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The Roberts Method: A Professor’s Advice for Falling in Love With Your Major

November 3rd, 2010 · 32 comments

Major Doubts

“I’m enrolled to study computer science…a choice that was heavily influenced by my parents.”

So began a recent e-mail — one of many I receive that echo the same theme.

“I think that if I continue on in computer science I might find a love for it eventually,” the student said optimistically, before adding: “but a few days ago I saw that the university still has some open slots in the psychology program…”

The exams in this student’s computer science courses were getting tougher, and she began to wonder if she had missed her true calling in another field, like psychology. In fact, once she started thinking about it, she began to increasingly convince herself that psychology had always sounded appealing.

I see this all the time: students who question whether or not they chose the right major.

Some students in this situation respond with action, switching concentrations, sometimes multiple times, in a fruitless search for the perfect fit. (As longtime Study Hacks readers know, I don’t believe in the existence of a “right major,” which dooms any such quest to failure.) Others grind through the difficult courses that populate the upperclassman years, experiencing the work as a penance for an irreversible choice, poorly made. In both cases, the results are no good: anxiety, burn out, and sometimes even deep procrastination.

One of the core ideas behind my Romantic Scholar approach to student life is that courses are not something to survive, but should instead be something to relish in and to engage you; what I call the “foundation of a life well-lived.”

Interested in tested advice for building this relationship with your studies, I turned to an expert: Andrew Roberts, a professor of political science at Northwestern University. Professor Roberts has given a lot of thought to how students should approach the challenges of higher education. In fact, he recently published a book on these ideas: The Thinking Student’s Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education.

I got Professor Roberts on the phone and asked him to share his advice for falling in love with your major. The goal we’re interested in, I explained, is not just to enjoy our coursework, but to also become the type of star who gains access to fantastically interesting post-grad opportunities.

If you want to make the Romantic Scholar a reality in your student life, you should listen to what the good professor had to say…

The Roberts Method

Professor Roberts’ method for falling in love with your major, and becoming a star in your department, can be summarized with four rules:

Rule #1: Do Less

Resist the urge to double major and join a dozen clubs. Focus on your one major and a small number of activities (if any) related to the major. Immerse yourself in the subject. You’ve heard me make this argument before, but Professor Roberts was quick to echo these sentiments from his perspective on the other side of the lecturn.

“Last weekend we were looking at Fulbright [Scholar] applications at a committee here,” Roberts told me. “The ones that are fascinating are the ones that are deep, not the ones that are broad…the [applicants] that have totally gotten into this country, learned the language, visited it, learned everything they can about some topic [related to it].”

Rule #2: Synergize Courses

“When putting together a schedule,” advises Roberts, “look for synergies between your classes…try to find two classes that cover the same topic from different angles.” For example, you might take a course on the politics of Africa at the same time you take a course on the history of the continent.

There are two advantages to this approach. First, your life is easier as the classes will likely overlap in material, and you can draw from readings in one class to provide the research for papers in the other. (As an added bonus, “you will start looking very smart,” as you began citing information from outside the syllabus.) Second, there’s something intellectually satisfying about mastering a subject from different angles. It provides a feeling of competence and curiosity that helps you own the material.

Rule #3: Read Academic Blogs

A growing number of professors blog about their field. (You can find a list of such blogs, organized by subject, at the Academic Blog Wiki.) Some of these blogs are too technical to be too useful, but others provide an excellent sense of what type of research is going on right now and how it intersects with current events. In the field of computer science, for example, see Scott Aaronson’s fantastic Shtetl-Optimized, which has a way of transforming the most esoteric of disciplines — quantum complexity theory — into a dynamic, relevant, pop culture-infused roller coaster ride through a land of big theorems and unexpected digressions.

Read these types of blogs.

“You get an unvarnished perspective from these blogs that you don’t get from your reading and classes,” said Roberts. “You learn what’s right on the cutting edge, not [just the] standard works, or dumbed down standard works…you get this great perspective.”

Rule #4: Go to Department Lectures

Most departments host a regular lecture series. All departments host occasional lectures from job candidates and visiting scholars. Some of these lectures are probably too specialized to be understood, but others, like the good academic blogs mentioned in Rule #3, can help expose you to real scholarship in your field and provide you renewed energy for your coursework.

If you’re a computer science major at MIT, for example, you might pass on Ricky Rosen’s upcoming talk on “A Strong Parallel Repetition Theorem for Projection Games on Expanders,” but would find a lot useful in Rodney Brook’s lecture on “Robots Working with People.”

“I don’t see very many undergraduates at the talks that we hold,” Roberts told me. This, of course, is a missed opportunity, not only to engage the field, but to stand out. As Roberts notes, if you attend these talks, “you definitely signal yourself out to your faculty as someone special.” Not to mention the signal you give yourself that you find this material important.

###

This post is the third in my series on the Romantic Scholar approach to student life, which details a collection of strategies to transform school from a trial to survive into the foundation of a life well-lived. Roughly every other post on Study Hacks in the near future will be dedicated to this series.

Past articles:

(Photo by uniondocs)

32 thoughts on “The Roberts Method: A Professor’s Advice for Falling in Love With Your Major

  1. Joseph K says:

    Hello Cal:

    Good stuff, as I’ve come to expect from this blog. However, it is exceedingly difficult for a fiction writer to distinguish himself while in high school. Film conoisseurs can act or write screenplays; scientists have innumerable chances; video game designers, because the field is new, don’t have to do much. Yet the only thing I can think of for writers is publishing a novel or story.

    You wrote that the Superstar effect involves inexplicable achievements and good connections, but none of my attempts to contact people are working.

    What do you think?

  2. Liz says:

    The opening of this article hits a little too close to home. I agree that with enough information, anything can be interesting (which is what I told the professors I was applying to be a graduate student with – I was happy to research anything they were willing to mentor me in). HOWEVER, I have a computer science degree that is the result of the four most miserable years of my life where the only bright spots were the fascinating psychology courses I tool.

  3. Liz says:

    (ah, form submitted before I was done..)

    *took.

    Computer science is not about programming any more than astronomy is about telescopes, and I think that discourages a lot of keen programmers but indifferent mathematicians (I don’t think high school guidance counsellors or the average parent understands this distinction). Psychology on the other hand (especially cognition and perception) is computational in all the right ways for someone who wants to do something concrete, but in a quantitative way.

    I would advise sticking with some CS courses, but taking psychology as well (a lot of universities have put these together as cognitive science programs?). These two fields are very closely related, and a competent computer scientist can be a psychology researcher with a lot of advantages over her peers.

  4. Carl says:

    Not sure I am convinced on this one. I took 18 hours/semester and pledged a frat at the same time my freshman year and had a great time. Got straight A’s as well. My grades and enthusiam went down as as I lowered the load later.

    But what made that load fun was that it was NOT focused. I exercised different parts of the brain with different classes. I had math/physics, literature/history, and music theory/band. A course load of all reading or all math type classes is a recipe for burnout. 12 hours/semester in grad school (all physics) was far rougher than a more diversified course load.

    My recommendation for loving a major: read some popular press books on a subject before wading through a textbook and learning it right. Rigor and/or close reading are good for a second or third pass at a subject, not for the first past.


    I double majored (and ended up in honor societies for three departments), but I also intentionally didn’t go to the hardest school I could qualify for. Had I gone Ivy League, I would have needed to focus more to stay sane.

  5. Scott Young says:

    Cal,

    You mention that this student was in computer science due to “a choice that was heavily influenced by [his] parents.”

    We can agree that there may be no “right” major, but perhaps there is a “right” method or “right” motivation for finding that major.

    My feeling has always been that intrinsic interest (even if it is undeveloped and still weak) is a more proper qualification for choosing a major than parental/peer influence.

    Then again, it might be my complete cultural blindspot on the importance of independent choice, so I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  6. Greg says:

    A modification of idea #4 is to create a student organization and invite guest speakers. Besides the opportunity to interact with people in the field and defining the topic, it was a great opportunity to practice skills like grant-writing, fund-raising, and discovering the internal administrative structure of the university in putting together a program around the guest.

  7. Kat says:

    As a recent grad, I can vouch for rule 2. Taking courses that covered similar topics from different angles definitely helped me gain deeper understanding, and also enabled me to take more than one major without feeling overwhelmed or spreading myself too thin. Taking international business classes along with development studies taught me to look at globalisation issues from more than one perspective, an opportunity I appreciate greatly. Each major also helped me to appreciate the other, stay motivated and ultimately come out with a broader understanding of a complex issue, something I would have missed out on if I only focused on one area of study.
    And yes, the overlapping material did make studying a lot easier. :)

  8. I think numbers 3 and 4 are important for graduate students too, in particular reading academic blogs and attending lectures NOT in your field. As Carl mentions above, sometimes taking all of your classes in one area can be tiresome. For funding/requirements reasons, I think grad students are often less able to take classes outside of their field (I certainly was) and these activities can be a good substitute. I often find that reading outside of my field gives me new insights into my field, or at least introduces me to new ways of thinking that I can apply in my field.

  9. ChristianKl says:

    I would add that even if a department lecture is too specialized to be fully understood it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be there in the audience.
    Being exposed to complicated thought is good mental training even if you don’t fully understand the thought.

  10. Nathan says:

    I credit my decision to change major in early 2009 as a turning point in my academic career. By leaving a stagnating academic department for a much more reputable one, I’ve had many more opportunities since then. It has not been an easy journey, with multiple courses over the summers and winters, but I stood out enough in the program to get my own office on campus for student employment in late 2009 and later an internship continuing since June 2010. Now that I have a job offer waiting after my December 2010 graduation, I cannot help but think one thing:

    This decision made all the difference,

  11. Nathan says:

    Just to extend my previous post from academia to life, sometimes you have to take a risk when left with prevalent dissatisfaction in current activities. Monotony is one thing, but there is a difference between satisfaction during day to day routines and long term plans. The sooner you recognize the difference, the better.

    Only accept day to day monotony if you are making progress towards long term goals.

  12. Study Hacks says:
    However, it is exceedingly difficult for a fiction writer to distinguish himself while in high school.

    This is true. Mastering the craft of fiction writing takes time. Look at this year’s New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list of the top young writers in the country. The youngest is 25. Over 90% went through a graduate program in creative writing.

    Then again, if you read Justine Musk’s writing over at Tribal Writer, you’ll notice that she got an agent for her young adult writing when still in high school. So for certain genres, earlier success is possible. Go read her blog. Really immerse yourself in how people get notice. Use this to calibrate your plans.

  13. Study Hacks says:
    My feeling has always been that intrinsic interest (even if it is undeveloped and still weak) is a more proper qualification for choosing a major than parental/peer influence.

    The research shows that a sense of autonomy in your choice of activity does help stick through the hard spots. But the fact that you parents like the subject doesn’t (necessarily) mean that it’s no good. We land in subjects for any variety of reasons.

    A modification of idea #4 is to create a student organization and invite guest speakers

    Fantastic idea.

    I think numbers 3 and 4 are important for graduate students too, in particular reading academic blogs and attending lectures NOT in your field.

    That’s a good twist. At MIT, for example, all PhD students have to declare a “minor” outside their field and take two graduate level courses in the subject. Most computer scientists choose math for their minor. (i.e., more or less the same subject as they are studying for their PhD). I choose Art History (which was also my minor as an undergraduate). And loved it.

  14. Brian Emery says:

    The title says it all. Falling in love with anything is a process. People expect intense passion from day 1, but that’s not always the case. Explore your ‘likes’ and eventually you may find the passion. For me it took more than just the 4 years of undergraduate studies. Looking forward to the next post!

  15. R G says:

    yeesh, everyone is so anti-double major these days. it’s not for everyone, but it’s not half as crippling as people make it out to be.

  16. Caylynn says:

    With respect to being deep, instead of broad, a lot of universities here in Canada are requiring their students to take a broad range of courses – some even call them their “breadth” requirements. So for someone who is very interested in one particular subject, it is very hard to just focus on that subject. In order to graduate, you need to fulfill all of these “breadth” requirements, which, for a science student, might include English (or some universities require English or a language other than English), economics, another social science, and another arts (besides your language course).

    I’m sure things are different in the U.S., but many universities here in Canada are forcing students to develop breadth as well as depth.

  17. Scott Young says:

    True, parental approval isn’t a sign the major is a dud, simply that in the above post the term “heavily influenced” to me sounds similar to “pressured”. But I may be reading more into the situation.

  18. Estara says:

    I think that also, as a romantic scholar, you should aim to get the most of your education. DEMAND the best from yourself and your school. This means that you shouldn’t be afraid of getting really deep into what you are learning – why not become an expert? And if the college doesn’t have courses you feel are necessary, or doesn’t put good courses together in a degree plan sheet, speak up. You as a student have a say in what happens, who knows? The department might add a class or pair courses. I say dive in, get insights from professors, get insights from different sources and see how they relate to what you’re learning in the classroom. Scour the library shelves and bookstore shelves to learn more about your topics. If a class covers something interesting just at surface level, dig deeper. Don’t be afraid to be tagged a “nerd” if you want to get the most of your education. Those who make those tags aren’t living life as richly as they can.
    I see too many kids rave about the passion they have for their major, but complain incessantly about the classes, the teachers, the work, and hope for the school to burn down! My thinking is, why pay tuition to torture yourself? Change your mindset and enjoy the learning experience. Who knew college could be exhilarating?

  19. Katie says:

    bthink that also, as a romantic scholar, you should aim to get the most of your education. DEMAND the best from yourself and your school. This means that you shouldn’t be afraid of getting really deep into what you are learning – why not become an expert? And if the college doesn’t have courses you feel are necessary, or doesn’t put good courses together in a degree plan sheet, speak up. You as a student have a say in what happens, who knows? The department might add a class or pair courses. I say dive in, get insights from professors, get insights from different sources and see how they relate to what you’re learning in the classroom. Scour the library shelves and bookstore shelves to learn more about your topics. If a class covers something interesting just at surface level, dig deeper. Don’t be afraid to be tagged a “nerd” if you want to get the most of your education. Those who make those tags aren’t living life as richly as they can.
    I see too many kids rave about the passion they have for their major, but complain incessantly about the classes, the teachers, the work, and hope for the school to burn down! My thinking is, why pay tuition to torture yourself? Change your mindset and enjoy the learning experience. Who knew college could be exhilarating?

  20. =__= says:

    it totally reminds me of this. Are we studying for the sake of a job or are we studying because we love it? I’m completely burnt out. I used to love coordinate geometry and other sectors of math but constant deadlines, soulcrushing work loads and a deep fear of failure have kinda made me deep procrastinate. now i’m 23, into a dead degree and don’t know what i’m doing with my life anymore :| lol.

  21. Stanley Lee says:

    I picked my major (Electrical Engineering) b/c I felt I was relatively adept at learning math and physical sciences on top of my hobbies in electronics (after I have gotten my degree these days, while I still practice the skills as a hobbies aside from writing and freelancing, professionally it’s in past tense for me as a failed grind, which I will reveal later in this comment). My choice did have parental and social influence in terms of practicality and respect (which explained my distraction in an honors engineering program with even more punishing workload by default before I switched back to a more feasible program before I waste even more excess effort, time, and attention for naught), but I picked my major based on my strengths rather than my interests (sometimes they aren’t the same thing as strengths may lead to abusive situations in my case).

    Side note: I don’t know if I can love any majors from the choices I had when I was a high school graduate.

    While I did alright in terms of academic performance (or else I couldn’t graduate with a distinction standing, not that I care or it’s valuable to what I’m doing currently), being a failed grind to abusing courseload + extracurricular obligations (which I teach my readers to be street-smart about protecting their interests from pleasing selfishly and greedily abusive people in the obligations these days) did little consolation. In my definition of a failed grind, s/he doesn’t have to end up with erratic grades, a confusing mash of dropped activities and failed schemes as listed here, although grinds and failed grinds have bloody ulcers (in my case, I’m still having intermittent stress-induced eye and shoulder muscle problems these days with occasional digestion problems as a result of paying the price for naught. I am regularly visiting the physicians to monitor the situation through the lab tests). I stuck out in many obligations with people turning out to be abusive of my time (and I still have a lingering one that could cause the club to fold if I didn’t commit my resources to get it out of a ditch), but didn’t end up with the mentioned impressive post-grad opportunities.A grind who stuck it out but still have no impressive post-grad opportunities ultimately wasted the sacrificed for naught, which is my definition of failed grind.Once the high-performing failed grinds find out the inevitable and irreversible state, there’s no choice but to acknowledge the sunk costs and unavailability of the options while starting a rebuild (the alternative is waste even more energy and time into the paths in the hopes of opportunities panning out, which usually leads to more abusive exploitation anyway in the high-tech world from what I found).

    Students who question whether or not they chose the right major and commitments will end up sacrificing themselves through burnouts, anxiety attacks, and at the end intermittent deep procrastination. Sacrificing the well-being of physical and mental health for naught is even more devastating when the opportunities don’t open for you, despite getting the results (like a grind) that aren’t valued by the people you’re trying to please for the opportunities (e.g. near perfect grades, wide accomplishments, etc.) .

    This is why I approached you with my projects during my journey of producing high-impact messages to stop the plague (I’m trying to motivate behavioral change so that fewer students of future generations suffer from having to go through a devastating career-change penalizing rebuild process that I am going through right now, whether as a failed but high-performing grind or burnt-out employee being disposed of by the employer as witnessed for example in this recession). Scott: I didn’t get a chance to talk to you more during the meetup about my story, what I’m working on and the whys I’ve briefly mentioned. This comment should provide more insights, even though I’m still a newbie at what you and Cal are doing with the writing projects.

  22. Leandro says:

    Personally, I find someone’s choice of major quite irrelevant. If they want to study a certain field because they have the passion for it (or something along those lines), then I do not see why they shouldn’t. After all, no matter what major you choose you end up with tons of work since everything great in life requires some degree of hard work.

  23. Study Hacks says:
    People expect intense passion from day 1, but that’s not always the case

    Amen.

    DEMAND the best from yourself and your school

    A good way of putting things.

    now i’m 23, into a dead degree and don’t know what i’m doing with my life anymore

    Keep reading the “Rethinking Passion” series I’m running in parallel with this Romantic Scholar series: you might find some insight floating around in there.

    After all, no matter what major you choose you end up with tons of work since everything great in life requires some degree of hard work.

    Well said, I just had coffee with a Zen Buddhist, who had a very Zen take on this general topic: “work is work.”

  24. Stanley Lee says:

    now i’m 23, into a dead degree and don’t know what i’m doing with my life anymore lol

    Opportunities for me were dead by the time I finished it despite getting high grades and achievements (despite not being valued) in a supposedly promising major. You can follow my path of gutting everything in the unpromising past life and rebuild a better life.

  25. Crick says:

    I can see why Professor Roberts recommends not spreading oneself too thin by double majoring, but I have mixed feelings on the subject. I’m tempted to argue that minoring in something can provide extra perspective. Isn’t that what the liberal arts education and interdisciplinary learning is about? Learning to see things from different angles, etc. Of course, it’s much easier when the disciplines are very closely related in the first place. As a literature student considering a minor in biology, I suspect I am close to committing the error of bland well-roundedness. I still haven’t quite reconciled my desire to focus and master one particular discipline with this additional interest in the sciences.

  26. Bill Seitz says:

    Cal, I’m concerned at a pattern that smells like people following a game into a local optimum – high school -> college -> postdoc.

    Now, a book on “How to become a highly-paid tenured professor without getting a PhD” would be a game worth playing…

  27. Jack says:

    Sure you can end up loving your major eventually even if you start to feel that you chose the wrong one but the fact is that you have to play into your strengths and what you are capable of. If you are not the type that is good at math then a mathematics degree isn’t for you. I agree there isn’t one perfect subject or major for everyone, but you have to at least feel that it is suited for you. It isn’t always possible to find something that is suitable for you by merely look at some rough outlines of what the course material may be or by what you think the course material is going to be like, you have to go through it and unfortunately sometimes you found out hey this isn’t for me.

  28. Hank says:

    There are alternatives here. Many colleges offer the student a concentration consisting of courses which the student can put together according to his/her interests. A student at my college (yes, I’m a professor emritus who began college teaching in i955)decided to combine English and Biology courses so as to create an appropriate concentration of courses suitable for an outdoor guide and writer. He was successful and I have fished with him many times and read many of his articles.
    You really need to get beyond the notion that everyone who attends college, if they are bright, will want to get a professorship where little teaching is required and they can add to the “literature” and create clones of themselves. Trust me, some of us publish AND enjoy teaching undergraduates.

  29. Neil says:

    I have a question that is somewhat related. How much should the strength of the school’s program matter in choosing your major? I do not doubt that a small liberal arts school can produce good CS students despite competition with students who go to a great technical school with a strong CS program. However, what is the best way to market a CS major that hails from the small liberal arts school perspective on the job market when competing with students of stronger CS program backgrounds? Any insight would be appreciated!

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