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What If My Dream Major Turns Into a Nightmare?

April 22nd, 2009 · 29 comments

Deep Trouble

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

29 thoughts on “What If My Dream Major Turns Into a Nightmare?

  1. Kris says:

    This was good timing. I hate my minor, and I’ve always hated it (Education). Now my hatred is getting worse. But at the end, I’ll have a teaching certificate, so I suppose it’s worth it in the end.

    In addition to your advice, I suggest not taking all of your “basics” in the first few semesters, but rather leaving a few of them for the last semesters. Instead of having 5 upper level classes, you can have 3-4 upper level classes and some introductory courses to even things out.

  2. Scott W. says:

    This is exactly what I did when I saw my senior thesis and tough senior level courses on my horizon

    I’m still doing my first year courses (in a second year, oh well) but one thing I’ve found that really helps put that “spark” back into me with any kind of subject or extracurricular-learning is to look up all of the applications of a subject. For a classics major, I’ve read and heard that it is an excellent way to learn and understand the present (especially the philosophical parts ;) ). Another thing I like to do before I study a course is go through related readings, textbooks, webpages, and whatever, and not think to myself “I can’t understand this stuff!”, but to think “I will be able to understand this stuff when I’m done!” :)

    That last one is my favourite because it allows me to look up honours level material in physics and mathematics material and not pee my pants, but they both work well :).

  3. RT Wolf says:

    Good post. I enjoyed it a lot.

    I wanted to add onto your comment about majors being hard. Though I doubt many of your readers feel this way, there are some people who believe majors should be easy.

    To them I say, The sooner you let go of the expectation that it SHOULD be easy, the sooner you’ll do a lot better and stop procrastinating. If you’re always holding the expectation that there has to be an easy way, then you won’t wanna get started and your work will seem as it is being inflicted on you. If not by your parents, then perhaps by your prof or even by yourself.

    I like to think of it a bit like this: your major and college SHOULD be hard. I’d rather live in a society where the rewards of higher pay, greater prestige, etc go to the hard working, rather than some arbitrary thing such as who your parents were or your body. I mean, those things have value, but I’d rather live in our society which has about a 0.6 correlation between intelligent (IQ), hardworking (trait conscientiousness) and creative (trait openness to new experiences) and success. I definitely don’t want to live in a society that arbitrarily and randomly hands out success.

  4. Mary Campbell Gallagher, J.D., Ph.D. says:

    On our way to an A+, what happened to proofreading? How about this: “decent into hardness”? Or this: “I handed over the reigns my senior fall”?

  5. Mary Campbell Gallagher, J.D., Ph.D. says:

    Oops. I forgot to say that you have a great blog.

  6. Benedikt says:

    Rocky 4… Great!
    Thanks very much for this inspiring post.

  7. Nate says:

    I want to add some advice, especially for those in general academic majors that precede graduate school (ex. biology, chemistry, psychology).

    If you find yourself not planning on graduate school and do not want a lab/research career, browse jobs before graduation to assess your career opportunities and to see if your skills could transfer into another career.

    If you see enough satisfying job opportunities, even outside your major, stick it out. If you are disappointed in what’s out there and have searched thoroughly, by all means, consider changing your major, but only after seeking what opportunities the new one can bring.

    If you do switch out of a major, be sure to check to see if you’ve completed the minor requirements, because you may be surprised that you’ve already completed one.

    In my case, I switched from a Biology B.S. to an Information Systems B.S., and with all of the work that I’ve put in, I now have completed a Biology minor. Since I do not want to pursue graduate school in biology and do not want to work at a lab bench, I took a while to consider my options.

    When I used a campus job search utility at my institution, I could see that there were many more internships, and even career opportunities available for IS graduates over BIO graduates. Your mileage may very, depending on location, but I recommend making an informed decision.

    Life is too short to settle for careers that you are no longer interested in. Even considering the possibility of late graduation, in the long run, a decision to change a major can make all the difference.

  8. Edgar says:

    This came at the right time for an issue I have but can’t quite put to words. I was studying Industrial Engineering but switched to English last year. My motivation has been flagging and I had already gotten to a bad start out of guilt of switching to a “soft” major. Great comment by RT Wolf as well. Thanks!

  9. Ilham Hafizovic says:

    Great post, and nice addition by Nate.

    My final two years are coming up, and I have to deal with an impending final thesis research in my final year, along with some major advanced biotechnology courses. Sometimes the road is just tough, like Rocky 4! :)

  10. Jay says:

    Tyler, if you have to spend your whole week memorizing Greek adverbs, you should start using Mnemosyne ;)

  11. Alvin says:

    I find Anki preferable to Mnemosyne in many ways; particularly for Chinese and Japanese support, but it has more customizable options than Mnemosyne without reaching the incomprehensible GUI of Supermemo.

  12. Kimberly says:

    Great post. This type of burnout, rather than deep procrastination, may be what’s happening to me. I love introductory/survey courses that cover a variety of things, but when I get into the focused, detailed, HARD courses in my major, I feel like it’s impossible for me to do well.

    I like my major, but some of the classes I have to take to complete it are ridiculously hard and seem pretty pointless. It’s easier for me to think the hard work is worth it when the information that I’m learning is actually going to be useful in a career.

    PS. You only have 3 observations, Cal. :)

  13. Study Hacks says:

    Okay, I fixed some of those mistakes you guys found. As you might have guessed, this conference isn’t leaving much free time, which is why I’m writing fast in the small windows I have. I love the comments above, I’ll start responding next time I can get away from the technical program.

  14. Great post this was very applicable to me as a freshman. I wanted to get into communications but found out the challenges of taking some of the rhetoric and intro classes.

  15. Linh says:

    The observation about hard courses is very, very true. I might also add that your interest may lie in only one area of your major, but you’re required to take classes in other areas too, which you may have a hard time finding interest in. This in fact is happening to me. I’m a psyc major. I’m very interested in positive psychology and wouldn’t mind spending days reading about it. But due to an advisor crunch, I’m going to have to write my thesis about psychology of gender, which I find minimally interesting and is politically charged to boot. Not happy, but I guess I’ll have to stick to it and try to stir up some interest.

  16. Jay says:

    @Alvin: I agree, Anki is tight too, it’s got everything but the kitchen sink. But I find it runs a little slow on my poor old laptop. Mnemosyne is just a fast, sleek, little minimalist program, that’s why I dig it. Version 2 is going to be great, with lots of improvements like animated gif support, devanagari support, etc. If you can’t tell I’m a huge fan of SRS. It’s totally transformed the way I learn in some classes. I make up a lot of really good flashcards and I don’t even feel like I’m studying, just uploading knowledge straight into my brain, Matrix-style.

  17. Tyler says:

    @Jay

    Thanks for the recommendation. Actually, you might be surprised to learn that I’ve been using it this semester. It’s great!! It’s a shareware version of Supermemo (which Cal has featured on his blog before). I fully agree with you, it does I’ve sure had your Matrix-style learning experience. You can even add sound and pictures for a more complete learning experience if you learn visually.

    I confess one thing I probably should have considered trying is learning lists of vocabulary rather than just trying to memorize translations.

    P.S. If all I had to do was learn Greek Adverbs, I’d be set. There’s not too many of them. In many languages, it’s the verbs that present the hardest challenge.

  18. jamin says:

    “There is no right major for you. There are only right motivations.”

  19. Alvin says:

    Tyler, what about learning phrases or sentences instead? Have you read either antimoon.com or http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/?

  20. Daisy says:

    I really needed to read this now.

    I’ve been starting to panic because my final year is coming and the required courseload (meaning I can’t deviate from it or lessen it) is monstrous.

    the end is near, I guess… :)

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  22. Kerry NZ says:

    So did he finish?

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