Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Connect with Your Professors

One key to doing well in college is this: connect with your professors.

What Connecting Means

What do I mean by that? I mean, get to know them, and make sure they get to know you. Engage with them in class, yes, but also talk to them before class starts or after it ends. Find out if they have a teaching assistant (TA) for the next semester, or the semester after that.

This is especially important for the professors who teach in your major. For me, that's psychology. So, as things stand now, I'm scheduled to TA for one professor next semester, and I have agreed to TA for another one the following two semesters. I even got a request from another to TA for him.

The professor I had for Intro to Psychology agreed to be my faculty mentor, which is a good thing to have. She's helped me figure out what I need to do to prepare myself to apply to graduate school. Because of her, I put myself into the running for Vice President of the Kennesaw State University Psychology Club, and as a result I am the incoming VP for the Fall semester.

I don't think Freud was ever the Vice President of his school's Psychology Club. So there.

By Max Halberstadt[1] (1882-1940) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Be Sincere

It only makes sense to connect with professors if you sincerely believe in them and want to learn from them. If so, such a connection will prove invaluable. This is where being an older student can come in handy, too, because it'll be easier for you to relate to your professors than it was when you were in your early twenties.

When you find a professor that you do connect with, schedule a time to discuss your goals so they know the direction you want to go, and you may be surprised by how much they can help you. But please respect their time and position, and don't become a pain the tuches.

Don't just pick one professor and latch onto him or her, either. Make sure they all know you for all the right reasons by adhering to the advice in this blog: sitting in the front row, participating in class, never missing a class, etc.

In college, you want to be the teacher's pet. Just the other day I had a teacher tell our class that if a student's grade was on the cusp between two grades, a 'C' and a 'B' for example, if she knew who the student was by name, that student was likely to get the 'B.' If not, that student would get the 'C.' 

In other words, to her knowing a student's name, especially in a class of 150, meant that student was trying hard to do well. Is it fair? I guess it depends on who's asking the question, but in college professors can do that.

Next: Time management and prioritizing.

Attitude, Attitude, Attitude

We all have an attitude. Is yours good, or bad? That, to paraphrase a certain play, is the question.

It's easy to have a bad attitude.

One advantage of being all grown up and in college is that it becomes easier to control your attitude. Attitude is a key component of motivation. If you have a bad attitude about something, your motivation for doing well in that something will be minimal at best. 

In my experiences as an adult learner, I've learned to manage my own attitude. However, if I am being honest with myself (and with you, dear reader) I have to admit that my attitude in the past is one of the reasons I am still trying to get my four-year degree in my forties.

What I mean by "bad attitude."

In my first semester at Kennesaw State University I had to take a World Literature class as a prerequisite to some writing classes I needed in order to get a Minor in Professional Writing. I was slightly annoyed at having to take, and pay for, a class that I felt should have been covered by transfer credits. But I decided that since the university decided I needed the class I might as well enjoy it.

I overheard other students of the younger, more traditional variety, complaining loudly about the class and how it was "useless" and "pointless" and "stupid." They argued they would never need to know anything about Homer or Shakespeare or Madam Bovary.

Mr. Pointless Himself
By It may be by a painter called John Taylor who was an important member of the Painter-Stainers' Company.[1] (Official gallery link) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why every class is important (on some level).

Talking to some other students before class one day, I mentioned what I'd overheard. The other students admitted to thinking the same thing (especially the business and science majors). I pointed out that knowing a thing or two about World Literature could come in handy in any endeavor.

For example, I said, imagine you're in a meeting at your new job, and someone mentions that the current situation with a contractor and the customer is like being between Scylla and Charybdis. Everyone laughs when someone adds, "Maybe we should all put wax in our ears." Wouldn't it be nice to know what that means and why it might get a laugh?

The point is that every class adds to your knowledge, which had either a direct relation to your chosen field, or adds to your cultural literacy.

It's easy to have a good attitude, too.

This is almost a secret. Almost. But think about it. It really is easy to have a good attitude once you decide to do so. This relates to something called mindfulness, which is a hot topic in psychology these days.

Meditation is an important tool that can help you maintain mindfulness and deal with the stress of being back in school. It doesn't make all your problems go away, but it does help you deal with them. Even if you don't meditate, though, you can practice mindfulness. It's simply a matter of realizing that you can control your emotions and how you react to things.

You don't have to meditate long enough to grow a beard.
By Wise Droid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

All you have to do is remind yourself that it's just as easy to have a good attitude as it is to have a bad attitude. 

Next: Don't just make friends. Make connections.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Get the Most Out of Going Back to School

What exactly do I mean by "get the most out of going back to school," anyway?

To me, it means making sure to a) get good grades, b) develop useful relationships, and c) actually learn what I need to learn in my major.

How do I go about doing that?

Show up every day.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but I don't think it is. That's because some courses seem deceptively simple, or unimportant. They may lure you into thinking you can get away with just reading the material, turning in the assignments, and taking the exams.

But showing up is the first important step towards doing well in a class. For one thing, instructors sometimes penalize students who miss class by taking points away after a certain number of classes are missed. Or they give pop quizzes, which essentially rewards those who are there.

Not showing up for class is akin to not going to the gym despite paying for a gym membership, except it costs a lot more. It's just downright silly not to take advantage of something you've already paid for.

Be on time.

Relatively light Atlanta traffic.

(Atlantacitizen at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons)

Showing up every day is commendable. Way to go! Now, make sure you get to class on time every day. And "on time" in this case means get there early. I live 32 miles from KSU. It takes me about an hour to get to school, park the car, and walk from the parking deck to class. Classes start at 12:30 in the afternoon, so I leave the house at 10:30 in the morning.

(By the way, it takes me longer to get home because school lets out right when Atlanta's rush hour traffic is at its worst. But I never miss a day.)

Being on time is crucial for several reasons. One, if you are more than 5 minutes late and there's a quiz, you will probably not be allowed to take the quiz and will get a zero. Also, it's just rude to walk in late while an instructor is talking to the class.

Also, getting there early means you have a better chance of getting a prime seat in the classroom.

Sit in the front row.

Studies have shown that people who sit in the front row in class tend to get better grades. Personally, I'd rather sit in the back row -- I'm more comfortable back there, it's anonymous, I'm less likely to be asked a direct question by the teacher. But I sit in the front row anyway.

See that guy in the back, resting his chin on his fist? He'll get a 'C.'

By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sitting in the front row means I am less likely to miss something. It's easier for me to see the blackboard, whiteboard, projector screen or whatever's being used by the instructor to get the information across. The instructor is also more likely to remember who I am.

All of these things will help, believe me. Especially being remembered by the instructor. You have to engage, ask questions, and answer questions posed by the instructor. It's called class participation, and it counts.

If your grade is on the cusp between an 'A' and a 'B' that could be what tips it into 'A' territory. Instructors can do that. Teaching Assistants can also advocate on your behalf. This is college, people!

Have you taken a college class that you did well in? What did you do to make sure you did well?

Next: The right attitude makes all the difference.

Should You Go Back to School? Part Two

When I decided to go back to school back in the late 1990s, I had this fantasy of becoming a scientist. I love reading so-called pop science books like A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett, and Collapse by Jared Diamond.

I'm not saying I thought I could become the next Stephen Hawking or anything like that. But one can dream...
Stephen Hawking

By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What I love about science.

I love science because I'm fascinated by the mysteries it seeks to reveal. I also love it because I enjoy learning new things. And because I like "big ideas."

Of all the scientific disciplines, the ones that I've tended to read about the most are physics and psychology. I realized that I see these as the two most basic aspects of science: physics seeks to reveal the underlying structure of, well, everything; psychology seeks to reveal the underlying structure of how we perceive, well, everything.

After years of on-again, off-again college classes, and as I quickly approached a sobering mile-marker in life (my 50th birthday is less than 2 years away), I knew I had to make a decision about which degree I wanted. And I had to commit to getting that degree as soon as possible.

The degree I chose.

I chose psychology for a variety of reasons, even though there is a debate among some scientists as to whether or not it qualifies as a "real science." I think it does, although I find the debate interesting.

My reasons for choosing it were personal, practical, and professional.

  • Personal: I like the science of psychology, reading about the brain, learning about human behavior.
  • Practical: It was one of the degrees for which I needed neither additional math credits nor foreign language credits.
  • Professional: With an advanced degree I think my job prospects in research are pretty good.
The psychology department at Kennesaw State University seems to be solid. KSU itself is considered to be a top up-and-coming school.

My plan is to apply to a PhD program after KSU. I've looked at three: Emory University, Georgia State University, and Georgia Tech. Each is very different, so I need to do more research to find out more about them. A PhD program is appealing to me in part because they cover tuition and pay a stipend.

I have a back-up plan.

If I cannot get into a PhD program for psychology, my back-up plan is to get the online Master's of Library Science degree from the University of Kentucky. A friend of mine did that and now works for a university library. He loves it. He's known me for over 25 years and recommended that I look into it.
Steacie Science and Engineering Library at York University

By Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While it isn't my first choice, I know I'd enjoy working in a university library. Plus, it would be a tenure-track faculty position at most universities.

Decide what you love.

I'm not saying to do what I did and major in psychology if you go back to school. But find what you love, or least what you enjoy. That way you won't lose your enthusiasm for school when the going gets rough.

So, tell me: Are you considering going back to college? What are you thinking of majoring in?

Next: A multi-part series on what it takes to get the most of going back to school.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Should You Go Back to School? Part One

Notice the title of this post is a question. That's because the answer isn't always yes. The fact is, going back to school as an adult -- defined here as anyone 30 or older -- isn't for everybody.

Is going back to college for you?

That's a question only you can answer. However, perhaps I can provide some guidance by relating my own experiences. To do that, I need to go back to my first try at college.

Like many people, I went to college right out of high school. I lasted two years at the University of Florida as an English major, with a focus on Creative Writing. Among other reasons, I wasn't all that interested in school or in getting a degree.

Why I dropped out of college the first time.

All I wanted to do was write fiction. It was my all-consuming passion. My dream. I dropped out to pursue a "career" as a creative writer while working odd jobs.

I wanted to be a famous writer, like this guy.

(Ernest Hemingway at Finca Vigia, Cuba. By Unknown or not provided
 (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) 
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I pursued my dream, but dreams don't always come true.

As it happened, I was unable to make a living as a fiction writer. Those odd jobs eventually turned into full-time positions at small technology companies. Over time, I used my writing skills to make forays into marketing and sales.

I decided to go back to college in my early thirties while working for a software company in metro Atlanta. This was the late 1990s and the dot-com boom was just getting underway. Programmers acquired the mystique of rock stars. I thought maybe I could become a rock star -- I mean, a programmer -- myself.

This image shows the stock market during the dot-com boom and bust.

(By Lalala666 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons)

I decided to go back to school.

I took courses in Visual Basic at Gwinnett Technical College. I quickly realized that I didn't like writing programs, even though I got straight A's. But I did like being in school.

I decided to transfer to the local community college, Georgia Perimeter College (GPC), which has campuses all around metro Atlanta. I decided to go part-time and focus on math. This was, in part, because I had suffered from severe math anxiety at UF, which was one of the reasons why I had dropped out. I  wanted to see if I could get past it.

After getting straight A's through Trigonometry, I tackled Calculus I. I got a C in the class. 

Yes, I could have done better, but I was happy with that grade. It was my only C. I continued to take classes at GPC part-time. Sometimes I took only one class in a whole year. Sometimes I had a full schedule of classes.

I knew I had to make a decision about a major.

This went on for more than ten years. I wasn't getting younger, either. And I still didn't know what degree I wanted. 

But I really wanted a degree. It was just taking me longer than most to answer the question: A degree in what?

More on that next time, in Should You Go Back to School? Part Two.

In the meantime, you can read an article that I wrote, called 5 Reasons to Go Back to College After 50.