What should I use this free elective on?
December 16, 2012 6:36 PM   Subscribe

I have a free elective in my final undergrad semester. What should I take?

So I'm headed into my last semester as an undergraduate. I am within about 10 credits of graduating and have all of my major requirements checked off. However, I am currently registered for only 11 credits next semester and need to be registered for a minimum of 12 to qualify for my federal financial aid. Hence, I have to enroll in one more course so that I can get my pell grants and such. It can be anything.

What would be a good course to take? I am going into conservation biology as a graduate path and hopefully later as a career within the context of academia. My end goal is to be a researcher and an educator. I would like to take a course that will complement my scientific education and make me stronger in some of the "secondary" skillsets pertinent to my intended field.

I see myself as needing skills not only in the core academics of my discipline but also in project management, communication, interdisciplinary collaboration, community organizing, presentation, pedagogy, sociology, computer programming, and policy advocacy (among other things). I am looking for something I could take at an introductory level (since I am unlikely to have the necessary prerequisites to take anything else in a non-scientific department) which would pay long-term dividends and make me a stronger and more well-rounded scientist.

I've thought about taking something in theater or public speaking, to help work on my presentation skills. I've also considered taking a design course or an intro to sociology course or something over in the Education department. I've taken a few anthropology courses that I feel have significantly informed my scientific worldview, and I've got a very minimal background in programming -- enough to make it easier for me to learn languages on my own later, I hope. I'm already taking language courses. Also, I've already enrolled in everything of interest in the biology department.

Is there anything that y'all could recommend? Anything that would help make me a more effective researcher, educator, and advocate in the future but which is not generally considered to be within the basic expected skillset of a professor? Perhaps you are a science professor yourself and you remember taking a seemingly-irrelevant course back in the day which you've since gotten a lot of mileage out of?

I would love whatever recommendations anybody can come up with.
posted by Scientist to Education (40 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Working on your presentation skills is pretty much guaranteed to help you in the future, no matter what field you find yourself in.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:42 PM on December 16, 2012

Best answer: Sta tiiiiiii stiiiiiiiiiiics
posted by en forme de poire at 6:44 PM on December 16, 2012 [27 favorites]

Taking an intro to graphic design class would be a great way to add to your cache of skills. I've worked with so many brilliant scientists who absolutely suck at communicating their ideas visually, and I think they'd be a lot more successful in their chosen fields if they had even an inkling of design experience.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 6:44 PM on December 16, 2012

Graphics arts / design
If Edward Tufte is mentioned in the course description take it.
posted by Sophont at 6:44 PM on December 16, 2012

Something in psychology, perhaps? Insight into how to relate to people will be helpful wherever you go. Theater performance or public speaking would be my first choice, though!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:47 PM on December 16, 2012

Public speaking, science journalism, more statistics
posted by jgirl at 6:48 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're preparing for a career in academia, a writing class of some kind could really be beneficial (I say this as someone who edits scientific manuscripts for a living; your future publishers will thank you!). I know a lot of programs require a writing class of some kind—mine specifically had a class that involved writing research papers for your field—but if you don't have any instruction in this area, and if you haven't had to write very many papers for your other classes, it might be worth considering.

Anything that would give you experience working with software to create figures or other graphics would also be beneficial. (A lot of scientists seem to use PowerPoint, which you could probably figure out well enough already, but something like Adobe Illustrator might be useful.)

Also, your idea about working on presentation skills is definitely a good one.
posted by cellar door at 6:48 PM on December 16, 2012

As a materials engineer, I had to take the highest number of credit hours for my undergraduate degree (this was at Rensselaer in the late 80s). I had one "free" elective in my senior year and I used it to take an acting class. I had already done a lot of theater, though, so this wasn't as groundbreaking for me, but for many of my classmates it was very helpful in calming them down when speaking in front of an audience. As a professional, I can tell you that being able to communicate effectively has significantly helped me in my career.

If you want to stick closer to technical courses, a class in program management would be beneficial, and would be something you could point to on a job application when promoting your skills. Program management has become a valuable skill in the past few years. It's certainly something we look for when reviewing resumes.
posted by blurker at 6:48 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I always wanted to take an aviation course, where I would get to fly a plane. Thanks to undergrad requirements, however, I got to spend thousands on having my life enriched by online art and music appreciation courses.

If you're so lucky as to have the chance, go fly a plane.
posted by 517 at 6:51 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

To expand a little, most departments offer stats classes with few prerequisites, which you've probably already satisfied. Statistical grounding will inform not only your ability to analyze data, but also your ability to design studies and your ability to interpret other research. Also, I have to mention that even a single serious stats class is more than most bio undergrads take and will give you a leg up. I would be really hard pressed to think of anything that would pay more "long-term dividends and make [you] a stronger and more well-rounded scientist."
posted by en forme de poire at 6:51 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Check African Studies course listings to see if there's something relevant to your summer fieldwork. Intro to African Studies was a really interesting course. Otherwise, statistics. As much statistics as you can!
posted by ChuraChura at 6:52 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

More stats (Bayesian maybe), or a probability course so you learn the math background of all stats.

Do you have a grant-writing (or even just normal science-paper-writing) course?

Biomed ethics if you haven't already.
posted by supercres at 6:53 PM on December 16, 2012

You guys, uh, realize that it takes way more than one semester to develop a functional background in probability and statistics, right? Right.

I recommend theater, or maybe a course in something like modern poetry. An introductory course in sociology or American/cultural studies will be filled with depressing undergraduates trying to satisfy distribution requirements.
posted by Nomyte at 7:01 PM on December 16, 2012

An intro GIS course? A lot of people in my department use GIS and I think this matches with your interests.

Also, seconding stats. (And yes I know it is more than a one-semester deal, but any investment is a good one here in my opinion.)
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:04 PM on December 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

In my experience, even the very introductory statistics class I took was helpful as background for the faster paced stats classes I took in my first year or two of grad school that assumed a lot of background knowledge I wouldn't have had otherwise.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:05 PM on December 16, 2012

I took a mandatory public speaking class, and it was invaluable. I've done plenty of public speaking, but it really helped break things down and strengthen my skills in a semester.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:06 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nomyte, I don't disagree, but I think one semester of a reasonably rigorous statistics class is still way better than zero (and unfortunately, IME, many or even most biology undergrads leave without ever taking a single stats class). If the OP has already taken statistics, he could use this semester to go deeper. Also, what ChuraChura said: since the OP seems to be planning on going to graduate school, he'll be starting from a much better position with some P&S already under his belt.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:13 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not saying it's not useful. I was mostly responding to supercres's "a probability course so you learn the math background of all stats." I've taken both calculus-based probability and statistics and several semesters of soft "applied" stats before. After a semester of the first, the second only showed a barest glimmer on the horizon. Applied stats relies on a huge pile of basic mathematical machinery that was developed over a period of many decades.
posted by Nomyte at 7:30 PM on December 16, 2012

Sorry, shouldn't have said "all stats". (I certainly didn't mean math foundations of more advanced techniques-- MC simulations, machine learning.) I was specifically thinking about a grad-level calc-based probability course that I just took. Really helped me think through what normal distributions actually mean, and how special they are. (Other distributions too, of course.) Conditional and joint probabilities, laws of large numbers, central limit theorem. I just found it to be a useful way to think about statistics in a new way.
posted by supercres at 7:38 PM on December 16, 2012

Stats or a programming course, it's really no question. Those are what are going to put you ahead of your peers in bio grad school.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 8:00 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Linear algebra - important in modeling and statistics.
posted by lathrop at 8:10 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I used my spare credits my senior year to take a class in existentialist philosophy, and a fencing course.

Take something useful if you want, but make sure when you look back that you'll be happy you took it, whether it came out useful or not. I don't fence or quote Kierkegaard a lot, but I enjoyed that semester.
posted by stevis23 at 8:14 PM on December 16, 2012

I hate to threadsit in someone else's thread, but I definitely agree with the suggestion to try linear algebra. Not only does linear algebra have wide applicability (basically, anywhere where you have arrays of numbers, including statistics), but it's also easy and fun, it gives students a taste of the creativity and insight that's required in higher math, it teaches basic proof techniques, and it avoids most of the tedious number-crunching and formula manipulation of calculus and differential equations. (To people who know me, I'm like some kind of linear algebra apostle.)
posted by Nomyte at 8:21 PM on December 16, 2012

Response by poster: OK, thanks for the excellent suggestions. Feedback time:

I've taken a basic probability and statistics course already, and I'll be taking more advanced and biology-specific statistics courses in grad school. I'll also be taking scientific communication then as well, and I feel like my writing skills are probably ahead of the pack already.

My school doesn't offer any programming courses in languages other than C, C++, and FORTRAN. (Whereas I think I want to be learning R [not really a language, I know], Python, and Perl.) I don't think I'd get a lot out of a Principles of Computer programming course, as I already have some background there.

GIS is only offered as a 4000-level Geography course with multiple prerequisites that I do not satisfy. This is a shame as I will *definitely* be using it in my grad program and I would absolutely take that course if I qualified.

I think my design skills are stronger than most (I always get compliments on the design of my presentations) and I am actively working to improve them through observation and practice. I know the basics of how to use Powerpoint and Photoshop, not so much Illustrator, but the Intro to Digital Design course is "intended primarily for fine arts students" so I'm not sure if it is really appropriate for me, though I do qualify.

I can't find a straight-up public speaking course anywhere in the course catalog, though I can find Acting I, albeit it requires departmental permission to enroll in so I'm not really sure if it's intended for the likes of me.

At this point I'm thinking of taking Intro to Sociology. I want to pursue a line of research that I know will put me in touch with sociologists fairly regularly as collaborators, and so it would probably behoove me to become familiar with the basics of that field so that I can understand their perspective, speak some of their language, and conceptualize where sociological research could best complement my projects. Currently I don't really have more than a hazy idea of what Sociology is other than knowing that it's "the study of society" and that it complements a lot of the work I want to do, so it probably would be good for me to take a course there. I've always loved social science courses anyway.

Does this sound reasonable to folks?
posted by Scientist at 8:35 PM on December 16, 2012

Based on the experience of friends who teach these things, Intro to Sociology will be filled with obnoxious undergrads and most of the semester will be spent trying to disabuse them of various chauvinist, racist, classist, and ethnocentric notions. YMMV. (If possible, speak to faculty in the department and identify something higher-level and more relevant than the 101. Faculty tend to be understanding of student needs and may be willing to bend prerequisites for you.)

Second, R is too a language, just not a very verbose one. And, in fact, if you understand the basics of programming (conditionals, loops, user-defined functions), you will have a much, much easier time using R to manipulate data and do stats than students who just think of it as a fixed set of commands to be entered exactly. I'm not sure what your plans are for winter break, but that could be plenty of time to check out this book from your library (or get it via ILL, or just buy it) and work through the first few chapters. (I found this book to be superior to the alternatives I've tried, especially the book by Dalgaard.)
posted by Nomyte at 8:46 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Linear algebra. The mechanics are more relevant to the programming languages you'll be using in the future, R, Matlab, etc. than any of the programming classes you have available to you. Also, stats can be somewhat outsourced. A lot of biologists in my department simply consult with statisticians in the stats department.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:58 PM on December 16, 2012

In addition to Nomyte's book, you might just take a look at the (extensive) introduction to R on the cran website here in html or here as a pdf.

With respect to your course question, could you tell us (a) what school you're at and (b) what course background you've had in stats, bio, soc, English or communications, cs, and (just to humor me) philosophy?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:15 PM on December 16, 2012

See if you can find a philosophy of science class. Or just a philosophy 101 class.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 9:17 PM on December 16, 2012

Anything shop related available? Something hands on that you could take like pottery or machine shop or something?

That said, if the philosophy course comes recommended then that's a good choice too.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:39 PM on December 16, 2012

Okay, refined suggestions. Don't let prereqs stop you - these are there to guide people to choose appropriate course streams but can and are often overridden if the prof thinks the student can succeed. Also, I would always recommend methods courses (stats) over context courses (SOC 101). Context you pick up as you work but methods are best taught in a classroom with exercises and drills.

1. Take one of those geography prereqs for GIS, since you'll probably have to do it at some point anyway if you're going to learn GIS, right? Or, ask the prof if you can enter the GIS course without them.

2. Take an advanced or grad level stats course. Many of these will teach you R. If you take it now, you don't have to take it in grad school.

3. Vault into a 2nd or 3rd year sociology methods course. This will be way more useful than SOC 101. Buy the SOC 101 textbook used off some undergrad and read it instead, if you need to.

4. Economics 101. If you have any possibly interest in ecological economics or ecosystem services, which I think maybe you might. Or again aim for a higher-level course if one catches your eye.

5. Political science. If you are interested in policy issues, which again I think you might be. My school has a 300-level course called 'Public Policy' with no prereqs which talks about how policy issues work.

6. Anti-recommendations. Design will not really teach you Illustrator and Acting will not really teach you public speaking. The latter are skills you pick up and practice and get good at. The former will be introductions to the field and theory and such. Maybe worth your time as breadth options, but I kind of doubt it.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:01 PM on December 16, 2012

Best answer: Honestly...despite your update, I think the answer to this question is still "statistics". I'm not a conservation biologist, but I am a Ph.D. student and from talking to students in other departments I think my experience is relevant and fairly representative. I've aced three semesters of graduate-level applied statistics and still feel almost entirely lost whenever I have to actually apply statistics to my own data. The superstars in my program are the ones who are leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of us in their statistical prowess -- like way, way further ahead than having taken one semester of stats in undergrad plus a few required/suggested graduate courses. Most of us have the latter, and it's barely adequate.

Certainly there are other more fun and interesting things that you could do that would have some justification behind them, but if you're serious about taking something that will make you a better researcher down the road, you cannot possibly get more bang for your buck than statistics. The world is going the way of big data in so many fields and I would be shocked to find out conservation biology isn't one of them. If you have a barely-adequate statistical background, you will continually find your research designs hampered by seemingly-intractable quantitative issues and you will continually find yourself begging for help from your local stats gurus. The scientists who have a really solid control of statistical methods can ask whatever research questions they want instead of needing everything to be set up so it's susceptible to, like, chi-square tests and t-tests. I predict that those are the people who are going to be setting the agenda in the next decade or so.
posted by ootandaboot at 10:02 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, and I wanted to make a specific stats suggestion: you might consider looking into applied econometrics (the statistics of economics). Going out on a limb here, I'm guessing conservation biology might sometimes involve tracking changes over time, possibly in ways that are cyclical, and possibly across multiple phenomena that may or may not be tied to each other. If that sounds right to you, you are going to want to learn about time series, and in my experience this is a topic that comes up earlier in econometrics than other types of statistics classes. If you're at a school where statistics is in the math department, you might also find that econometrics is taught in the business school and has more of an applied bent. But from what I can tell (IANAStatistician) all these things vary a lot from school to school -- I'm mostly mentioning it as something that you might not otherwise think to look into.
posted by ootandaboot at 10:12 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Tax accounting
posted by slidell at 10:22 PM on December 16, 2012


You are never going to possess too much math. Whether in your case this means stats or calc or linear algebra. And you may be assigned advanced stats courses in grad school, but it is not like undergrad where you can sit back and take the courses assigned and expect to have what you need in your profession spoon-fed to you. Better to take your stats now and in grad school you can take higher level-mathematics or whatever else they think you'll need. I think it is also worth mentioning that the more higher-level skills you have now, the more advanced research you can do when you get into grad school, which means the more publications you can produce, which means the higher likelihood of career success down the line.

No grad school looks at an applicant and says "Gosh, you know what, I wish they'd taken basket-weaving instead of this math course", especially a science-based graduate program. The analysis skills you'll learn in a math course, especially a stats course, are going to make you a better scientist now, more adept at analyzing papers, discussing research, and preparing your own research proposals. Which will all be important skills you'll need for your grad school applications.

"Intro to Sociology" is something you could learn on your own if you were so inclined, and will be full of annoying freshmen.
posted by Anonymous at 10:31 PM on December 16, 2012

Response by poster: Ootandaboot's answer struck a chord with me. I have become increasingly aware over the last year that biology (and ecology especially) is extremely stats-heavy and that a great many biologists (especially at the grad level, not quite so much the PIs) are not proficient at stats. Therefore acquiring as much mastery of statistics as possible will give me an edge over my fellow grad students and will serve me well into the future. I have just enrolled in a statistics course. I am not looking forward to it, but I will apply myself fully.
posted by Scientist at 10:43 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

In a similar situation, I talked a professor into letting me do a one-credit independent study on the Java programming language (our course of study was exclusively C++, so I didn't have any Java at the time). I was (and am) a big NBA basketball fan, so I built a cool basketball simulator in Java, and spent the extra time that I had left over from not taking a full course load with my friends.

Eight years later, I build fantasy sports games for a living and I treasure my memories of my friendships from that last semester.
posted by Kwine at 11:43 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

This was just published in Nature:
Research methods: Know when your numbers are significant

Especially if you are going into ecology, which really is precious little more than counting fluffy or scaly things and doing statistics with the numbers, it is incredibly important to not only really know what an R2 value means but what it doesn't mean, what a regression really is, how to do ANOVA properly, how to not go fishing by accident, why to never go fishing on purpose, why you should never list a P value on non-independent samples, when a P-value is appropriate more generally, what a p-value or confidence interval can actually tell you, why you really do need to adjust your p values for multiple tests, why that is so heartbreaking, have a solid grasp of how to conduct and communicate formal hypothesis testing, and most importantly, how to call bullshit on your colleagues. Seriously, even in ecology there is a shocking amount of statistical illiteracy that seeps into the literature and makes enormous amounts of work completely worthless. The moment you finish graduate level statistics you will see sloppy bullshit EVERYWHERE from old otherwise brilliant professors who've just forgotten the statistics they learned 40 years ago to graduate students parroting tests they don't yet understand.

It also really isn't that bad to learn, if you can hack O Chem you can handle this just fine :)
posted by Blasdelb at 1:51 AM on December 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yeah, as schroedinger, Nomyte, and lathrop pointed out, linear algebra would be a really good choice too, and dovetails well with statistics (PCA and regression, in particular).

What stats class did you end up signing up for? I'm kind of nerdily excited for you, tbh.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:49 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also ootandaboot is on the money (ahh I didn't do that on purpose) with looking in the Econ department. At least a few of the most useful and rigorous stats classes at my grad institution were actually in Econ, but I never took them because by the time I found out about them I was not really taking classes anymore.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:55 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

The most useful class i ever took was Public Speaking. The most fun was Electronic Music.

It's good to learn statistics and other maths, but for me having a teacher never enhanced the learning in those areas (I usually didnt even go to those classes adn just learned from textbooks) whereas the two classes above were greatly improved by the teacher's presence.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:14 AM on December 17, 2012

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