Last lecture notes

Professors' advice for graduating seniors

The Daily Californian reached out to professors for advice they had to offer to graduating seniors. The following is a collection of responses.

Professors who responded:

Robert Beatty, Professor of Molecular Cell Biology
Robert Birgeneau, Chancellor
Robin Einhorn, Professor of History
Alex Filippenko, Professor of Astronomy
Richard Muller, Professor of Physics
David Robinson, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, Haas School of Business
Darren Zook, Lecturer in International and Area Studies & Political Science

Any advice for this year’s graduating students?

Beatty: Calm down, don’t get so stressed about it. It was the same thing then, when I graduated, that people told me I had to be going to grad school. Not true.

Birgeneau: Please do not forget all that you have learned about equity and inclusion and giving back to your community here at Cal. In terms of your future career, you should find something which you really enjoy and which is well-matched to your very best talents. Do not do anything just because it pays well.

Filippenko: I urge you to find, if possible, a profession that you really love, almost like a hobby … and it need not mean that you’re making a lot of money. Because if you spend every hour waiting for the day to end, and every day waiting for the weekend, and every week waiting for vacation, and every year waiting for retirement, what good is that? You’re spending a major fraction of your life doing something that you don’t like, that’s not fun. Instead, do something that brings you happiness and fulfillment.

Robinson: No, I’ve spent four years giving them advice — most of it unasked for and much of it unheeded.

Zook: There are bad jobs, good jobs and dream jobs. The best skills you can learn for these are (1) to make a bad job good; (2) to make a good job better; (3) to imagine your dream job and never stop fighting to get there. When it’s time to quit, quit with dignity, and if that’s not possible, do it with flair.

How did you feel when you were about to graduate college?

Birgeneau: By the end of my undergraduate school, frankly, I was a little bored and very much ready to move on. I had not majored in physics but nevertheless managed to get a graduate fellowship in physics at Yale, so I was very excited to be entering into this next phase of my life.

Filippenko: I felt that an exciting, brand new chapter of my life was beginning. I was looking forward to taking a summer trip to Europe (armed with a Eurail Youth Pass so I could take the trains anywhere and a Youth Hostel card as well) and then on to graduate school, where I would learn how to do professional research in astrophysics.

Robinson: Confused and lonely.

Zook: Like you feel when your alarm clock goes off at 5 a.m., and you went to bed at 4 a.m.

What advice would you give to graduates fearing change and the real world?

Beatty: Being in the real world is a great thing. People say working in an office is like a prison. That’s not true.

Filippenko: Life is full of change and uncertainty. That’s part of what makes life in the real world a great adventure. You can make careful plans, but don’t be religiously bound to them when new opportunities or experiences come up. Take advantage of unexpected twists. Also, remember that along with life’s highs come inevitable lows, and you’ve got to make it through them. None of us is an inanimate rock; we all have thoughts and feelings, and sometimes things go kind of rough, either in our professional or personal lives. Please, don’t be afraid to seek help. Talk to someone, get their perspective and support, don’t make rash and hasty decisions. There’s always help available — from your family, friends or colleagues or from professional services. You’ve all come so far, and there’s so much more for you to accomplish and experience.

Robinson: It’s not being thrown out — people are adults at age 18, and, yes, it is the real world, not “like.” Advice? Welcome to the real world, where you can’t blow off work on Friday because you partied your brains out on Thursday night, and, by the way, your mom won’t be paying your rent anymore.

Zook: First of all, if you fear change now, you will always fear change, and that is no way to live. The trick is not to think of the change part: Rather, focus on the fear. No matter how things appear, everyone around you is just as scared as you are, if not more. The people who are most afraid are the ones who say they are not, especially if they say that to themselves.

What would you tell upcoming graduates who do not receive any job offers?

Beatty: After grad school, I traveled for a year. For people without job offers, this is your one opportunity to do something different without ties and home. Go and pursue dreams. Finding a job isn’t easy, and especially when it’s your first job and in a bad economy it’s a triple whammy. Don’t have to find a perfect job in the beginning.

Filippenko: Don’t give up! It might take a while, but with dedication and perseverance, you’ll succeed. You’re intelligent, motivated and capable … and something good will come through eventually. Be willing to start low on the totem pole and steadily climb up.

Robinson: Graduation is just a day on the calendar — it has no meaning for your job search. Were people who landed a job in October better than those who got a job offer in November? Probably not. And there’s nothing different between the job you are offered in June versus the one you might have been offered in March. So if you are graduating without an offer, don’t treat this as a big catastrophe. There are plenty of good people who put their efforts into their academics (honors thesis, for example) and extracurriculars and then have a specific plan to begin the job search after graduation.

Do some diagnosis: Many applications but no first-rounds? Your resume needs work, or you are applying for jobs that are beyond your reach. Lots of first-rounds but no second-rounds? Your interviewing needs to improve — get some coaching, it’s never too late. Plenty of second rounds but no offers? Look to your professional skills: Did you research the company? Did you present yourself appropriately? Did you write the thank you note? Did you follow up?

Understand that it may take 6 months of diligent recruiting to find a good job, so plan to have a “pay the rent” job (think: “Would you like fries with that?”) while you’re looking. Beats mooching off your parents, and you’ll look back at your nights cleaning out the deep-fryer and realize that while most jobs have some tedium, whatever you do as a Cal graduate will likely be better. A good tip to get you through this is to read biographies — Ho Chi Minh didn’t return to Vietnam until age 51 and had worked as a waiter in London and a dishwasher in Paris.

Many students have unrealistic expectations of a first job. Remember you’re looking for an entry-level position, and no, they’re probably not going to send you business class to the Tokyo office for 3 weeks to consult on strategy. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll be stuck in a cube doing data entry for infinity.

Zook: Two things: (1) graduate school is not the place where you go when you do not have a job offer; and (2) when things don’t happen the way you want them to, then change the way things happen.

One thing you wish you knew or took to heart when you graduated college?

Beatty: Do not do something because everyone else is doing it.

Birgeneau: Because I had grown up in poverty and was the first person in my family to finish high school, much less university, I always felt hugely disadvantaged. I wish that I had understood then that, in fact, my deprived upbringing would prove to be a huge advantage later in life, most especially in my physics research. It would have made a lot of things easier at that stage.

Filippenko: This is more for the students reading this who are not yet graduating. I shouldn’t have worried about grades as much as I did in college. Just learn the material as best you can, and the grades will follow. You don’t need to have a straight-A record to be successful after you graduate. And future potential employers won’t care much about your exact grade in a given course, especially in general-education courses, as long as you didn’t fail. Feel free to take a bunch of general-education courses P/NP, if that means you won’t worry so much and will enjoy them more.

Robinson: America is the land of opportunity (I’m an immigrant).

Zook: There are many horrible people in the world, and you will meet most of them sooner than you want to. Do not ever become one of them. The minute you find yourself becoming cynical, walk away and move on.

A few last points …

Einhorn: Congratulations! Bask a little in your triumph, and then get on with living. No matter what your job situation, know that age makes things harder, not easier. Best wishes with the job market, but live now regardless.

Muller: Don’t stop learning. Next year, make sure you learn more than you did in your senior year. Year after that, learn more. Keep the curve going up. Your education has just begun.