Monthly Archives: April 2016

CollegeQandA asks: What are office hours?

The most underutilized resource at universities

Person sleeping in their office

Some professors have busy office hours filled with students, but most of us schedule office hours and have little to no contact with students unless there is a major exam, assignment, or activity that has an upcoming due date.

But, what are office hours?  The office hour(s) is a scheduled time by the professor where they guarantee that they will be in their office to be available to students and their concerns.  The main purpose is so students can ask questions about things that they either don’t understand or want a deeper understanding as related to a course.  However, most professors are happy to discuss ideas beyond the course including advising, careers, new ideas, etc.

I want to go, how should I prepare?

This depends on the professor, but most professors have a basic expectation if you are coming to ask additional questions or get help for topics in a course.  Note, the title above implies that you prepare for the office hour, and it should not be considered a time to redo a lecture.  You should do some preparation before you walk in and ask questions.  For example, imagine I have given you an assignment on topic X.  You should first try to do work on topic X, you should search out resources (such as textbooks, internet, etc.) to help you on topic X, and then when you are having problems you can bring what you have done working with topic X, and we can look at what you are doing well and what is missing to allow you to make further progress.  Don’t come in and just say, “How do I do this assignment?” or “I don’t get this?” without trying to learn on your own.

The same is true if you are going in for curriculum advice.  You should have some idea what you courses you need to do in the future, and your meeting should be spent on questions that you are unsure of instead of simply saying, “What courses should I take?”

Preparing for a meeting is, likely, part of your future job, and it shows that you respect both the person you are meeting with as well as your own time.

What if I don’t have questions about …?

You should go to office hours even if you don’t have direct questions related to the course or advising.  However, you should still prepare what you want to discuss before hand that is of real interest to you and is, likely, an interest of your professor.  This might be tricky since you are learning an area where the professor is a more experienced person in the topic.  Try open ended questions (the ones that can’t be answered yes/no) related to the course topics or your professors research since they may lead to interesting discussions.

Note, I suggest that visiting your professor is a good thing, but don’t overdo it.  Just because a professor has scheduled time to meet with students, don’t spend all of that time.  If you don’t have course or advising related questions, then an interesting discussion with a professor once or twice a semester would be good and not considered overbearing.

Credits: photo titled: Office Intern, by: Richard Elzey


CollegeQandA asks: Should I go to graduate school?

Who goes to graduate school?

Should I go to graduate school? This is an important question to consider as you complete your undergraduate and try to plan out your career. We will take a few perspectives on the whys and why nots.

Clock with 3 replaced by word career

Rarely just because

Many people who I’ve talked to about going to graduate school include the answer, “just because”.  I, probably, should be included in this camp, but my other reason for going to graduate school was that a professor a respected and listened to told me to go to graduate school.  I, obviously, had a great plan for my future.  The trick here is graduate school can:

  • Cost significant amounts of money
  • Costs more money in terms of lost opportunity cost
  • Takes time
  • Is not a guarantee of being completed successfully
  • Might not impact your life goals

The first piece to choosing to go or not to, is to have some sort of plan on where and what you want to do.

Let’s start with the Master’s degree

In most cases, a masters degree is a financial end career total earnings the best degree to get.  Still, that does not mean you should just do the degree.  Also, this is general advice on the Master’s degree and there are a tonnes of factors to consider depending on your individual case including current debt, area of study, job market, location in the world, school to attend, etc.

The masters degree is an opportunity to spend one to three years delving deeper into academics via courses, projects, and in some cases, a thesis.  This additional depth means that you will improve your ability to think and do, and people who can think and do better tend to get paid more if there is demand.

One other thing I noticed when I did my Master’s was that I got to tackle problems that I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to work on until 2-5 years into an industrial career.

Finally, I know many people who say they plan on doing their Master’s later.  This is possible, but in most cases getting paid and the prospect of doing a Master’s and being paid significantly less (if anything) is very tricky to do.

For the Ph.D. degree

In almost all cases, I think the main reason to pursue a Ph.D. degree is if you want to become a professor (or really think you want to become a professor).   I, highly, recommend you read The Professor is In before starting that degree to understand the nature of the faculty job world.  If you start with the basic idea that a Professor self-replicates by advising and creating Ph.D students, then you quickly see how a market with exponential growth doesn’t have positions for everyone in it and is competitive – Amazon.

If you have another reason to do a Ph.D, then as long as you see it as a means to get what you want then it is fine.  That is unless the reason is you want to be called Doctor; not worth the toil for such a title.

Credits: photo titled: Clock-career; by Flazingo Photos


CollegeQandA book review: Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World

Book Review: Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World

Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World

Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World is written by Valiant and is a deeply academic book investigating learning in relation to complexity theory (a field in computer science).  It’s not a book I would recommend to everyone since some of the technical aspects are challenging, but it’s ideas are fascinating and I would recommend that everyone reads it (= paradox).

The main premise of the book is to take learning algorithms and evolution and make an attempt to better formalize these ideas in the framework of complexity theory.   Valiant explains aspects of complexity theory, evolution, and learning in the book, but depending on your prior knowledge you might need to visit these ideas in a more introductory context.  Valiant classifies learning algorithms as “ecorithms”.

For me, the book has sparked the imagination on some new threads of learning, and that is the main reason I think this book is so interesting.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

As mentioned already, the book will be hard to read for some people.  I don’t think these ideas are targeted for a general audience, but I think the value in the book is it presents some fascinating ideas within a context that makes them more theoretically grounded.  For anyone interested in learning, I would include this book as part of the must read library.  Therefore, if there is aspects of learning  in the book then it relates to this blog, but the connection is much weaker than my typical book reviews.

I would recommend this book to…

People interested in technical aspects of learning with the caveat that the book may require some additional learning to understand some of the ideas.


CollegeQandA asks: How are professors trained to teach?

How are professors trained to teach?

An interesting question that not many undergraduates understand is: How are professors trained to teach?

Baby with glasses on

The secret is, most of us are not trained in any teaching.  Graduate degrees (Masters and Ph.Ds.) are degrees pursuing leading edge research and creative endeavors.  Many of your professors will have no formal training in education other than some basic courses.

Why do they have no training?

Many graduate schools around the world have programs that help train graduate students to teach.  Typically, new faculty will have orientation and additional programs/workshops to help them improve their classroom teaching.  In the end, with all this training a professor will have spent at most 20-40 hours of educational training.  Compare that time to a typical higher education class worth 3 credit hours.  Over 15 weeks, student’s will have had at least 45 hours of class time on the topic of the class.

So, professors will have some training in education, but in reality, the training is very limited, but the rest of the learning to teach is done (or not done) by ourselves.  The reason for this is that teaching training is not a priority within higher education.  Instead, there seems to be a mentality of I learned this way and this stuff, and therefore, my students can also learn this way and this stuff.  There’s not a huge problem with this mentality since for decades the model has worked, and people still get careers and work in their respective fields.

Is there a case for improvement?

As an engineer (not practicing), I’m not too crazy about my above argument.  One of my question is if professors are better teachers then, on average, will our students learn more?  I don’t have any direct research to answer this question.  I, at least, believe that universities could make some real attempt at testing this crazy question.  Many schools have taking a dedication to teaching and learning.  Is your school one?

Credits: photo titled: Professor Baby; by Quinn Dombrowski