Posted by: unlikelygrad | January 13, 2009

go back to school, girl

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’d decided to take a couple of classes at the local state university to remedy my “academic deficiencies” and provide sources for letters of recommendation.  

This was the best choice I ever made.  I would say that I wish I’d done it sooner, but if I’d done it sooner, I wouldn’t have met SL…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I enrolled in two classes.  The first was one that I should have taken early in the process of getting my BA but didn’t. (When I’d transferred schools, the undergrad advisor thought one of my classes was equivalent of this class, but it wasn’t.  I could have skated by without taking quantitative analysis, but it was soooo helpful to do lab stuff again.)  The second class was one that most people take right before they graduate: second semester physical chemistry/quantum mechanics.  

It was kind of funny to be taking one class with sophomores–at least one of whom was a mere 2 years older than my oldest child–and another class with graduating seniors.  Needless to say, I was more worried about the PChem than QA.  In fact, I fretted about it excessively.  I’m 36.  How can I keep up with these kids?  It’s been 15 years.  Do I even remember multivariable calculus or matrices?  (I’d tutored a couple of kids through basic differentiation and one of those through integration as well, but that was the limit of my recent calculus activity.)

I resolved to do everything in my power to keep up.  What I didn’t realize is that, well, college students are college students.  They’d rather party or hang out than study. I read the first chapter of the book before going to the first day of lecture.  It made no sense.  After listening to the lecture, I went home and re-read it.  I tried my hand at a few problems.  I went to the second lecture.  Lightbulbs went off in my head.  I understood it!!  We moved on to the material in the second chapter.  Again, I read the chapter and tried some problems.  Again, the lecture made sense, even though it involved some serious mathematical derivations.  About this time, I began to notice some blank looks on the faces of my classmates…

The teacher in this class was a newly-hired assistant professor.  (I’ll call him SL on this blog: not his real initials, but initials he associates with himself.)  Prior to getting the position at OurStateU, he’d been a post-doc at an Ivy League school.  He’d taught quantum a couple of times before, but it had never been like this.  At the end of the second week of class, we ended up in the stairwell at the same time.  Before I headed up to lab and he headed down to his office, he said to me in a weary voice, “At least you can follow the material!”

This little comment alerted me to the fact that I was succeeding where most of those young bucks weren’t.  I was at the top of the class–because I was willing to do the work.  My years of becoming an independent learner were paying off.  

Besides reading ahead and doing homework problems (both professors assigned homework but didn’t collect it), another thing I did this time that most of my classmates didn’t was go to office hours.  In all my years as an undergrad, I’d never gone to office hours.  NEVER.  Even when I was failing classes my sophomore year.  Was that dumb or what?  Now I went and discovered what I was missing.  I didn’t go often–maybe three or four times during the semester.

My QA professor was quick to answer questions and bundle me out the door, but SL was different.  He was patient and, more importantly, he was friendly.  I wasn’t just a student ID number to him.  He asked questions about my academic and career goals.  He asked about my family. More importantly, he gave me advice.  Don’t underestimate yourself.  If you want a Ph.D., why in the world are you applying for M.S. programs? What do you mean, you think you can’t get in to a Ph.D. program?  You’re at the top of your PChem class!  Why are you only applying to mediocre schools?  You belong at Stanford or Berkeley!

One time I mentioned to him that, ever since I’d failed out of (insert name of big-name university here), I’d had little in the way of self-confidence.  Guess what he had to say to that?  So?  What’s that got to do with anything?  I failed out of (school) and I got into Stanford!  

It’s hard to explain what I felt like when I left his office that day.  I felt like I’d been slapped in the face.  I felt like I’d been through a rigorous therapy session.  I was in turmoil.  But I also felt a growing sense of peace:  Why had I let self-doubt rule my life for so long? With two sentences–So?  What’s that got to do with anything?–SL put to bed some insecurities that had been plaguing my life for years.

If you’re planning to return to grad school after a long absence from academia, I highly recommend taking some classes at the local state university.  Many will allow you admission as a post-baccalaureate student.  Here in California, you can’t gain formal admission, but you can take classes through the “Open University” program.

If you do take a class or two, you’ll get a good idea of whether going on for a degree is right for you.  Your confidence in your abilities will grow.  You’ll find professors to write you letters of recommendation.  Best of all, you’ll be able to network in the academic world.


Coming soon:  I take the Chemistry GRE, and SL hands me a big surprise.


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