We don't need no thought control...
February 9, 2012 7:33 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to college! (fo' realz this time, yo). So, what should I study? (or, How do I learn to stop worrying I won't get to do everything and love just one subject?)

After an abortive attempt at post-secondary education several years ago at a university an hour away from home, I have managed to evade the High Precision Laser Scanners of my Attack Helicopter parents and escape into the jungle of modern life, where I continue on my own as a guerrilla operator in the slow attrition war that is everyday survival.

The problem is, when I was dependent on my parents, they effectively preplanned my career and future out for me and thus far, I've never had to give much thought towards what exactly I might like to do with my non-video game time for the next five decades or so (At least, beyond a few vague delusions of awards, fame and concubines). After a recent stint of introspection (read: unemployment) I've realized that I love to simply learn things and accumulate knowledge for its own sake rather than be preoccupied with résumé padding. That is to say, I love the old idea of the University as a place to expand the mind and learn to think (privilege issues aside) rather than as simply a form of vocational training, which is what my parents seemed to want. In fact, this mentality was a major contributor to my earlier burnout, rather than the material in the Engineering stream I was forced into, which I found somewhat interesting.

So far, I've narrowed my choices and now see myself years from now holding either a B.A. or B.Sc. in one of English, Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Theater, History or Computer Science (In more or less that order of preference). Broadly speaking, I'd love to write or act and do artsy junk but my absolute nerdish love for the sciences will not allow me to break from them lest my mind become illogical, ignorant mush.

At the present moment, life has placed me in beautiful Vancouver, BC. I've been looking through the program offerings at UBC, where I plan to attend*, to see which programs/faculties have the better reputations (University Ratings are Bullshit, I know, I know...) with little in the way of success.

So, for my question, I shall ask this ask: How can this indecisive type with a broad range of interests structure his post-secondary education to be as well rounded as possible and still end up with a respectable degree? How did the rest of you who in your naïve years wished to become Astronaut President of the NBA who moonlights as a Cyborg Ninja pick just one thing to study and be happy doing it? I know many of you bounced around between programs and schools until you were happy, but unfortunately, due to my aforementioned experiences (and several others unmentioned) I've lost what may have been several years to understand what I want to do, thus provoking my anxious. In essence, I'd like to pick a thing, be wonderfulrizzical at it, go on to grad school and double my awesome, while still maintaining my love of the other things as hobbies (doubtful).

* I'm not really looking at any other colleges as I sort of like it here and would prefer to hang around for a while, so unless there is some fantastic CTCL type liberal arts place you know of that would be super lovely to a weirdo dropout with a spotty academic record, I'd prefer not to go through hassle of moving elsewhere or across the border. Memail me for miscellaneous advices like that.
posted by Seiten Taisei to Education (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Luckily you don't have to declare a major from the jump. So take your basics and a class or two in your fields of interest and see what happens. I changed my major a half dozen times until I got a professor that really turned me on to Early American history and that's what I went with. It's not the best degree to have for job hunting these days, but I have no regrets.
posted by holdkris99 at 7:41 PM on February 9, 2012

So someone else is paying for college or you are? If someone else is throwing the money down, then go wild I guess. But if you are then I would seriously reconsider your decision to enter it willy-nilly.

The way to get the most out of college is to know what you want to do when you get to college, not figure it out by entering it all starry-eyed and flitting from one thing to another. The best way to do that is to spend some time working in the real world getting experience in the things you think you'd like to do. You really, really do not need to go to college to do that--that is one of the huge lies of college. You can do that in the real world, and not have to pay for it. I know you got burned out the first time having a focused plan, but remember, that plan was directed by your parents. Figure out what you want to do first, then spend a bunch of money on it.

I entered college all willy-nilly. It didn't work out. Actually, a lot of people enter college who "just want to learn" or "explore their interests" and it results in spending tens of thousands of dollars on a major that ends up being useless or at the very least a few extra semesters that they wouldn't need to pay for if they had focus before they went there.
posted by Anonymous at 7:44 PM on February 9, 2012

Go specialty! Pick the overlap of two disciplines, with at least some eye towards being "in demand" post-graduation and/or post-grad school. Job security + higher earnings = greater likelihood of having the stability, resources and (ok, this one's the real gamble) time to pursue non job related hobbies down the line. Math or comp sci plus one of those sciences, perhaps? And then pick up as many theater, history, arty classes as you can? That's my (perhaps overly pragmatic) recommendation, but on the other hand, being at the intersect of two disciplines often means you get to work on big, exciting problems in rapidly-changing fields, which can be kind of cool.

Also on preview, what schroedinger says is important.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:46 PM on February 9, 2012

Best answer: No one here can really decide for you what major is best for you, and no degree is necessarily more marketable than the others.

I would suggest starting at a community or junior college before you decide what you want to do. I saved a bunch of money figuring out what I wanted to peruse in community college rather than university. Also, if you have a spotty academic record, a successful community college run can show universities that you have the skill + motivation to tackle upper division courses.

Also, there's nothing that says you can't double major or take up a minor in something unrelated to your primary major. I was a history major and one of my minors was in chemistry. Many graduate programs consider a minor an acceptable academic background for admissions purposes.
posted by oxfordcomma at 7:47 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I changed my major five times and in between thought about four other majors, what can I say except I am a special snowflake. I decided to pursue communications and stuck with it because I am very interested in PR, I liked the various course outlines that I checked out (and I checked out a lot), I thought I could commit to the academic plan, this type of major had a lot of room for growth and personal development, and it didn't involve a lot of exams which really benefited someone like myself.

I have no idea what major would work better for you, but I can tell you that considering academic plans, future job prospects, course outlines, and course descriptions is really important. If there's one major in particular that sticks out because the academic plan seems like something that you can commit to, then I would go for that.

Once you find the academic plan that you can commit to, then choose something that's completely different as your minor and if possible get two specializations in your major.

For instance, if you enjoy reading and writing then pursue English but get a minor in Computer Science. Ultimately, it's all about how you market yourself when looking for future jobs. Don't even think about grad school right now because you haven't even gotten your undergrad degree and so much will change and so much about you will change years from now.
posted by livinglearning at 8:11 PM on February 9, 2012

Best answer: If you're at all in doubt about what to study, default to a hard science, math, CS, or a similarly analytical field. Your expected future earnings vary wildly by major (see this list, for example).

In my view, the way to be well-rounded is to study a subject that will give you analytical skills which will help you in a wide variety of jobs, and to read history/literature/etc as you see fit in your leisure time.
posted by deadweightloss at 8:28 PM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: From your question it sounds like you have this notion that life is: major => job in exact field you majored in => continue in that field for life, with no time for other pursuits. Which is the experience of some people, especially those of your parent's age. BUT it is NOT the experience of the vast majority of people in your/our age group. That issue is explored in this book. Your major is probably not where you will be working for the first ten years of your career, and that first career is not where you will be working for the next ten, and that second one is going to be unrelated to your third one, and on and on.

Find that book in your local library, do the exercises, especially the mind-map ones and the research. It will really help you work through these issues in your own mind and find a focus and make a plan. Strangers on the internet can only take you so far, because the answer is within you.

FWIW you can do an "interdisciplinary" major at UBC, but it seems like this is a huge hassle because of UBC's size and bureaucracy. A friend of mine did it and had a difficult time. But even then, you are required to declare your topics, so it's not that different from a traditional major.

Also, if you're interested in looking at SFU, there's this program which looks like it's geared towards students like you.
posted by 100kb at 8:32 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Broadly speaking, I'd love to write or act and do artsy junk but my absolute nerdish love for the sciences will not allow me to break from them lest my mind become illogical, ignorant mush.

UBC offers a B.A. in Computer Science that allows for more (elective?) arts courses than the B.Sc. I know a number of people who took it and were very happy being able to study both science and arts classes. Plus now they're either earning quite a bit or are on track to, if that matters to you.

Overall, I found that many of the CS profs at UBC were excellent.
posted by ripley_ at 8:44 PM on February 9, 2012

I know you're looking at UBC, but I would be totally delinquent if I didn't just say this one thing:


That is all.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:55 PM on February 9, 2012

Looks like UBC has some geography courses! I hope you at least look into taking one, an "I don't know what I'm doing, this looks fun" course changed my life. Geography is amazing. It ties everything together, somehow. I like to think of it as where the humanities and the sciences meet.

Also, GIS is loads of fun and can be considered kinda vocational (there's a certification), which may soothe your parents a bit.
posted by troika at 10:21 PM on February 9, 2012

Yeah, you don't have to know right now what you want to major in. Even if you did know, there's a good chance you'd change your mind. If I were in your place, I would spend the first year taking as broad a variety of 101 courses in the fields that interest you. Definitely give the science courses a really decent shot, because it's nice to be able to pay the bills, but take those art and theater classes as well, because you'll regret it if you don't.

Think seriously about what you like and don't like about your courses. Pay close attention to which courses excite you intellectually (but beware of falling for a major simply because of a really amazing professor). Go and talk to the professor and TAs of the courses you love and ask them about the field. You can also do what I did and pick an interdisciplinary major.

Also, IME, unless you major in a very practical science like Engineering or CS, your major will probably not dictate your career (unless you decide to get a PhD and become a professor in that field). What will play a MUCH larger role is the internships and jobs you have while you're in school. I graduated from college with a gender studies major and history minor, which should have made me unemployable, but I had summer jobs and semester internships in my field and that got me job offers (and FWIW, I didn't enter college knowing what I wanted to do, I sort of fell into it with the first summer job).
posted by lunasol at 11:59 PM on February 9, 2012

Best answer: How did the rest of you who in your naïve years wished to become Astronaut President of the NBA who moonlights as a Cyborg Ninja pick just one thing to study and be happy doing it?#

I started my undergrad degree at 25 and like you, I wanted to LEARN ALL THINGS!!1! In order to constrain my giddiness and actually make a decision, I took a look at the things I was reading for fun. I had amassed a lot of non-fiction books of various types, but the common thread running through them meant that I was a perfect candidate for Anthropology. That said, before I was even half-way through undergrad I realized that the NerdGirl within could not live without something to overanalyze. A couple degrees later and I've narrowed my scope even further so that now I get to combine hard science with fluffy Humanities and Classics and spend summers in the Mediterranean. My toolkit includes both a paint brush and a hand axe. Result!

So I would recommend looking at what you're most strongly pulled to when you read for fun. With a little imagination and lateral thinking, you can probably find a way to eventually do whatever you want to do regardless of which program you start now.
posted by Eumachia L F at 1:32 AM on February 10, 2012

Best answer: Speaking as someone who works today in a typical office environment, I have lots of time and opportunities to do theater stuff and artsy stuff and to read everything I never had time for before in my free time. However, science and mathematics I will never see again.
And after doing an Msc, I am achingly homesick for that logical approach to problem-solving that simply doesn't exist IRL.
So I would strongly suggest that you delve into mathematics, physics and science - and if you like it enough, to try to get a job in those fields. Feed your inner nerd, don't suffocate him.
posted by ruelle at 4:37 AM on February 10, 2012

If I could go back, I'd study real knowledge, like mathematics or languages, not philosophy.
posted by thelonius at 5:32 AM on February 10, 2012

I spent ten years between high school graduation and today not having the slightest clue what I wanted to do for a living, and wasted a lot of time and money dicking around in college trying a little of everything, or sometimes not dicking around in college and being depressed and working dead-end jobs. I am a LOT like you, in that I like accumulating knowledge and information for knowledge's sake, have no interest in resume padding, and love the idea of University as a place for learning how to think, as opposed to vocational school. Even now, with (finally!) an education path in place, I still fantasize about taking random college courses just for the hell of it, just for the sake of learning. HOWEVER. I think that unless you KNOW what you want your major to be, deep down absolutely positive, or alternately you have limitless money to burn, then you should not be going to college right now. If I could do this all over I'd go back in time to when I was I dunno, 12 or something and slap some sense into myself and my parents, and avoid the whole mess.
posted by agress at 5:40 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm somewhere between "willy-nilly" and "you have to know EXACTLY what you want to study before you start the process".

I think that, as long as you're ready to commit to school -- not bong hits and underwater basket-weaving courses, but SCHOOL, you're probably good to go. You probably won't have room in your schedule the first semester or so to take anything that would be a waste of money down the road, anyway.

You don't have to declare a major right away, and you don't have to pick a major that is your absolute undying passion for life which will specifically qualify you for a great job the second you're finished with the degree. You just need to find some subject you like enough to commit four years to, and then follow through with that.

Ultimately, it's great if that's something with wonderful job prospects on the other end, but if you are bad at science and love literature, it's going to be a lot easier to finish a degree by majoring in English. Despite the supposed terrible job market for English majors. I mean, unless you currently work in the skilled trades and are in a union and make great money and have no reason to need a BA anyhow. But then you probably shouldn't waste time going to college at all, if that's the case.
posted by Sara C. at 6:37 AM on February 10, 2012

Best answer: I was somewhat like you back at the age of 18, with enthusiasm for a wide range of subjects, and finding it hard to settle on one, dropping all others.

What I did then...

I went to a university which is considered world-class in mathematics, but has a math degree where you can spend 50% of your time doing pure math and the other 50% doing whatever the heck you want from other faculties, whether that is applied math or English lit, physics or philosophy.

Based on my experience then and over the many years since, I'd make the following points to you....

- Know that you *will* forget anything that you don't continue to use regularly. If you study math (or anything else) and then take up a career that doesn't use it, most of the details of what you learned will be gone over time. That doesn't equate to your brain turning to mush however. It's unlikely to do that whatever choice you make.

- You don't need any specific degree to be a writer. I know a guy who studied physics, went into teaching and is a published novelist on the side. Conversely, AFAIK, none of the people I knew who studied English went on to become writers.

- There are however many things for which you do need a specific degree, and many more where you need at least a quantitative degree. If you are attracted to some of those things, make sure you don't close off your options.

- If (as many people I know have found) it's hard to make a good living doing artsy things, you might be glad of a fallback option using other skills that you also appear to enjoy. The older you get, the more just plain making a good living sounds like a good idea. It's easy to not care much about it at 20, a lot less so at 40.

- Hanging loose and trying out a bunch of things is fine, but be careful. It won't necessarily get any easier to pick in the future, and it's hard to excel unless you commit yourself to a particular path. That could be a dual path like "physicist + writer", but be aware that takes extra work and extra discipline, and be honest with yourself about whether you are going to be able sustain that.

Btw, since it seems you are greatly into videogaming, and that is a field where techie stuff meets artsy stuff, it might be an idea to look into that as potential goal to work towards. In which case Comp Sci with a side order of lit or arts might be a good choice rather than say Chemistry.
posted by philipy at 7:26 AM on February 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

You're allowed to do things in life that are not what you majored in. I doubled in psychology and sociology, really enjoyed my studies, and then the internet happened while I was in college and I'm a software consultant now. What I do today didn't exist when I was in school.

I don't know that I had the chops at that time for what a CS degree (at that time) entailed, though I do wish I'd at least learned some programming. But actually I wish I'd gotten a business degree. I could have taken electives and minored in social sciences still, but I'd have a more solid grip on accounting and management and the stuff I do every day (and the stuff that's not easy or intuitive to do if you're a freelancer or artist or other working-for-yourself type person).

I'd recommend you sit down with the list of general education requirements for your area, because when you're done taking all those, your major isn't actually all that many classes. It's just an emphasis. It doesn't dictate your life, but it will make you more (CS, Business, Math, Education) or less (hard and soft sciences, art, anything else that requires a graduate degree before you can get a job) employable at the end.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:29 AM on February 10, 2012

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