[somewhat directed towards females]
Now that I'm applying to graduate schools I've been doing a lot of reflecting upon my undergraduate years. I wish someone would have sat me down and given me advice on how to navigate through my undergrad years and come out an academic success.
This should also be completely applicable to graduate school.
If anyone has any advice to add, feel free!
1. Don't let draining personal relationships get in the way of your academic success.
This is my biggest piece of advice to females, as it is certainly the one that has negatively impacted me the most.
Life doesn't stop when you want it to, in fact it only gets more intrusive as you get older. I've found that females are particularly vulnerable when it comes to having life interfere with academics. Males I know tend to use physics as a refuge when other areas of their life are difficult. Females tend to stress out and dwell more on the personal problem at hand while losing focus on their work. This is probably why married men live longer than single men while married females have a shorter lifespan than their single counterparts.
I had a very bad six months with one of my physics boyfriends and his response was to take 4 upper division physics classes (straight As), work on two research projects (published), grade for two classes, TA another class, and sleep a mere 4 hours a night. I, on the other hand, became academically useless.
The result? He is applying to upper tier schools while I'm figuring out what state school will accept me.
I have seen this happen over and over with female physics undergrads.
Don't eschew all relationships, as that is completely impossible and you need to learn to handle bad situations when they are unavoidable. But if one is becoming so draining that it is affecting your performance in school, it's time to reevaluate.
Trying to explain that one year of bad grades was caused by a suicidal/bi-polar/adulterous/asshole boyfriend/girlfriend/parent/cat is not
something you put on a statement of purpose.
So in short, don't be afraid to tell someone to *** off. It's a great skill to have when employed conservatively.
2. Set long term goals
College does not stop when you graduate. Grades follow you around for a few years, so you might as well try the best you can when you can. Want to go to grad school? Then figure out what you need to do YEARS in advance, not months. Research experience, good grades, and good recs do not appear overnight or even in a couple months. At the very least you will meet quirky professors, gain physics intuition, and get to do some exciting hand on work and (possibly) get paid for it.
Not sure if you want to go? Try to do well anyway so you have options. And talk to grad students at your school. They have advice, you just need to ask.
Want to go straight into industry? Grades, research experience, and networking will help get you there. A high percentage of FPS head shots and beer pong medals will not.
I'm not saying to spend your entire college career in a physics textbook (we all know how those people turn out!), but set your priorities and act accordingly.
3. Learn to program
Seriously. It really should be required for the physics major. C++ is a great starting point, as all the programming I've seen done in my lab experience is with that. Learning Mathematica would be fantastic as well.
4. It's never too late
So you fucked up in high school and didn't get into a good college. Well, work as hard as you can and admission into an excellent graduate school is almost guaranteed. Unfortunately many eighteen years old are so elated just to be IN college that for a year or so they completely forgo studying in lieu of counterstrike lan parties and sushi buffet night at the trendy downtown restaurant.
Now after 4-5 years of college you have that strong motivation to work hard and do some outstanding research, but your GPA is more reflective of your affinity for keggers than your work ethic. Getting into a good Ph.D program might not be viable right now, but you can always work hard getting a Masters and "mastering" physics with the intention of transferring to an excellent Ph.D program.
My mother got her Masters at San Francisco State (by no means an excellent school) and continued on to get her doctorate in Math at Stanford. It's hard, but it's possible.
As one of my university professors put it "some people are really good at physics, but really bad at life"
Try not to be one of those =)
Good luck everyone!