Dec 18, 2007
Choosing a Major
Posted in: Majors & Minors
I've been reading a lot of comments lately about which majors are harder than others and omg my friend says this class is impossible and don't be concerned about the difficulty of majors it's all about what you love!-- there's obviously a lot of strife here, and I just wanted to address the topic in a proper way. First, some questions.
Is Physics major popular at MIT or not?
Yes? No? What do you think of when you think "popular"? There are about 50 physics (full 8) majors each year (judging by junior lab roster), and perhaps 20 more 8-B majors. Add that all up and it makes up ~7% of the class each year. Is that a lot? That's hard to say, there are 22 majors. it's not as popular as say, course 6, which is home to maybe 20-25% of the students in each year. But it's big enough that you'll need to share resources.
There are 92 physics faculty at MIT- and 5 of them are women. Luckily, the ratio of men to women physics majors is slightly more reasonable. I'm thinking, just by looking around, maybe 13 out of 50 for the course 8 folks. I don't have any idea of 8-B.
I can't believe you do all of this?!?! How do sleep? Do you sleep at all?
I don't sleep much: maybe 5-7 hrs on weekdays and 7-9 on weekends (I have been occasionally known to sleep some 14 or 15 hours though)? But keep in mind those classes I listed weren't like taken all during the same term or something. I'm not on speed. This semester is the only semester that I've taken more than 2 8-classes a term. And let me tell you this is too many 8-classes.
Hi Lulu.I have a small question to ask.In Part 2,section 3 of the application,there is a question asking students to list any scholastic distinctions won since entering high school.Can this include,for example,honors won in oratory in the annual English-Day competition when in grade 8 or 9?
I'm unfamiliar with your system, but I probably wouldn't list that, personally.
How much do you have to study to get really good marks in Physics (Maj.)
Depends on how smart you are. Really.
Which brings me to my main point: You hear it a lot. Do what you love. F*** the rest. (Little miss sunshine?) It's very good advice for most things but I'd be careful when applying this to choice of major. I know, like, what? Am I crazy? Why am I allowed on here? But there's a very good reason for this. Reasons, even.
Reason number 1: There are many paths to the same destination. So you love space technology, the natural choice might then be a major in course 16- do what you love, right? Well, maybe. But you should explore your options first, and here, you have quite a few. Sure, course 16 might get you what you want, but so might course 2 (mech e), or 2-A, or 8 (physics), or 8-B, or 6-1 (ee), or even 3 (material sci) or 12 (earth/planetary), depending on the specifics. There are a lot of options. You should look through them all! Take some intro classes, talk to upperclassmen, there's a lot of valuable information out there. Narrow your field of major choices down to only subjects that really have potential or you have not tried. Never eliminate something because it is unfamiliar. High schools don't teach Chemical Engineering or Nuclear Engineering as a rule. Find out about them. Ask questions.
Reason number 2: All majors are not created equal. Maybe you've already heard from person A that asking about relative difficulty of majors is shallow and there's no such thing as hard majors and easy majors, it just depends on what you're into. Well, that's very interesting and all, person A, but you are very wrong and you are doing freshmen a disservice by preaching that. While there is no value in trying to determine an absolute hardest major, you HAVE to have a sense of what you're capable of and what you're getting yourself into. I know quite a few people who have either not graduated or not graduated on time as a result of failing classes within their major and/or changing majors too many times or some combination thereof.
Some majors have a lot of requirements. Take course 16 for example. 198 units of credit are required OUTSIDE of GIRs in order to graduate. Take a look at this page, that's about 16 classes. On top of the 17 classes everyone has to take. You have 8 semesters here, and the average classload is 4/semester. 33 classes in 8 semesters doesn't allow for too many electives. That's hard in its own right.
Bad at memorizing things? Maybe chemistry or brain and cog sci isn't for you. Impatient? Hate doing grunt work? Maybe cross off some of the engineering majors.
Some majors may be too easy for you and bore you to death. Some majors cover some really difficult material. Some of the abstract math classes here are among the hardest in the world. You should love a challenge, you're an MIT student, but you should also love yourself. A major that is too difficult for you will only make you miserable and insecure. You won't enjoy the course material and you won't enjoy the work, you won't sleep, and worst of all, you won't learn. What's the point of taking classes to get them over with? So what if you're not smart enough to enjoy that stuff (I'm not smart enough to enjoy that stuff), your talents may lie elsewhere. Pick a field in which you will really be able to participate and positively contribute.
I say this because at MIT there is a real hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) pressure to do things just because they are hard. Or, the inverse, to not pick things just because they are by and large considered easy. Kids here are on the whole pretty smart, but that doesn't mean they don't need validation. Some kids try to earn the respect of others by taking on way more than ever reasonable, don't be like that, because these kids are often the same who will, in a couple of years, feel superior to their classmates just because their major is considered "harder". And you just don't want to be like that. Nobody wants to be friends with that.
I said to a freshman tonight, who was trying to find a suitable second major in the sciences to her course 15 (management) intended major, "Why?" Because some people had informed her that "15 was a slacker major" and she wanted to prove she wasn't. This made me very sad and I told her that if someone picked one major that was right for them and did it well, learned it inside out, was really excited about it, no matter what the major, I would respect him orders of magnitude more than someone else who sacrificed a deeper education in something they were really interested in just for the sake of adding the name of a second subject to their diploma. I'm really bored of the people who gave her this advice. Don't take it. It's dumb.
I've been through two majors myself, I started off in 16 (while taking classes in 8) and switched to 8. I wrote an entry a year ago about my switch into 8 halfway through sophomore year. Watch out, it's a little dramatic. But, I ended up not at all behind in the coursework since I'd kept both options open as a "tentative double major" and taken all the usual physics classes up until that point. That's something you might want to consider, prefrosh/freshmen- taking classes in 2+ subjects first semester sophomore year (and/or spring semester freshman year) so you can really get a feel for the different departments. And they are very different. And yes, this matters.
Reason #3, 4, n: why really it's not only about what you love:
Departments. Curriculum. Staff. Resources. Career options. Size. Flexibility to do what you want.
What's more important to you? Having a tried and true certified-damn-good education from MIT in a subject matter (in my case, physics)? Or, having the freedom to design your own curriculum and indulge in your fancies? This isn't rhetorical- it matters. This is what I'm deciding between now with 8 and 8-B. To be quite honest I was 2 weeks ago leaning toward 8-B for the option of taking General Relativity or Astrophysics next term, however, I had this thought a few days ago that was big enough, at least in Lulu-world, to have actually tipped the scale toward 8. The thought was that I wanted a physics education from MIT, the way that they've been training physicists for years, and though I may feel like I know better at times, I probably don't, and I could do well to finish what I started and trust in their judgment. Anyways, that's just me.
Teaching styles vary wildly between departments. Yes, let that affect your choice. A clash of learning and teaching styles is one of the most disastrous things that could happen to a student in college. It will make you lose interest, and fast. Higher level math classes don't have recitations: you are expected to either understand the lecture material or visit the professor privately with questions. Are you comfortable in that kind of a setting for 4 years? Engineering classes have a lot of repetition and hand-holding, this can get annoying if you're normally independent. Course 6 is impersonally large and they compensate by having 4-5 person mandatory tutoring sections once a week, these are all things that you should know.
To make things easier later on, before you pick a major, reflect a little on what you'd like to do. If you don't have any idea (don't worry, I don't either), an important feature of your degree track should be later flexibility. Will it allow you to attend medical school if you decide? Grad school? Work on wall street? Babysit? There are lots of majors (8, 18, 6, 2, ... ) that are really good for branching out later on into all kinds of fields.
Your interests may change, especially as you get deeper into a field, you may find it not at all what you were expecting (this happens all the time, I can't even stress that enough), you can develop interests in things you never thought possible: sometimes this is out of necessity, sometimes just because every subject in its own right is interesting (or else you wouldn't have organic chemists) and you just needed some time to really get into it. I see this happen all the time. Your interests may change, but with some thought put into your choice of major, this doesn't have to mean extra semesters or no diploma.
Alllll this talking aside, undergraduate majors by name are not a big deal. Graduate schools, still a faraway thought for you guys, but looming ever nearer for me, don't give two hoots about the name of your major, they care about what's in your head, your coursework, your research... In fact, I've been told quite a few times that taking Grad-level courses and having more than one major will actually hurt your chances at grad schools- they like to see that you have built a solid foundation in their subject and view anything else as a distraction.
Anyways, I made up a really crappy but maybe useful timeline for when you should be doing what with regard to your major/choice of major. And it starts NOW! (only if you're a freshman, NEXTYEAR! if you're a prefrosh).
- Fall Semester Freshman Year: Talk to people! Research! Ask Questions.
- IAP Freshman Year: Decide what major(s) you may be interested in/want to try out. Plan some spring semester classes that explore these options.
- Spring Freshman Year: Take these classes. Reevaluate.
- End of Spring Freshman Year: Pick a major. It doesn't have to be permanent, but you'll make it easier on yourself to do some exploring before you pick, since, though switching majors is easy, catching up in classes, isn't.
- Summer after Freshman Year: You are assigned your department advisor! This is fun, because you'll come back and meet them probably with food or canoeing involved (the latter may just pertain to my advisor may not be an actual rule).
- End of Sophomore Year: Deadline for deciding to stick with your major unless you are considering a 5th year or a 9th semester or you have already been taking cohesive classes in the major that you want to switch into. This is because most degree tracks are designed to take 2-3 years. If you haven't started on that after the end of sophomore year, you may need to only consider "flexible" options for fewer requirements.
For an outdated (but still interesting) overview of some departments published in 2002 by the Tech, take a look at this: http://www-tech.mit.edu/V122/N5/5majbr.5n.html.
Anyways, I'm doing this because my freshman friend Larisa is having a major crisis (that is, a crisis regarding her major, though it also appears to be quite troubling for her). Please feel free to ask questions about specific majors and I will try my best to answer them or find a satisfactory answer from someone who knows. I like feeling helpful.
Sorry there aren't any pictures in this one... I took pictures of junior lab, so I'll put that together soon.