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.