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How do I jump-start the the go back to school mojo?
January 12, 2012 7:23 AM   Subscribe

How do I change from worst student ever to world-class adult learner + scientist? What habits can I put into practice that will help me succeed at school, work, and personal endeavors?

I've dropped in and out of community college/university several times resulting in an abysmal GPA at CC. I'd start off the semester motivated and stop going to class before midterms.

I've got a part-time bartending gig at a place I love, and a full-time retail job that has decent benefits. Colleagues/friends/mentors suggest I move into sales fulltime, as it would better fit my skillset and personality, but I want to work in a scientific environment, with smart people, doing something that matters on some sort of scale. Maybe geology, medicine, I really haven't narrowed that down yet.

I want to do this without enrolling in a physical class, because of academic suspension.

I'm not in any major debt, and am building a financial cushion that I can take advantage of in the next year, so it's time to rock the boat and get my 25 year old arse moving in the right direction. Being a scientist requires education and some kind of drive, and I have neither and need to cultivate it. How do I chase down topics/interests that I don't even know about yet?
posted by Giggilituffin to Education (17 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Two things: hard focus, and a system that helps you remember things. For the former, it's about practice; nobody, even good students, like to study all the time. Hard focus is the skill of continuing to do something you don't want to do, and not being distracted. One good resource is Cal Newport's book on the subject, referenced here.

For the latter, I like Anki, which is a digital flashcard system. For my pre-med work, my system is to read the material in advance of the lecture, take notes in class in a particular way, create the flashcards the weekend after the lecture, and then the entire flashcard deck I've created in advance of the test, multiple times, until I can do every flashcard cold.

The note-taking system I use is to start each lecture on a fresh page; as the lecture progresses, that first page contains only one thing: a numbered list of major topics. Subsequent pages are organized into sections with underlined headings that match the numbered topic list, and all relevant points go beneath the appropriate heading. When I get home, I transfer my notes to typed form, cleaning up and expanding upon anything that was unclear or poorly organized when the notes were being written initially. That typed set of notes is the basis for the Anki deck.
posted by ellF at 7:33 AM on January 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


I know you said you don't want to take classes but if you were taking a full course load before, maybe it would work to just take one class that you find really interesting and working hard at it. I started going to graduate school years ago by just taking one class at a time and I was really able to get into it and stay focused. I ended up racking up the credits faster than I thought and then when I took a class with a professor I worked well with it ended with a whole new career.

The general advice I would give you is go do something you find interesting, even if it doesn't pay or lead to a degree and see where it goes. If you are a people person and are into geology, maybe you could volunteer at a local park interpretive center or environmental group.

Maybe if you spell out your interests a little bit more maybe folks can give more advice for this type of thing.
posted by JayNolan at 7:47 AM on January 12, 2012


I really like the book Study is Hard Work by William Armstrong.
posted by Jahaza at 7:48 AM on January 12, 2012


I forgot to mention a point about taking classes under academic suspension. If you are just enrolling for part time/ non-degree, most schools have very minimal enrollment requirements. Also, I don't know if this is the case but I always found it hard to stay focused on courses I was not interested in or the professor was poor. If you are interested in geology, I would think a 101 course at a better school might be pretty fun and there are usually no prerequisites.
posted by JayNolan at 7:52 AM on January 12, 2012


There are lots of systems for effective study. The key is to pick one and stick to it. My system in college and grad school was similar to ellF's. Always do the reading before the lecture. Take copious notes. Remember, if the instructor writes it in the handout or on the board or whatever, it will be a key point and will be on the tests. Always go over your notes later the same day and reorganize them into a topic outline. this has been a real key to me. the exercise forces you to build an internal mental structure for the information that insures you will remember it. Once you get into the exercise it becomes much easier than you think. Finally, set aside study time every day and never deviate from it, unless you increase it for specific instances. Even if there is "no homework" you put in the time going over your class notes from the beginning of the semester...whatever. the great thing is that if you put in your time for study and are meticulous about it, your free time becomes really free and without worry. If you start skipping for any reason it only opens the door for slacking off when you feel unmotivated. Study for tests including finals was reduced to going over my outlines a couple of times... This system took me from an indifferent A-B student in high school to 1st in my class graduating from a very rigorous university. Good luck.
posted by txmon at 7:55 AM on January 12, 2012


How do I chase down topics/interests that I don't even know about yet?
I want to do this without enrolling in a physical class, because of academic suspension.

If you're not into academic study, then get practical experience first and let that guide your knowledge path.

Get a job (paid or unpaid) in one of the scientific fields you do see yourself working in to get access to scientists and hopefully scientific thinking.
Watch them closely, be curious, and learn as much as you can.

Just as an example, since you've got sales skills, track down jobs requiring those skills but are in a scientific field.
Take selling photovoltaic panels (e.g.): this would give you insight into the renewable energy industry and how it works.
Then, you might have access to training seminars, meeting knowledgeable people who could teach you things and you would learn where to find reliable sources of information online or at your local library.
posted by mkdirusername at 7:59 AM on January 12, 2012


When you do go back to school, you may want to consider that your college possibly will have some academic skills support department. My university had a department which ran sessions on things like organization and timekeeping, note taking, exam revision, academic writing and so on. These were short sessions, maybe a couple of hours at a time, that you signed up for if you needed extra help, not proper classes that you took as part of your degree. I found some of those to be great in helping me when I understood the material but just did not have the study skills.
posted by maybeandroid at 7:59 AM on January 12, 2012


To be successful in school, one needs to treat it like a job. I've been in your shoes to a degree, missing classes, not doing the reading, ect.

Changes that have made me a succesful student are the following.
1.) Figure out how much you are paying for each class. When you miss class remind yourself you just wasted x amount of money. If I miss a class, I know I am throwing away $140 or so. I simply can't afford to waste that kind of money.
2.) Get organized. Write down all due dates for readings, papers and tests. If you have a smart phone, put in your calendar. If you don't invest in a nice small date book. This is very critical. I also use OneNote for all my notes, papers and research.
3.) Make time to schedule studying. Treat it like a job. Knowing you have x hours you will do only school work. Nothing else, just studying or reviewing.

You can do it if you want to. Its hard to break bad habits, but when you replace them with good habits, it will make it much easier. Treat school just like a job, do it right.
posted by handbanana at 8:00 AM on January 12, 2012


i think the best habit you could develop would be to start taking very small steps and succeeding at each one, gradually building confidence. if you think you're going to jump from academic suspension to superstardom in one go, you are deluding yourself and only setting yourself up to do what you've done before, i.e. starting hard then dropping out. it makes no difference what you succeed at - but you've gotta start slow and build gradually. i'm talking, make sure your bedroom is perfectly clean every day for a week, something like that.
posted by facetious at 8:12 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


If I were you I would try to get a job in a lab. You will only be qualified for a shitty job in a lab - washing glassware, for example - but you will be working with smart people (possibly) on "something that matters". If that environment continues to appeal to you after you've seen it up close, you'll have more motivation to study.
posted by mskyle at 8:18 AM on January 12, 2012


I'd start off the semester motivated and stop going to class before midterms.

Colleagues/friends/mentors suggest I move into sales fulltime, as it would better fit my skillset and personality, but I want...

Maybe geology, medicine, I really haven't narrowed that down yet.


Great advice on study skills above, but I'm going to take a different approach to your question. It sounds to me like your real problem is that you don't have a solid goal. Knowing exactly what you want doesn't always make studying easy or fun -- you will still have to force yourself to sit down and grind through it -- but it gives you the long-term reason that motivates the grind. "I want X, and this thing I don't want to do right now is a required step on the path to X, so I will keep doing it even though it sucks."

So I think you need an actual goal to motivate your studies. And from the sounds of it, picking geology or medicine or sales or whatever might be too specific at this point. Maybe your goal for now needs to be figuring out what you actually want to be when you grow up. Concrete steps toward this goal include volunteering, informational interviewing, taking classes, etc. But don't take classes with the idea "maybe if I take some classes I'll get somewhere." Go into them thinking "I need to know at least this much about this subject in order to decide whether this might be a good career for me." Talk to your professors to find out about what it's like to work in that field. Ask them to connect you with other professionals working outside academia so you can get more perspective. And once you start getting a sense of what you actually want to do with your career, you can make it your goal to get there.

Also, regarding the sales vs. science issue: it doesn't help the world to have a miserable, mediocre scientist. It does help the world to have an amazing, satisfied sales person, especially if you sell something that benefits the world. Your personal satisfaction with your career will ripple out into other areas of your life, and thereby affect your family members, your coworkers, people who wait on you in restaurants, even the people driving near you on the freeway. If you're feeling happy and fulfilled, you will have a positive effect on the world. If you're feeling grumpy and out-of-your-league, you will more likely bring down the people around you. If a lot of people with outside perspective are urging you to consider sales as a better fit, don't discount their ideas. It is absolutely possible to "make a difference" as a sales person, and absolutely possible to be a drain on the world while working in a field that "matters."

Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
- Harold Whitman

posted by vytae at 8:23 AM on January 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think vytae did and excellent job of spelling out that which is essential to both your academic and professional success - establishing a long term goal. I have a specific suggestion, READ ABOUT EVERYTHING that seems interesting to you!

Some background on where my answer is coming from: I dropped out of college to figure out I wanted to do with my adult life. I knew it had something to do with science and animals I read everything that related to science and animals. I read novels, short stories, creative essays, journal articles, magazine article about science animals. I also watched hours and hours of documentaries (youtube, hulu, netflix) about science and animals. Eventually I found the thing that I was born to do. It was/is an amazing feeling. You could do the same thing with whatever you think most interests you. I suggest exploring all your options.

A good place to start for science related topics is the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2011.

Good luck!
posted by OsoMeaty at 10:22 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is there a research university near you? The labs I volunteer in regularly have non-students come in and help with projects - grad students generally appreciate extra hands. If you can get paid, so much the better. Look around the school's website, see if there's a lab you'd like to work with, and write an email to the principal investigator expressing interest and offering to help as needed. Looking at examples of active research / talking to researchers should also give you a feel for what options there are. Reading Nature in the library or online is also a good bet for an accessible summary of what problems are being worked on in the sciences.

Don't go back to school until you have a clear goal and are determined to make it through. I'd look at school as a serious hobby right now.
posted by momus_window at 11:10 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


In terms of dropping out of community college a few times, have you ever been tested for a learning disability? Perhaps your initial enthusiasm for school wanes because you fall behind in the work, and as you get further behind, lose interest because it becomes too difficult?

Get tested for LD -- dyslexia, ADHD. Perhaps that will help identify one of the causes of the problems that made it hard for you to stay in school in the first place.
posted by foxinsocks at 1:05 PM on January 12, 2012


Thanks for the responses so far, this is going to be a great resource for me. I'm on a short break from work, so I don't have much time to reply until tonight.

@facetious
My previous experiences with self-delusion and school are my reasons for posting this question. I don't want to put myself in the same position for the Nth time. One semester wasted is a lesson for most, but not for me. I decided that enrolling in school is not necessary to start developing skills that an aspiring student needs. My first goal IS actually cleaning my room and keeping my belongings in order.

@foxinsocks
I was evaluated 2 years ago, no dyslexia, no ADHD. A therapist did say they thought I might be dealing with mild OCD tendencies and anxiety, with possible symptoms of bipolar disorder. A doctor visit was non-conclusive.
posted by Giggilituffin at 1:29 PM on January 12, 2012


Seconding ellF's advice, I came here to plug Cal Newport. I read his book (same one mentioned abvove) this summer and it really struck a chord with me. After implementing his advice this past fall, my grades went from barely scraping by to at or near the top of the class. I highly recommend giving it a try, it's a fast read; something I wish I could have read years ago.
posted by pickingoutathermos at 12:31 AM on January 13, 2012


Ask for help when you need it. Don't go it alone.
posted by squasher at 11:45 PM on January 17, 2012


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