5 September 2016

Ten rules for a successful time at university, according to Robbert Dijkgraaf

Robbert Dijkgraaf: “You’re starting university at the peak moment of science”

Robbert Dijkgraaf spreekt voor eerstejaars studenten

Starting your very first day at university with ten life lessons from Robbert Dijkgraaf. That happened to a group of 480 first year Bachelor’s students of physics, mathematics, computer science and information science. Dijkgraaf gave his speech for a full, but completely quiet lecture hall, at the invitation of study association A-Eskwadraat. Dijkgraaf, Director at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and university professor at the University of Amsterdam, was a member of A-Eskwadraat when he studied physics in Utrecht.

You’re all extremely lucky, because you’re starting university at the peak moment of science.
Robbert Dijkgraaf
Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton en Universiteit van Amsterdam

A-Eskwadraat’s disciplines have never before been this exciting, according to Dijkgraaf. The Higgs particle, gravitational waves, proofs of the theorems of Poincaré and Fermat, a computer who is better at Go than the human world champion: developments that will still be known as historic events hundreds or even thousands of years from now.

Most beautiful subjects in existence

Starting university might feel as if you have chosen to walk down a path that determines the rest of your life. And have you made the right choice? “At the time, I was wondering the same,” says Dijkgraaf. “It feels as if you’re standing on a train station, having to choose which intercity train to board. But looking back, it’s actually rather a slow train with lots of stops that allow you to make different choices.” Even if you have a clear image of your future, you can always change trains or even take hairpin turns. Dijkgraaf looks back at his time at university and his career with joy. “You’re lucky: you are about to dive into the most beautiful subjects in existence. Especially if you’re going into research. Then you don’t really have a job, but a passion – one you even get paid for.”

Ten rules for a successful time at university, according to Robbert Dijkgraaf

1. As a first year student, you think you don’t know very much. But you’re wrong. There might be a lot that you don’t know, but you’re at the peak of your abilities: you’re extemely well equipped to take up knowledge.

2. First year students in the exact sciences are extremely lucky, because they are starting their studies at the peak moment of science. These disciplines have never been as exciting as they are today.

Robbert Dijkgraaf spreekt voor eerstejaars studenten

3. The downside of the exact sciences is that they’re quite difficult. But they have an upside as well: there is a moment when things click, when you really understand something. Always persist until you reach that moment.

4. As a student of the exact sciences, you can travel light. The point is to have the core concepts in your head, and to reduce complicated matter to a few key points.

5. The path you have chosen might feel like an intercity train, but it’s rather a slow train with lots of stops where you can change trains. Be prepared and open your eyes for those possibilities.

6. Be adventurous. Your time at university is also a great time to broaden your horizons. Use a few percent of your time for other things, and force yourself to do things that don’t really fit in your study programme or career perspective.

7. If you really get interested in one subject, zoom in to the details, and don’t be afraid to lose yourself in it. It doesn’t matter where you drill; if you drill deep enough, you’ll find gold.

8. Use your own internal taste to make choices. Without a certain amount of passion, you never would have started this study programme. If that flame starts to die down, you have to feed it, for example with books, movies, or documentaries on the subject.

9. Your best teachers are your fellow students. Dive into this adventure together. And if you really understand something, you can explain it to your neighbour.

10. The most important lesson: don’t listen to advice too much. Today is the day that you are really growing up. You’re at the wheel; find your own way.