The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

An Open Letter to College Freshmen

How to think straight about college.

Dear Freshman:

Welcome to college!! Here’s your first lesson: College is not a stepping-stone to life, but an exciting part of life. College is your first professional position! Your instructors are your new bosses, as well as your teachers, your collaborators, and your mentors. Let me explain the implications of your new position as a college student, and this new way of thinking about college:

Your official job title is “College Student.” Although this sounds a lot like “High-School Student,” it is very different. For example:  In high school your teachers shared some responsibility for making sure your assignments were completed and for saying in class everything that would be on tests. As a “college student,” you now have full responsibility for completing your assignments, learning from reading, and in other ways acting professionally.

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Your new position has amazing opportunities for advancement. Your bosses and mentors have already advanced in their field, and will work hard to help you develop the work record necessary for such advancement to other positions, like “Graduate Student,” “Professional Artist,” “Law Student,” “Medical Student,” “Non-profit Housing Coordinator,” and others. To move on, however, you need to excel (not just coast) in your current position.

If your aspirations for advancement are not that high, and you’d prefer a more laid-back next job where you do not need to think for yourself and take initiative, “college student” can still be a good initial job for you. You can do the minimum amount of work, earn a C average, and still be more than qualified for lower-level jobs, which don’t require a high grade point average. You really will get out of this job what you put into it.

Princeton Classroom
Your new position includes on-the-job training. Although you learned a lot in high school (otherwise you would not have secured your present professional position at such a prestigious organization), the job of “college student” entails many skills that you simply have not been exposed to—or that didn’t count. Thus, it’s better to think of your new job as—well, a new job!—rather than a continuation of your old one.

Many of the skills you will learn involve what are called higher-order thinking skills,” such as comprehension, application, analysis, and synthesis of information. You will also be learning some of the most important skills that other employers look for in their workers, including:

  • Written communication skills
  • Oral communication skills
  • Teamwork skills
  • Strong work ethic
  • Self-reflection
  • Initiative
  • Organizational skills
  • Ethics

In your new professional position, you will exhibit professional behaviors. Each class period is a professional meeting. Each meeting with a professor or advisor is a professional appointment. Your fellow students are your colleagues. Thus, professional behaviors include (but are not limited to):

  • Coming to your work commitments (classes, appointments), and coming on time
  • Being prepared
  • Working (not texting, computing, emailing, tweeting, etc.) during work hours
  • Honoring your commitments to your bosses and colleagues.  This includes showing up for advising appointments and study groups, or cancelling in advance
  • Managing your time
  • Being open and willing to change your mind (learn new things) when necessary
  • Taking risks in your striving to learn
  • Asking for help when you need it and finding answers yourself when you can

One of the most rewarding parts of a professor’s job is to be able to write letters of recommendation for students who move onto higher-level jobs. We love to write about how students mastered knowledge and skills, went beyond the minimum, and achieved excellence!

Classroom picture
One more thing:  Get started early!  Your job has begun! Get in the game! One very typical pattern is for students to “ease into” the semester by not doing much until a test or paper is due. During the last three weeks of the semester, students then go crazy with all the work they have to catch up on. I encourage you not to follow that pattern! It will be more beneficial to treat the first three weeks of the course like that last three weeks. Make believe, for example, that your first quiz or paper is worth 99.99 percent of your grade!

Here are three specific strategies that may work for you:

  • Go see each of your bosses (instructors) during the first week or two of classes. Don’t wait until you’ve taken the first test to ask your boss how to do well on the next one.
  • Sit up front at your professional meetings (classes). This itself is a demonstration that you are committed to your job. It will also help you stay awake during business hours.
  • Write something about every reading assignment you have—a reflection, an anecdote, a summary, etc. Reading while thinking, “What do I write about?” is more effective than reading while thinking, “How many pages left?”

I hope the college portion of your professional career is a rewarding one!

Cheers,

--Mitch
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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach(Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology(American Psychological Association, 2012).

 

© 2012 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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