Finding A Way: Picking & Switching Majors 101

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Picking a major is one of the most defining short-term decisions we university students can make. After all, when we introduce ourselves, we are expected to share two things: our name, and our program. And – for better or worse – lots of people are more likely to remember our program than our name.

But choosing an area of study isn’t  necessarily  as simple as knowing your favourite subject and transforming that into a degree – though there are those who seem like they were born knowing what they wanted to do, most of us aren’t that fortunate. Classes that look fantastic on paper may not be focused in quite the right area for your interests, or you might have issues with the way you’re graded, or a surplus of unrecorded 8:30 classes in McIntyre may be a dealbreaker. However, the general consensus is that if you find the “right fit,” you’ll know it.

McGill, like other universities, has such a wide variety of programs catering to so many different interests that I can hardly direct you down any single path towards choosing a major. But perhaps I can share observations and anecdotes, pointing out landmarks from my own experiences that help you along the way

I. Getting There From Here

Unless you’re sitting on a royal fortune or plan on winning the lottery, your major is, in addition to a matter of interest, a means to an end: a career. If you graduate with a degree but not even a vague plan as to what you want to do with it, you may have a tough time applying what you’ve learned to a “real world” job. That’s not to say that you should know exactly where you want to work when you pick a major – but what you should know are the realistic paths linking undergrad to postgrad life.

You can either work backwards from your dream-job to your major or forwards from your dream-major to your job. Neither way is “better,” though I would advocate a balance of both. Someone who double-majors in Ancient Greek Philosophy and Immunology should either plan on attending graduate school or know of a publishing company with an appetite for works concerning the ethical applications of the Oath of Hippocrates to modern-day medicine – elsewise, they might find themselves with a somewhat unworkable degree. Conversely, we all know stories of the aspiring-med-school-bound students who struggled with a major they hated – those who find memorizing anatomy hopelessly dull would do well to realize exactly how much of this skill is involved in the path to becoming a doctor. Without even the vaguest notion of a map spanning undergrad to postgrad life, getting there from here could end up being a long, winding road.

II. Lots and Lots of Tabs

The basis of picking a major is figuring out which subjects you want to learn more about – but this is only the beginning. Even if you decide your favourite science class is Biology and that you therefore want your major to involve the study of living organisms, figuring out what makes a Biology degree different from Anatomy and Cell Biology different from Physiology different from Psychiatry different from Psychology… well, I’m sure you’ve had experience in this already.

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My approach was simple: open the Science faculty’s list of available programs, read each title, an open a new tab for any that sounded potentially interesting. I then started the time-consuming-yet-interesting task of investigating which courses I’d be taking in each major. A simple method of elimination can get you quite far (in my case, any tab with the word “plant” among its compulsory courses met a quick end).When you’re left with a smaller set of possible majors, you can dig deeper into each.

What does the course curriculum look like? Upper-level courses usually strike students as more interesting because they become more focused and specific – do any of your potential majors have courses whose very titles inspire sparks of curiosity in you? Your decisions should be at least partially based on which major has the longest list of courses which appeal to you (and the shortest list of compulsory courses you dread having to take).

In the end, it’s not the title on your diploma that tells you whether or not you made the right decision, but the sum of the individual courses you took and how well they fit into a cohesive picture that you are passionate to study, quick to apply to your day-to-day life, and proud to bring up in conversation.

III. Is this Right?

When the dust from my attempt at Step II had settled, I was left with a BSc in Physiology. Going into university (straight into U1, along with the IB, AP, and CGEP grads), I wasn’t absolutely positive I had made the perfect decision. However, I was and still am confident that it was the best decision I could have made with the information I had at the time.

But what if you find, like I did, that the courses that sounded intriguing on paper don’t exactly live up to what you had in mind? That you don’t find DNA quite as interesting when you start zooming in on ever-finer details? That you reach the point after bubbling in countless Scantrons that you are beginning to feel an aching longing to write a literary analysis, or even a simple essay?

Even after settling on a major, you have one more important decision to make: figuring out whether you made the right choice. This involves a close introspective monitoring of your own moods as you set out on your new program. Even if you are studying exactly what you want, you will of course have your academic ups and downs – but are you having more ups, or more downs? If you can’t remember the last time you actually became engrossed in a reading, assignment, or lecture, it might be time to consider other options. Passion is especially important when it comes to getting involved in research opportunities. Give serious consideration as to whether studying a protein’s function incites curiosity or dread in you, because enthusiasm in a lab is nigh impossible to feign and professors who interview undergrads are very good at evaluating if interviewees care about their research.

If you “get it right” the first time when picking your major, I congratulate you and wish you all the best! But if you think that something is missing from your university experience, don’t feel as though you “messed up” or that you’re trapped in a field you despise. Which is a good segue-way into my next point…

IV. Switching Majors – It’s Not the End of the World

This is a topic that is, in my opinion, glossed over far too often when giving advice towards choosing a major. Remember that you might have checked a box on Minerva and taken a few courses, but you have not committed yourself to a binding contract. If you switch to a completely different field – or even faculty – you may end up graduating a semester or two later, but if you find what you’re doing boring, your next three-plus years will feel like much, much longer anyways.

So let’s say you’ve decided midway through U1 that you wish you could go back in time and whack your freshman self upside the head with the glossy textbook they didn’t flip through before registering for the class that required its total memorization. The next step is really a matter of rinsing, returning to Step II, and repeating. One of the best differences between picking majors and switching majors is that in the latter case you are that much more informed as to which specific subjects appeal to you and which make you want to feed yourself to a proteasome. Being able to graduate on time could even be possible if there is an overlap between your ex-major and new program. If you aren’t sure about the feasibility of your change or have any questions at all, go to the advisors.

I know you’ve heard this before, but I’ll say it again: talk to as many advisors as possible, because they’ve probably seen many students in the exact same situation as you and therefore know what has tended to work in the past and what hasn’t. Once you have an “escape plan” and know which courses you need to take when, switching majors can even be a relatively hassle-free experience.

In my case, the day I knew that I wanted a change was when, while surveying the Central Nervous System in PHGY209, we covered the topics of “Consciousness” and “Language” in a slide apiece. Unlike everything else I had learned that year, I found myself unsatisfied with the amount of information not because there was too much of it and I didn’t want to memorize it, but because there wasn’t enough of it and I wanted to learn more. After a brief perusal and discounting of Neuroscience (Computer Science and Math not being my areas of specialty) as well as of Psychology (I’d be graduating a year later, which I wanted to avoid if possible) I found the answer to my prayers on a fateful day I idly clicked “Arts and Science” during my break at work.

Discovering the existence of the Cognitive Science program seemed (a) like a huge stroke of luck and (b) too good to be true. But after a great deal of research, I found that there really was a way I could study the mind, language, and the relationship between mind and language within a degree so flexible that I could pursue interests across over a dozen departments without even having to resort to electives. I made up my mind that come hell or high water I would make this work – so, after many long sessions of playing Tetris with my courses on a detailed Excel spreadsheet, I managed to fit all the prerequisites, co-requisites, and Fall/Winter-only courses into a compact schedule that would allow me to graduate by April 2015.

I ran my plan past three advisors, and though I cannot make the official switch to BA&Sc until next September, the contrast between the way I approach academics this semester and last semester is enough to tell me that I’m in the right place. After a bit of a false start in my first semester at university, I’ve found the program in which I can lose track of time reading a textbook, bring up interesting facts in casual conversation, and look for research out of enthusiasm rather than “because grad school wants it.” I’m enjoying my classes, I found a research assistant position for the summer, and best of all, I got to write something other than a lab report for school for the first time since May.

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