Embracing the major you never thought you’d choose
I’d like to extend a warm welcome to the incoming class of pre-meds-oh excuse me, freshmen. I know, I know, not all of you are pre-meds, and I’ll have more to say to the others. But more of you will start as pre-meds than anything else by far, and many of you are making a mistake.
Not that the pre-med path isn’t worthwhile-it’s just not for everyone. Many students are not sure about what they want to do, and medicine just seems like a good idea. Doctors are well-paid and well-respected, and (so far at least) we can’t outsource our ophthalmologists to Bangalore.
Most frequently, these students say that their goal is to help people. However, there are many effective ways to help people besides medicine, and it takes more than this desire to succeed as a doctor. It’s not only that it’s difficult (which it is without a doubt)-you must also have more specific interests than being a useful member of society. In particular, you have to be able to enjoy (or at least tolerate) organic chemistry, genetics and physiology. Many students may find themselves better suited to be social workers, lawyers, teachers or economists.
But enough about the trials and tribulations of pre-medical studies. I’m here to encourage all of you, not just pre-meds, to be flexible, curious and open-minded about your courses and majors.
There are far more majors at Wash. U. than anyone can realistically hope to try out. Still, you should do your best to sample the ones that could interest you. There are surely at least a few majors which you are able to rule out right off the bat (many people are quite sure that they don’t want to major in math!), but other majors are more difficult to assess unless you’ve taken a course or two within them. So cast a wide net during your freshman year, and don’t worry about specializing this early in the game.
There is, however, more to the process of self-discovery than deliberately diversifying your choice of courses-your state of mind is important too. Even if you end up in the course that could change your life, the significance could be lost if you don’t give it a chance.
Some may think this isn’t so important-after all, if you end up in a course you love, shouldn’t it take a hold of you no matter what? It’s not always this simple, however.
I recently changed my major to philosophy during my eighth(!) semester (I’m going to be a second-year senior), even though I had taken some philosophy courses several semesters earlier. Why didn’t I declare philosophy sooner? It’s complicated, but a big part of the problem was that I was unwilling to seriously consider it. During one of those courses, the professor asked me why I wasn’t a philosophy major. Even though I didn’t have a good answer to him at the time (something like “I’m not smart enough”), it still took me until the second semester of my senior year to finally go for it.
Now, maybe I’m uniquely inept at knowing myself (ironic for a philosophy major), but I suspect that others have similar attitudes towards some majors, quite possibly because students are worried about their job prospects, and hold in their minds at all times the common skeptical query, “What are you going to do with a major in X?” These worries are generally misguided.
For most career paths, your major choice is unimportant. There are exceptions of course-it would be tough to be a theoretical physicist if you’ve taken only English courses-but most employers aren’t looking for any specific knowledge. They just want to find smart graduates who can communicate, write and think effectively, and most majors can be used to gain these skills. I know English majors who have gone into consulting, philosophy majors who have gone on to be Web programmers, and biology majors who have gone into business. So choose something you enjoy. The jobs will still be there, I promise.
Finally, don’t be afraid to change the major you’ve chosen. No one likes to feel like they’ve been wrong, but its better to find out sooner rather than later. And along the way, after changing your major three times, you might find that you’ve become a more educated person.
Bill Hoffman is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences and a forum editor. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]
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