What If My Dream Major Turns Into a Nightmare?April 22nd, 2009 · 30 comments
I recently received an e-mail from our friend Tyler. As you may recall, he found peace last year by swapping a premed major that never interested him for a classics major that did. He went on to pare down his schedule and then focus on becoming an A* student. In short, he was a perfect example of the study hacks philosophy: do less; do better; know why.
Then things got bad again.
“I know you keep saying ‘pick a major and stick to it.'” Tyler told me in his e-mail. “But the only thing saving me from academic oblivion is the fear of failing. My major recently has only been sucking up my time and causing me major stress.” He then proposed that he should switch majors; even though he is only 2 – 3 classes away from a classics degree. He didn’t know what else to do.
Tyler is not alone. His e-mail is probably the 5th or 6th I’ve received this spring that offers some variation on the same common conundrum: what do I do if my dream major is turning into a nightmare? In this post I tackle this issue with a series of observations on the lost art of cultivating a healthy relationship with your academic concentration.
Observation #1: There’s no such thing as the right major for you.
The idea that some students just love everything about their major, and are always excited by the work it generates, is a popular belief. I’ll let you in on a secret: such students don’t exist. So don’t get freaked out that your schoolwork annoys you. There is no right major for you. There are only right motivations.
The logic is simple: If your major was the product of someone else’s interests, or expectations, or similar external pressures, then you should be wary. Why? Because when the work gets really hard — and all majors eventually get really hard — you’ll feel like this pain is a punishment inflicted by someone else. This builds resentment, which, in turn, can fester into deep procrastination.
On the other hand, if you choose the major solely because you thought it would an interesting thing to master, then you won’t blame the eventual hard work on some outside force. It remains simply the hard work required to get a degree. This is more tolerable.
It’s tough to give up on the idea that there’s some perfect major waiting out there to sing in perfect harmony with your natural talents. But it’s simply not true. There are majors that seem forced on you and those that don’t. Sure, if you’re already good at something like math or writing, then you might get a head start in a matching major, but even this advantage degrades after a few semesters. In the end, a lot more is possible than you think. You just need your motivations in the right place.
Observation #2: I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but college is hard.
A new major is like a new boyfriend. At first, it’s all excitement and possibility. Then you find out his feet stink. For a major, this metaphorical foot odor comes in the form of decreasing novelty and increasing amounts of hard work. It’s like a one-two punch to your motivation: at the same time that subject loses its freshness (because you’ve been studying it for a while) it ramps up the intensity of the work it demands (because upper level courses are harder than intro courses). This shift is unavoidable. Don’t mistake it for a shift in your fundamental feelings toward the subject.
The key thing to remember is that nobody loves a subject during the process of mastering it. Have you ever seen Rocky 4, where Stallone has to retreat to the mountains of Russia to prepare to fight Drago? He drags carts, and rolls boulders up a hill, and, in one of the most subtlety-crafted moments in cinematic history, he does inverted sit-ups in a barn while Pauly hits him in the stomach with a stick.
This sucked for Rocky. But it doesn’t mean that he didn’t respect the art of boxing or the dedication required for mastery. It’s just that the process of mastery itself is not consistently pleasant. This is probably the first time anyone in the history of education has ever said this, but your junior and senior year of college are a little bit like Rocky 4.
In other words, your upper level courses are going to require lots of work, and sometimes it will feel like Pauly is whaling on you with a big ‘ole stick. It’s not going to be terrible — especially if you follow my style of efficient studying and time management advice — but it’s not going to be a cakewalk either. Don’t freak out. If it were easy, everyone would read the classics in the original Greek. (Chicks dig Homer.)
Observation #3: You can, however, prepare for the difficulty of these final years.
I’m assuming that you already follow the straight-A method, have memorized the red book, and crafted a focused, zen schedule. On top of these basics, there are still things you can do to prepare for your major’s inevitable descent into hardness. I have two suggestions:
- Start paring down your schedule in preparation for your final few semesters. This is exactly what I did when I saw my senior thesis and tough senior level courses on my horizon. I had been editor of the humor magazine, but I handed over the reins my senior fall. At the same time, I took advantage of Dartmouth’s policies to lighten my non-major course load without losing credits. One semester I added an independent study course dedicated to my thesis research. Another semester I took a “thesis writing course” to the same effect. The goal was to minimize everything but my major so I could finish my A* attack without losing my zen balance.
- Focus your remaining extracurricular energy on an activity that connects you to your major. For example, during my senior year I ramped up my independent computer science research. It helped transform my upper level courses into more than just a source of grades. This is a crucial point. It’s not enough that you were once interested in your major, you have to keep renewing this interest if you want it to persist.
Back to Tyler
My observations from above can be condensed into the simple idea that students often mistake their schoolwork becoming harder for some fundamental rift with their major. The reality is that if your major was your choice, it’s probably fine. Instead of obsessing whether some other major is a slightly better fit, you just have to prepare yourself — both mentally and tactically — to handle the increased difficulty when it inevitably arises. If you’re an efficient student, and reduce your schedule, and keep yourself connected to your field of study outside of the classroom, these final years are not so bad.
(On the other hand, if you were pressured into your major, then you might be facing deep procrastination which may require a fundamental change.)
Returning now to our friend Tyler, my advice is straightforward: finish the classics major. To make things easier, follow my advice from above. (Imagine, for example, if Tyler started a campus publication dedicated to helping students use the classics to find meaning in their life. That’s the type of thing that can keep you from freaking out and becoming an accounting major when faced with another long week of memorizing Greek adverbs.)
Once Tyler has his degree and A* recommendations, the opportunities available to him will be vast and interesting. So if you’re freaking out about your major, take a step back, relax, and then, most importantly of all, watch Rocky 4.