The Useful Powers of Office Hours

College can be a confusing time, especially when there’s no clear path towards success. When I was given the freedom to pick my own major, classes, and extracurricular activities, I felt overwhelmed. I entered UCSB as an Environmental Studies major, but I actually had no specific direction for my academic or professional future in mind. In fact, I had applied to other schools as different majors, because I really had no idea where I wanted my life to go during or after college.

I started college worried that I would be unable to do well in school without a larger plan to motivate me, so I decided to go to office hours to hopefully get advice from someone who might have been in my position before. I went to my TA for my Introduction to Environmental Studies class because it was the only class I had that was in my major department, so it would be likely that someone teaching the class would have advice most relevant to me.

I thought that things would be awkward and I wouldn’t learn anything, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my TA, Zoe Welch (pictured with me above this post’s title), was incredibly understanding and insightful. She helped me understand that I can’t really ask someone else what the “right” thing to do is, because that’s something that only I can answer in time.

Looking back, meeting and talking with Zoe was one of the most pivotal things that happened to me in my first year here. The majority of my successes in undergraduate research so far can be traced back to my interactions with her, as she helped me navigate college life, research, and even the majors that UCSB offers.

Zoe also told me about her experiences in graduate school and research, which made me feel much more comfortable about trying to get involved in undergraduate research. This confidence brought me to applying for an internship with the Burkepile Lab at the end of my first quarter, and I’ve worked as an undergraduate research assistant for them for the last six months. That position led me to apply for the EUREKA scholarship and my current work in the McCauley Lab, as I only learned about the scholarship’s existence from a graduate student in the Burkepile Lab. Zoe even wrote the recommendation letter that got me the scholarship, and we keep in touch regularly.

Some of the people working in the Burkepile Lab during Winter Quarter 2017.

Over the last year, I’ve had the luck to to speak with an assortment of graduate students and professors through office hours, lab work, and even mentorship programs. Multiple graduate students here have told me that they started their PhD programs with the intention of pursuing research, then changed gears to focus more on teaching after getting a taste of the ins and outs of academia. I’ve met people who obtained their master’s degrees, then decided they didn’t really love what they were studying and chose a very different for their PhD topic. All of this came to me as a surprise, as I had been under the impression that a person had to be completely assured and confident to succeed in research and academia. It’s really never too late to change when it comes to school, and it’s absolutely normal to be unsure.

The first step is to talk to people you want to learn from; if you’re interested in a certain subject within your field, look up professors and graduate students who study it and send them an email. Professors and teaching assistants are people who exist outside of lecture halls and discussion sections, and many of them are more than happy to help students sharpen their interests and share what they know. Not everyone will be able to assist you, but there are plenty of people at this university who are happy to help, as long as you ask and are willing to listen to what they have to say. You never know what you might find or learn from getting out there and asking questions, so take advantage of being here at this university and talk to people!

Ultimately, you don’t need to have every aspect of your professional future planned out to be successful, even when working in research. It is all but impossible to know exactly where your life will be in a few years, and your interests are likely to change and evolve as you become more aware of possibilities you never could have imagined.

Even after my experiences finishing my first year of college and working in the Burkepile and McCauley Labs, I still lack certainty on what I want to do after college or study for the next three years. But for now, I’m enjoying working in research and being part of a team where we get to use our heads to collaborate and do something that feels like it matters.

Andre Nguyen

Andre is a second-year Environmental Studies major interested in learning more about the interactions that define natural systems. As a EUREKA scholar for summer 2017, he is working under Erin Dillon in the
McCauley lab, using fossils to estimate how many organisms can be
supported by coral reefs.