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Planning Ahead Can Bring Unforseeable Difficulties

Column by Brett Altschul

Over the summer, I stopped thinking about many of the ongoing problems that are part of MIT life. The first few days of classes rapidly started my mind up again. All the worries that I could safely ignore for three months just returned to prominence.

Among the difficulties that has once more risen to prominence is scheduling. I don't mean scheduling my classes this semester; I dealt with that quite thoroughly in the spring. My problem is more long-term. I'm always trying to plan my classes as far in advance as possible. Sometimes, that means several years into graduate school.

Lately, I've been agonizing over a problem with Relativistic Quantum Field Theory III (8.325). It looks as though I may not be able to take that class until the spring of 2002, which means that it might get in the way of my thesis research. Ideally, Icould move the class to 2001 if I take Quantum Theory I (8.321) as an undergraduate.

Of course, taking a class like that my senior year interferes with the other difficult classes I have planned. Analysis II (18.101) is rumored to be quite difficult and would be important to the pure math major which I'm now leaning toward. Since I want to take Organometallic Chemistry (5.44) that term as well, and that's also a graduate course, the workload may just be too heavy.

I'm not the only sophomore who spends time planning for classes after the turn of the century. I've discussed the topic with my friends; some of them have their futures even more extensively prescribed than I do. However, at some point, this advance preparation becomes both silly and worthless.

I tried to set out a comprehensive schedule for my entire undergraduate career during IAP last January. Only a single semester later, I've totally abandoned that plan. Then, I thought my secondary area of study (after mathematics) would be chemistry. Now, I've shifted that focus to physics, so my entire series of courses needed to be revamped.

Simply put, there are too many unknowns to make planning that far in advance viable. While physics may seem more firmly set in my future than chemistry was, it's not by any means certain. Although I'm very gung ho about mastering all of quantum mechanics now, I could decide later that learning the advanced principles of modern physics just isn't worth my while.

In addition to changes in interests, there are other more prosaic problems with scheduling classes more than a couple of semesters in advance. Until the time comes for the formal scheduling of the next semester, you never know when a class is offered, so avoiding conflicts in your long-term plans is really impossible. Some of the courses I wanted to take this fall simply didn't fit the timetable.

In the same vein, professors aren't chosen for classes until the spring of the prior year. Some classes are very dependent upon who is teaching them. For example, Thermodynamics and Kinetics (5.60) has a reputation as a very hard and fairly dull class, but it's a topic I'm interested in learning about. I would have liked to take the class this semester, but I have to wait until the spring when the class is being taught by Professor of Chemistry Robert J. Silbey, who has won awards for his teaching skill and was a friend of my father's.

The difficulty involved in classes is also a major issue. Nobody wants to get stuck with several killer classes at the same time. Often, it's very hard to tell just how much work a given course entails. The number of hours associated with the class are only a very loose guide. I spent twice as much preparation time on a 4-0-5 class as on a 3-0-9 class last spring. While some courses, like 5.60, are large enough to have a well-known reputation, obtaining advance information about some of the smaller classes can be nearly impossible.

Obviously, the problems in choosing courses many years in advance are legion. Interests change, and naturally, plans must change with them. Class schedules and teaching assignments remain unknown until relatively shortly before a class is offered. Sometimes, you just don't know whether a class is for you until you've tried it out for a couple of weeks, whatever you may have thought in the past.

I still try to set out possible schedules for future years. I'm still wondering whether I can fit 8.321 into my senior year, but I no longer count on any plans to hold true in the long run. I may have already chosen my partner for junior lab - Experimental Physics I (8.13) - but that doesn't necessarily mean I'll take the class.