I want to change my major from political science to astronomy, but I have no math/science background.
September 21, 2010 8:28 PM   Subscribe

I want to change my major from political science to astronomy, but I have no math/science background.

I am a sophomore history/political science double major at a strong science school. This semester I have totally lost my interest in these subjects and I feel trapped. I was planning on going to law school, and after learning more about the horrible job market and taking a few undergrad law classes, it doesn't seem right for me. I'm taking a statistics course (which I know is NOTHING like calculus) that has given me the confidence that maybe I can pursue a major that involves math.

I've always been interested in astronomy, but I know it draws heavily from calculus and physics. The problem is I never took pre-calculus in high school, and I have never taken any physics course. I would have to take pre-calculus this spring, and then start the calculus and physics sequence in the fall (which would be my junior year). This would mean an additional TWO YEARS of school before I could graduate.

I feel totally useless for pursuing the majors I've chosen, and for being lazy in high school and not taking advanced science and math courses. I really don't know what I can do in this situation. I want to pursue something that is challenging and I really want to take physics and calculus. Most of my friends are physics or engineering majors. Having no knowledge of math and science makes me feel stupid and hearing them talk about their classes is a constant reminder of how much I screwed up.

I feel like I have totally shortchanged myself. I have always been a good student, and I was always good at math and science during high school. I got super lazy my junior year and stopped taking math, and took AP Environmental instead of physics. Now I am stuck taking humanities classes that are easy, boring and pointless.

What can I do? I can't realistically spend another two whole years on a bachelors degree. I really don't see any other options other than just going through with the political science degree.
posted by anonymish to Education (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You say you were good at math and science in high school but never took physics or calculus in high school.

That doesn't make sense.

It sounds like you are at a loss as to what to do with your education and that you have a vague notion that astronomy is the answer.

But given what you've said in your post it doesn't sound like astronomy is your answer. Figuring out what's bothering you is.
posted by dfriedman at 8:39 PM on September 21, 2010

Is there anything that says you can't pursue a minor in Astronomy? When I was in college, majors usually required 30 or more credit hours, but a minor could usually be had for somewhere around half that.

You may be able to volunteer yourself for the Astronomy department. Granted, you'd likely be doing tedious work that nobody else wants to do, but it's something you say you're passionate about, plus that may help you get in the right frame of mind academically if you do pursue the option of a minor in Astronomy. And, if you're in an intro level Astronomy class and you're having some problems, the professor / G.A. who teaches it will know the work you're putting in on the side for the department and will probably put in some extra effort in working with you.

Try not to spend too much time kicking yourself either. No matter how much you kick yourself, the 16 year old you won't take different classes in high school, and the 19 year old you won't take different courses in the first couple years of college.
posted by AMSBoethius at 8:40 PM on September 21, 2010

Is it possible to take an intro class in astronomy before making the decision to switch majors?
posted by k8t at 8:41 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would investigate the minor, take or audit a course, and talk with advisors--if the advisors at your school are split up by department, at least one from each department involved. That way you'll be able to assess both the mechanics of moving ahead and the pros and cons of each direction you could take.

Good luck.
posted by tellumo at 8:47 PM on September 21, 2010

Oh, also: consider getting involved with a student group in the astronomy department as well.
posted by tellumo at 8:48 PM on September 21, 2010

I'm a college junior having some serious doubts about my academic path, so even if my answers aren't helpful, know at least that I am very sympathetic!

Before you do anything else, do a little soul-searching. Try to put the job market and how you feel around your engineer friends out of your mind. Are you happy studying what you're studying right now? Do you think you would be happy going to law school and being a lawyer? Talk to your academic advisor, mom/dad/whoever gives really good advice, and just try to think about it calmly. If what's going on with you is what went on with me last week, you're more second-guessing yourself than seriously changing your mind about what you want to do.

Do you want to study astronomy as an undergrad, pursue it as a career, or both?
If you simply feel like you'd like to study it in college and career aspirations are up in the air, don't worry about what your major is. Finish whatever major you're closest to finishing (presumably political science) and of course whatever other requirements you need to graduate, and devote the rest of your schedule to whatever is interesting to you. Take Calculus I and Intro Physics and if you like it, work your way up!
If you want to pursue a career related to astronomy, take those intro classes before you make any final decisions anyway. To be an astronomer, you'll probably need a Master's Degree or a PhD. (This is a guess. I don't know anything about astronomy. What do astronomers do?!) Find out what the undergraduate requirements are to apply for such programs and go from there. If you can't finish the requirements before you graduate (including courses next summer), look into post-baccalaureate programs.

Most of all, don't panic. Nothing's final. There's always time to try a new path.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 8:52 PM on September 21, 2010

Is it possible to take an intro class in astronomy before making the decision to switch majors?

I don't think that would be very informative. You'd need to find whatever the first course is on the sequence for astro majors is.

It's easy to beat yourself up. But look at it this way:

In most schools, continuing with your major in polisci will mean taking one or two courses in that each semester, leaving you with three or four to take in... anything else. There's no reason you can't spend some of that time taking math or statistics courses if you want to.

On the other hand, being good at math and science in high school doesn't really tell you much about whether you'd be good at math or a science in a university setting. Especially if you're trying to take non-engineering science courses for science majors... often, those majors are structured with intentionally overly-difficult* gateway courses, where the point is in part to remove people who are not willing to go through a real grind. Intro physics for physicists and intro astro for astro majors chew up people who were good at math in high school. If you're already feeling un-confident about yourself, you might think twice about opening the door to the ego-battering that failing Intro Real Physics would give you.

*I don't mean that the material isn't difficult intrinsically, only that sometimes the gateway courses seem structured to be needlessly difficult to deal with and have a focus more on eliminating people who don't immediately get it than on helping people get it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:59 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, you'd need an advanced degree. Astronomy graduate programs are very competitive. Take some science classes at a community college over the summer to see if you even really like ithe work involved, or just the idea of it.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 9:02 PM on September 21, 2010

it's called the history of math and science. all the fun stuff with almost none of the math. look into it!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:06 PM on September 21, 2010

If you're looking for a field that's more mathematically-oriented and arguably more "rigorous" in some ways than history or political science, try taking introductory or intermediate microeconomics. There's still plenty of math, but the (undergraduate) courses are less structured around weeding people out.

Alternately, if you've fallen out of love with polisci because you're tired of its lack of rigor, go talk to the advisors or your profs (if you're in the US). There may be a game theory course buried in there somewhere. Or they may be willing to either let you sit in on some lower-level grad classes, if your school has a program, or structure an independent study for you on something else. The point is, the discipline of political science as people actually do it is (in the US) a thoroughly quantitative field at this point. A lot of the stuff you say you're looking for is available there... sometimes... if you ask for it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:08 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Two years more in school seems like a long time now, but its really nothing. Do something you love, excel at it and if that takes 2 more years then your 40yo self will thank you for it.
posted by Long Way To Go at 9:26 PM on September 21, 2010

Do something you love, excel at it and if that takes 2 more years then your 40yo self will thank you for it.

...unless it requires you to borrow $60,000 more than you would have. Then your 40 year old self will curse you for leaving him in debt bondage.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:37 PM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why are you interested in astronomy? Do you have a good understanding of what astronomers do? Many schools have a significant overlap between physics and astronomy at the undergrad level -- can you see yourself as a physics major?

You're taking stats now, but what audience is that course geared to? Is it an intro to mathematical statistics for math/science majors, intro econometrics, or applied stats for non-econ social science majors? If you have little math background from high school, I'm guessing that you're taking a course similar to the latter. If so, it's not something that will give you a reliable read on whether you can tackle the math requirements of an astronomy major. This is coming from someone who's strong at stats major statistics, but at best serviceable where calculus and probability are concerned.

If the issue is that you want to explore a more quantitative subject, I'm not sure that astronomy is the answer. ROU_Xenophobe is entirely correct in that if you like math and statistics, you'll find engaging coursework in the social sciences (particularly because you're the US). What most people (including yourself, probably) understand as the sum and whole of undergraduate poli sci is considerably fluffier than what the discipline really looks like. Assuming your school does good work in applied statistics, you might consider picking up a minor or another major in statistics.

If you like the natural sciences...your situation is a bit more complicated seeing as you have no real frame of reference for knowing if the field of study suits you. Given that you've taken AP Environmental, have you thought about pursuing environmental science? Minor stream courses, depending on the discipline and your school, aren't always useful for understanding a discipline actually entails. Whether it's in astronomy or something else, talk to the relevant program advisors.

Honestly, 2 more years in school is nothing if it will lead to an education that makes more sense for you (and is hopefully more marketable). This is easy for me to say from the viewpoint of paying Canadian tuition, but if it's not too expensive, it's worth considering.
posted by thisjax at 12:43 AM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Everyone else has already covered the basics: do something you're interested in, take baby steps before changing majors, talk to your advisor.

All I have to add is: your engineering-major friends are full of shit. There's a bizarre cult of engineering in colleges where they claim superiority to their liberal arts / social science majors who are out having fun and joining clubs. It sounds like your physics friends have joined that group as well.

In college my group of friends was about half engineers, 1/3 liberal arts, and a few scattered other majors. Years afterwards there is very little correlation between major choice and job success. There's some correlation, because some hardworking types force themselves into engineering because it's a "good" major, which raises the success rate for people in engineering, but honestly it's all about their hard work and they would have done fine even if they had studied History of African Dance. Many of my engineer friends went to medical school - you don't need an engineering degree for that, you need good grades, ambition, and a good MCAT score.

I know History majors who are lawyers, nay, excellent lawyers. I know engineers who are office supply salespeople. I know a World Religions major (smirk) who's a project manager (cancel that smirk). In each case, the person determines the usefulness of the major; the major doesn't determine the usefulness of the person.

What's my point? For better or worse, undergrad majors have only a small impact on your success. Hard work and really getting interested in your chosen field are more important. So Ignore others who claim superiority, work on finding out what you're interested in (even if you end up with a different major; you're on a 4-year timeline after all), and work hard in class and out. Don't force yourself into a major because it's a "good" major, pick one that you're interested in.

On preview: don't attend school for more than 4 years. Get your degree and get working. I had no idea what I really wanted until I started working, and you probably won't be sure enough to justify 2 more years of school. That's one thing Masters are for - getting into a field you barely touched as an undergrad, but you have developed a passion for.
posted by Tehhund at 4:03 AM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you should go ahead and take the precalculus class and then see how you feel. Precalc will definitely come in handy whether you take the astronomy route or not, and the class will give you a feel for whether you like math enough to continue to calculus. Being numerate definitely opens up your options on future careers immensely, and it sound like it would do wonders for your self-esteem. You don't have to commit to the whole physics and math track now, but I think you would do well to dip your toe in.
posted by hazyjane at 4:30 AM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you have specific questions about the math/physics background needed for upper-level astronomy work, post here or MeMail me. (I am an astronomer.)

As a general rule of thumb, and without knowing anything about you other than what you posted here, I would gently advise you not to switch to astronomy as a major unless you are passionate about it -- so much so that you would really like to work in the field -- and are willing to work insanely hard to catch up. If you were an entering freshman, I might advise otherwise -- because even if you didn't want to work in astronomy/physics, you would still pick up enough stuff in the major courses that would be useful for lots of different potential careers, in addition to being (in my biased opinion) pretty interesting. The same is true for you, but with the caveat that you would have to spend an extra couple of years in college in order to get that particular major. I think that only makes sense if you actually want to do this stuff as a career (or are wealthy enough not to care about 2 extra years of tuition)-- otherwise, just switch to some other major that interests you that you can actually complete in the next couple of years, and take some physics, math, and astronomy courses on the side. (You will still need the physics and math courses to take upper-level astrophysics stuff. You can take an intro-level astronomy course just for fun, but realize that in most places it will bear little resemblance to the courses you would take as a major.)

(and yes, if you actually do want to pursue astronomy as a professional, you will probably need to go to grad school. this in turn means you need to get a good physics background, get some research experience as an undergrad, and do pretty well on the GRE.)
posted by chalkbored at 5:10 AM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you choose astronomy, be very clear that you can only use your degree for its intended purpose if you go to grad school. There are a tiny amount of astronomy tech jobs, but nearly all jobs are in academia or research, and both require a PhD. So, if you are fretting about two more years in college, think of the six more it will take to get the PhD, and think if it's worth it to you.

Also, astronomy is not a field for the faint of heart. It is difficult to succeed in astronomy unless you devote your life to it. So definitely think this through before jumping ship.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 6:36 AM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

, try taking introductory or intermediate microeconomics. There's still plenty of math, but the (undergraduate) courses are less structured around weeding people out.

You obviously didn't attend my undergraduate school where the purpose of the intro econ courses was to weed out the people that couldn't hack it; it was kind of brutal. Still I think exploring economics as at least a minor is a good one. It doesn't require as much math as a "hard" science, but if you want to be good at it, it does require some calculus.

Also, there's a lot of statistics that's used in the social sciences, but not many people who are good at working with them. So explore maybe learning about stats for the social sciences? A minor in statistics? I think a combination of statistics and political science could be marketable, and it might sate your desire for something quantitative.
posted by bluefly at 7:59 AM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding going into quantitative political science. If you can work on stuff like this or this (just to pick out a couple of people I know) your engineering-major friends will be the ones wanting to hear you talk about your classes! This kind of work requires strong mathematical intuition and skills -- and calculus and linear algebra and statistics will definitely help -- but it's nothing like studying a physical science.
posted by escabeche at 8:18 AM on September 22, 2010

Most of my friends are physics or engineering majors.

So here's an alternate take on the situation. To generalize unfairly, physicists and engineers love to make people in other fields feel inferior. Are you sure that's not what's going on here? I had a similar experience where everyone I knew in undergrad was an organic chemistry wonk and I got this weird vibe from them, like I wasn't doing anything rigorous unless there was an enediyne in there somewhere. Screw that. There are smart people in every department. Maybe what you really need are to find some more friends who are huge humanities geeks. Enthusiasm is contagious.

OK, so if that's not the problem, here's what I hear you saying: you're worried there won't be any job prospects for you, you miss being quantitative, and you want to change fields but also want to graduate on time. I think the solution to these problems might be buried in your question, actually: you seem to like statistics, so why not become a statistician? Everyone wants one around these days, so I'm thinking job prospects would be just fine -- way better than astronomy. You can work on a variety of interesting problems, from sociology to econ to physics. And you can dive into the intro, but for-majors stats classes with just calc and linear algebra, which won't take you that many semesters to pick up.

(Note that you might be able to take some math classes simultaneously, like linear algebra and calc. Also, rather than taking pre-calc -- could you just sign up for calc and get a tutor? You could also sign up for both and drop calc if it's really too advanced for your current skill level.)
posted by en forme de poire at 8:25 AM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

You're having a bit of a crisis... It's ok!

During my second year of undergrad, I also had a crisis in which I wanted to switch from physics to something like political science or philosophy or something like that. This too shall pass! You may not stick with what you've got (I switched to astronomy), but were I you, I would hesitate completely changing fields, but don't stay somewhere if you're miserable.

Thoughts on being an astronomer:

1) You will work your ass off for very little pay. You will work strange hours. You will work weekends. The fruit of your labour will sometimes be "well, I learned something today, but I have nothing to show for it" rather than "man, look at this cool thing i discovered!" It's almost always the former, and almost never the latter. To be an astronomer is to be happy with self-improvement, and thirsty for knowledge. Anything else (i.e. science) is very slow, but very exciting when it happens.

2) You will spend all day in front of a computer. YMMV.

3) You will spend all day doing math. Really complicated math. Math you've probably never heard of yet, given your description of your background. Does this excite you? If not, don't go into physics/astronomy. Also, how well are you doing in your stat class? Are you breezing through it? If not, that's something to consider, as astronomy is almost entirely statistics.

4) Most people's perception of today's astronomy is nothing like what it actually is. Take the first year intro course FOR MAJORS!!!! and see what happens. Understand that significantly more astronomers are interested in counting galaxies than in tracking the position of mars or something like that. Maybe read the abstracts of a few papers on astro-ph (google it) to get a taste of the minutiae, or ask an astronomer in your department what is going on research-wise.

Basically, an older poster said it best: Astronomy is not for the faint of heart. Personally, I love what I do, but I realize that I am my own special brand of crazy. It is a field which requires utter devotion.
posted by chicago2penn at 8:27 AM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another astronomer here. I don't know you well enough to advise you on which career path to choose, but I can make some specific responses to what you and others have posted about astronomy:

- I would never advise anyone to do an astronomy undergraduate major, let alone a minor. People who want to become astronomers should have physics majors. Unless your school has a world-famous astronomy degree (e.g. Caltech), most folks view an astronomy major as less hard-core than a physics major. This will put a question mark on your graduate school application, which can of course be balanced out by stellar recommendation letters and physics GRE scores. Also, when you apply for faculty jobs (if that is your route), you'll be in a better position to apply for jobs in physics departments, which will need you to teach physics. If, after undergrad, you decide you do not want to be an astronomer, the physics degree is more flexible. People know what physics is. Lots and lots of useful math skills. Fewer people have a clear idea of what astronomy is. Imagine going to a career fair and saying that you have a physics degree versus saying that you have an astronomy degree.

- If you are concerned about the job market for lawyers, you should also be concerned about the job market for astronomers. There are very very few permanent positions in the US, and you have to be willing to move anywhere to take them. If you have your heart set on a particular geographic location, that will be hard to make happen unless you are a super star. If you land what many astronomers consider a dream job (faculty) the current pay scale is $50,000 to $80,000 (9 months; you have to get your own funding for the other 3 months). The lower end might be for community colleges (and may be inaccurate), the higher end is for Research 1 universities. These are entry-level faculty positions. They are very hard to find.

- As an astronomer, I use statistics a lot more than calculus.

- An intro Astronomy 101 course will tell you nothing about the major. This is typically not a weeder course. Usually the math is sucked right out of it.

- I have not studied the correlation between undergraduate major and job success (as discussed above), but it will be hard for you to get into an astronomy graduate program with a political science degree. I've known engineering majors who've made it in. So you will be effectively cutting off the path to an astronomy career if you don't change majors somehow.

- I agree that 2 years of undergrad doesn't seem that long in the face of 6 years of grad school, and 3-6 years as a postdoc. How far into debt would you have to go to do those 2 years? Is it more than the debt you would incur in law school? Typically astronomy grad school is paid for, so you won't go into debt (though you probably won't save much).

- It's a really nice job to have if you can get it.

Hope that helps.
posted by pizzazz at 8:48 AM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

As an undergraduate I did a fair amount of waffling and dabbling before finally settling down on a major. I swung from journalism to physics to philosophy to, finally, cognitive science. Learn from my mistakes! I suggest these actions:

1. Spend 5 days trying to re-discover your interest in History and Political Science.

Browse the faculty list of the departments for your majors and look at their lists of interests. Chances are there will be things people study that you haven't even heard of, and possibly something you might be interested in (someone here mentioned game theory). Look at the research these professors do. Skim an article or two. If you find a professor doing something interesting, shoot him or her an email with a brief description of who you are, whether you've taken this professor's course, a question about their article (or just "I read your article, and this interests me") and whether they have room available for an eager, unpaid undergraduate researcher.

Why: Like you, I felt sitting around listening to lectures on apparently-obvious things was not a good use of my time. I browsed the department's faculty list and found some pretty interesting research. I ended up having my own projects, working with a fantastic professor scanning people's brains in big fancy MRI machines. It gave me the intensity and rigor I needed. (And, eventually, a published paper.)

2. Take math classes anyway.

Whether you change majors, go to law school, get a masters, get a PhD, or start working in a research-oriented field without a degree, math will help give you the tools you need to answer questions like "How can we quantify this effect?" and "Here's this data, how can I interpret it in a meaningful way?"

Why: I audited enough classes to almost minor in math. I'm in a "soft science" now (I study visual perception) and most of my peers have not taken the linear algebra, stats, and calculus I have, and it helps me immensely on a daily basis. If I go to grad school the effect will be only more pronounced; and if I go on to some other field, anything that involves programming or numbers, math has given me a great foundation I can apply almost anywhere.

3. Consider other majors and minors.

People have mentioned that your undergraduate major is often not related to your career, and this is true more often than not. You like History and Political Science; someone else suggested, and I totally agree, look into the history and philosophy of science! While not as immediately applicable as math, the Philosophy of Science is a fascinating one. Also, law schools like philosophy because real philosophy teaches you logic.

Why: Okay, so I dabbled in it and it was just really, really interesting to actually think about the assumptions scientists make about the world. Especially fun given I am a scientist.

Have fun and good luck! Your undergrad years are an excellent time to explore things. I strongly, strongly encourage getting into research; it'll give you far more insights into a field than MeFi, bless it, can. You'll learn things you've never given a second thought to. You will be challenged. Finally, you'll get your tuition dollar's worth!
posted by nicodine at 1:12 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

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