College senior still trying to figure out what I should work towards.
November 12, 2012 3:24 PM   Subscribe

Still feeling like a failure, despite all the help I get - what am I missing?

I'm a senior (fourth year) in college, 21, and male. I've posted here before about my academic frustrations, and I don't mean to sound helpless, but I can't shake these feelings of failure.

So I'm in my last year, completing my bachelor's degree at a "well-reknowned" school - should be feeling excited, right? Hardly.

I've had several health problems (perhaps thyroid related - still working on getting in touch with the right doctors). I have a learning need (recently diagnosed), which is receiving attention just fine, actually.

Since I had absolutely NO clue what I wanted to study, I decided to take the "default" path others had encouraged me to do - pre-med and a biology major. Problem is, I HATE studying biology. Hate it, hate it, and did I forget - hate it!

I should clarify - I don't actually hate the subject matter, instead being more or less apathetic about it, but the "mindless zombie memorization" instead of a concept/application-based approach has really posed a problem to me. Granted, not every single class is like this, but many were.

I seem to have a personality clash with fellow "pre-meds" in my bio classes.

Oh yeah, and I've come close to serious injury in labs. Not for me!

My school doesn't have a true advising system, either - so again, NO guidance whatsoever!

(Note: I'm not going to name the school, since its fanboys/fangirls - of which there are plenty - are going to spew vitriol.)

Now, I'm actually quite interested in psychology and environmental studies. So, essentially, I'd like to switch fields, but HOW? My GPA still isn't too hot.

Yes, I'm seeing a therapist and meeting with people specializing in my learning need, but there's only so much they can do.

All I really know about myself is that my Myers-Briggs personality type is INTP. (If Myers-Briggs is to be believed at all, of course.) Of course, everything I read about this type points to "procrastination" and "absent-minded" tendencies, and there seem to be relatively few INTP's with notable achievements. (No offense to anyone.)

I'm supposed to be good at "intellectual" stuff - but "intellectualism" is a crock of baloney, in my opinion. What the h-e-double hockey sticks is it supposed to achieve, anyway?

So, in summary, rocky past academically, don't like my current concentration, only a loose idea (environmental studies, psychology) of what I want to do with myself.

Yes, I want to further my education - but if the pre-meds are going to be the same people as in medical schools (and co-workers if I become a doctor) - I don't want too much to do with them.

It feels like everyone else - even if they have the most humble job in the world - has a stronger sense of direction and just "knowing" what they want.

Where do I begin? I know I belong somewhere academically and career-wise?
posted by Seeking Direction to Education (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Just to clarify - when I criticized the word "intellectualism", I didn't mean to criticize the concept, since it is certainly a great one - I meant to criticize the vague way in which the word is thrown around.
posted by Seeking Direction at 3:45 PM on November 12, 2012

You are not alone.

I am your age, I have a degree from a "well renowned" four year university, and I myself as well as many of my peers feel/have felt very similarly. It seems like the normal state of things at my university. Who knows, it might even be the same one you attend.

It's incredibly common to not know what you want out of life. Some people live long, full, happy(!) lives without ever having one big, clear goal that they're working toward, so don't feel as though this is a requirement.

I have heard from some doctors I know that college biology is just memorization but that once you're done with your undergraduate degree it gets a lot more interesting.

But also: a wide swath of the people I know don't do what they got their bachelor's degree in. If I were you, I'd finish up your degree and then think about entry-level positions or advanced degrees in a field that interests you more. I'd suggest getting in touch with someone in environmental studies, psychology, or another field or occupation that you find really exciting, and talk to them about their career path and what they enjoy and don't enjoy, etc, about their job. Most professionals are really happy to provide mentoring to young people and won't find it annoying or intrusive at all as long as they don't perceive you to be trying to get a job out of it.
posted by capricorn at 5:03 PM on November 12, 2012

When I was your age, the only thing I knew for sure was that I didn't want to take any of the paths I saw available to me. The feeling grew and grew, and when it grew to a crescendo that I could no longer deny, I left. Bye bye. Bus ticket to the unknown, and outward from there.

A few years later, I was settled enough in my head that I was ready to move toward something instead of away from everything.

Let me tell you something. This society doesn't have very many meaningful "rites of passage". But it could use them. They aren't empty rituals. They exist to help us fulfill intrinsic, human needs.

Males in particular seem to feel a stronger need for separation, self-determination, self-sufficiency, and isolation from familiar society, as part of the transition into manhood. Vision quest, walkabout, call it what you will. I'd lay heavy odds that your instincts are telling you that you need something like this, some rite of passage that challenges you, forces you to wrestle with life on a fundamental level, not merely a mental one. Something that demands that you put all of yourself on the line to come to terms with life in your own way, so that what matters to you can become clear, and you can become your genuine self through positive choices of your own.

Many people find sufficient meaning in the rites of passage we do have. But for many, this is not a good way.

You may have to create your own.
posted by perspicio at 5:24 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding biology is memorization. Med school is more memorization. You memorize things until you can remember and do things when you're half asleep--because that's what you'll be doing as a resident. (No, I'm not a med student, but I have friends and family who are.) If you don't like memorization, med school is not for you.

However, you're almost finished with your degree, so I would probably encourage you to just finish it. If you can get a minor in something you're more interested in (chemistry? physics? something else you took many courses in?), that may be an option.

If you actually had a degree you're interested in, I would encourage you to take a fifth year and get a degree in that with one extra year. (Many of my brilliant computer science classmates did so.) However, it's kind of a waste of time and money--with no more guarantee to success/happiness--if you're going to just discover you don't like it and give up.

I think psychology is a better bet than environmental sciences. There should be an advisor who can tell you if you can graduate with a psychology degree in one extra year. Just remember to have a plan B (graduate with biology) if you don't get into psychology or whatever. (Kind of vague here since I don't know your school.)

Also, as far as I'm aware, doing anything interesting in psychology requires you to have a grad degree. Now would be a good time (though possibly late, actually) to figure out if there are grad schools you can apply to with a bio degree. Even with not-stellar GPA, you can probably make that up with a good essay and high psych GRE scores.

If it's too late for this year, you can do it next year.

I think you're just being overly dramatic, quite honestly. The American AVERAGE is 5 years of university, because people can't figure out what they want to do. Many people do six or even seven. I have friends who graduated with International Studies, lost interest, and are now working something completely unrelated (in customer service, and she's an extrovert, so it works out okay).

You don't need to be defined by your academics or by your career. Many women don't, and instead are defined by their family or their volunteer work, and that's perfectly acceptable. If you want to be a family man or volunteer person, you might encounter slightly more resistance from society, but it's still a perfectly valid life choice.

Lastly, it's stupid to let your Myers-Briggs define you. It's fairly good about describing who you are, but that doesn't mean you can't change. I've been ENTJ, INTP, INFP, and am currently an INTJ. (Over the course of 10 years or so.) This is especially true if you're taking online tests that aren't even very accurate.

Also, work enjoyment--for many people--comes from a sense of competency. Passion is not necessary. Hard work is.
posted by ethidda at 5:27 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're set to graduate in May and don't have student loans staring you down, just finish your degree: that's what you should work toward. Normally I'd say to take more classes to bolster your GPA, but I bet those words look terrible together to you right now and that plan won't work unless you're actually devoting yourself. If you do have loans, you need to figure out exactly what their terms are and how much leeway you have with their payment schedules and go from there. Without a clear career plan, cash is going to be a much greater concern than personal fulfillment.

Regarding biology versus psych/environmental studies, that's going to take some data-crunching on your part. Your school may have online tools to assist you with this, but basically what you need to do is figure out where you are with respect to finishing in each major (or whatever your school calls them) and decide what you can live with. I'm going to guess that holding your nose for a few more months and finishing biology is by far your easiest option, but maybe not! It so happened that I could switch from a degree program I wasn't excited about to one I really enjoy without a significant loss of steam, so you might get lucky.

Even if you decide to finish the biology degree though, it's hardly going to set your future in stone. What does "biology" even mean, really? Whatever you need it to, that's what! You'll need much more school to do serious work in any of the fields you've mentioned, so don't stress overly much about the label you come out of undergrad with.

Pre-med: are you actually on-track with this? If not, consider just dropping that idea -- you don't sound like you're very happy with any of this, and med school would not make it better. However, if you think you like the concept of being a doctor and hitting the remaining pre-med reqs isn't going to set you back, I would say that probably, no, a given medical class is not going to be composed of the same people who attend your prestigious private liberal arts school.

Overall, I don't think you're in nearly as dire of straits as you fear. I felt somewhat like you describe when I was 20-ish, and it took several years outside of academia being a real adult* to decide what I actually did want and how to get it. In the meanwhile however, flailing between options you don't really care about and can't commit to will only make it worse financially and emotionally, so none of that, now!

* This is only meant to refer to me, not everyone in academia ever!
posted by teremala at 5:49 PM on November 12, 2012

The available undergraduate majors at a typical American liberal arts college do not map well onto the possible careers that are open to someone with a liberal arts bachelor's degree. Not many history majors become historians; even if they love history and feel passionate about it as an undergraduate "direction," most have to find a new "direction" when they graduate. Even in a field that seems to have a clearer career path ahead (computer science -> programming, biology -> medicine), lots of people end up doing something different either within or outside of the expected industry.

My suggestion is to finish your biology degree and get work experience—any kind of work experience you can get. Go for internships, part-time work, and campus jobs right now. Talk to your college's career office about what kind of full-time work you could conceivably apply for as graduation approaches. If nothing materializes, try part-time or temp assignments.

When you are working, even if in a very low-level student job, pay attention what aspects of the job you enjoy or find satisfying, and what aspects you don't like. I think this will give you a lot of information about where to head next. I think that most people who are happy with their careers feel that way because the kind of day-to-day work associated with their job duties suits their temperament and is satisfying to them. I think being passionate about a subject area (like biology or environmental sciences) is less of a factor in career satisfaction, for most people.

Within a subject area or industry, there can be a lot of different professional roles, and you may be perfectly cut out for one role while being terribly suited for another role. Looking broadly at the field of medicine, for example, not everyone involved is a doctor; there are also lab techs, hospital social workers, EMTs, grant writers at research institutes, medical product sales reps, medical journalists, etc. A medical research grant writer might enjoy working in the medical field but at the same time, she might be happier writing grants for an arts organization than training to be a doctor.
posted by Orinda at 6:15 PM on November 12, 2012

For pre-med requirements: just have one more class to go. Might as well finish them in case I decide to use them.
posted by Seeking Direction at 7:07 PM on November 12, 2012

Good grief, yeah, don't waste having suffered through orgo.
posted by teremala at 7:24 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

It feels like everyone else - even if they have the most humble job in the world - has a stronger sense of direction and just "knowing" what they want.
We don't.

I dont have much advice in terms of career or direction, but if you think you may have thyroid issues, and it is at all financially possible, make it a major priority to go get a diagnosis as soon as possible.
Not having the correct gland juice in your brain just makes life terrible.
posted by St. Sorryass at 12:16 AM on November 13, 2012

I second Orinda. There are all grades of Biology things out there. You may even want to explore the Botany side. All in all Biology a good basis for all kinds of tech jobs, teaching, even animal based areas. I felt the same way when surrounded by pre-med folk. Come to think of it, I know only one that went all the way to become a Dr. Good luck!
posted by PJMoore at 9:51 AM on November 13, 2012

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