Today is my birthday (I just turned 58, which I realize is ancient by blogging standards). This morning on the train ride in for some reason I reflected on how, for a few short years, I was destined to become some stripe of scientist, and how through various poor decisions I made along the way I managed to foreclose that particular path in my life.

It all started when I was visiting my cousins in Syracuse, Utah, probably circa 1969. The cousin closest in age to me and with whom I was the closest[1] had a telescope, and he set it up in the backyard and showed me various things, including in particular Mars. That was so cool, I was smitten, and over the next couple of years I would become a little astronomer.

My parents got me a (cheap) telescope, and I went to the library and started reading all I could about astronomy.[2]  I also started subscribing to Sky and Telescope, which I got and read for a couple of years. In seventh grade[3]  my science teacher would take me around to other schools to give presentations on astronomy. I even sent a letter to Harvard University with a question about escape velocity; some kind graduate student wrote me back a very patient letter going throught the high school level physics I needed to know to understand the answer to my question.

In high school I took pretty much evey science class they offered.[4]

But my career as a budding scientist only lasted maybe four years. I sowed the seeds of destruction when I took the pedal off of my math instruction.

I was on the advanced math track, and so freshman year while most kids were taking algebra I was taking geometry. And, as usual, I was the teacher’s pet and I killed that class. But I belatedly began to realize what most kids already had figured out, that it was an affront to the social order to be too open about your academic interests and success. I realized I needed to scale things back a bit. But I went too far; instead of just participating less in class, I pretty much stopped studying outside of class for my math classes (Advanced Algebra sophomore year and Analysis junior year). I achieved my (ill advised) goal of becoming only average in those classes (much to the chagrin of my frosh year geometry teacher). Math was only required for three years, and although I could have taken calculus my senior year I decided to skip math altogether.

By (in retrospect, quite foolishly) bailing on math in high school, the die was pretty much cast that I wasn’t going to be a scientist. In college I went the humanities route and studied classics, which worked out great for me and has been a joy to this day. But I confess there are times when I lament my youthful foolishness that self-destructed my budding career as a scientist.

Do you have any regrets about the educational course your life took?


[1] Now a professor at SVU.

[2] My parents, observing this new found interest in science, also got me a chemistry set.

[3] To this day the height of my intellectual life; it’s been all downhill since then.

[4] The significant exception was Advanced Biology. I knew that in that class you were required to prick your finger with a lancet to study the blood. These were not like the things they use when I give blood today; these were old fashioned lancets, basically a sharp stick. The thought made me squeamish so I never signed up for the course.




  1. Happy birthday!

  2. Oh, sure.

    I read an article linked from somewhere on Facebook this morning about a study that asked people to identify their five closest friends, then asked “how many of these friends are _____?” Turns out that college graduates almost never have close friends who are NOT college graduates. You could go a lot broader than my five closest friends before we found one who was not a college graduate, usually with a graduate or professional school degree as well. But me, I can boast of nothing more than a worthless high school diploma from a worthless high school.

    Some of the blame for that is because I was always “the smart one” in school — never the pretty one, or the social one, or the one was good at sports, not even the mean one, or the funny one, or the one who could dance. Just the smart one. And that meant, in my frightened mind, that I could never ask a question, because if I didn’t already know everything, then I wasn’t the smart one, and therefore I was nothing at all.

    I didn’t know how to get into college. My only college planning at home was to ask my mother one night while I was helping to put supper on the table, “Mom, will I be going to college?” “We don’t have the money, dear.” “Okay.” High school counselors, I thought, were there to handle discipline problems — I had no idea they were also supposed to assist with college applications and scholarships, and no one at any of the three high schools I attended ever brought up the subject of college with me (except after that aptitude test as a 9th grader, which told me not to bother with college, but to go into auto mechanics instead). I took the ACT because I saw a poster on a bulletin board that said it was necessary for college — and I walked in on testing day without knowing it was a test, and without any prep whatsoever. Still aced it. I was “the smart one,” after all.)

    So I didn’t ask. Didn’t know who to ask. Didn’t know who to ask about asking. Worked for three years, then managed to get into BYU after writing to ask if there was a form to fill out or something, then went on a mission, came back bankrupt, and never got back into school. So yeah, I have major regrets. I coulda been somebody, if there had been anybody to extend the slightest bit of help.

    Kevin, you’re six months older than me. We may raise the average blogging age, but that’s not a bad thing.

  3. I kind of regret that I never took math and science more seriously. To me, it didn’t seem like an option. I thought I wasn’t good at it (because I was a girl). That was baloney, because I was two years ahead in math and took calculus as a junior in high school. But the gender norms were really big for me until about half way through college when I set my sights on law school and never looked back. I feel bad that I precluded some choices because of my gender. (Of course, I’m really happy in my career and doing something that speaks to me, so I could have wound up here anyways, so I’m not complaining.)

  4. Last Lemming says:

    Thanks to G. Gordon Liddy, with complete disregard for my aptitude test scores, and rather to the chagrin of my father (a scientist), I majored in political science as an undergrad. But I still heeded my father’s advice that you can never take too much math, so I was probably the only political science major at the university to take calculus and statistics. But they turned out to be critical to getting into my preferred Ph.D. program (Public Policy Analysis, which is far more applied economics than political science). So here’s to math.

  5. I also regret leaving math behind forever after passing the AP Calc test in high school and consequently relieving myself of having to take any math at all in college.

    I regret this a lot, actually.


  6. 1. Happy birthday! (I’m older yet, and appreciate that you help the average.)
    2. I think you are exactly right that “foot off the pedal” on math is key. [Delete here a long discussion about undervaluing math at a high school and college level. I could go on and on.]
    3. For myself, I was offered a seat in the first graduate program in information science and decision theory (or something like that). I turned it down for a “safe” future in law. Risk aversion at work. Law worked out pretty well, but that graduate program would have been exactly right for me, and turned out to be an extremely successful program. I need another lifetime, please. Not incidentally, my dad did something of the same, turning from history to law as the safe option, in order to support the family he wanted to have. In time he has been able to do it all–law, history, and family. Lucky man.

  7. Happy Birthday Kevin. I had an opposite regret–after two years of jazz ensemble in high school, I ditched it my senior year for a calculus class. I look back on the fun times and the development at the peak of my young musical acumen that I missed out on, all for a class I would have to take over again in college because my major required “business” calculus (what an oxymoron). My major turned out to be a good fit for me and my career, and I still managed to become a decent jazz pianist and get a lot of enjoyment from it, which is more than I can say for calculus!

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh, Ardis, that is heart wrending!

  9. I had a magnificent opportunity to attend a very good college, but I wish I’d had the confidence to speak with professors (without fearing that I was wasting their time), take classes in further-afield areas (without fearing the GPA dip that would likely accompany it), study quantitative methods and computer programs (which would have been a major help in the post-graduation job search), and parlay my interests into grant funding instead of stopgap summer courses and internships that didn’t prepare me professionally.

    Many of my classmates seemed to know to approach college with the confidence I lacked, and I think it’s in part due to their parents’ more liberal arts-focused educations; in my family, in contrast, university education has almost always been independent professional training accompanied by raising a young family.

  10. I was a math geek until I took a college math class. The professor was so bad that I never took another math class (that’s a backhanded shout-out to great teachers). I never wanted to be a scientist, though. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so like so many others who don’t know what to do, I got an MBA. I then taught applied business math for a few years while figuring out that I should have majored in English. I eventually became an editor, and as a pithy quote once proclaimed, “Once you have taken the English language under your care, you can never again be happy.” Life is strange.

  11. Honestly, I mostly regret not eating more pizza.

  12. Oh, and I wish I would have realized before my junior year of college that classes taught disciplines and methods, not topics. For instance, my success on AP US History test, which required interpretation of primary sources, came simply from my memory and analytical ability, not through any introduction to history as a venture conducted by consulting primary texts.

  13. I regret thinking I wasn’t super strong at math and also thinking that computer programming required a whole lot of math. I ended up in economics which needed calculus anyway and found out later that unless you are getting into deep PHD level computer science theory, there really isn’t all that much math required in programming.

  14. Ardis, that is heart wrenching, but if you weren’t smart enough to know that there are such things as scholarships . . . well, maybe you were smart about all the wrong things.

  15. ^ Knowing about scholarships isn’t, save in the loosest terms, a question of intelligence. I’d hypothesize that it’s mostly a function of social exposure. In the lack of social exposure, it could be attributed to a confident imagination (to imagine the idea of a scholarship—external sources of college funding) and persistent curiosity (to reach out, often to strangers, to see if such a supposition is true).

  16. Franklin, ouch, that comes off a little strong.
    Ardis, maybe it’s not too late? My wife went back to finish college in her late 40’s, changed her career, and is so glad she did.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    It’s funny to me that today ACT/SAT prep is a huge industry. When I was a kid the idea seemed to be that it isn’t really possible to prepare for the test, so you should just take it. So like Ardis, I took it completely cold. I’m convinced that if I had taken a foregin language in high school (up to that point I hadn’t), I would have bumped my score up considerably. By far my worst category was English, because I had never actually studiesd grammar. (English would probably be my top category if were to take such a test today.) If I had just known basic stuff like the difference between a subject and a predicate my score would have been way better.

  18. In high school I loved music. I would play for a couple of hours a day. In grade 11, I decided it was not a profitable career choice so dropped my goal of a degree in Fine Arts to Science and then to Dentistry. I did very well and eventually became a professor of Dentistry. I still play my music is various bands but sometimes wonder what my life would have been like on that unexplored trail. To this day, “Mr, Holland’s Opus” still speaks strongly to my soul and I cannot watch that movie without tears in my eyes.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    I never talked to a high school guidance counselor about scholarships and such. I made the same assumption about their role as Ardis did.

  20. Kevin: as a part-time ACT/SAT tutor, a lot of my job is remedial education. (The SAT used to be more tricky in format, but the newest version is less so, thank goodness.) I’ve had a high school junior counting on their fingers to add 9 to 7. For a less dramatic example, I’ve had numerous students who have a hard time constructing an essay; almost no one can do the mental math that really helps with speed; and, and you’ve observed, if students haven’t taken a foreign language they typically have no idea how grammar works.

    While people can still go in cold and do well (my only prep was taking the test previously, and I did very well), increased demand for a college education and the admissions rat race induce parents to purchase this prep for their kids. Unfortunately, this also exacerbates the unequal distribution of college preparedness among socioeconomic classes, already visible in some of the stories shared above.

  21. jlouielucero says:

    I dropped out 5 credit hours shy of graduating 13 years ago to start my own business. It was a great decision, but I do regret not finishing because my mom still bugs me about it even still!!

  22. Kevin Christensen says:

    I was good at Math till I took Creating Writing and AP English as a High School senior, and went without a Math related class for a year. It seems like I lost the knack when I went back to it at University. English was my low score on the ACT, but I eventually (a long circuitous route) ended up as an English Major (after trying business and music) and Technical Writer (after construction, selling two science fiction stories, doing un-employability and house husbanding till my wife was inspired for us to go to San Jose State to get a Tech Writing Certificate).

  23. My experience was a lot like Ardis’. I had no idea how to apply for college/financial aid/scholarships, no support at home (my step-father kicked me out on my 18th birthday), and no support from the school counselors. I ended up marrying early, having a large family, then returning to college in my 30s. I eventually completed a degree (as a single mother of 6) and entered the workforce as I was turning 40. I’ll be paying off student loans for the rest of my life, but I’m not working as a waitress in a diner like my mother did all her life. And all of my children are now college graduates.

  24. My High School experience is also much like Ardis’ (coincidently at the same school but different years). Unfortunately that’s where the similarity ends. I had opportunity and support to go to college, but absolutely no direction or motivation. Later I’d be heavily into music, but turned away for the more lucrative talent in computer science,

  25. Like several others I loved music in school, but in Britain we specialise early, and at the time I wanted to learn everything and figured maths and science were the hardest to study on my own later and took those at 16, with German. I hadn’t got a good grade for music at 16, because the teachers at school didn’t actually teach me the course (I was the only student taking the music O’level in my 11-16 school), though I did pass the exam, and allowed myself to be dissuaded from taking it further. I took science right up to PhD level at a top science and technology institution in Britain (and it’s where I met my husband), and graduated that having learnt that I didn’t enjoy experimental research (a disaster in the lab), and hated conferences and net-working and all that stuff. I didn’t take a pure science that would have lent itself to a teaching qualification for schools. It’s not a field that lends itself to portability, and didn’t work well as a just in case qualification (so it’s just as well it hasn’t been required so far – I’m now 47), though possession of a PhD is good for my self-esteem, and I do enjoy reading science. It’s also been good for helping my kids, who love maths and science based things. I was the first in my family to go to university, and had no real role models, mentoring or career advice regarding the whole church, family, education thing. So, pluses and minuses.
    Now I’m getting back to music. It’s hard physical work all that practice, but I’m really enjoying it. I can’t help thinking that if I’d gone in for music at the start and qualified as an instrument teacher that would have been a whole lot more portable.

  26. I wish I’d stood up for myself more. I know, it’s vague, but it covers a lot!

  27. Clark Goble says:

    I love science and math. I think I was towards the end of college before I started asking if that was even what I wanted to do. I realized it wasn’t. Were I to redo it I’d have done business and really approached things quite differently. Of course I’m grateful for the science I took, and arguably hard science is a great major even if you don’t go into science. But the networking is quite different with people having a very different focus.

    Of course my goal is to make enough money that I can go back and go through all my old physics and math texts again.

  28. John Mansfield says:

    Well, 50-year-old here, and first in my family to go to college. My academic trajectory leaves not much to regret or berate myself, which I can’t really say about my post-academic pursuits. Here is a happy story for you, which I call The Story of the No. 3 Pencil:

    I worked a couple years between undergraduate and graduate studies. Somewhere in the middle of that period I got around to attending to the GRE. I stopped by the local branch of the University of New Mexico, picked up a GRE booklet, and found I had missed the deadline for advance registration for the next exam. The closest exam site would be in Santa Fe, but since I would be a walk-in, I decided to test in Albuquerque to make sure a subject exam in engineering would be available. I called a friend in Rio Rancho about staying at her family’s home the night before, and she said that would be fine. Her mother was in the room with her as she was talking to me on the phone, so she was unable to tell me that she was putting together a surprise 25th anniversary party for her parents the night I was coming. When I arrived, the party was in full swing and was a lot of fun, but getting to sleep around midnight cut into the reason I had originally come, which was to get a couple more hours sleep than if I had made the 100-mile drive in the morning.

    The next surprise came in the morning when I started filling in the testing bubble sheet. I had switched to No. 3 pencils three years before this, and had forgotten the instruction for those test sheets since elementary school to use only a No. 2 pencil. I wondered about seeing if I could borrow a No. 2 pencil from the test administrators, but decided to just go with what I had and find out later if it mattered.

    It turned out that the crayon-like No. 2 pencil was not the only option for filling GRE bubbles. Results for the general and engineering subject exams came back very high, and I would be offered a fellowship to start a PhD program in fluid dynamics, the field I continue to work in.

    So, my advice to young people preparing for such tests has been: 1) go to a party the night before, and 2) use a No. 3 pencil.

  29. I regret not being smarter at math and science, or anything that was remotely useful.

  30. I regret that I somehow got the idea that it was okay for me as a woman to work (as a sacrifice), but a huge sin to have aspirations or a career. I was in my mid-30s before I let that go, and it effected everything prior. I couldn’t let myself excel in school or work in order to never cross the line from noble sacrifice to seeking my own selfish self-promotion.

    It’s frustrating to look back and see all the paths that were wide open before me, but I couldn’t even consider because of my own need to only follow so-called righteous paths. The good news is that that path I did take has unintentionally given me the finances, skills, flexibility, and time to now (in my 40s) take some risks, try some new things, and aspire.

  31. my regret is opposite…in both high school and college, virtually every other class was just something to get in the way of math and to simply be endured and mocked for wasting my time. for humanities 101, if i had to visit a museum, i visited the monte ball museum, because science. for history, i managed to convince them that math 300, history of math, counted. for writing, i had to take technical writing and did not expand much beyond that.

    graduate school of course focuses you even more. i didnt take a single non math course in grad school.

    now that i’ve been out of school for 25 years or so, i’d like to learn all those things in a college setting. sure, i’ve picked them up on my own over the years…art, literature, biography, history, food, architecture, geography, politics, etc…my wife and i are active in the arts community as visitors and (very small) grantors and i’ve learned a lot on these various topics just by osmosis. but it would have been nice to have a little more formal training and guidance.

  32. I had a difficult time at BYU deciding on whether to major in Biology or English. I was better at English, but an English Theory class and a professor from hell convinced me to go the science route. I loved the Eco/Evo stuff (even took Ecology from Professor Peck), struggled with most of the rest of the science courses, got a Biology degree,and then decided to teach Biology and got another undergraduate degree in Biology Education. Two years of teaching high school kids was more than enough to convince me to go to law school, where I finally got the chance to do something I was good at. I graduated from law school with a good resume and no job prospects (the Great Recession sucked) but things have improved and I’m finally at a good place in my career. I still love biology, but I don’t at all regret leaving it.

  33. Central Standard says:

    Happy birthday, Kevin!

    My high school was (still is) a mile and a half up Addison Street from Wrigley Field. I reget that in four years I never ditched a day to go to a Cubs game. It would not have made a difference in any grades and I would be a better person had I done so.

  34. My biggest regret was not applying myself in high school. Baseball dominated my life, and I considered myself one of the “boys of summer”. My high school counselor told me I had no future in college and to forget about it. In 1957 there still was the “draft”. I joined the army reserve and served six months active duty shortly after graduating from high school. During the army induction process, tests were given, and I was offered officer candidacy training and realized I might be smart enough to go to college. While in basic training I applied to BYU. They didn’t require the SAT or ACT test to gain admission in those days. I was told that if you could walk and chew gum at the same time, you could go to the Y.

    I loved college and became a good student. I applied to 5 dental schools and was accepted to 4 and had a provisional acceptance with the other. Thank goodness for open admittance at the Y when I attended! I’ll always be eternally grateful they accepted and took a chance with a student who wasted his time in high school.

  35. Kevin Barney says:

    Tim, you reminded me of one time when I was an undergrad at the Y studying classics. At this point I was planning on doing a Ph.D. in classical philology and becoming a professor. In the back of my mind, teaching Latin in high school was a sort of back up plan. So one Friday night my wife and I happened to be in downtown Provo when all the high school kids were cruising Center Street. After watching all this for a while, I concluded that, no, teaching high school was not an option.

  36. As a math professor I want to print out this comment section and hand it out around campus.

  37. You were a smarter undergrad than I was, Kevin.

  38. Many of the experiences shared here remind me of how easy it is for kids to fall through the cracks. I was out the day the PSAT was administered, so I never showed up on any guidance counselor’s list for college. Neither parent went to college.

    Fortunately, wards often offer a great deal of socio-economic diversity, and I had a couple of leaders that would talk to me w/ the assumption that I would go to college. I think that planted (and nurtured) the seeds for me.

    Interesting side note on math, I always had done well in math. As a senior in HS, you had to buy your own calculus book (~$100) which was too much at the time. Took a year off from math, got out to BYU and took Honors Calculus there and scraped by w/ a C, then I was done. I wonder about kids coming back w/ 18-24 month layoffs from math and how we can kick-start their math brains.

  39. Like many faithful Mormon women of my day I dropped out of BYU to marry and raise a family. I loved being a mother, but regretted not having finished college. So at 48 I enrolled full time and graduated with a bachelor’s in the same ceremony as our 2nd daughter.

    College the second time around was glorious! I was there to learn as much as I could as fast as I could. I didn’t need a date for the weekend, nor was I intimidated by my professors.

    Then the grandbabies started coming, and some needed daycare. I volunteered and have never regretted it. Still I would love to go to grad school. Maybe this time around I could walk the graduation with a grandchild.

  40. Clark Goble says:

    Pconnornc — coming back off my mission and then be dropped in the deep end of Sophomore physics and mathematics was a tad bit of a shock for sure. It’s amazing how fast you lose your math skills.

  41. Kevin Barney says:

    pconnornc, after my mission for one semester I had the idea I was going to major in economics. So with the intent of beginning the task of brushing up my math I took the 110 course. As I recall I was pretty shaky at first, but it did start to come back. But that was only the begining; it would have been a long and hard reclamation project. When I switched to classics the need was no longer there and I never took another math class.

  42. I don’t think you are old to be blogging. I am 7 years older and think blogging can be for any age. I think we may all have regrets about the educational choices we made at some stage but that might have been a product of the time especially for females.

  43. Oh yes, yes I most certainly would have done things differently, and I am “highly educated.”
    I don’t think I’ll ever admit to full regret though.