Study Hacks Blog

Interested in Lifestyle Design? Get a PhD.

August 17th, 2011 · 36 comments

David had his epiphany not long after hiking an erupting volcano in the Fimmvörðuháls pass of southern Iceland. (Pictured above.)

At the time, he was a masters student spending a semester working with a team of seismologists.

He was also trying to figure out what to do with his life.

“I came full-circle on this issue of building an exciting life,” he told me. “I ultimately rejected the low-cost, Internet-based cash-flow business model that Tim Ferriss and others advocate as the silver bullet.”

To understand what he meant, you must first understand that David loved his time in Iceland. He developed a close group of friends and “spent evenings socializing, partying, exploring, and weekends hiking.” He climbed volcanoes and bathed in hot springs. He got to work with world class researchers solving interesting problems in beautiful locations.

“It broke my heart to leave,” he said.

David realized that an academic path could offer the exotic travel and flexibility promoted by lifestyle design gurus such as Ferriss, while also providing a sense of engagement and intellectual stimulation that would be hard to match on one’s own.

So on returning to the States, he decided to continue into his school’s PhD program. His first step, true to his desire to create an interesting life, was to “apply to every fellowship under the sun.” He won an NSF award to research in Japan, where his work on earthquake prediction had suddenly taken on a renewed sense of importance.

“My long-term goals aren’t clear yet,” he told me.  “But I hope to place myself in a position where I can choose a nice place to live after the doctorate.  Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, New York, and California are all on the list.”

The Lessons of David

What interests me about David’s story is that it’s relevant to both my student and my career advice.

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How Double Majors Can Ruin Your Life: Two Arguments for Doing Less

September 27th, 2010 · 88 comments

The Overwork Ethic

I recently received an e-mail from a freshman at the Illinois Institute of Technology. It began: “I’m trying to follow your advice and avoid killer semesters, but it seems kind of hard.”

He then detailed his crowded course schedule, which included electrical engineering, physics, computer science, and an organic chemistry class, the last of which he described as “hellish,” because it included a time-consuming lab in addition to regular problem sets.

“I know that on your site and stuff it says avoid doing shit like this,” he admitted, “but I’m not really sure what to do.

This last line confused me.

If a student says he “doesn’t know what to do” about a tough course schedule, you might expect he needs the courses to complete his major and graduate on time, or perhaps to meet the requirements of a graduate program. Clearly, however, physics, computer science, and organic chemistry can’t all be part of the same major or program prerequisites. Furthermore, this student was in the first semester of his freshman year: how could he possibly be feeling credit pressure already?

When I dug deeper, it turned out that he had no particular reason to be taking those classes. In fact, as he later admitted, he arrived at college with a ton of AP credits, and could, if he so decided, coast to graduation early without ever taking a hard semester.

The real reason for his killer course load was that he was considering transferring schools, and felt, with an unquestioned certainty, that doing more was important for standing out. “I guess that having a schedule like this looks more impressive on my transfer apps,” he said

The idea that killer schedules are necessary to be impressive was so deeply ingrained in this student that the idea of simplifying his course load never crossed his mind as an option.

This mindset is a problem that we must solve before we can make progress with the Romantic Scholar approach to student life, as it’s near impossible to find fulfillment in your school work when you’re constantly struggling to keep up with an overwhelming load.

To convince you to do less, however, I must first convince you that doing more is not a reasonable alternative…

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The Romantic Scholar: A New Approach to Student Life

September 24th, 2010 · 36 comments

The Age of Wonder

Around midnight, on March 13, 1781, William Herschel, an amateur astronomer from the West Country of England, was surveying the northern sky with a custom-built reflector telescope. As the Gemini constellation slid into view he noticed a new object moving slowly across the foreground. On a lesser telescope, the object would probably be dismissed as a new comet — one of the hundreds being discovered at the time.  But the precision of Herschel’s five-inch, hand-polished reflector mirror was unmatched in England, if not the world, allowing him to note the absence of a comet’s distinctive tail.

This was something different.

If you review Herschel’s journal entries from this period you’ll notice that he’s no stranger to hard work. On most nights, during the good winter observation months, his notes begin around 7 pm and end near dawn. He repeated this laborious work, night after night, year after year, systematically mapping the northern sky. As Richard Holmes details in The Age of Wonder, his epic survey of the Romantic Era of science, Herschel enjoyed these labors. In a letter written to the Royal Astronomer, Nivel Maskelyne, for example, Herschel excuses his sometimes unrestrained excitement, saying it “may perhaps be ascribed to a certain Enthusiasm which an observer…can hardly divest himself of when he sees such Wonders before him.”

The attraction of these “Wonders” is made clear by the events that followed that long March night. Though it required another nine nights of careful observation before Herschel made his first “tentative communications” regarding the new object, and several months to receive confirmation from other astronomers,  its importance had long before become obvious. Herschel had discovered Uranus — the first new planet since the age of Ptolemy; an event, as Holmes puts it, that would “[change] not only the solar system, but [revolutionize] the way men of science thought about its stability and creation.”

The Romantic in the Classroom

Herschel was a man of the Romantic Era, a period spanning from the mid 18th century into the early decades of the 19th. The scientists of this era recast their work from an exercise in cold rationality to an aesthetic experience. They reveled in the difficult work of teasing truth out of a reclusive Nature, and experienced frequent moments of awe.

As a young scientist myself, this era is appealing for obvious reasons. More surprising, however, is its relevance to my role as writer of student advice. I claim that we can draw from the ethos of these Romantic Scholars a new approach to student life: one that can transform your education experience — high school through graduate school — from a trial to survive into the foundation of a life well-lived.

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Studying by Startlight: Adventure Studying and the Quest to Take Back Control of Your Academic Experience

August 5th, 2011 · 22 comments

An Adventurous Academic Alcove

Alex’s trouble started with a mathematics course. Something about the material just didn’t click.

“I grew to to dislike the course so much that I could stare at the problem set for hours and get nowhere,” she told me.

Then she came up with a solution:

The image above was taken from the roof of the science center at Alex’s university. This is where she started to take her math homework — usually late at night.

She was definitely not supposed to be up there, but she went anyway — and for good reason.

“I would slip out onto the roof, and go to a little protected alcove I discovered. There was a roof light that lit the area and I had a nice place to sit” she said.

“The total isolation and silence, the total lack of distractions, the novelty of the location, the limited time: it made these sessions really excellently productive.”

The Return of the Romantic Scholar

Alex’s tactic is an example of what I call adventure studying. I introduced this idea back in 2008, but I’m reintroducing it today as part of my ongoing  series on the Romantic Scholar approach to student life. As you might recall, this series presents tactics for transforming your student experience from a trial to survive and into the foundation of a life well-lived.

Adventure studying, as Alex discovered, is a fantastic strategy for advancing this goal. The antiseptic library and distressed dorm lounge are so burdened with cultural significance — studying is hard, boring, tedious work — they make it near impossible to reimagine your academic experience.

Change the context, however, and you gain freedom from these signifiers. Study by a waterfall or at a quiet pub, and you take back control decisions about what role your school work plays in your life.

Keep this strategy in mind as the new semester lurks closer. Tackling your assignments can be a sublime experience, but it’s up to you to make this happen.

Just don’t let the janitor see you sneaking up the fire escape.


This post is the fifth in my series on the Romantic Scholar approach to student life, which details a collection of strategies to transform school from a trial to survive into the foundation of a life well-lived.

Past articles:

I Don’t Know Another Science Student Less Stressed Than Me: A Case for Simplicity

July 25th, 2011 · 33 comments

Longtime readers of Study Hacks know I have a simple philosophy for students: do less, but do what you do really well. This pattern of success is astoundingly effective. It produces superstars — the type who have their pick of post-graduation employment. It also produces a low-stress and meaningful student life.

Every once and a while I like to share examples of this Zen Valedictorian strategy in action, just to remind my student readers what school could be like.

A nice case study arrived in my inbox this morning from a University of California student. His message was titled: “The Benefits of Being a Newportian.”

“I major in Earth Systems Science,” he told me, “and I implemented my interpretation of your Zen philosophy: extreme underscheduling of classes (a conservative 12-15 units per semester) and focusing on becoming really, really good at one thing — marine science.”

“This last semester I was in lab 25-30 hours a week, voraciously reading papers related to my field, and discussing them with my advisor. This lead to a fellowship which resulted in a publication of which I am co-first author.”

Your philosophies allowed me to publish this paper, get a 3.8 GPA, spend almost every night with my kick-ass girlfriend, and sleep plenty. I don’t know another science student less stressed than me.”

As you contemplate your double major and overloaded course schedule and nineteen extracurricular activities, remember this example. The most exceptional students are not the most busy; they’re the most focused.

They’re also the students heading over to see their girlfriend while you settle into the library for yet another all-nighter.

Posts on my Zen Philosophy in College:

Posts on my Zen Philosophy in High School:

Learning to Love Your AP History Assignments: How to Hack the Psychology of Student Motivation

December 13th, 2010 · 46 comments

The War Against Extrinsic Motivation

In 1999, Alfie Kohn, an education writer described by Time magazine as “perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on grades,” published an article in High School Magazine titled “From Degrading to De-Grading.” It listed many arguments against grades, but its first is the most repeated: “Grades tend to reduce students’ interest in the learning itself.” As Kohn explained: “One of the most well-researched findings in the field of motivational psychology is that the more people are rewarded for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest.”

Kohn is referring to the voluminous research on the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. The former describes motivation that comes from rewards or punishments outside the task, like studying to achieve a good grade. The latter describes motivation for the task itself, like practicing the guitar simply because you enjoy practicing the guitar. The popular understanding of these motivations, as demonstrated by Kohn’s conclusions about grades and learning, is that when you do something for an extrinsic reward, you lose your interest for the subject.

And this presents a problem for students…

It would be great, of course, if students could find intrinsic motivation for all academic work, but this is a pipe dream. As you move through high school and into college, work becomes demanding. Few can summon an intrinsic interest in reviewing 200 pages of AP history notes or memorizing organic chemistry equations: these are hard tasks, which require the unpleasant mental strain of hard focus. In other words, a large percentage of student work will remain extrinsically motivated — we do it to for the grade and the interesting options a good GPA attracts, or to build the expertise needed for a remarkable life.

If the fears of Kohn are true, then this spells disaster for our Romantic Scholar project. How can we make school the foundation of an interesting life if the work required is destined to become something we lose interest in?

Fortunately, this popular understanding of motivation is woefully dated. The past thirty years of social psychology research has identified many different types of extrinsic motivation, and it clearly shows that doing something for an external reward does not necessarily doom you to losing interest.

In this post, I want to draw from this research to hack the psychology of student motivation: providing you with concrete strategies for embracing even the most demanding academic challenges.

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The Roberts Method: A Professor’s Advice for Falling in Love With Your Major

November 3rd, 2010 · 37 comments

Major Doubts

“I’m enrolled to study computer science…a choice that was heavily influenced by my parents.”

So began a recent e-mail — one of many I receive that echo the same theme.

“I think that if I continue on in computer science I might find a love for it eventually,” the student said optimistically, before adding: “but a few days ago I saw that the university still has some open slots in the psychology program…”

The exams in this student’s computer science courses were getting tougher, and she began to wonder if she had missed her true calling in another field, like psychology. In fact, once she started thinking about it, she began to increasingly convince herself that psychology had always sounded appealing.

I see this all the time: students who question whether or not they chose the right major.

Some students in this situation respond with action, switching concentrations, sometimes multiple times, in a fruitless search for the perfect fit. (As longtime Study Hacks readers know, I don’t believe in the existence of a “right major,” which dooms any such quest to failure.) Others grind through the difficult courses that populate the upperclassman years, experiencing the work as a penance for an irreversible choice, poorly made. In both cases, the results are no good: anxiety, burn out, and sometimes even deep procrastination.

One of the core ideas behind my Romantic Scholar approach to student life is that courses are not something to survive, but should instead be something to relish in and to engage you; what I call the “foundation of a life well-lived.”

Interested in tested advice for building this relationship with your studies, I turned to an expert: Andrew Roberts, a professor of political science at Northwestern University. Professor Roberts has given a lot of thought to how students should approach the challenges of higher education. In fact, he recently published a book on these ideas: The Thinking Student’s Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education.

I got Professor Roberts on the phone and asked him to share his advice for falling in love with your major. The goal we’re interested in, I explained, is not just to enjoy our coursework, but to also become the type of star who gains access to fantastically interesting post-grad opportunities.

If you want to make the Romantic Scholar a reality in your student life, you should listen to what the good professor had to say…

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