Hello, fellow McGill undergraduate students. I am a McGill alumnus from the Class of 2014 and currently a graduate student at UBC. It’s the beginning of 2016, so I figure it’s a good time to post this as many of you are starting the second semester. Hear me out on what I have realized about the way we go through our undergraduate years at McGill.
After seeing how comprehensive the co-op programs are in other universities, I realize how little McGill prepares its students for their career after undergraduates. Simon Fraser University and U of British Columbia, for examples, have co-op programs for almost all programs and majors, not just computer science and engineering. The students aren’t limited by what they study, either. For example, we have a student studying in Humanity working in the System department in the building that I work at.
While McGill has co-op programs for its comp sci and engineering students, it seems to leave the life science and arts folks to their own proactiveness. Sure, there is the career planning service (CaPS) office and a great online listing of jobs. It’s just harder when the university isn’t with you to work out the schedule and logistics perfectly. But you can still do it! You can also look into on-campus jobs (work study, research positions, etc), and don’t waste your summers away.
Getting work experience helps to put things in perspective. It also helps you figure what you actually like, what’s actually immediately applicable in what you’re studying, and thus a better decision in course selection. Judging what a career is like based on your experience with a class is a mistake. Finding a comp sci class super dry doesn’t mean an actual software developer job would be just as boring. Just because you had a terrible experience with memorizing metabolism pathways, doesn’t mean you can’t be a scientist who finds clues to cure cancer.
Last but not least, if you plan to start paying back your student loan after McGill, work experience will help you with that a lot more than just good grades.
2. Diversify your curriculum
Put your eggs (i.e. your time and energy) in more than one basket. You never know if you actually don’t get into med school and need to find an alternative career plan, or you find something else you like much better than the one you’re been rooting for. Having that extra minor would help a lot. By diversifying your curriculum, I mean taking very different classes. For example, doing a minor in physics or comp sci if you’re a life science major, or a music minor when you’re in engineering.
The immediate benefits of this are being around with new people (not always be stuck with the same folks), making new connections and different friend circles (that’s what going to university is about). It’s also really great to take your mind off of your major courses from time to time and do something else. The long term benefit is having the flexibility to switch to different things and the ability to mix and match your skill. For example, my major was in life science, but I did a minor in comp sci, so I’m now in a bioinformatics grad program! Imagine where a music and engineering joint major can take you, or business and laws, computer science and linguistics, etc.
Doing classes that teach immediately marketable skills is also very helpful if you’re in life science or arts. We cannot deny the fact there are many more job opportunities for students with certain majors, and that not everyone will get into medical schools. Studying what you’re interested in is the right thing to do, but be mindful at the same time about what’s coming up is also important. You might not want to be left with the option of working in a less intellectually challenging place after McGill or have to consider a second undergrad degree.
Note: When I was at McGill, I have met so many people in my anatomy & cell bio program who feared computer science and math in general. They feel safer to memorize course materials for the exams so they pour their entire undergrad into a life science major and maybe a minor in another life science topic. I might be biased, but comp sci and math courses really aren’t that bad! They can actually be more fun than memorizing proteins. Don’t miss out on a learning opportunity because of a negative, unsupported perspective.
3. Bird courses
Taking bird courses is basically paying the same amount of tuition to learn less. For students aiming for medical school or grad schools, it’s understandable that they would want to take easy courses to boost their GPA. However, in the long run over the four years, bird courses make a relatively minute contribution to your GPA. I’m not promoting taking hard classes. Notoriously hard classes with heavy workloads and bad professors are totally unworthy of your time. There’s only so much time and energy in the 4 years to become smarter and to have fun, so invest the time well and focus on what you want to learn.
In my case, my comp sci and East Asian studies minors helped my GPA tremendously (which would otherwise be much lower with just anatomy and cell biology …). If GPA matters a lot to you, consider getting a fun minor instead of adding random bird courses on your transcript.
Note: Some classes don’t teach the most up-to-date materials, so it’s important to supplement your learning by doing your own research online.
Unless you’re aiming for graduate school, medical schools, or any post-grad program that has a high GPA cut-off, don’t worry too much about your grades. Instead, use the time that it takes to get from A- to an A or a B to a B+ on something more productive, like a club, a side project, or a part-time job. Employers these days don’t really look at your grades. Some might even skip the education section and go straight to work experience and other experiences when reading a resume.
Still, don’t get straight Cs or fail classes. It’s important to do your best (see #7) while not sweating over a few points. Having good grades helps to keep many options and doors open.
5. Take advantage of all the resources and services
You paid for them in your student fee. I’m not just talking about the gym (now I just realized I have never swum in the McGill gym pool ….) There are many resources available that would keep you informed and healthy. For example, the $200+ Ihaveaplan insurance you pay every year lets you get a free checkup at a dental office (*certain conditions apply) and cover a bunch of stuff that you should really look into. You can get a free councilling session on nutritional diets at the student service center. There is a ton of resources and services for students in the career planning center (CaPS) office and the libraries. A good fraction of your student fee goes to funding club activities as well.
6. McGill is for networking
Undergrad education is pretty uniform across all universities. In fact, if you’re in a graduate school like I am, you’d know that most undergraduate courses are pretty basic and cover a tiny fraction of human knowledge.
The prestige of a university is often measured by its research output by the professors and the graduate students. The whole point of going to a more prestigious university as an undergrad is to network with students who gone through a similar higher academic selection progress and connect with professors doing top-notch research. That’s the difference. Take advantage of this.
You can network by simply joining students clubs or do other activities. For example, join student organizations, such as the Computer Science Taskforce (I made so many friends there!) You would get to know people better and learn about how the university operates by getting involved beyond attending classes.
Note: The world is changing … this implies that it’s sometimes beneficial to weight the words/advice of your peers and people who have gone through the similar experience as you recently more than your career councilors, professors, supervisors, parents, etc. Your parents might tell you focus on getting the best grades, and your career councilors might think graduating with a McGill degree will inevitably lead to great things, but your generation would mostly likely have a better idea about McGill and about the current job market.
7. It’s more about learning how to learn
… and less about what you have learned. Don’t feel bad about forgetting every single protein you’ve learned in Bio200 after studying days and nights for the final. By really putting all your effort in getting good grades and doing your best, you are getting better at learning and remembering things under the stress and time constraints. This is a very valuable skill because once in grad schools or in the industry, you will be constantly learning new skills on your own in very little time.
Even if you forget the factual details from some classes after studying really hard, some general concepts will stick and you’ll be smarter and faster at learning things in general.
6. Most importantly: enjoy your time at McGill and in Montreal!
I’d say that I get as much out of McGill as I get out of Montreal, except learning French… There aren’t many cities in the world that are this biker friendly, festive. Montreal rent is so cheap compared to other major cities in Canada. McGill is also one of the rarer schools that have a campus sitting right between a mountain and downtown, the best of both worlds. Montreal is one of the best tourist city with world-class festivals in the summer. One of my most memorable time is seeing fireworks from within La Ronde, which is a must-do if you are in Montreal in the summer. I can write a full blog post about why Montreal is awesome, especially in the summer, so I’ll stop here now.
Other btw notes
This blog post is not meant to say that to be happy and successful in life you need to make the most out of McGill. Your degree or grades don’t determine what you will do with the rest of your life. Many of my friends have gone into things that have nothing to do with what they studied. For example, a friend of mine started his own company after finishing an Anatomy & Cell Biology degree. Another friend from Biochemistry, with no business background, worked his way up from a clerk at a call center to a manager at Volkswagen.
A culture that I noticed at McGill, especially in life science, is that sometimes people think of their peers as their competitions. This makes things extremely stressful and makes it hard to focus on the learning itself… How wonderful would it be if we all help each other and pass down our knowledge, tips, painstaking notes to the students after us?
With that in mind, a few friends and I established a website that would allow students to share their study resources online: WikiNotes. The project was covered in The Daily, because not all professors were forward thinking back then. Anyhow, we have all graduated and have no time to maintain it, but you might still be able to find useful stuff on the website. Maybe you’d be interested in taking on the project and continuing its legacy.
For my life science folks, here are also some notes made by either me or a collaborative effort of many students (mind that they might be old):