What are useful skills to learn at university?

by Metus1 min read25th Aug 201239 comments

7

Personal Blog

To further elaborate the question: What are the most universally and most useful skills one could learn at a university? Currently, I am studying physics as an undergraduate and I am thinking about my career options. I have gotten opinions in other forums as well but I would really like to hear your thoughts and I also think that other LessWrongers would find such a list useful. To give you a rough idea of what I mean I have two examples:

  • Programming/Coding: Almost universally applicable seeing as if you can describe your process, you can automate it. It is a skill you can use in applied research, fundamental research or in a field not related to physics at all.
  • Statistics, the mathematics and the use of R or SAS: Again, in all fields of science and many applications statistical knowledge is required. Having a firm grasp of the mathematical concepts involved and being able to use a statistics software can only be advantageous.

What are some other skills along this line that are universally useful?

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Some universally important skills that I wish I had been a lot better at in college:

  • Networking and selling yourself. None of the other (professional) skills you develop will matter if you can't get a job where you use them.
  • How to collaborate effectively.
  • Setting priorities and time management.

Beyond that, it's very important to know what your goals/values are. What do you want to get out of an ideal career? Why are you majoring in physics? It's hard to optimize before you know what you're optimizing for.

Self-organization, efficient working are not actually taught. Neither is planning. Often you have voluntary courses on university work. But you do get pressured into either doing it or fail. The scientific method might be taught, but you don't have to get it. to succeed.

Often one learns systematic working and math. Somewhat scientific working, quoting right.

I think university teaches some things indirectly that are hard to explain explicitly and hard to become aware that they actually matter.

When I was at college, I didn't just pick up universally useful skills, but also skills that would be a lot more costly to learn once I graduated. So, for me, that included:

  • Glassblowing
  • Machine shop
  • Wood shop
  • Costuming
  • Musical Theatre lyric writing
  • Ballroom dance
  • Swing dance

It would be a lot more expensive to pay for some of these lessons now, to schlep to a studio, and/or to get the kind of structured instruction I got at school. So I got to pick up some useful, unusual skills and have gotten more of my programming from Udacity.

I don't use all of these skills that often, but you might value a skill for the different frames of reference it gives you as much as the actual applications of the skill. I like that now whenever I pick up a piece of glassware, I automatically think about how it was made and get a little jolt of joy.

Hmmm, I liked that idea a lot, until I thought about cost.

I'd think that most of those would be much more cost effective at the local community college after you graduate than at school while you're pursuing your degree. I can see the convenience factor of just going to another class, but at least from the US perspective, a university degree is extremely expensive, and the opportunity cost of not taking more career related classes too high.

Some schools charge tuition in proportion to the number of classes, have fixed timetables, or caps on the number of classes per semester, in which case taking more career related classes may not be an option.

Usually extracurriculars like these don't count towards any of those (aside from maybe a $10 registration fee or something).

Although it's possible to take a machine shop class at a community college after you graduate, it would take a significantly greater amount of time and reorganization of one's schedule (you are already living at or commuting to university, but this won't be true in four years). And the opportunity cost of not spending time on career or family might well prohibit it.

It's worth remember that in some countries university is much much cheaper.

A lot of careers don't have that many career-related classes.

I found that most of my classes went through the material way too fast for me to really internalize it. One thing I would recommend is accumulating massive amounts of information (professor's PowerPoints, electronic copies of books, PDFs of important reviews) for later digesting. While you are a student it will be easier & cheaper (or perhaps, included in your inflated tuition) to gain access to these kinds of materials. You can cram what you need for the tests, but to really master a subject will take longer than the schedule of most courses allows, at least in my experience. Get an SRS program like Anki or SuperMemo & start plugging the material in there piece by piece, so long as it is material you want to internalize & master, not just junk you need to know for the quiz.

[-][anonymous]9y 10

Getting along with people that you did not initiate associate with, and who you wouldn't normally initiate association with.

I chose my classes, but I didn't choose other students who also chose those classes. Some of them had never met an atheist before, and I hadn't spent time around proselytizing Christians in quite a while. Learning how to get along was highly unexpected and highly valuable.

[-][anonymous]6y 2

Also, it might be good for some people (but not everybody) to try to lead. (Like a student NGO.) It makes you come to places on time, seek approaches to acrasia-striken fellows, answer for stupid mistakes (not all made by you), shrug off condescention, perhaps raise funds or call people to sign petitions (which is awkward enough), and generally be prepared to not knowing where you will spend the night.

Things you should aim to learn in classes:

-You should take enough math so that you can take set theory and formal logic and understand both of them

-You should take enough analysis (or calculus) so that you can think intuitively about continuity and about limits. You should also be able to think about when it makes sense to be thinking about the slope of a curve or the area under a curve. (this bullet probably goes without saying for a physics major, but is included for readers other than the OP)

-You should take enough English (or other writing intensive classes) to be a solid writer

-You should learn at least 2 programing languages (you probably only need to learn one in class, the second will be manageable on your own once you have learned the first)

-You should learn enough literary theory that you can casually and intuitively identify the social and artistic practices involved in the creation and maintenance of false categories and similarly identify the social and artistic practices involved in creating and maintaining a sense of “naturalness” about practices which could and should be legitimately questioned

-You should take game theory (imagine a big star drawing attention to this one)

-You should take macroeconomics with calculus and microeconomics with calculus. Some schools offer intro versions without calculus. For optimal time allocation talk to whomever you need to talk to (Professor, advisor, Dean, department chair, etc) in order to skip these and go directly to the versions with calculus

-If a history professor has a good reputation for teaching, take at least one class about a time very different than your own. Realistically, any group of people more than 200 years back should seem crazy to you. A good red flag to identify poor history teachers quickly is if they ever use the word “we” to describe a group that includes themselves and people who died before they were born.

-If your school has a good film class (ask students), take it. This isn’t so much practically useful, but if you substantially improve your eye for film you will be able to get a lot more enjoyment out of film for the remainder of your life.

[-][anonymous]9y 5

A good red flag to identify poor history teachers quickly is if they ever use the word “we” to describe a group that includes themselves and people who died before they were born.

I endorse this heuristic.

[-][anonymous]9y 2

On the other hand, we mathematicians do this all the time, so this heuristic may break down outside of the history department....

[-][anonymous]9y 0

Have I already mentioned the documentary about events taking places tens of millennia ago in which the presenter consistently referred to Homo sapiens sapiens and H. sapiens neanderthalensis as “us” and “them” respectively?

[-][anonymous]9y 0

This is rather funny considering the best current evidence seems to indicates we have H. sapiens neanderthalensis ancestry as well.

Why do we feel the need to pick sides between two slightly different subtypes of humans before the dawn of recorded history?

This is rather funny considering the best current evidence seems to indicates we have H. sapiens neanderthalensis ancestry as well.

I don't know about we, but I do (or so says the lab that genotyped me).

[-][anonymous]9y 1

throws rocks at the out group hominid

How to signal intelligence, hanging around with professors and doing fancy experiments.

A good net make you more propense to suceed if you already are smart. The academic plataform is inneficient, don't expect to learn the best insights from there.

You should work in a lab or machine shop, for pretty much the same reasons you give for learning to program. Those skills tend to be under-emphasized in the undergraduate curriculum compared to how useful they are in the real world, so you'll have to seek out opportunities on your own. But if you do, that means you'll be rare and valuable.

You can't go wrong with writing, as it is nearly universally required and will be among the last skills to be Turing'd. A STEM major who can write well is a scarce commodity, if the GRE scores are any indication. (I would not recommend taking a course to improve your writing however. Just start writing a blog or something. And read Eats, Shoots & Leaves.)

If you have trouble socializing, learn how to do that. Most jobs opportunities come through socializing. Even the jobs that are advertised still require a competent interview.

Colleges have a breadth requirement; one source I read suggested using that to take a writing heavy course in history or philosophy that requires lots of short papers in order to improve your writing.

It's also possible to get lots of writing experience by taking advanced foreign language courses.

How to Get a Real Education, some wise advice from Scott Adams, who is both smart and successful.

Learn how to do. Learn how to produce, create, and use.

Technically, you want source control, coding. databases. data manipulation, scripting languages. Build a complete tool and process chain.

Write research and grant proposals. Publish results.

Establish your own self management regime. Find tools to help with that.

And of course, networking. That's probably the most important. Establish your network at school for students and professors. Start making industry connections. Professional groups.

School teaches you that it's all about how smart you are, how much you know, and how well you analyze. Those are all just means to production, and not really that most important. Target your efforts at being able to do, not being able to think about doing.

The only useful things you can learn in university classes are those that you already know you want. Not because you have to sign up for the classes, but because if you don't want to learn from them you can and will pass them without integrating new knowledge.

For most people, college is the last chance you have to interact with smart, ambitious people in fields outside your own. You should take advantage of that diversity while you can, as it will pay off both in rewarding friendships and intellectual stimulation down the line.

Not my experience. (Sadly). Most students I interacted with at university were less than interested to talk about subject matters at all.

[-][anonymous]9y 1

In my experience, that's why making friends with graduate students can be really valuable. At my university, at least, they tend to be smarter and more willing to talk about their field than other undergraduates.

Probably true at a lot of universities, although it might still be true that you'll have a better hit rate at university than at most other places.

Yes.

I think I found quite a few groups where the group topic was barely talked about outside of formal events. To some degree thats normal and good. It just irritates me when the rate is extremely low.

Success needs luck too. In academia specifically, try to consider be exposed to positive serendipity.

Another point: unecessary signaling games makes some fields more prone to ad-hoc work like lateral publications.

Finally, If you learn how to code, then probably will end in experimental research. Statistics will help. Don't forget the errors.

An alumna form my university gave a speech to the engineering freshmen, she said that of all the things she learned at university the most important one was how to organise the engineering ball.

So, to belabour the point, perhaps the most universally important and useful skills you could learn are the ones of communications, organisation, networking and influence.

If you are looking for skills for which there are actually courses, consider technical drawing. It is extremely helpful in engineering, and I'd suppose physics, to be able to convey your idea for say experimental set-up via a clear, easy to understand drawing.

sorry, wrong button

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[-][anonymous]9y 3

If you refresh the page after retracting a comment, you can delete it.

Fellow physics undergrad here, hoooowwwwyadoin? I'll write of some stuff I've learned is important, and I'm quite interested in other LessWronger's opinions.

I think one important thing to learn is how to understand something, and how to notice when you don't understand something. I can't tell you how many students sit at the front of the room, nod happily along with the teacher, memorize all the equations, and still have no idea what any of it MEANS. Not only that, but they don't even know that they don't know what it means. What has worked for me is to get at least 2 textbooks on every subject I study and learn with those and the teacher. Each book hits problems in a different way and has different visuals and such. Gaaah sorry that was off of your question kindof.

Learn programming on your own. It's easy and most intro to programming courses go waaaayyyy too slowly.

Statistics is very important and most intro classes won't be enough. You can learn the statistics as you do research and need it, or take advanced classes that still won't cover enough ground.

Learn how to write. Note: most English 101 style classes don't actually teach you anything. Take a more advanced essay class or two.

hoooowwwwyadoin?

off of your question kindof

Learn how to write.

how to notice when you don't understand something.

I suggest you switch to a more lucrative major so you can pay for all the irony meters you must be breaking.

Well now I'm in a tricky sitchiation. I can huff and pout and say "but I do know how to write, I just use lotsa slangsies on the internet because it's fun and still understandable." That's kinda pity-ful sounding though, like a likkle kiddle insisting that they've learned their lesson and can they please go get ice cream now? OR, I can just say "yep, ye got me guv," and we can talk about interesting things like... oh I don't know (but I certainly misused an ellipsis! And just look at that horrible exclamation mark! EEK! Another two).

Yep, ye got me guv.

I think you are overestimating your comprehensibility. It is comparatively difficult to make out what you are saying.

What you wrote is so strangely similar to my thoughts. And the part about the students not getting the subject is scarily accurate. Thank you for your answer.