Help me pick a good major to look into.
June 4, 2007 11:15 AM   Subscribe

What's a good major for someone who doesn't want a desk job and loves technology?

I'm 16 years old, just finished my sophomore year of high school, and seriously considering graduating early. So after next year I could be headed off to college. I want to go to a good college, and I'm hoping to start touring them next year. So I'm trying to a least get a vague idea as to what I want to major in so that I can start looking into specific departments at colleges.

I took the SAT as a freshman and scored a 2020 total score. 650 critical reading, 650 writing, and 720 math. That was almost 18 months ago, I would imagine my score is higher now. But Math has always been my strong suit... I just finished Calculus last year and loved it. I also love Physics. My least favorite subject is probably English.

However one thing that I really love is computers & technology in general. Right now I have a job in PC Support, which is somewhat annoying sometimes but pays well.
I'm not much of a computer programmer, I've dabbled in it a little but isn't hugely enjoyable to me.

The one thing that I would hate would be a desk job. One that I'm stuck behind a computer every working hour. I don't care if I could get more money from a job like that, it just doesn't interest me. I want to be managing people and projects, preferably in a field of technology.

What major or combination of majors would be good options for someone like me?
posted by nokry56 to Education (45 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know how to say this such that it won't make a teenager think I'm a douchelord, but you really can't know what you'd hate. Your work experience is so limited that you're just extrapolating from what you know personally and basis the rest on what you have gotten filtered through other people's experiences.

Those other people's experiences may or may not mirror yours since they are based on their perspective. It might be that something they describe as tedious and dull would keep you so enthralled you'd forget to eat.

If you're just turned off by what you perceive as a sedentary location I can tell you I wish I spent MORE time at my desk - a lot of my time is spent in one conference room or another or other people's offices, conferring on things.

Can you elaborate slightly on what exactly you envision when you say "The one thing that I would hate would be a desk job. One that I'm stuck behind a computer every working hour." ?
posted by phearlez at 11:26 AM on June 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

and loved it

this is the crucial element. it is much more important than your scores, at least for yourself. the best advise [based on my own path] I can give to you is try to pursue a career you can really love. look for something so cool that you would do it if they didn't pay you duck shite. this will make getting up monday mornings a lot easier and it will give you a significant advantage over all those who are merely doing it as a means to an end.

don't stress over getting into college right away. look around for what people with your talents are doing. try to find someone who is doing something you would really like to, try to talk to them and dive into what it means to do that for a living. once you have found what intrigues you, find out where to go to get the best education in that field.

it is perfectly okay if this takes a year, two or more. don't just rush into any kind of education for the sake of it. when people critizise you for 'wasting time' outline exactly what you are doing. most will understand and wish they had done the same.

I would recommend you talk a bit more about your interests, fascinations and talents here (or values - opposed to anything? favor something else?). do mention the obscure stuff, the things you'd think wouldn't make a difference. forget about classes and majors for now, you need to define the goal first and then find the path. this is the time to stab around and take a look what life as X would be like. choose summer jobs and internships based on general interest in certain fields, not monetary gains.

and one more thing: you are way ahead of most by thinking about this at this point. do not worry.
posted by krautland at 11:30 AM on June 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: That makes sense, I don't think you're a douchelord at all - I appreciate the response.

I guess that when I say the I would hate a desk job what I really mean is that I would hate a job where I don't get much interaction with others. Actual interaction not just over email.

I'm actually being homeschooled right now, and don't like it very much. I miss interaction with others, and its hard to imagine being stuck in a job where the majority of my interaction was with the computer.
posted by nokry56 at 11:33 AM on June 4, 2007

Response by poster: @karutland

Thanks also for your response, it is nice to hear someone advice me to slow down rather than to speed up.

Here's some more things about me:
-I really enjoy Live Sound Production
-I'm fascinated about how things work, especially cars & tech stuff (I know that sounds cliche, but it really is a fascination of mine)
-Basketball is a large obsession of mine, I love playing it with my traveling team and teaching it
-I enjoy "sticking it to the man" so to speak
-I tend to interact better around people that I know, initially I'm shy around those I don't know
-I constantly listen to music, most of it by unknown bands (not sure what that has to do with anything but there ya go)

I'll see if I can think of anything else.

Thanks again.
posted by nokry56 at 11:49 AM on June 4, 2007

Don't forget the option of staying in academia. Like math and physics? Keep going until you've got a Ph.D. in physics, then do physics research and teach, etc.

Academia is hardly "sticking it to the man", I know, but it's at least opting out of corporate America to some extent.
posted by mendel at 11:59 AM on June 4, 2007

Where do you live? In some parts of the country, businesses have mentorship programs where they allow high school students to spend some part of the day working on various science/technology-oriented projects, and that may give you a hands-on feel for the types of work you might enjoy.

In my opinion, the most fun jobs in the sciences either require a LOT of education or a REALLY HARD academic program.

For example, there are some neat engineering jobs you can get where you collaborate closely with other people to design and market products. But engineering (which breaks down into several sub-genres) is one of the most challenging majors out there. Lots of people drop out or change major, and many people take five years to get through college.

Other really interesting scientific jobs generally require a phd before you get taken seriously.

I've spent some time at the U.S. Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory, and I can't think of a cooler job than those held by the geologists, volcanologists and physicists who work there. They go out in the field and actually take measurements from living, breathing, volcanoes, then come back together for a mix of solo calculating and group extrapolating to figure out what's really happening. Calculus, physics and geology are all in play. Way cool, as long as you're willing to get 9 years of post-college education before you land there.

The best observing, thinking, learning and collaborating jobs in the sciences all require gobs of education.

These days, as a college grad who sits at her desk staring at a computer most days, I've been learning a lot about careers where you get to use your brain and still work with others and do interesting things. A lot of people look down on the trades and on blue collar jobs, but there are some technical blue collar jobs that really require a fair amount of brain power and pay really well, and in some fields there are real shortages, too.

You might check out your state's employment office web site, odds are if you poke around you'll be able to track down a spreadsheet listing in-demand jobs and average salaries in those fields. Try thinking about which of those fields you think are most interesting, and go backwards from there to start considering your major.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:00 PM on June 4, 2007

You like live sound, unheard-of-bands, and traveling with your basketball team? And you like interacting with people? I would seriously look into audio production/recording/etc. careers. I get the impression that success in this field is as much luck as anything though, so perhaps you could double-major in a more traditional tech area as well to hedge your bets.
posted by Benjy at 12:06 PM on June 4, 2007

9 years of post-college education

err, 9 years of post-high school education, sorry.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:08 PM on June 4, 2007

There's a lot of good suggestions above. My brother is quite tech savvy - worked as tech support for a year or so - and did not want to do the academic route. He got picked up by BMW for specialized training and will be making damn good money for a long time.

Someone suggested 'academia,' but what about getting a teaching certification? You could do math or physics wherever with a education certificate, and then go teach almost anywhere - there are shortages in that area all the time. My partner's old boss quit running a software company in order to teach math, because she loved it. And hell, at my private school, about half our team coaches were teachers, if you wanted to keep up the basketball.
posted by cobaltnine at 12:19 PM on June 4, 2007

Er, I should add, my brother went to a technical automotive school (instead of a regular college). I missed that sentence. BMW doesn't just find people in the wild.
posted by cobaltnine at 12:22 PM on June 4, 2007

Look into physics. Not really a "desk job" at all if you're an experimentalist. Or any other science. Any ammount of tech skill will certainly be useful in those fields too.
posted by kiltedtaco at 12:24 PM on June 4, 2007

Have a read of Paul Graham's essay "What you'll wish you'd known". In it he talks about the racing sailor's idea of "staying upwind" when unsure about what to do immediately - it is all about putting yourself in a position that leaves options open if conditions change. So studying something like Mechanical Engineering would be staying upwind - it is hard but leaves you many options (including those which will take you into the field for a lot of the time). Studying sports science so that you can teach basketball - or going on the road with a band full time would leave you fewer options if they did not work out. If you would love either path then I would recommend the first one.
posted by rongorongo at 12:25 PM on June 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

The most important thing to do at your age is have an open mind. Don't rule out entire industries because of a perception about what an office job is like. Many (most?) desk jobs involve lots of group work and team interaction. A desk is just a place to put your computer where you do your work.

Is there something in particular you like about computers & tech? If you want to know how they work and how to design them, consider computer science, computer engineering, or electrical engineering. Engineering relies heavily on physics and it can take you to some interesting places - power grids, wireless communication, integrated circuits, nanoelectronics. It also provides a good path toward a business career if that's what you're into.

But don't narrow your focus too soon. The best thing you can do is try out everything you can. I strongly recommend you to look for a co-op program, both in your high school now and at the college you apply to, and try to get some invaluable real world experience.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:28 PM on June 4, 2007

If your big concern is quantity of interaction with people I don't think you need to worry about a desk job. As a software developer I work closely with 1-2 people a day and interact with 3-6 daily, just to do my job. I am constantly consulting others for assistance, clarification, and guidance. And my current employer is a company with less than 100 people.

The reality is that most technology jobs revolve around technologies that are interconnected with other technologies and you'll need to work with other people to accomplish things. Additionally, the tech field has way too many people with poor social skills who want to have LESS contact with people. If you stress in an interview that you like working with others and want to be sure you're in a position that requires it they will likely wet themselves with glee.

Looking back on my choices when I was your age I wish (a) I had worked more for a variety of experiences and less for the money and (2) that I'd taken some internships. To some extent I had no choice in this but there were times I could have made decisions to live more simply. Try a lot of stuff.

I see on your personal blog that you went to some event at MIT last year. Are you in the Boston area? I know someone who did his PhD in physics and now works at a small company directing software development who would likely be happy to talk with you.
posted by phearlez at 12:37 PM on June 4, 2007

Whoopsie - my interaction numbers above are bare minimums, and reflect the period of time when I'm being a code grunt to crank something out. Now that I'm *cough* more senior in my career I also spend a lot of time consulting with clients (internal or external) to determine requirements and work with a few to a lot of people to architect solutions.

Even as a grunt I've worked on projects where I constantly interacted with as many as 9 other coders and a variety of customers several times a week.

Point being, if the nerd in a dark room who someone shoves fritos and mountain dew at ever existed, it's long gone now... unless it's because said nerd worked hard to seek out that job.
posted by phearlez at 12:42 PM on June 4, 2007

If you like tech stuff and audio production and all, why not look into TV/Film production of some sort? I bring projects into a thriving production house and the editors have to know the machinery and the software while being creative and interact with clients. And depending on the place – be it a production house or TV station – and the size of the market, you might just rub up against famous people, too. Industrial Light and Magic anyone?
posted by lpsguy at 12:49 PM on June 4, 2007

Nthing the suggestion to look into audio production/engineering/recording. Live sound, sound design, etc., is part physics part aesthetics, and it definitely involves working with people, not being stuck behind a desk, and lots of computers and technology. I'm going to go one step further and give you some food for thought...If you want to "stick it to the man," why not be entrepreneurial, start your own freelance audio business for all those indie bands on Myspace. I see an opportunity for enterprising people to help musicians escape the shackles of the RIAA *and* put out a quality product.

The traditional "work in a studio" route in audio is pretty competitive, but I think going the entrepreneur route will be a challenging, but potentially lucrative path. (Rather than fewer clients paying HUGE sums, you have many clients, possibly all over the country/globe, paying more modest fees, or on a sliding scale) So a double major in audio production and business would give you a good start. And do internships.
(But I agree with everyone who said you are young and still have lots of time to decide)
posted by DiscourseMarker at 1:33 PM on June 4, 2007

I'm a rising junior in college and therefore not that much older than you, so take my advice with a grain of salt.

You're 16. Take some time to figure out what you like, academically or otherwise, without trying to immediately relate it to a college major or a career path. I'd say about 50% of the people I know in college are majoring in something completely different than what they thought they would be upon entering college, myself included (and most of the others had no idea to begin with). And if you end up going to a liberal arts school (which, with those scores, I'd be surprised if you didn't), what you actually major in doesn't matter. I'm sure that might even be true for technical schools. I have English major friends going to medical school, Art major friends working on Wall Street, friends going into academia in fields they didn't major in. Most jobs just want to see that you have critical thinking skills, not specific knowledge in a predefined area.

Concentrate now on being 16. Hang out with your friends, explore your interests without some pressure to relate it to your future life in some way. Work hard in school, study for the SATs, and research colleges--take your time with that. College Confidential's message board is a pretty good resource, as is the "applying to college" section of your local Barnes and Noble. I'd advise against graduating early just so you can take your time enjoying high school and figuring out where you want to go to college, plus you don't want to be a 17 year old freshman (again obviously I don't know you, so do what you think is best).

Mostly I'd say, don't rush. You always have time to change your mind later. Don't feel like you have to decide the entire trajectory of your life at 16.
posted by cosmic osmo at 1:40 PM on June 4, 2007

The one thing that I would hate would be a desk job. One that I'm stuck behind a computer every working hour. I don't care if I could get more money from a job like that, it just doesn't interest me. I want to be managing people and projects, preferably in a field of technology.

NoKry, I come from the media field and, am 11 years older than you and manage a national radio show.

First, I urge you not to major in television or film production at any university anywhere in the world.

Second, if you want to do music production, learn through internships, apprenticeships, or through a technical training school. Being bogged down by teachers at liberal arts colleges who don't have time to teach you everything you need for a job and having to take all the other classes will not adequately prepare you for a career in music production.

Third, try for an apprenticeship early and learn as much as you can about every part of the industry. Including, but not limited to, production, finalizing, promotion, marketing and A&R.

Fourth, I would bet you can get an internship this summer if you stepped away from your computer for a couple of hours tomorrow morning and looked up radio stations, television stations, and music production in the phone book and cold-called people.

Fifth, I know you are probably feeling pressured to go to college. I strongly urge you to take a major in business, business administration, or accounting. That kind of degree will be a major asset in the music industry and will open a lot of doors for you. Especially against the average crop trying to get into the business. (I know this by personal experience....If you can get one year of professional experience and continue to work on the side through college like I did, you will always be employed. I know people who majored in film and television who, at 27, are still living with their parents.)

Sixth, if you want more advice, my e-mail is in my profile.
posted by parmanparman at 1:42 PM on June 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


Don't believe the stereotypes: you can go on to (literally) thousands of different careers. If you've found something you love then that's what you should do. Contact details in my profile.

DISCLAIMER: I'm a physics teacher.
posted by alby at 1:59 PM on June 4, 2007

My advice is to plan on picking a college with a wide range of strong programs, and then look at a hard physical science. Based on what you've said, I would particularly recommend Physics, Electrical Engineering, or Materials Science and Engineering.

You have a while before you need to choose a career, but any of those will prepare you for a wide range of technical careers.

(As a reference, I did research in high school. In college, I majored in Materials Science and spent most of my free time doing live sound (and some recording), though mostly for theatre. (it was fun, but I found it gets old after a while) I am currently finishing up my PhD in Materials, and I have accepted a faculty job in Electrical Engineering.)
posted by JMOZ at 1:59 PM on June 4, 2007

Majoring in global economics or development studies and putting that to use somewhere like Oxfam would be a pretty neat melding of your numerical wizardry, good karma, and not (necessarily) sitting at a desk.
posted by mdonley at 2:11 PM on June 4, 2007

I have to agree with others that engineering seems a good career path to explore. This page from MIT lists some of the cool things you can learn to do while in college, from designing toys to coming up with new solutions for demining.
posted by needled at 2:26 PM on June 4, 2007

Oops, corrent link here.
posted by needled at 2:27 PM on June 4, 2007

I'm only two years older than you. I'm an EE student. I did live sound in high school and am now a college radio station DJ (amongst other capacities).

I agree with what most people have said. Get an engineering/physics degree. Do not major in computer science - 99% of the time you will have a desk job, and unless you are totally fanatic about programming, you'll probably drop out.

I strongly urge you to take a major in business, business administration, or accounting. That kind of degree will be a major asset in the music industry and will open a lot of doors for you. Especially against the average crop trying to get into the business.

If you're the sort of geek who is really in to technology and the physical world, majoring in business will be soul-sucking. You'll never take a substantive science/math course again, and most of your general education requirements will have a liberal arts slant (not that there is anything wrong with that, but you've already said you're not in to that). Furthermore, colleges are literally crawling with business majors, whereas there is a notable deficit in the number of U.S. engineers graduating. Many successful businesses are run by engineers, business majors aren't really prepared for much outside direction of people and assets.

In the music industry there are tons of people with the technical knowhow required to do jobs like recording and live sound. There is very little merit based decision making, and you'll have to know the right people to be employed (espescially if you want to go on the road).
posted by phrontist at 2:32 PM on June 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and engineering is chock full of interesting non-desk jobs. Business majors will spend most of there time talking to other people who do things, as oppose to doing things.
posted by phrontist at 2:35 PM on June 4, 2007

I just remembered something else that I thought might be worth mentioning: try to find something were your individual talent (i.e. your interpretation of a problem) is why an employer hires you. that makes you close to irreplacable and thus unoutsourceable.
posted by krautland at 2:37 PM on June 4, 2007

hey alby ... DISCLAIMER: I'm a physics teacher. ... this is the point where you should send the OP an email suggesting to highlight a couple possible careers together.
posted by krautland at 2:38 PM on June 4, 2007

Are you good with heights? A technically skilled but office-intolerant buddy does/did tower work for wireless networking and cell comms. Great money, leveraged a variety of computer and networking skills, and got him way the hell out of the office. The safety concerns demand real discipline, but I don't think the barriers to entry are high.
posted by NortonDC at 2:43 PM on June 4, 2007

Response by poster: whew. You guys are great. I had no idea how many responses I'd get. I really appreciate everyone taking the time.

Let me start off by answering a few questions that have been asked.

First off - I live in the West Houston area. And I'm embarrassed some of you looked at my blog. Creating that was a sporadic decision last summer... I apologize for the lack of design and interesting information there...

And the MIT thing I went to was just a gathering at a local college where there were speakers and more information on MIT.

After reading through all your responses I think I can gleam a few things that most of you seemed to agree on:

1) Don't rush things, I'm young and have time
2) Take the time this summer and next school year to get in real world working situations. (The problem with this is that because I'm homeschooled I can't get into the same excellent co-op programs that are available to the public-schooled kids in my area)
3) Engineering, Sound Production, Physics, and Business would both be good things to learn more about
posted by nokry56 at 2:44 PM on June 4, 2007

Response by poster: I shouldn't have posted before I finished... but please keep the responses coming. I'm learning a lot.

Thanks again!

And yes, NortonDC, I am good with heights - that sounds like a cool career actually.
posted by nokry56 at 2:48 PM on June 4, 2007

Response by poster: Also, I just updated my profile. My contact info is now there. Feel free to contact me.
posted by nokry56 at 2:50 PM on June 4, 2007

There have been some good suggestions for career paths here and I don't want to just pipe in by reiterating something already said above. The biggest things to do would be to keep doors open (e.g. take math and English) and to get work and volunteer experience.

That being said, even when I was a co-op student in university, I thought that management desk jobs were boring. It seemed like managers did nothing all day and that they never got to interact with people. I'm glad I decided to keep on with my work interests, because I eventually discovered I'd been very wrong about those "desk jobs". Most of them require you to be away from your desk an awful lot.
posted by acoutu at 3:13 PM on June 4, 2007

I just sent you an email about a recording studio in Houston.
posted by nimsey lou at 4:30 PM on June 4, 2007

You could try audio engineering. Also getting into motion picture and TV sound - great pay, there are actually jobs available (as opposed to, say, motion picture and TV acting). Either onset recording or sound editing and rerecording.

Music producing, editing, mixing, engineering, mastering.

All of these are both technical and creative.
posted by MythMaker at 4:47 PM on June 4, 2007

I'm an Electrical Engineer who designs antennas, and I constantly interact with people throughout my day. I'd say my time is 40% spent in discussion with colleagues that I work with, 50% working by myself, and maybe 10% in the lab. Obviously these will vary with position/company/etc. Its important to realize that this is as much a function of the corporate culture of the particular company as it is you major/job title.

My advice is to study what you are interested in and excited about and assume that you will be able to find the job later that matches those skills with the type of work/culture that you want.
posted by jpdoane at 5:34 PM on June 4, 2007

It is entirely possible that you could get into one of those hands-on, interactive experimental physics/astronomy/engineering jobs by working as a research assistant in a lab at one fo the universities nearby. My (chemistry) lab at Berkeley used to love having high school students come in and do projects (at a level of independence commensurate with demonstrated skills)-- not washing dishes or coiling cable or such.

In a year or two of full-time lab work, you could learn a lot about the field, and get some great experience, and be able to make an informed decision about whether you enjoy it enough to slog through the coursework. We always paid our h.s. students, but you could always volunteer until the PI's are convinced of your commitment and skills.
posted by janell at 6:54 PM on June 4, 2007

nthing experimental physics. My boyfriend is an experimental astrophysicist whose job has taken him to three continents in three years, one of which is Antarctica. We spent a week of last summer in Hawai'i - he got free tickets because he was there on business, and I got a free ride up to see a working radio telescope perched on top of Mauna Kea. He's getting free tickets for this summer's trip to Europe, too, because he's going to spend some time in Wales teaching some other astrophysicists something or other. And he's just a grad student!

While I don't like physics, I look at my future (computer scientist => desk jobs) and I feel pretty jealous of him.
posted by crinklebat at 11:48 PM on June 4, 2007

Dude, you so want to be an engineer. Yes, I am one so I'm biased :)

There can be lots of desk-time but there doesn't have to be at all, depending on your job choices. The mech people I know spend their time building rockets and stuffing about with aeroplanes; I spend mine playing with programmable logic, parallel computers and lasers mounted in turrets. Really.

When you are behind a desk, it's not isolated work - you are continuously interacting with other members of your team, because there's no such thing really as non-team based engineering. No one person can get a big thing off the ground on their own, so you have to be good at working with people and you'll spend a lot of time working with people. Desk-time as an engineer is NOT isolated time.

The whole soul-sucking hateful-desk-job stereotype is real - but it comes from the business/finance/commerce/etc world. It doesn't have to apply to you at all; engineering is a great way to have an awesome job - as others have said, one you'd likely do for free - while getting paid well.

Maths is absolutely core to engineering. Too many people lack the mathematics; if you love calculus as much as you say you do, you will absolutely love engineering and will likely do very well at it. Real engineering (i.e. ignoring the project management and dealing-with-people crap) is 80% mathematics and calculus is fundamental to most of it.

And then there's the managing people and projects. Engineering companies need project managers and guess what? They're people who've spent a few years being engineers and understand what's going on with enough breadth of scope that they can pull a team of engineers together (about as easy as herding cats) and get something useful out of them. If you want to be a PM in a technical field, that's definitely an option with an engineering degree; just be aware that you'll have to put time in on the engineering first because NO ONE will put a fresh & clueless grad in charge of a bunch of experienced engineers.

Of course you have to have a drive to be creative and make cool stuff. But who doesn't want to build cool stuff?

Academia is an option, but it's one with a lot more isolated desk-time while you do a PhD (BTDT, can't recommend it as a fulfilling experience). I think it's likely you'd enjoy academic life a lot less than engineering life, I certainly do.
posted by polyglot at 7:36 AM on June 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

And if you're into the audio side of things... have a look into speaker design (ignore the golden-ear audiophile BS). It's a common hobby amongst engineers and uses a remarkable cross-section of engineering skill: signal processing, filter design, mechanical systems, simulation, materials science, electromagnetics, acoustics, etc.

More physics and maths than you can poke a stick at and that's just what we do for fun. It's the sort of thing you can't really do without an engineering education.
posted by polyglot at 7:55 AM on June 5, 2007

I should mention that polyglot's experiences with academia are not necessarily representative.

I'm currently finishing my PhD, and while there has certainly been some isolated desk-time, I really don't think it's the soul-crushing experience polyglot described. If you're an experimentalist, you'll spend a significant chunk of time doing labwork, which is often at least somewhat social. Being a PhD student in engineering in the US generally involves:

+ classes (not all that different from undergrad, really- generally pretty social when it comes time for work)
+ exams (qualifier, candidacy, etc) - very social study groups are common
+ Learning about equipment (pretty social, and usually hands-on)
+ running experiments (often social, but this depends on the lab. Almost always hands-on)
- Writing papers based on the experiments - the writing isn't so social, but the planning and revision processes often involve LOTS of discussion.
+ Conferences - extremely social, usually fun, and sometimes in great locations. For example, I've gone to Tokyo and Vienna in the past 2 years for conferences.
+ Training others - pretty fun, and really great to see how much you've learned
+ TA'ing (Teaching assistant) - explaining things to students in the class (undergrads or junior students)- fun if you like teaching. The grading is painful, but it's a smallish part of the overall experience
+ Teaching (optional and not always frequent) - good if you think you might enjoy teaching. Bad otherwise.
- Writing a dissertation - ok, this is a lot of isolated desk-time, but it's really not as bad as people make it out to be. (Or at least, I didn't think so)

I don't know if this is a helpful contrast to polyglot's viewpoint (everyone has a different experience, y'know!). Feel free to let me know if you have any followup questions.
posted by JMOZ at 8:00 AM on June 5, 2007

I thought the same way as you going into college(where I still am). I was good with computers but didn't want a full-on desk career so I picked Electrical Engineering. After about a year of doing pretty poorly(in spite of the fact that I never had before), I realized that I loved my programming classes and despised the electrical classes. I've been working on transferring to Software Engineering ever since but it's been hard because of my poor GPA.

If it is not fully clear-cut for you when the time comes to pick a school, I recommend picking a school that lets you declare your major later on(like Berkeley) rather than declaring at the start(Cal Poly).
Also, remember that, while you may be able to graduate with a poor GPA, you need a good one to get into a good major- so keep that up.

Best of luck to you.
posted by tysiva at 4:26 PM on June 5, 2007

tysiva's case is unfortunate; his school failed him. In most engineering programs, the classes designed to (euphemistically) help you realize you ought to change majors are usually designed to be early on so that you can change to a better-fit major earlier in your career.

Of course, that doesn't always work that way, but if you hate the first class or two in a major, you really probably should seriously think about changin.
posted by JMOZ at 4:39 PM on June 5, 2007

I have been thinking about this very topic alot.

I have been doing research into being a Traffic Engineer. It seems like a good mix between a desk job and going out on the streets and putting the plans into action - traffic lights, signs, and so forth.

Everytime I drive through certain parts of my town (Asheville, NC) I can't help but think I could do a better job with the timing of some traffic lights and stuff.

posted by donmak at 6:09 AM on June 6, 2007

I will come back to your desk job point, but let me digress for a minute.

First, concentrate on doing your best with grades and SAT scores (take it again); get as deeply involved in extracurriculars (ideally those you are already involved with) as possible. Basically, get into the best school you can.

Second, I didn't realize until after high school that I had no idea what to major in because life is so simplified early on. You study individual subjects in high school--math, sciences, English, etc. In college, the lines blur and you can start tying things together: applied math, technology and development, economics and history, etc. Expose yourself to as much as possible, be true to your interests, and do not shy away from challenges. Keep doors open by doing well and by taking on some sort of capstone/thesis project. These kinds of things help you stand an inch above an incredibly crowded field of good students.

Third, a college education is not a trade school--at least, not a good one. Education teaches you how to think, how to approach problems, how to learn for yourself, etc. People serious about a career do not consider it a terminal experience. For example, any serious business career will mean going to graduate school for an MBA, so don't bother with those degrees as an undergrad. That means no business, finance, or accounting degrees. Same for serious programming or other technical degrees, unless you come from a top school with an intense program and can land a job at Google.

To your original point: don't be scared about a desk job. I had the same fears in high school. In fact, it's why I quit programming--I wanted to have a job with "lots of interaction." The thing is, as others have pointed out, every job involves a desk: it's where you do work! Any high-performing employee can earn the opportunities to travel and lead others, but no one chooses "interaction" as a job title. Many high-ranking officers of companies come up through the ranks (if technical) or have serious training (usually law school or business school). In any case, most interaction in any serious job these days takes place over e-mail, phone, or blackberry, which allows you to manage your time and to have more efficient (=less irritating) exchanges when you have lots to do. When you have a job you like, you want to spend time actually getting things done.

In summary: keep academic and professional doors open by doing the best you can in the easily quantifiable areas: grades, tests, etc.--particularly math if you want to do something technical. This is not negotiable and it is incredibly difficult to make up for it later. Give yourself a chance to explore interests, which includes taking interesting classes, even if they sound hard. And when you do decide on a primary interest, or major, go for it with everything you have--do independent work, work with a professor, try to do some sort of internship or study abroad program. Basically, show that you are committed. People love qualified people who show strong desire through the extra time they spend on something. This does not mean sacrificing other interests, it just means avoiding the problem of liking so many things that you become notably strong in none of them.

Like math and technology? Start thinking about how far you are willing to go with either, or both. Applied math majors (math + a field of interest, usually computers science or economics) put forth a significant amount of effort and consequently have tons of options in terms of early jobs or more school.

I encourage you to look at combinations of computer science and economics, both of which, when done well (at a high level), take a strong math background, leave you with lots of room to pursue individual interests, and leave tons of doors open for whatever you decide to do later.

Good luck!
posted by shiwsup at 8:25 AM on June 6, 2007

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