As a student advisor for the biology major, I’ve listened to two cohorts of bright-eyed first year students talk excitedly about writing seminars, languages courses and PE classes. I’ve yet to hear one say they enjoy general chemistry, intro to cell bio or any other class that’s actually related to biology. It’s an implicit understanding between us that those classes are merely supposed to be survived rather than enjoyed.
As a senior, then, I’m nothing if not a survivor. I’ve survived general chemistry to then survive organic chemistry to then survive biochemistry, genetics and physics. I waited for the time I’d finally get to take biology classes I thought I’d enjoy, and I’m writing now to tell you that I’m only surviving those too. And after having almost outlasted biology, I can say that it’s a lot more exciting to enjoy your major than to endure it.
I stand today as a biology and English double-major. Each pre-enroll, I’ve pored over the English course offerings, gotten excited over reading lists and felt the agony of having to choose between two courses being held at the same time. After my excitement fades, I pull out the four-year plan I made with my own biology student advisor during my first year, type in the course numbers with clinical precision and make the appropriate adjustments in my master spreadsheet.
I’m an English major by choice and a biology major because for the first two years of college, I thought I had to be STEM to survive, and afterwards I stayed in it because I had already invested too much time in it to drop.
I think a lot of people become engineers and scientists because they feel they must. They choose biology as first-years because they think it’s what they have to do to become a doctor. They study computer science because everyone around them is doing it. They choose engineering because they want a fulfilling career. When I ask them what a fulfilling career is, they tell me that it’s a stable one.
As 18-year-olds forced to choose one of Cornell’s colleges to apply to, we haven’t been adequately exposed to other fields of study to make an informed decision. The first time I realized that Cornell had seven different colleges was when I had to choose one to write an essay about two days before the application deadline. And in my mind that was conditioned to equate STEM with success, I quickly narrowed in on CALS, Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering — all of which, unsurprisingly, have science or engineering in the name.
And when we get to Cornell, we don’t gain much more exposure. Distribution requirements are nice in theory. But when we have to take general chemistry, introductory biology, math and biology lab in our first year to not fall behind, one required history course is limited in its ability to change my life. And engineers are similar, taking one introductory ENGRI before feeling like they must pigeonhole themselves into a major.
The consequence is a University of students who chose a career path out of relative ignorance, pursue that choice out of compulsion and realize too late that they made the wrong one. We get trapped in our major because it’s really hard to start over by the time we realize that we do, in fact, want to start over.
While I do know a lot of people that are entirely happy with their major, I know a lot more that aren’t. And the common theme among those that aren’t is that they wish they’d had more time to explore. But when we elect to explore, we fall behind in our requirements. So we become survivors. We survive our majors to survive our careers to survive our lives, when we really ought to be enjoying them.
STEM may be the way of the future, but it’s not the only way to salvation. That way has and will always be doing the thing that makes you happy — and not being miserable doesn’t count as happiness. I’m not miserable studying biology, but I’m not content, either.
If you truly enjoy science and engineering — and I have several friends that do — congratulations, you will be rich and joyous. And to the rest of you with “inferior” interests such as myself, please give yourself at least a small chance at joy.
If someone had told me that the peak of being a biology major would be breeding fruit flies and memorizing all 20 amino acids, I’d be reading Jane Austen right now and not writing this column. If you don’t like your major, then change it.
Colton Poore is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Help Me, I’m Poore runs every other Monday this semester.