Course Selection Tips for First-Timers

For all of you high-schoolers out there, summer is rapidly approaching! Many of you will have already accepted offers to colleges or universities for this coming September. Congratulations! But there is still work to be done before you can head off to school in the fall. Yes, I am referring to the dreaded “course selection”. As I helped my sister work through the process of choosing her classes this past week, in preparation for her first-ever course selection appointment, I realized that a lot of the information available to incoming freshmen is either super vague or too complicated.

Know Your Appointment Time.

You should have been assigned an enrollment time. Make sure you are available to be at a computer with good Internet at that time. It’s also important to know how early or late your appointment is, relative to the rest of your school. If your appointment is late, you may find that some of your courses or class times are already full. Keep in mind that you may need backups!

Get a Piece of Paper.

You don’t want to have the extra stress of memorizing your class schedule and course names, so write it down! This is the chart I’ve used:
Course Selection — Planning Chart

I’ve got ten slots here for courses, so that means five for Fall and five for Winter. If you’re planning on completing your degree in more than four years, just add columns and delete rows.

Use Full Course Codes.

In my experience, Canadian universities use course codes that usually consist of four letters for the department, and three or four numbers to specify the course. For example, my first-year physics class was titled “PHYS 104”. If the course code has a letter following it, such as BIOL 101A and BIOL 101B, that usually means there are two sections of the course, often offered by two different professors or at two different times. Keep track of the course codes for each course. That’s the only way you’ll be able to search for and find them when you go to sign up.

The first digit of the number in a course code usually refers to the year of study the school expects you to be in when you take that course. However, if you have the pre-requisites fulfilled, it often doesn’t matter what year you’re in if you want to take a higher-level course. (More on pre-requisites later.)

Find Your Program Requirements.

You will find your program’s requirements to graduate in your faculty’s “Academic Calendar”. For example, here’s the program I completed:

 Course Selection — Program Requirements for Queen's Physics

My university used “units” to quantify courses. 3.0 units meant one semester-long course. If you take 5 classes per semester, and two semesters a year, that equals 120 units over four years, which is a full degree. My plan had 72 units (or 24 semester-long classes) specified, meaning I had 16 semester-long classes left to pick for myself.

Fill in your chart with all of the required courses in each year. Record full-year courses twice: once for each semester. How many slots do you still have open for more courses?

Pay Attention to Pre-Requisites.

One of the first things I recommend doing when considering your university career is to look for any third- or fourth-year courses that really interest you, whether they’re in your program or not. Look at the pre-requisites for those classes, and see if they fit into your plan. But do those pre-requisites have pre-requisites of their own? Work backwards to figure out what you need to do to take those courses.

If you’re not sure what courses will interest you in the coming years, that’s okay! Focus on your program’s requirements first.

Be Well-Rounded: Check Your Breadth Requirements.

Many universities have breadth requirements, which are categories of courses in which you have to take a specified number of classes to make you more well-rounded. They might require you to take one course for a full year in each of science, arts, and humanities, for example. Choose whatever interests you in those categories, or whatever will help you prepare for your future career!

Tutorial or Not Tutorial? That is the Question.

Some courses have mandatory tutorials/discussions/seminars to go along with a lecture. Each lecture may have multiple tutorials taught by the same or different Professors or Teaching Assistants (TAs). The rule of thumb I’ve discovered is that if a course has tutorials available in the course selector, they’re probably mandatory. Also, if a lecture takes up less than three hours a week, it probably has a tutorial as well. That way you’re still getting 3 hours per week of instruction. You can always check in the course description — it will tell you whether a course has a mandatory tutorial component.

Some classes may also have laboratory components. Those usually work the same way.

If the course code for the lecture has a section (e.g. BIOL 101A or BIOL 101B), make sure you sign up for a lab or tutorial in the same section (A or B).

Course Selection for Electives!

Electives are the fun part! Electives are courses taken in any department, especially those that don’t fall under the umbrella of your program. You can take extra courses in your department if you want to, though, as long as your fulfill any breadth requirements you may have.

If you’re in a specialized program, such as engineering or commerce, your schedule may be filled up with required courses in the first year or two. That’s okay — you may still have space for electives in third or fourth year.

If you’re in a more general program, you may only have a couple of required courses in first year. That means first year is the perfect time to take some electives! Just make sure you prioritize the electives that satisfy your breadth requirements.

Be Prepared.

 

When your course selection appointment arrives, you will be able to submit your schedule for the semester or the year (depending on your school). But the online portal will allow you to pre-build a schedule before your appointment. Make sure you do that!

In addition, if your electives are super popular and your appointment is relatively late, do some searching to find backup electives that will fit your schedule, so that you can swap them out at a moment’s notice.


That’s all I have for you today, future frosh! Good luck with your course selection, and comment if you have any questions!

For those of you who have gone through this process before, what course selection tips do you have for the Class of 2020?

Y is for Year of Big Changes

Today is my and my boyfriend’s anniversary! As my parents have pointed out, nobody cares about dating anniversaries. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good time to look back on the past year and reflect on everything the past year has brought. Plus, it’s now been a full year since we both left Queen’s University, so there have been a lot of changes in the past year. Let’s recap.

I Got a Diploma

Ayyy, look at that, I graduated!

 Y is for Year of Big Changes — Graduation

Looking back on it, I would say the degree I chose to complete was neither the best nor the worst choice for me. Would I do it again? Sure. Would I change some things? Absolutely. But no point in dwelling on the past — onto the future!

Big Girl Job

Technically, my job at Tim Hortons didn’t really start out as a big girl job. We were still hired as a group of thirty new(ish) grads, and were still considered the “kids” at the company. But now, a year later, the new crop of hires will start trickling in soon, and I won’t be the new kid on the block anymore!

Moved Out (for real this time)

Throughout university, I lived on and off campus with roommates, so the concept of not living at home wasn’t new to me. However, the biggest change I’ve noticed since moving out for real is that I don’t think of my parents’ place as “home”. Because it’s not. When I “go home”, it’s now to my own place, where I get to decide where stuff goes and how I live in it. So far, no complaints.

Got a Cat!

 Y is for Year of Big Changes — Lorelai

This little kitty was our best decision. Lorelai brightens our mood, our day, and our home. She is so affectionate and playful. She is currently pawing at me for pets.

Signed up for Ipsy

This may not sound like a big deal, but signing up for Ipsy Glam Bags marked a big step forward for me. I wanted to step outside my comfort zone when it came to makeup. Having samples catered to me really helped me accomplish that.

Spent Holidays this Year as a Couple

Y is for Year of Big Changes — Christmas

Like Christmas, for example!

It’s official: now that Joe and I are living together, we must now attend all family holiday functions together, or not at all. Well, okay, that’s not true, but that seemed to be the expectation. But we were okay with that.

Starting This Blog

Writing a blog has been on my bucket list for years. The planets aligned this past December, combined with the right amount of motivation, creative energy, and Internet research, and now the blog is a reality. Here’s hoping I stick with it.

First Cruise

I’ve been on vacation before, but before this March, I had never been on a cruise. As I discussed in another post, it’s nice to have lots to see and do in multiple countries, while still enjoying the comfort of a single room in which to sleep and store your things. It’s definitely the type of vacation Joe and I will do again soon.


There are a lot of big-ticket life changes on this list, and I’m probably forgetting some as well. Basically, it’s been a big year. Onto Round 2 of the real world!

What big life changes have you had in the past year?

Q is for Queens — A University Review

Exactly one year ago, I was studying for the final exam of my university career at Queens. (It was Nuclear and Particle Physics, if you’re curious. Yeah. Good times.) It was a bittersweet time, of course: saying goodbye to friends and routines, and hello to the real world of the daily grind. I have to say, I’m definitely very happy that I’m not slogging through exams right now. But some of you out there are currently looking at university right now as your next big step, rather than your nemesis. Yes, I’m talking to the high schoolers. If you’ve received an acceptance to Queens University in Kingston, Ontario and are weighing your options, or if you are in another phase of your life and wondering about what’s next for you or a loved one, let me share some of the most important things for you to consider.

Queens is big on culture.

Queens University Flag

Queens College colours we are wearing once again…

Some Queens students and alumni seriously bleed tricolour. The school is massively invested in its Scottish and academic heritage, as well as its tight-knit community and culture. Honestly, this wasn’t a big factor for me, but it did tend to attract generally nice people as students, which was fortunate for everyone. If you’re interested in showing school pride at various sporting and cultural events, this is a great place to be.

Kingston is kind of remote, but moderately cultured.

The downtown core of Kingston is very close to campus, so Queens influences quite a bit of the city’s identity. The Royal Military College and St. Lawrence College also play a role here. While Kingston has a lot of history, being Canada’s original capital city and everything, it doesn’t have a ton going on. Most of its industry is dependent upon the schools as well. It doesn’t compare to Ottawa or Toronto, for example, but there’s more going on than in London or Waterloo, for sure.

Also, because it’s remote, most students aren’t able to live at home while attending. I believe that living in residence and off-campus without parents is an extremely valuable experience, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do university any other way. I would recommend spending at least a semester or a year away from home (barring financial difficulties, of course).

Having the lake so close to campus is awesome.

All you have to do is cross the street at the south end of main campus to get this view:

Q is for Queens — Lake Ontario in Winter

Naturally, because it’s Canada, my only nice shot of the lake is in winter.

It’s really amazing to be able to go for a walk, study, or hang out by the lake at any time. (Even in winter, apparently.) This amplifies the beauty of the campus, which is already pretty sweet in its own right. (Except for the math building.)

Queens is expensive.

This is a school that’s known for its wealth. I studied in the “cheapest” program, with tuition costs around $6,500 per year, but it’s really the housing and student fees that hurt the wallet. You’ll get a quality education out of it (small class sizes, famous profs, great gym facilities included, etc.), but you’ll pay for it.

It’s a great school for a CV.

This may be a factor for some of you, especially those considering competitive post-grad studies or careers. Queens has a great reputation in many fields, but it’s for good reason; you will actually have to work hard to do well, in general.

However, I have heard from some Life Sci and Bio students that this may not be the case for Med School. It seems that the notoriously difficult Life Sci program tends to negatively impact GPAs for students who would otherwise have done very well and made it into Med School via another undergrad program. Also, keep in mind that some professional schools don’t require you to major in the subject that will be your eventual focus, as long as you have your prerequisites covered.

Clubs galore.

Queens often touts its impressive number of clubs, teams, and associations. I really wish I had taken better advantage of these opportunities while I was in school. Though, to be fair, there’s only so much time in your day, so seek out what interests you and what will benefit you as you strive toward your ultimate career and life goals.


My reasons for picking Queens were a little more simplistic, and a little less valuable:

  • It’s Scottish, and I’m part Scottish.
  • It’s far from home, so I didn’t have to live at home.
  • It’s pretty.
  • My parents liked it.

But if you’re putting a little more thought into your university decisions (or helping a loved one decide), be sure to take these points into account.

Gaels, anything you’d add to this list?

Cha gheill!

D is for Donuts — Physics at Tim Hortons

One of the questions people have asked me most often in the past year (almost to the day, actually) is how I ended up working at Tim Hortons Corporate after studying Physics at university. And I’ll be honest: I’ve wondered that myself. It seems like such a drastic shift, but when you take a step back and look at the journey as a whole, rather than as a trajectory towards a life of academia, it makes a little more sense.

To give you a little bit of background, as I headed into my fourth year at Queen’s in Physics, I was already pretty certain that a career in astrophysics wasn’t for me. For more details on that, pop on over to my “Why I Studied Physics” post. So of course, as all of my friends prepared their grad school applications, I started panicking a little bit. I did some soul-searching, I went to career guidance sessions, I even retook the Career Cruising questionnaire from high school. No dice. Oh, sure, I found some leads, but nothing I was really passionate about.

My biggest problem with the job application process, especially for new grads, is the expectation that you convey your passion for the company and the work as you apply for the position. And a lot of the time, that means stretching the truth a little bit. Am I really passionate about this internship, or that entry-level posting? Probably not. But my cover letter has to make it look like I am, right? I’m a decent professional-style writer, but I hate being insincere. So rather than spamming the world of industry with my résumé, I applied at a couple of places and kept looking for something that would actually make me excited.

I stumbled across the posting for the Tim Hortons Leadership Development Program on TalentEgg. In fact, I think I was actually scrolling though every single posting for new grads on the site at that time, since I simply couldn’t choose the job categories to which I should narrow my search. There were four things about the description that stood out to me:

  1. It was a business new grad program that wasn’t limited to only Commerce students. I had only found a couple of programs that were openly recruiting Science majors.
  2. The assignment was open-ended by design, allowing you to try out multiple departments without having to commit to a single role when applying. In fact, students who were only trained and willing to work in a single field weren’t encouraged to apply. All I knew at this point was that I was thinking about trying out the business world, but how was I supposed to choose between Marketing, Finance, and all of those other fields, when I didn’t even know what half of them were?
  3. There was a huge focus on meritocracy. Now, a lot of people hear that word and immediately think “cutthroat competition”. But my interpretation was, “Awesome! It’s just like school! But you get paid!” So that’s how that happened.
  4. It was Tim Hortons. If you’ve read my top ten Tims products post, you’ll know that I’m slightly obsessed. Tim Hortons was a staple of my childhood, my favourite hangout in high school, and my source of pure joy in university. And while I have absolutely zero desire to work in food service, I could see myself working for a brand that I loved and making it better, in one way or another.

Plus the opportunity for free Tims. There’s that.

So I applied on line, thinking, Who knows?

When it came time for the interview process, I was pretty dissuaded by my competition. Most of the other candidates were business majors with business work experience and business…suave, you know what I mean? Not to mention that while every other candidate was dressed in full black or navy suits, I was wearing a flowery blouse and tan dress pants, and I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb (even though I probably didn’t).

But lo and behold, here I am today, still working for Tim Hortons as a graduate of the Leadership Development Program. And I’m in the Restaurant Technology department, which is a pretty good fit, if I do say so myself. Am I enjoying my work now? For sure! What’s next for my career? As I said before: Who knows?

So that’s how I got to where I am today: by pure indecision. And a love for Tim Hortons.

What unexpected turns have you taken in your career?

 

work smarter (not harder)

Have you ever heard the saying, “Work smarter, not harder”? What about “Quality over quantity”? I’m a big believer in both of these phrases.

Throughout my education, the quality of my work mattered a great deal to me. This applied not only to my grades, but to the actual papers, assignments, and projects I would produce. They were under my name, so of course I wanted them to be great! But there were limits to how far I would go to achieve a good grade. It was very important that I prioritize my time and efforts, especially since my biggest pet peeve is wasted time. So when it came to the night before an exam, you wouldn’t find me cramming and guzzling caffeine into the wee hours of the morning. The reason was simple: that wasn’t working smart.

As I get more tired, stressed, or burnt out, my work starts to become impaired. I lose focus easily, my memory degrades, my work gets sloppy, and my eyes go all wonky. Maybe you experience the same thing. Naturally, when you hit that point, your body is telling you to stop working. It’s not worth it.

When you’re working on your own schedule, as you do in university or high school, it’s quite logical to organize your time based on when you’ll be most productive. It takes some discipline, but if you want to work smarter, you need to learn and be mindful of your own rhythms. If you’re a night owl, don’t expect yourself to start a study session bright and early at 9am. That sounds really obvious, but I’ve seen a lot of coffee cups at those library desks. But hey, maybe having a caffeinated treat is what motivates you to get working — that’s okay too.

Then you go and get yourself a 9-5 (or whatever regulated schedule you work on). If you’re not someone who’s productive at those set times, it’s no longer an option to essentially sleepwalk through the day and catch up when you’re more physically prepared for the task. Now there’s an expectation of continuous, productive work — and this time, you’re being paid for it, so there’s a much heavier obligation.

I’m lucky in this area. My most productive times are mornings between breakfast and lunch, most of the afternoon (once I’ve digested lunch, haha), and late evening (when I hit my second wind). I try to always eat breakfast to make the most of the morning, and I eat a relatively early lunch so that my slower periods don’t conflict with any early afternoon commitments. Late evening is generally my blogging time. 😉

In our highly competitive and multitasking-obsessed society, it seems like almost everyone is overworked at least some of the time. People and businesses are mistaking harder work for smarter work. I read recently about the negative physical and mental health impacts of longer hours in the Harvard Business Review: we’re talking “impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease”. And a big part of that is trying to get quality work from working harder, not smarter. It just doesn’t happen that way. Like I said, outside of our productive periods, our work and our bodies suffer. If you work harder but you don’t work smarter, you may get more quantity, but you won’t get more quality.

So how do you work smarter? By taking advantage of your productive periods, and by focusing on the quality of what you do. Prioritize, take breaks, and stay healthy. Make a plan you can stick to based on how you work best.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work hard. Of course, I will do whatever I need to do to get something my work done with the highest possible quality. But when it comes time to choose between working smarter and working harder — or worse, making it look like I’m working harder — I’m going to choose to work smarter. That’s just who I am.

How do you work smarter?

sick days

Hey there. I haven’t written anything in a while because I’ve been sick. Nothing serious, just a cold. But for the first time in what feels like a very long time, I actually went home sick today — just because of a cold. As I lay in bed, trying to fall asleep (thanks to the cat for jumping on me whenever I was about to drift off), I started thinking about how my opinions on taking sick days have changed over the years. If you’ve gone through school and made the transition from an hourly minimum wage job to a “real” job, maybe you’ve had this experience as well.

Elementary/Middle School: Sick Days as an Excuse

I can remember a number of times in grade school when I faked sick so I didn’t have to go. (Sorry, Mom!) This was especially easy when I felt a few symptoms, but definitely not enough to keep me home. So, of course, exaggerating was key. I think once I even went so far as to put a bit of concealer on my lips so I’d look pale. At that point in my life, the consequences of taking sick days were minimal. Realistically, the worst case scenario was missing a test, in which case you’d simply take it the next day. All it took was a note from your parents. Easy peasy. Naturally, when I was actually sick, I’d also be staying home.

High School: A Little More Calculated

High school sick days were a little more risky. Sure, the work was easy and I could catch up given enough time, but there were grades on the line that would determine university admissions and scholarships. Whether or not I took the day off for an illness was heavily dependent on what I would be missing. And there were still a couple of instances in which “I’m feeling slightly under the weather” was enough to stay home. Sometimes I knew when I woke up feeling awful that those symptoms would fade throughout the day, but an awful morning wasn’t worth a tolerable afternoon.

University: No Problem

After spending eighteen years of your life having the importance of perfect attendance drilled into your head, university was definitely a welcome change. Luckily, I’m pretty self-disciplined as it is, so skipping classes for no reason wasn’t really an issue for me. The great thing was that when you were sick, you could stay home, no questions asked (with some exceptions, like labs or exams). Even better, living on or near campus allowed me to attend one class, go home in between, skip the next one, and mix and match until I felt better. Many materials were online to allow you to catch up, and it was easy to decide which courses were more suited to absences than others. When it came to minor illnesses, this was the life.

Summer Job: Sick Days are Totally Unacceptable

I’ll preface this by saying that I’m a total keener and I cared way too much about the welfare of my workplace when I was essentially making minimum wage. First of all, it was an hourly gig, so calling in sick meant no pay for the day. Bummer. On top of that, when you don’t show up, there’s no one to cover for you, so the rest of the team is left scrambling. If I didn’t care about the work itself, this wouldn’t be an issue. Alas, the perfectionist in me couldn’t stand for that. And the biggest factor for me in my later years of this particular job was the fact that I was supervising a group of teenagers, and I had to ensure that they knew how horrible everything would be if someone called in sick and we were down a body. I had to lead by example. This meant working through many a cold, outdoors, standing and running for ten hours straight. I’d feel terribly guilty otherwise. I think this experience was the one that had the most impact on my views on this topic. Aside from anything seriously contagious or debilitating, my instinct is to tough it out.

Full-Time Job: …I Can Take A Sick Day?!

Coming into my first full-time, salaried position after spending six years straight doing the aforementioned summer job, I assumed that my five yearly sick days were a formality. I wasn’t actually expected to take those, was I? Wouldn’t I get in trouble or let the whole team down?

I ended up having to take last year’s sick days for what felt like a legitimate reason (strep throat). But this week, as I felt a cold coming on, I just assumed that I’d have to power through it. However, on day three of my cold (i.e. today), I realized something kind of unexpected:

Doing a generally physical job, like my previous summer job, with a cold wasn’t really a big deal. Working at a desk with a cold is so much harder.

I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t really do anything useful. And when I told people I was going to take a sick day, the consensus was “Yes, please, go home”. That shouldn’t have been a surprise, but to me, it really was.

I had a nice nap. I feel a little better. And I’m going to bed now.

What are your thoughts on sick days?

University Decisions I'm Glad I Made

Today is the first day of Reading Week for all of my friends and peers at university. Now that I’m working full-time in the “real world”, this weekend is just another weekend. And that’s okay. While there’s some nostalgia associated with the cadence of academic life, I feel pretty confident that now is my time to apply some of the things I learned at school, about the world and about myself. Over the year, I’ve started to see the results and repercussions of some of the university decisions I made in my four years at Queen’s. I’m particularly proud of some of those decisions, as I can see them paying off both now and in the future. A couple were just a fluke that ended up having more of an impact than I had expected, in a good way. Of course, I’ve made lots of mistakes as well. But if I could go back and do it all over again, these are some of the choices I wouldn’t want to change.

Living away from home

This was one of the first decisions I had to make when it came to university life: where would I apply, and where would I accept? I decided before completing my applications that I wanted to attend a school that was far enough away from home that living on my own made financial, practical sense. At the time, my analysis was fairly shallow – I wanted to get away from my family for a while, and to not have mandated chores, events, or a curfew. Fair enough, I guess. But the real benefits came later on. Living away from home forced me to exercise my self-motivation and self-restraint, especially considering my high personal standards. It also helped me think outside the box when it came to planning a future for myself that didn’t involve living at home once school was done.

Taking computer science courses

I took four computer science courses during my time at university. Each one was an introductory course in a different coding language. So while I didn’t become a proficient programmer, I did benefit in a number of ways from these courses. I became much more comfortable picking up new computer skills, as I’ve practiced a similar learning process four times now. It gave me a better understanding of computer logic, such that I have a grasp on what’s possible and what will be more challenging when it comes to implementing technological change in the workplace. And honestly, it’s a nice thing to have on a resume (though for now, I list them as courses I have taken rather than actual proficiency, since my memory of the syntax from each language is pretty shaky and I’d need a refresher first).

Participating in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

For an overview of NaNoWriMo, check out this post.

In my first two month of university, I panicked quite a bit about participating in NaNoWriMo again. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to get good grades and not slack off. But at the same time, I had this feeling that I would be able to handle the extra workload of writing a 50,000-word novel in the month of November, while studying for midterms and working on final assignments. Was I crazy? Maybe. But I found that having more to do during that month made me much more efficient with my time, and I discovered that I actually had a lot more time to work with than I thought I did. I was so convinced of this that I ended up participating in every year of my degree. In fact, I volunteered as the NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison for Kingston in my third and fourth years, which meant I scheduled and attended almost every local event and managed the group forum. And somehow, I didn’t really feel that any of this interfered with my education. Sure, I had a little less time to play The Sims. But did I really need that time in the first place?

Getting a pet

As I’ve mentioned before, I got a hamster named Henry in my third year of university. While hamsters aren’t really that much work, I found that having a living, breathing, fuzzy little being around did wonders for my mental health during stressful times. If you’re interested in my reasons why hamsters make the best university pets, check out this post.

Writing a thesis

By the time I reached fourth year, I had made the decision that pursuing a physics career wasn’t for me. (For more on that, see this post.) But I simply couldn’t fathom completing a degree in physics without writing an honour’s thesis. It just felt like the epitome of physics study – how could I not do it? And while it was a lot of work and totally not required for me to graduate, completing my thesis project was a great experience and gave me a real sense of closure upon graduation. This is one of the university decisions of which I’m most proud. I mean, look at this beauty!

University Decisions: Thesis

You can read it on my LinkedIn if you feel so inclined…?


Out of the university decisions I made at Queen’s, these are the ones I would do all over again – and would recommend to anyone else, if they relate to my sentiments.

What choices in your academic experience would you recommend?

Why I Studied Physics

When people find out I studied Physics at university, the first question I usually get is something along the lines of “…Why?!”

(The question is usually preceded by a statement like “Wow, I was terrible at physics in high school,” at which I just smile and commiserate.)

Up until about third year, I used to give a canned answer – something about transferable skills, problem solving, mysteries of the universe… Blah, blah, blah. For a while, I think I may have actually believed it. But now that I’m neither studying nor pursuing a career in Physics, it begs the question: honestly, why did I do it?

Reason #1: Physics was my best subject in high school.

With no clue what I wanted to do with my life at seventeen, I looked to my report card for guidance. And actually, my top mark was a tie. My choices were Physics or English. Which brings me to my next point…

Reason #2: It looks good.

I’d spent 13 years in school trying to get top marks and excel academically, and I wasn’t about to stop there! I felt that saying that I’d majored in Physics would look good to relatives, peers, and potential employers. This was especially in comparison to English, which was my other best option at the time. I’d grown up hearing that Arts degrees wouldn’t get me as far in life, so I wasn’t about to take the chance.

If I were to spin this reason in a more positive way, I’d say it was more about the transferable skills from taking on a difficult set of courses. But that wouldn’t be true. When I was choosing a major in Grade 12, it was all about whether I would look smart, not about if I would actually be smart.

Reason #3: Interest?

I’ve had a mild interest in Astronomy since I was a kid, fueled mostly by my dad’s interest in the subject. Contact was my favourite movie, and I even got my own telescope! (Well, okay, I got it for free. But that’s a topic for another time.) I figured if I immersed myself in the subject, I would become more passionate about it. Turns out that wasn’t quite the case, because most of my interest boiled down to Reason #2: it looked good for me, the self-professed Queen of the Nerds, to be into Astronomy. I still do have that mild interest, but not enough interest to keep me coming back day in and day out.

In examining the reasons I chose my major, it’s no surprise I didn’t end up going on to an MSc, PhD, and/or career. I’m not ruling those things out forever, mind you. And I don’t regret studying physics, because it did help me gain those skills, meet new people, and get a better idea of who I am. For now, though, I’m still on the hunt for my real passions.

How did you pick your major? Is it still the love of your academic life?

Study Tips - Three That Worked for Me

Hi friends! Guess what? This is the first winter in nine years where I haven’t had to study for any exams! I have to admit, graduating is a pretty great thing. On the other hand, I’m now starting to notice what everyone told me would be really strange about adult life: aside from the normal flow of the seasons and holidays, there isn’t as much of a cadence to everything anymore. Sure, there are slow periods and busy times in the office, but there isn’t that massive ramp-up to exams and three weeks of total stress, followed by a complete memory purge of everything I learned, because when am I ever going to need to know this stuff again? (Okay, maybe next semester…)

So now I’m seeing many of my friends on Facebook starting their new semesters with fresh minds – and any high schoolers I know are just starting to feel the pressure rise as their exams approach. And since I’m not one of them, I figured I would take a little bit of my loads of extra time from not having school to share a couple of the things that I did to study for my exams.

I should start by saying that my biggest academic downfall has always been my memory. My study methods usually revolved around making sure I understood concepts and how to arrive at the answer, rather than memorizing particular examples – because I knew from experience that I would completely blank on the exam if I tried that. Physics lends itself pretty well to that type of studying. In fact, I specifically selected courses that didn’t require much memorization, so generally no biology, history, and the like. Even if you are studying for memory-type exams, these methods could still supplement your own!

Make a List

Study List

See that page on the top right? That was my list from Third Year!

 This was always my first step when my university classes ended for the semester. I took inventory of all of my assignments, textbooks, review packages, and made a list of everything I would reasonably need to study to feel prepared for the exam.

Note that I said reasonably. I’m not sure if this is good advice or not, but I found that if I over-studied — that is, got burnt out and just studied for the sake of it — I would run out of steam for my other exams, get super stressed out, and usually start doubting and forgetting everything I had already learned. I would spread out the items over multiple days and mix up which exams I was studying for, but unless I had identifies something I really needed to add, I would stop once I reached the end of the list. This would leave time for me to relax for a bit and get enough sleep (which was a must for me during exams)!

Notes on Notes*

*Patent pending (just kidding)

This idea I didn’t discover until Second Year, but it became a staple in my study habits. I would create a consolidated set of notes based on my class notes, plus any textbook examples or assignment tidbits that felt pertinent. Not only that, but I would colour-code them!

These are actually a bad example - there isn't enough colour! Also, this topic isn't particularly indicative of the difficulty of the subject matter that made these notes necessary. But it looks like I may have thrown out ALL of my physics notes... Oops.

These are actually a bad example – there isn’t enough colour! Also, this topic isn’t particularly indicative of the difficulty of the subject matter that made these notes necessary. But it looks like I may have thrown out ALL of my physics notes… Oops.

Honestly, there wasn’t much of a reason behind the colour-coding, except maybe to make it easier to skim for equations or topics. The real reason was so that I would change pens and colours every few words. That way, I could force myself to stay engaged in my learning.

Once I had my notes on notes, I rarely needed to go back to the originals. It helped me review without missing anything, tap into kinesthetic learning skills, and save time on last-minute review.

Study with Friends — Sometimes

I hate being in a study group where people “quiz” each other. Being on the spot like that makes my memory even foggier than it would be on the exam itself. I end up just thinking, “Oh, I don’t know. Never mind. I’m going to fail.” However, I find that when you teach each other things that one of you is better at explaining than the others, it’s much more helpful and efficient. In general, it’s best if you’re doing the teaching. It gives you the opportunity to get a really great handle on the topic. But that would be a bit one-sided in a study group, so teaching each other is a good compromise.

Combine these with readings, office hours, flash cards, lots of practice… and you’re good to go!

What are your favourite study tips to make exams (just a little bit) more bearable?

You may have noticed that I talk a lot about my cat. I’m a proud pet lover. But when I was in university, I didn’t have the time, money, or commitment level for a dog or a cat. (Two of my housemates ended up getting cats, actually. I loved having them around, but I definitely wasn’t ready to make the leap myself.) I lived in an on-campus residence in first year, and I missed having a pet – at the time, my family had a dog at home, three hours away. In my second year, I moved off-campus into a house with some friends. I took that year to ponder what type of pet I would like… and could handle.

  • A fish? Interesting to watch every so often, but not much of a “pet” in the companionship sense.
  • A bird? It would be a risk – they could be loud and messy, which would be an issue with housemates. Plus, their feet kind of creep me out.
  • A reptile? Not cuddly enough. Their diet was also a bit off-putting.
  • An amphibian? Same deal as a reptile. Cuter, granted, but still not the kind of experience I was looking for.

I’d narrowed it down to mammals. While I considered factors such as size, lifestyle, and expense, I had a friend introduce me to her own hamster and share some of her experiences. Hamsters met all of my criteria! And in September 2013, I acquired Henry the Hamster.

why hamsters make the best pets for students - henry

This is Henry. Sitting in a shoe.

So what made Henry the best pet I could have asked for as a university student?

Size and Footprint

In a small student apartment, the size of a pet and the equipment needed to take care of it is a deal breaker. For Henry, I bought a cubic collapsible fabric box with a lid (about 50 cm each dimension). His cage sat on top of it like it was a table, and I was able to fit all of his equipment inside the box if I ever needed to do so. For exercise, I had your standard 7″ exercise ball, and he could just run around my room – no need for a playpen like some larger pets.

Independence

From what I’ve seen and read, hamsters are moderately social. They don’t get along well with other hamsters, and most of the time they like to be left alone. With more social pets, skipping a day or two of play negatively impacts their mood and mental health. For a hamster, leaving them alone simply gets them accustomed to being alone, so it may take some time to warm them back up to playing with you. The longer you wait, the harder it gets, but if you’re looking to get a pet for companionship, I’ll assume that you’re planning to socialize with them regularly anyway. I tried to play with Henry daily, or at least have him get some exercise in his ball.

Cleanliness

Did you know that hamsters can be potty-trained? And it’s actually the easiest thing! They will naturally pick a spot in their cage to use as a toilet, and you just place a potty tray in that spot for next time. Not only that, but they will also clean their sleeping nests of old food and other garbage, so the cage doesn’t get as gross as you might think. Of course, a hamster’s standards of cleanliness might be different from yours, and you’ll still have to remove trash, litter, and old shavings regularly. But your hamster will help you out as much as they can! I know mine did.

Sleep Schedule (no, really)

You might have heard that hamsters are nocturnal, which sounds pretty awful for a pet. But in reality, they’re crepuscular, which means they’re awake twice a day during “twilight” hours: around dawn and around dusk. I don’t know about you, but when I was a student, I was basically out of the house all day doing work. I’d only really be home for a few hours before going to sleep. So while a diurnal pet sounds like a good idea, you might actually miss most of the time they’re awake because you’re busy in class or at the library. In general, Henry was awake from 6pm-10pm, then again early in the morning when I was getting up to go to class. This turned out to be an awesome schedule, as I didn’t feel like I was missing out on any of the fun!

Cuddles

Maybe this doesn’t apply to everyone, but one of the reasons I wanted a mammal as a pet was for the feeling of fur when holding, petting, or playing with them. There’s probably a scientific, oxytocin-related explanation behind it. I found it was very beneficial to have a cuddly creature always available during stressful times such as exams.

Relatively Low Costs

It’s obvious that there is a correlation between a pet’s size/complexity and the cost to raise them. Here’s a rough cost breakdown for Henry over 22 months:

Basic

  • Hamster: $10
  • Cage: $30
  • Bedding: $5/month ($110 total)
  • Food: $5/month ($110 total)
  • Toys: $20 (plus free stuff, like paper towel rolls)
  • Cleaning spray: $10 (the bottle lasted his whole lifetime)
Total: $290 ($13 per month)
If you buy food and bedding in larger bulk quantities than I did, you can probably reduce that monthly cost as well.

Advanced (i.e. Additional Costs Because I Spoiled My Hamster A Lot)

  • More Toys: $30
  • Litterbox: $10 – it’s not really necessary, but it will save you time and effort in cleaning the cage.
  • Litter: $5/month ($110 total) – it has to be small animal litter, since cat litter will mess up their little lungs! I recommend this stuff since it clumps for easy cleaning.
  • Cage Extensions: $50 – I’m talking tubes, a carrier, a fancy wheel, a mini maze…these were always on my Christmas list.
  • Treats: $20

Total after additional costs: $510 ($23 per month) – keep in mind, though, a lot of this was in the form of gifts.

Personality

Even though hamsters are small, simple animals, they still have quite a bit of personality. Some of the stuff Henry did was pretty hilarious. I’ll let you discover the unique personality of your pet on your own!

Lifespan

This one is a little bittersweet, but it’s true. In university, most of us don’t know where our lives will take us next, so committing to a pet that will be with you for a few decades may not be the best decision quite yet. Henry lived to be almost 2 years old, so he and I went through third and fourth year of university together. When he did pass away (peacefully, in his sleep), I was sad, of course, but also confident that I had given him a pretty awesome life for a hamster.


So if you’re thinking about getting a pet to be your companion during school, I would definitely encourage you to consider a hamster! What have been your experiences with pets in university?