Bookbyte Blog

Posts tagged ‘picking a major’

Carpe Diem When Building Your Perfect Schedule

Checking scheduleMapping out your college schedule is always a tug-of-war between short-term and long-term gain. You don’t want a schedule that’s too hard or too easy (because that just means you’re putting off the hard schedule for later). You need to keep in mind the delicate balance between core requirements, credits for your major, and electives. Even if you map everything out in advance, your best laid plans could go awry when the classes you were eyeing all get scheduled at the same time.

When I was an undergrad, I developed a strategy early and held fast to it for the remainder of my four years: Try as many things as possible, avoid commitment as long as possible. First, I didn’t declare my major until the last possible minute. This was for two reasons: (1) I wanted as much time as possible to try everything first. (2) At my school, if you entered declared, there were certain freshman year required intro classes. Declare later and you could skip those, leaving more time for more interesting material.

The other piece of my long-term strategy was knocking out core requirements as quickly as possible, trading a comparatively tedious first year for more freedom down the road. It mostly worked out well, especially since I decided to go for a double major by the end of my sophomore year, so I needed all the room I could get credits for two majors before the end of the four years.

While the plan worked to a point, I made a big mistake by not leaving myself any wiggle room to do things on a whim. This screwed me out of a number of courses that needed to be taken sequentially. Since I’d eaten up my first two years with checking off the essentials, I didn’t have leave myself much time to work up to some of the higher level courses in my majors.

The second mistake was more tragic. My Medieval Lit course was run by a Prof. Wilson. Easily one of the best instructors I’ve ever had. He spoke seven languages (half of them dead ones). He could recite the first 100 verses of Beowulf from memory. In Old English. He was the sort of professor who could go off on tangents and loop them back around to the main topic. He could bring current events into a discussion of Pilgrim’s Progress and make it feel organic. He was passionate about what he did and you could feel it every time his class met. (For your mental picture, he might have been played by Richard Attenborough.)

When Prof. Wilson announced he’d be teaching a course called Heroic Literature, I couldn’t believe I could get credits for something so tailor-made to my interest. It would be a cross-cultural examination of the idea of literary heroes. It was a course of his own design, so no one else in the department was really qualified to teach it.

But I had my strategy, so I held off, opting to take it next time it came around so I could take care of more boring stuff first.

Near the end of the semester, Prof. Wilson was nowhere to be found. A few other professors in the department took over his classes for the remaining weeks. Eventually, word leaked: Prof. Wilson had a particularly aggressive form of cancer. He was diagnosed in November and passed away shortly after the New Year.

I wish I’d taken more classes with the guy. I wish I’d thrown my plans out and just gone with my gut. But I didn’t.

That’s my advice to anyone mapping out plans for the future. Not just for college, but for anything in life. If there’s something you truly want, go for it. Never put off the things you’re most passionate about. You never know if the only day is today.

STEM Students Can (and Should) Dream Big Too

iStock_000018821167Small

It’s a tough time to be a student. Landing a halfway decent job is always a struggle, but recent graduates have to deal with a weak economy and devalued degrees, all while more and more of them need to take out loans and find other methods of paying for their education.

Students, you get hit with a flood of advice at all times. (I realize the irony of saying this while being another of many voices telling you what to do.) Lately, there’s been popular refrain among post-graduation advice: get a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) major and earn more money. Just look at these headlines: “Face the Facts: STEM degrees earn the highest paying jobs,” “STEM jobs pay more, reduce the wage gap between men and women,” “STEM Workers are in High Demand.” Study after study indicate that STEM jobs pay better than other fields and that investing your time in something like art, English, or God forbid, theater, is not a wise investment of your tuition dollars.

As an English and art major myself, it goes without saying that I’m not too keen on seeing my chosen areas of study get put down so often, but that’s not what this article is about.

I think there’s a danger in the tone we’ve set about discussing STEM degrees and jobs. The narrative in so many articles (and in many a Reddit thread) is that STEM students are inherently more valuable, that they do serious work, while we liberal arts majors play around with frivolous things. The tone is dismissive, condescending, and accordingly, really, really easy to ignore. Specifically, by focusing so much on money, we’re doing a disservice to the aspects of creativity and inspiration that can exist in the hard sciences.

That last part is the problem. Very few college students choose their area of study according to future earning potential. And telling them over and over again about the money isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Why? Because students are going to study what they find interesting, engaging, and exciting on a day-to-day basis. Future potential money is not as much of a motivator.

The more students think of STEM as the practical and stable area of study, the less the field fosters imagination. And that’s a real problem with the current American attitude towards science. There’s an obsession with practical application of science and a decreased focus on programs that don’t have immediately accessible real-world applications, like NASA or particle physics. Politicians and bureaucrats are overly concerned with the short-term return-on-investment of the sciences, and inherently distrustful of science of science’s sake. Unfortunately, it’s the latter that usually leads to great leaps forward, either through happy accidents or by making little bits of progress that can be carried, football-like, further down the field by later researchers.

Only one in a million of those dreams ever need to come true, but as a society, we aren’t doing enough to foster STEM dreams. Dreams are being dominated by the people who want to write the great American novel or become a world-famous actor or musician.

Most people with STEM degrees aren’t professional scientists, just as most English majors aren’t professional writers. But the ultimate reason for going to college only half lays with the question “What job can I get with this degree?” English majors mostly aren’t writers, but studying literature and the written word inform their broader world view, teach them to appreciate the arts, and help define the person they will be and the work they will do in a thousand unknowable ways.

Studying the sciences is no different. If we want more students to study STEM, we only need to show them how much they’ll get out of a STEM degree. Not the money or the degree, but curiosity, engagement, and that one in a million chance of finding something, not really practical, but really cool.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 59 other followers

%d bloggers like this: