.

What are your other options? Underwater basket weaving? Maybe there are lots of people who can do underwater basket weaving. This means there are lots of people capable of UBW (underwater basket weaving). Job competition for UBW is high and maybe companies will just start sending their UBW tasks to India where it costs less. Plus, does anyone really NEED UBW? Maybe it is the first thing to go when the economy is taking a turn for the worse.

**Are you ready for physics?**

A common idea that comes up is that students think they can not major in physics because they did not take physics in high school. I don’t think this is a disadvantage in any way. In introductory physics, the common problem is that students must “*unlearn what they have learned*” such as the idea that *constant force causes constant motion* (just to be clear -that idea is wrong). What about math? Yes, you need to be proficient in math. Most students entering school (at least here) are not quite where they need to be in terms of math understanding. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t catch up. Ideally, students should be ready to take Calculus I when entering college. You have time, work on your algebra and trig skills so that you can do well on the Math part of the ACT and place into Calc I.


This is longer than I usually write without including an equation, so maybe this is a good place to stop. If you want to major in physics, there are lots of things to consider. Here are some resources: