I ended my first year class with a pep talk — the usual “now would be a good time to open the textbook in preparation for next week’s final exam” plus some insights as a First Generation Professor (FGP). This year I delivered the pep talk as a newly-tenured professor, a surreal experience given where I’ve come from. As I stood before my diverse students I asked them to never give up on education, to use the vast university services that their tuitions had already helped fund, and not to be afraid to explore both intellectually and socially. But there is more that I should have conveyed, the smaller-but-still-important-things I wished I’d known when I started university.

Here’s my ever evolving list:

  1. The way we speak matters. It shouldn’t, but it does. Filler words, poor grammar, slang and pronunciation. Thanks to my summer jobs with municipal outdoor staff, I can swear like a sailor. Thanks to my dad, I have a wide range of Irish insults. But over time I learned to adjust my language to fit my social environment.  In an institution/culture of “higher learning”, sounding “smart” and “polite” eases the path.
  2. Asking for help isn’t cheating and it doesn’t make you look stupid. Ask your professors, your Teaching Assistants, university resource staff and your peers.
  3. Professors are just people. We have ambitions, deadlines, worries, frustrations and family commitments.  Sometimes we are at work after being up all night because our kid vomits on us at 2am. Sometimes we are in pain because we’re getting old and sitting at a computer too much of the day. Sometimes we can’t string a coherent sentence together because we didn’t have time for a coffee before class. Sometimes we are distracted because our elderly parents are dying. Treat us as you would like to be treated.
  4. Every department and university has a different culture – learn it.  Think of yourself as an explorer and a social anthropologist. There are strange and wonderful rituals and expectations and these vary widely across different departments or schools. Learning to recognize and navigate the culture will help you do well.
  5. Get out of the classroom: do a study abroad (the extra funds are a worthy investment in your education, I promise), internship, co-op, or volunteer. Yes, student loans are brutal but these experiences can be so immensely valuable.
  6. Assume anything is possible. Call it chutzpah, nerve, ambition or ‘networking’ — figure out what you want, find the person who knows something about what you want and find ways to create the opportunities to get what you want. My grandfather once said: “the more fishing lines you put out, the more likely you’ll catch a fish.”
  7. Learn how to learn from failure. Failure isn’t fun. It makes us question and worry and feel uncomfortable. It makes us wonder if we are “good enough” (you are) and whether we are on the right path (you might be).  Take the failure, own it, unpack it and learn what needs to change for the next time. Then move on. Oh yes, and if you ever feel miserable about comments on your assignment, ask a professor about the worst anonymous Reviewers’ comments they’ve received on their manuscripts. Guaranteed their response will make you feel better!
  8. A university education is a privilege. Or as my Mum said, “Going to university is a luxury most people never experience…get on with it.”

Bonus tip for SERS students:

9. SERS professors have a secret code transmitted by their office doors. 
  • Wide open = come on in! AND/OR I’m doing something I don’t really want to do so please interrupt me.
  • Halfway open door = knock if it’s important AND/OR I’m available because it is office hours.
  • Door technically open but very near being closed = I’m technically available but I would really rather not be interrupted because I am marking final assignments, reading a graduate thesis, dealing with my research financial accounts AND prepping my lecture for this afternoon. All.at.the.same.time.
  • Door closed = I’m not here OR knock only if the building is on fire and maybe not even then.