Additional Notes on Undergraduate Success

Literally a generic, rights-free stock photo of “success”. Your success may look different.

Some additional notes on undergraduate success prepared in advance of a reprise of meeting with UMASS students about settling into college.

Last year, I wrote some notes for undergraduates about how to succeed in college–and how to conceive of “success” itself. This year, I’ve been asked to reprise this advice, but with some additional points on how to connect with faculty, how to find research and internship opportunities, and how to ask for a letter of recommendation.

How to Connect with Faculty

UMASS is a big school, and my advice is going to reflect my experiences here. Advice for students at other kinds of colleges would be different. At Amherst College, for instance, much of what I’m going to say wouldn’t apply because faculty are expected to be more involved in student affairs than at UMASS; surprisingly, maybe, the same would also be more likely to hold at a community college, where faculty focus almost exclusively on teaching.

So what makes UMASS different? It isn’t, really, that the faculty don’t care less than their colleagues at other kinds of universities. It’s instead that their jobs focus primarily around research. Now, I’m speaking mostly about full-time, research professors here. That’s mostly who I think you’ll have in mind. Broadly speaking, almost anyone who is a “full” professor, an associate professor, or an assistant professor–like me–will be on a contract in which (whatever the percentages say) research is our primary responsibility. There are other folks, who include lecturers and adjunct professors, for whom the story is a little different. But I want my advice to reflect my experience, which will still help you a lot.

So what is this “research”? Well, it mostly revolves around crafting arguments and supporting evidence to be published in peer-reviewed journals and books published by university presses. In my field, political science and international relations, that means I’m going to keep trying to publish articles that run 8,000-15,000 words in journals like American Political Science ReviewInternational Organization, and Comparative Political Studies. Most of the time, these articles will be forbiddingly dense not just to undergrads and “civilians” but even to people who aren’t experts in the very same field. For instance, I can mostly read many articles in history, economics, sociology, and psychology, but I am very quickly out of my depth in literature, much less computer science or biology. And even works in different types of political science can sometimes be impossible for me to understand!

These sorts of articles and books constitute research because they are interventions in conversations among experts in sometimes hyper-technical debates. Weirdly, the prestige (and mostly the rigor) of a journal proceeds according to logics that will surprise you. Measured strictly by career benefit, it’s not better for me to publish in the Washington Post (read by millions) than in International Studies Review (read by hundreds). There’s lots of reasons for this, and most of them are good. These articles are meant to be judged by other experts (“peer review”) and have absolutely no connection to the urgency with which the world moves. (I recently co-wrote an article about the Apollo mission and Ming dynasty diplomacy, which should give you a sense of how apparently irrelevant these topics can be.) That doesn’t mean they’re unimportant: my Moon and Ming article deals with forces governing great powers’ decisions to pursue major projects that can cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and lays out why (for instance) the Trump administration might spend trillions going to Mars. It just means that the research enterprise is different from writing for popular audiences.

That’s a really long buildup to the punchline, which is: you should connect with faculty by learning a little bit about their research and by being a lot interested in their subject matter.

“But I’m not interested in every faculty member’s research!” you object. Well, that’s absolutely fair. Neither was I! In fact, neither am I–I have to make real choices about what I read and write, and those choices reveal what I care about–in the sense of “caring enough” about to put my working hours into learning things. (For instance, since I became a professor, I’ve basically been unable to find time to read fiction or anything about, um, entire continents.)

But here’s the thing: you don’t have to connect with every faculty member. You probably don’t have to connect with more than, say, two per semester max. By “connect”, by the way, I mean something more intensive than knowing their name (and them knowing yours)–you can do that just by participating in class. No, I mean dropping by office hours, say, two or three times in a term to talk about issues, share something about your experiences and life, and learn something more about the professor.

Connecting in this way is trying to find some shared enthusiasms about the material or how the material in the course (or in the professor’s research) can be applied to other situation. Faculty members love their research topic and their intellectual discipline enough to spend their days thinking about it; sometimes, as a professor,  it feels as if I’m performing for an audience that doesn’t share that enthusiasm.  If you find yourself intrigued by some part of lecture, reading, or whatever, it is a good idea to use that as the basis for a connection–or, if you think the professor will be cool with it, you can do the same if you are unhappy with how a subject you know about is being presented.

One caution: professors are people, and people can be jerks–or they can be having a bad day, or a bad semester. If you have a bad experience, don’t let you put that off the entire business of connecting with professors, especially if it’s the first time you’ve tried it. Keep at it and you will make a connection.

Finding research and internship opportunities

The good news is that finding research and internship opportunities is easy: read your departmental emails, talk to faculty members and departmental advisers, and put in some time with the Career Center and with Professor Google. Googling “political science internships” and then clicking through to the fifth or sixth page to find possibilities will help. You will read a lot! You will find few things! But you will find more than if you do nothing.

Your first stop for both, though, should be your departmental emails. Make time to read this. Follow up. Be on time. And apply for everything you are qualified for–and get feedback on your applications. Go to workshops about how to apply for things.  You’ll be applying for things your whole life; this is your time to learn how to do it well.

The bad news, then, is that even if opportunities  are easy to find some of them are competitive. The earlier you begin thinking about next steps, and building a resume, the easier it will be for you to have a safe landing when you leave. Starting with internal opportunities, like undergraduate research experiences (in Political Science, “UREP”) and programs designed to mentor you (like the UMASS Women into Leadership, UWiL, programming), will make you much more competitive for everything.

At the extreme, volunteer to work on a professor’s research project. That may not work, but if it does: home run.

Asking for a Letter of Recommendation

Letters of rec are part of the ballgame when it comes to getting jobs, internships, and scholarships. You can’t start off by just asking for a letter, though. You really need to start planning now–I mean today–for the letters you will need in the future. But it’s really easy to get good recommendations if you do these two things:

  • Get a good grade (B+ or above, more likely A- or above) in a class
  • Connect with that faculty member

That’s it! That’s the recipe. If you followed the first step above, and especially if you’ve done something like worked with the professor on her research project, that is all you need to do* (* in 96% of cases).

I hope it’s obvious that the more you’ve done with someone, the better and longer that letter of rec will be. So if you’ve taken two courses with a faculty member, or if you’ve worked for years with them on a research project, or if you’ve gotten the top grade from them, or anything that stands out, you’ll get a better letter than if you’re “merely” a good student. But most of the time that will be okay, too.

Some people obsess over having perfect letters. Those are the sorts of considerations that matter a lot if you’re trying to go to, say, Harvard Law or Yale Medical School or some other really, really selective institution. But most of the time a letter of rec mostly matters for employers, schools, and others to know that you are a good person. (For PhD school, you need letters of rec from folks in the discipline in which you’ll be applying, so that entails a bit more strategy.)