After being at RPI for entirely too long, if I were to give one piece of advice to current students, it would be to get a hobby or two. Hobbies help remind you why you’re going through with your RPI degree. I wouldn’t have been able to finish my two degrees over the course of eight years without any. They give you something interesting to do when you need to blow off some steam. As a student, you have plenty of options for picking up a hobby; you can join a club, find an outside activity, or even look to your classes.
The clubs provided for students through the Rensselaer Union are a great place to start. You can join activities related to your major, like the Electronics Club or the Association for Computing Machinery. With these clubs, you’ll be able to get some practice right away working on real problems related to what you’ve been studying. Another option is to join a club not related to your major, like The Poly. Even though this kind of club won’t directly relate to your study, you’ll still pick up skills that will help—for example, with your writing. Another side benefit of clubs is that they’re a great way to meet new friends.
Another option is to take on an independent project. You could try completing some of the problems on Project Euler, at http://projecteuler.net/, as a way to learn a new programming language and work on your analytical skills. Or take apart some device around your room that has been annoying you and try to fix the problem—disable that “alarm reset” button that they put too close to the snooze button on your alarm clock.
For class projects, if you have a choice, try something that interests you, even if it could be more work than the simpler option. It will keep you focused when you are working on the project, and you’re more likely to learn something from it. When I took Operating Systems, we had one project, a virtual memory simulator, that we could implement using any programming language we wanted. It was a simple project, so I used it as an opportunity to learn assembly language, the language that defines the most basic operations of the computer. That one project taught me more about the processor in my computer than I learned from an entire course in computer architectures.
The key to making these things work, however, is to manage your time. In most cases, you can afford a couple hours per week for some activity—just make sure that you can avoid the temptation to let it eat all your time. The various skills that I’ve picked up from my hobbies have helped me in my classes and research. They also give me something to look forward to when I’m working through a long day. Not too bad a price to pay for sanity, right?