Should I stick with Sciences or switch to Humanities?
January 10, 2015 8:39 AM   Subscribe

It's almost time to choose courses for next semester and declare my major. I am currently a Science Major. I envisioned a career in researching how new technology could be used to treat psychological disorders, but I have a history mental health problems myself, so I am wondering whether I might have bitten off more than I can chew. I am drawn to some of the courses on the humanities side, and part of me thinks studying something more broad could take me out of myself and would allow me to recover.

Dear internet,

I am currently half way through a Liberal Arts and Sciences Bachelor’s course in the Netherlands. The entire course is in English and I am from the UK. So far I have been steadfast in my decision to major in the Sciences despite being more comfortable in the Humanities classes. My theme is called Information Communications and Cognition which is cross-listed in Social Sciences, Humanities and the Sciences. I already had an idea for a Capstone Project, to design a meditation trainer app and get into researching how technology, in particular biofeedback and VR could help people with neurological disorders.
This is all well and good but I don’t have much experience in programming and I relapsed into psychosis myself halfway through last semester.

Now is the time to decide whether I should keep the promise to myself and carry on with Sciences, despite it probably being an uphill battle. I am frequently reminded by the Internet that it is much easier to get a job with a Science degree, yet I am drawn to some of the Humanities courses, and am enticed by random courses that sound interesting based on the description in the catalogue.

The thing is, I am 24 and this is my second attempt at getting a Bachelor’s degree. This is relevant for two reasons. I shouldn’t really doss around trying to find work after getting the degree because I am a mature student, but with my own history with poor mental health, working around and learning about some of these disorders is a risk factor for me. However, my own history allows me to empathise with the patients and I did really want to help, but I’m just not sure studying Addiction and Human Stress Research will be much fun for me, and studying Neuroscience might be too difficult. It seems a lot easier to meet the graduation requirements for the Humanities. However, I could be completely underestimating how hard some of those courses are.

I’d be really grateful to hear some of your thoughts, in particular whether you have some experience with the age-old question whether it is best to study for enjoyment or for a career.
posted by Erred to Education (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've just completed a Bachelor's in the U.S. as a mature student. I actually changed partway through this last attempt from an English major to a Geology major. Part of the reason was because I've always loved Earth Science, but another major part was that the opportunities and job prospects in the Geoscience field are wonderful, while the reality for majoring in English was that I'd go back to a blue-collar job after graduating.

You sound very ambitious -- your capstone idea sounds, honestly, more fit for a master's or pHD. That is very common for undergrads to do is their thesis -- but look, the purpose for an undergrad thesis is to get your feet wet, get some research experience, and figure out whether research is something you enjoy and open your eyes to whether or not you're suited for grad school. While you are expected to have original content, you are not expected to save the world.

I don't think anybody here can answer your question. You need a professional who is well-aquainted with what people from your school do afterwards -- i.e., career services. They are experts and can help guide you to the right decision by discussing your career objectives, figuring out what careers you may be suited for, and the most appropriate major based on that. While some people may say to follow your heart, I strongly believe as a mature student that it's wiser to major in something that will get you a leg up in a well-paying career, but a career that you are suited for and that you will enjoy. It sounds like despite the challenges you enjoy science, and are doing well in it.

Good luck!
posted by DoubleLune at 8:50 AM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I started out undergrad as a physics major, convinced I was going to go on to be an astrophysicist. About a year and a half in, I realized that every day of it was a slog, the aspects of science that fascinated me were buried in mathematical abstraction, the prospects for doing any kind of interesting grad school weren't great, and in general, every. single. second. of my physics studies were a teeth-clenching drag.

So I switched majors to English - I'd always been a big reader, and had aspirations to maybe write someday - and loved every second of it. The 2.5 years of undergrad as an English major were much more enjoyable and rewarding than the 1.5 in the hard sciences.

Flash forward about a decade and a half. At this point, I'm working for a university and have the ability to take grad-level classes for free. The job involves working on a website, and is a mix of technical and communication skills. I have this sense that it's time to buckle down, get serious about burnishing my tech skills for career purposes, so I enter a master's program in software engineering.

And it was a slog. I could do the work just fine, but I hated every second of it, always felt like I had to steel myself to take my medicine every time I went to class or did reading or did homework.

So I quit that program, looked at the other programs open to me, and thought that the master's program in art history looked fun (in the intervening decades, I'd basically managed to work up the equivalent of a B.A. in art history at the University of Working at and Going to A Lot of Museums). Entered that program, loved it, am now 3 semesters in and charging hard towards my M.A.

So I guess my point is: at two separate points in my life, I've been in a science/tech degree program and gotten the nagging feeling that I should ditch it for a humanities program. In both cases I did it, and it turned out to be the right thing to do by a staggering margin. I tell people that when I was in that software engineering program, the thing I really learned is that life is short, I'm going to die some day, and I don't want to waste the time I have grinding away in pursuit of a degree I don't really want just because I think it'll be good for me in some abstract sense.

Not saying for sure that switching is right for you - your circumstances are your own, of course. But I wanted to at least give you a couple of datapoints that it certainly can be the right thing to do.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 8:53 AM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Why not take a year (or half year) off and regroup? Meanwhile, you can delve into humanities on your own. Read books, view documentaries, attend some lectures. Maybe push a bit ahead of yourself on science reading/projects, too, just to give yourself a leg up upon your return.

Or esle double major, so you get the benefits of broadening while also career prepping, but allow yourself some extra time to get your degree, so you don't overload yourself.

It seems to me that your real battle is against time constraints, not educational rigors. Consider if there's a way to slow it all down, so you can steep more deeply (and peacefully) in your education by taking an easier classload each semester. If not, and there's nothing to be done about time pressure, what I'd do, is struggle through the science stuff and simply audit humanities classes. Be broadened without the performance pressure. Don't even sweat it if you can't complete all the reading for those classes; you'll have a lifetime to read on your own, but being in an academic setting observing how professors parse it all will give you the lifelong tools to self-teach such material more rigorously later.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:56 AM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am a humanities geek who double majored in college (computer science/linguistics, with more courses in the latter field and no science electives outside my major requirements). I'm now working as a software engineer and while I don't love my job, most days I really genuinely enjoy it. I also still adore critical theory, but I've accepted that no one is going to pay me for that.

The thing that drew me to this path though is that although computer science has been difficult for me, there are parts of it that I do love and that kept me going during the slog. Is that true for you?
posted by serelliya at 9:14 AM on January 10, 2015

Just about every single student with a goal of clinical psychology has a history of mental health problems. Ask a psychology grad student about the personal deficit research topic selection hypothesis. Even if they don't know it themselves they will probably start quickly nodding as they cycle through their peer list.

Also at 24 you are barely a mature student. Relax. Study what floats your boat.
posted by srboisvert at 9:29 AM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm a mental health professional who struggles with depression and anxiety.. it's bloody hard sometimes! True, some people with a mh history are good at empathising and attuning, it can also detract from their own self care and can be 'too close' at times.
posted by tanktop at 10:17 AM on January 10, 2015

I majored in English Literature for my BA and I've never regretted it. But I wanted to teach English. I've had a long strange trip career-wise, but I really enjoyed college, so much so that it took me 7 years to get through it!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:49 AM on January 10, 2015

I think you've gotten stuck on the idea that your envisioned capstone project is the only one possible. There's no reason why science has to mean studying people with psych disorders that might be troublesome for you. Why not do a similar project to the one you envisioned, but in educational technology or sports medicine, or gerontology? Develop web tools (or apps or whatever) to help students learn, or help athletes rehab from injuries, or help older people rehab from strokes or keep mentally sharp when they're in care homes?
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:26 PM on January 10, 2015

I think there are a lot of things you should consider before making your decision. For example:

If you decide to switch from Science to Humanities, would it be possible to switch back if you changed your mind? How difficult would it be?

How well do you do / have you done in Science courses compared to Humanities? What would majoring in the Humanities entail? If you haven't taken any (or very few) classes in the Humanities, I'd hesitate to change majors just because the course descriptions seem interesting.

Also: "Humanities" and "Science" seem like very broad categories. Do you know what you might like to do, specifically? Are you interested in teaching or research? Do you want to just get it over with, get a degree, and find a job that pays a living wage? Something else?

Also also: I'm not sure how much change you're actually considering (see above: would would majoring in the humanities entail). Are you thinking about changing the direction of your degree/study entirely, or just taking somewhat different courses next semester? If the latter, I'd say it'd be worth doing if you have the time/ability/funding/etc. But could it have negative consequences, like preventing you from graduating by a certain time or something?

There are no wrong answers here. I'm hoping these questions will help you figure out what you want to do.

I'm about your age and also in the process of figuring out what to do with my life. I graduated about a year ago with a degree in Computer Science... after switching about halfway through a Psych degree. For me, switching was the right decision because I realized that I wasn't interested in research and labwork (which is what my school's program focused on). I decided to dive into CS because I'd already taken a few classes and done well in them. It helped that programming seems to be in high demand / felt like a good choice, career-wise.

That said, I'm still not sure whether Computer Science was the best choice. I thought the first half of the program was cake, but felt kinda burnt out near the end--probably due to a combination of much more difficult coursework and some personal issues (hello yes i am well acquainted with depression and anxiety). I also have some doubts about my school's CS program and the utility of the classes I took. I managed to graduate and am glad that I made the switch, but sometimes I regret not trying other subjects (e.g. linguistics) due to lack of time/ability/funding/etc.

I’d be really grateful to hear some of your thoughts, in particular whether you have some experience with the age-old question whether it is best to study for enjoyment or for a career.

I'm trying to juggle both. At first I thought CS was the solution because I liked it and was good at it, but now I'm not so sure and am looking at other options. I wish I was one of those super pragmatic/driven/competent/whatever people who could just pick a career and go for it regardless of enjoyment, but I'm pretty sure I'm not. This is something else you might want to consider.

Er. Sorry for rambling and not offering much concrete advice (I don't feel comfortable doing so without knowing you/your situation better). I'd second the suggestion about consulting career services. Maybe talk to some professors/advisors you trust?
posted by junques at 1:11 PM on January 10, 2015

For some reason people tend to make the assumption that the sciences are more difficult, and humanities courses are easier.

This is foolish.

Courses that interest you will be easier for you than courses that do not interest you. There's also a degree of aptitude involved. I'm fascinated by science, but I've always been a more "verbal"/"communications"/humanities type person by aptitude as opposed to having a talent for computation and other skills you need for work in STEM fields. So yeah, the choice to go into the humanities -- which largely relies on written communication and analysis via discussion -- was a no brainer. Meanwhile, I know more math-oriented people who can't put a sentence together, who obviously would have floundered in a humanities program.

FWIW, as someone who majored in the social sciences and chose to focus more on the humanities end of my particular discipline (cultural anthropology as opposed to physical), there's really nothing wrong with doing that. There's a lot you can do that involves science but isn't designing an app.
posted by Sara C. at 1:55 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the great advice. I wish I could run a little simulation and see how I would end up if I followed all of them separately. I am tempted to double major as my Dad is supporting me through my education, but that might be pushing my luck a bit, as well as his patience. I think some of you might me overestimating my skills with a computer. I'm nowhere near as adept with programming as the other Information majors at my college. Also, classes are quite small so it might be hard to audit the courses that seem enticing for me. Whatever happens, I am once again grateful for the thoughtful answers I get on Metafilter, and I'll talk it through with my tutor tomorrow.
posted by Erred at 11:03 AM on January 11, 2015

If you've been having mental health problems, and your dad knows this, and knows, too, that the intensity and pace of school are bringing back symptoms, I wouldn't imagine that he'd lack patience if you asked to go on a slower track so things could be smoother for you.

Budgets are finite; I get that. But if you'd fill your dad in on all of this (perhaps ask him to read this thread?), i bet he'd apply some ingenuity and the two of you could come up with a plan.

Of course, I don't know the details. So if this doesn't apply to your situation, never mind!
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:47 AM on January 12, 2015

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