Advice for current students

I have compiled some of the advice that I frequently give students at all levels, from choosing courses, to reading (and understanding) academic work, to the importance of being kind.

Choose courses you are passionate about but don’t be devastated if you don’t get into your ‘dream course’.

One of the first stressful experiences for students—particularly those in MSc programmes—is choosing courses for the year ahead. You will need to enrol soon after arriving in London, and just a week before the Michaelmas Term begins. Perhaps more frustrating, no course can accommodate every student who applies for it.

When deciding on courses, think about why you decided to pursue graduate studies in the first place, and what you might do once you’ve completed them. Moreover, choose courses that you are truly interested in, those that you are really passionate about. It’s in these courses where you will more likely thrive; you will be easily motivated to invest the time and energy necessary to do well.

Some other things to keep in mind when choosing courses:

  • Don’t overload yourself on one term or the other. Instead have a more even distribution across the year.

  • Choose courses with a mix of assessment (essays and exams) if you excel at both, or if you are not quite sure. Alternatively choose more courses with assessments where you tend to do best (some are great at essays, others exams)—but, know it’s unlikely that you will be able to completely avoid the type of assessment you don’t particularly like.

  • At the LSE you are able to enrol in courses across the entire School which can be great, but also know that the kind of assessment (and the expectations for the courses) vary across departments and can thus cause some frustration for students enrolled in several.

  • If you are asked to write a short statement for why you would like to be in the course, provide it! Make sure the statement is not generic, but rather reflects on your interests in that particular course.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, almost every year I hear from a student that they did not get offered a place for a course that they desperately wanted to take. I’ve heard countless times, ‘But I came to the LSE for this one course!’ My answer has been, and always will be the same, ‘if you came to the LSE to take that one course, you probably came for the wrong reason.’

I understand being disappointed in these situations, but know that there are a wide variety of courses on offer in the Department and the School that, while different in topic, field, and literatures, will all help you build the skills necessary to go out into the world and put the LSE motto—’to know the causes of things’—into action.

If you believe that the course you wished to take, but were unable to, is important for your future (whether it be your dissertation or next career) you have still have a few options:

  • If space allows, you may sit in-on lectures as an auditor—it is still good practice to email the lecturer to ask for permission and ensure there is space.

  • All courses reading lists are available on Moodle, so you can easily access these and read the material on your own, which is good training for when you do dissertation research.

  • Every faculty member has office hours (or ‘advice and feedback hours’), so you can meet with those who do research or teaching on that particular class you didn’t get into.

Don’t forget: you came to school for an education, not one course. You needn’t worry about missing out on one, or two particular courses. All will be well.

Learn how to read academic work quickly, efficiently, and effectively—without reading every single word.

As both an undergraduate and postgraduate, you will be required to read a large amount of academic writing. This can feel overwhelming at first. Some of the easiest but worst ways to cope include: reading only articles you enjoy, just those you understand, or giving up and not reading altogether. 

Fortunately, there are proven strategies for reading academic work in an efficient and effective way. To read faster and better understand the material, I recommend that students confront the material several times and in different ways:

  1. Ease into the article by reading the abstract and headings/subheadings throughout. This will quickly acquaint you with the general argument, methods, and how piece is structured.

  2. Next, give the piece a more careful read, paying particularly close attention to the introduction and conclusion. At this stage, you will be able to read a bit faster because you already know generally what the author is arguing, and how they will do it. You should also highlight or underline important points. Don't worry if at first you seem to be underlining everything and are unsure of what is most important. You will learn this in a relatively short time from lectures and seminar discussions

  3. Then look back through the reading and take notes on what you highlighted. By taking down notes in your own words, you are engaging in the kind of cognitive processing that helps you both better understand and remember the material. This is also a good opportunity to write down questions or points you want to explore more in seminar.

  4. Finally, look over your notes prior to seminar to remind yourself of the issues you wish to explore. This will give you something to talk about if you are called upon, and generally makes you better prepared to discuss.

If English is not your native language—and/or you do not have prior training in the social sciences—you will likely encounter words you do not understand. If an unfamiliar word is used once or twice, don't worry too much about looking it up; this can make the reading process very slow.

The same goes for lectures. I know it's tempting to look up every new word you hear in the dictionary. But this can become a bit addicting and usually distracts you from paying attention to the lecture as a whole. Of course, when an unfamiliar word and term is used frequently, you certainly will want to learn its meaning—but during lectures and seminars, it's better to take note of the word and look it up later.

In general, you are better served by focusing on the writing that you do understand (probably a lot!), rather than that which you do not (usually just a little!). You will avoid getting overly frustrated, which can make you dislike the reading altogether—which is not a good thing for your studies.

Understand that technology can both help and hinder learning .

Students usually come into class with at least one, if not multiple electronic devices. While devices like laptops can assist in learning generally, they are often a major distraction in the classroom. 

Scholars researching technology in the classroom have found that students who spend time checking social network cites, emailing, chatting (or shopping!) perform significantly worse on exams than those who do not.

But even more troubling, when students engage in such 'multitasking' on laptops and smartphones, there is a 'contagion' effect: classmates seated next to them also become distracted—even if they are not 'multitasking' themselves—and also receive lower marks on exams.

So, even if you are still convinced that multitasking in the classroom will not distract you, know that it can likely distract your classmates. At the very least—for the sake of your classmates—stay focused on the course material and avoid the temptation altogether.

Finally, out of respect for your classmates and lecturers, please do not engage in texting or WhatsApp chats during class (students are never as subtle about it as they think!). It is distracting, disrespectful, and simply rude to those around you.

Be a bit old fashioned and take notes with pen and paper.

Even having learned about the problems associated with using technology in the classroom, some students insist they need to use their laptop to take notes. They correctly point out that they can type notes faster than writing long-hand. But the irony is that having more complete notes does not actually lead to better learning.

Researchers have shown that in taking notes by hand, students are are unable to transcribe every word and so they think very carefully about what is most important and what is not. In so doing, these students are actually engaging in a crucial stage of cognitive processing. Thus, it is those students who take notes by hand, the ‘old-fashioned way’—though less extensive than their laptop-using classmates—that usually understand the material better.

I offer this information as a recommendation and a suggestion that, in my experience, serves most students well. But in the interest of full disclosure: I cannot ban laptops from class, especially because some students require them to address diagnosed learning difficulties.

Use email appropriately but remember that etiquette still matters.

Email is a blessing and a curse: it's so easy to use, but as a result everyone gets too much of it. While email can help students and teachers interact more easily and quickly, it is not always used appropriately and some basic standards of etiquette are often forgotten. Don't worry. I'm not a Luddite. In fact, I prefer email to my work phone. But I do ask that students keep some things in mind:

  • When writing emails, err on the side of being more formal and polite. Most of your lecturers are happy to be addressed by their first names, but when you first contact someone as an LSE student—especially those you have not yet and/or at other institutions—it's best to address them by their title and surname. Starting with 'hey/hi/what's up' (or nothing at all), not using 'please' and 'thank you', and/or having no proper sign-off suggests a lack of care and respect—even if unintended.

  • Just because you can email staff at all hours of the day, any day of the week, does not mean you should! Please be respectful of their time. Avoid messaging on weekends and late at night (unless it is genuinely urgent) and during holidays. If you do email during these times, don’t expect a response until the regular working week and hours. Fun fact: France recently made sending and replying emails outside of working hours illegal. That's a social policy worth considering, eh?

  • Many, if not most questions that students ask staff via email could be easily answered by consulting the course handbook—or through a simple Google search. For instance, if the link to a reading on electronic reading lists is not working you can send a note to the department administrator to let them know, but in the meantime you can solve the situation yourself: a quick search on the library website or Google Scholar is all that's usually needed. This saves everyone time and hassle.

  • Finally, when your question is more complicated, it might be better discussed in person; if the question is applicable to the entire class, we might well address it in lecture or seminar.

Get to know your professors (and GTAs), make use of their advice & feedback hours, and meet with your academic mentor early and often.

During term time, every academic staff member at the LSE holds weekly office hours (what our Department calls 'advice and feedback hours'). Students are welcome to visit any faculty member, irrespective of which department they are in—even if you aren’t enrolled in their course.

I truly enjoy meeting with students. Our conversations usually focus on coursework and research projects; these chats are also a great opportunity to get feedback on your progress at times other than scheduled 'formative' assessments.

But I am also happy to discuss anything else that's on your mind, including future career plans, adapting to life in London, maintaining a good work/life balance, and taking care of your mental health. As the department's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) officer, I am open to listening to any thoughts or concerns you have on related matters. For more on EDI at LSE, click here

When you book an appointment online through LSE For You, please don't forget to come (and on time, as I don’t like waiting)! Take note of the appointment in your diary or calendar because the LFY system does not send reminders. If you need to cancel, contact me as early as possible; a 'no-show' takes away meeting slots from other students in need, and is disrespectful of my time.

If you are unable to meet during my regularly scheduled hours, simply send me an email to arrange a mutually agreeable time for us to chat. Your lecturers are as accessible as needed!

Treat school as a job and be professional in your interactions with everyone.

Given that most students will enter the working world after graduating, it is good practice to treat your time at university as a job itself. As such, you should be professional in the way you approach school and those around you.

Ensure that you come to seminars having done all required readings and prepared to discuss them; it would not be acceptable to come unprepared and be silent at a meeting in the workplace, nor is it in school.

While attendance in lectures is not technically mandatory, you should not miss this important part of your learning experience. Recent meta-analyses spanning data over 100 years and 28,000 students in the US revealed that attending lectures was the single best predictor of high marks. From the perspective of your teachers, it can be difficult (as well as disappointing) to lecture to a class that is missing half its students.

In lectures, seminars, and meetings with your professors take notes. On everything.

When meeting with your professors, always remember to bring a paper and pen (or tablet/laptop) to take notes on all that comes out of the conversation. I’ll reiterate this for effect: take notes on everything! 

Even if you have a photographic memory (which is incredibly rare in adults), not taking notes can give others the impression that you are not really interested in, or value their advice. Also, successful people take notes.

Taking notes is not a sign of weakness. It’s an indicator of strength.

Surround yourself with great people, listen to their words of wisdom, and share it others (with attribution,  of course).

I am fortunate to have so many incredible colleagues, both here at the LSE and at other institutions around the world. We often talk with each other about the advice we wish we had received when we were students. My brilliant friend and colleague Dr. Moqi Groen-Xu, assistant professor in the Department of Finance, recently posted her advice to students for having more effective meetings with supervisors. While it is written for PhD students, most of this advice is just as applicable for MSc or even BSc students. Please take a moment to read it on her website

Be mindful of your mental health. Do your best to maintain a good work/life balance.

Your time as a student at the LSE will often be intense, difficult, and stressful. And so it is especially important that you do not neglect your mental health. 

If you find it difficult to cope with studies or life in general, if you are feeling 'down' (especially at times of the year when we have little sunshine) and can't seem to shake it, please talk with someone about it.

Having these conversations are never something you should be ashamed of. I am committed to normalising discussions of mental health—as they should be! It's become regular practice for me to occasionally check-in with all of my advisees about this: don't be surprised, or offended, when I inevitably ask  'and how is your mental health?'

While I am happy to serve as a point person and help students begin to talk through some of these issues, I am not a trained professional in mental health. I can, however, provide you with some coping strategies and direct you towards those at the school who are even better equipped to help you. For more about LSE's services, visit these sites Mental Health Advisers and Student Counselling Services

In general, I encourage students to set aside a little time each week to enjoy life outside of school: see a show, go for a walk through the parks or along the Thames, join a sports team, or just schedule time to regularly get together with friends. 

Build positive relationships. Be respectful. And be kind.

One of the best things you can gain from your time in London and at the LSE is a wide and diverse network of friends, classmates, and professors from around the world. The impressions you make, both good and bad, will potentially last forever.

As such, consider how your actions both in and out of school can affect your reputation. Be especially mindful of how social networking and communication tools can amplify small mistakes: we all know of countless examples where bad behaviour on social media has destroyed relationships and careers.

Even in WhatsApp groups, messages written on a whim can be misinterpreted, jokes can get out of control, and feelings can be hurt. It is easy to partake in gossip and rumour, but group WhatsApp messages are neither as private nor as temporary as you might think.

As a general rule: don't post something on social media or WhatsApp that you would not feel comfortable telling classmates and teachers in public. Aim to be remembered as a hardworking, respectful student and classmate, someone we would all want as a lifelong friend and colleague.

Remember, too, that building positive relationships with your professors can translate into stronger, more detailed letters of recommendation should you need them one day.

Overall, my advice is quite simple: be professional, respectful, and—as Mister Roger's rightly points out—be kind, for that is the real key to ultimate success. 

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There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.
— Fred Rogers, American children's television pioneer and one of my personal heroes

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