“What will you major in?” asked one of my senior year teachers.
“I don’t think majors matter,” I responded, with the overconfidence of any seventeen-year-old. “I’ll just take classes I like and major in whatever I take the most of.”
“That probably won’t work,” the teacher said.
I ignored them, because if you listened every time an adult told you something won’t work, you’d never get anything done.
As it turns out, though, that teacher wasn’t entirely wrong. Some majors have more flexibility, some have less, but you do kinda have to map out a courseroad if you wanna graduate on time. The only problem is that there are so many cool majors here, and it’s hard to choose.
“What course are you?” a tour guide asked me during CPW back in 2019.
“21E,” I said, thinking that every student here knew the name of every course.
He said, “What’s that?”
“Engineering and humanities.” It’s a sort of joint major where you can do more of what you want, with fewer requirements.
“Oh, I know a guy doing that,” his fellow tour guide said. “He seems happy.”
He didn’t mean it as a joke, that in all of MIT this one person alone seemed happy, so I did not laugh, just smiled with a vague sense of foreboding.
“I’ve never met anyone who goes to MIT,” a bearded farmer told me when I worked on a farm near Venice. “What are you studying?”
“Environmental engineering,” I said. “Though I haven’t started yet.”
He nodded, tapped out his cigarette. “What is that?”
“I don’t know exactly,” I admitted. “Like… engineering, but with an environmental focus?”
I’d seen it listed on the course catalog—Course 1, Civil and Environmental Engineering—and liked the idea of working with my hands at a job that helped the environment. My main focus, writing, is largely useless to humanity, so I want my day job to do some good.
“You go to university here? What’s your major?” asked a nice older man who was selling me a laptop on Craigslist.
“Chemical engineering,” I said. I had decided this was a good way to help the environment, better than environmental engineering, though I still wasn’t sure what that was. Also, I liked chemistry.
“You must be a brainiac.”
I’d never heard that word used in real life before, and don’t think I’ve heard it since.
My ChemE phase lasted a little longer. I went to an First-year Pre-Orientation Program, a 4-day zoom event before fall term for Course 10, ChemE, where they sent us materials to make popping boba and talked about working in industry. I loved the camaraderie between the students, so strong you could feel it through Zoom. It’s a small, challenging major. I liked the sample problem they showed us, a sort of optimization of a specific chemical process.
Ultimately, though, I wasn’t sufficiently drawn toward engineering big systems, which is a major focus of Course 10. Also, Course 10 has a lot of requirements, and I felt like I wouldn’t have enough time to pursue other interests.
I interned with the Rapid Response Group this fall, which is a group of undergrads and grad students who work on different environmental issues. My favorite project was sorting through a few hundred letters from fisherpeople in Maine to find responses that could be used to argue for a whale conservation law. I worked under the direction of four amazing environmental policy lawyers, all women in their forties and fifties who spent their lives fighting for endangered species protection.
I got the sense that although my contribution this time around was relatively minor, the work they did was truly impactful. I also got the sense that their work was hard, and occasionally hopeless. The fight to save the planet feels like a battle already lost sometimes, which we fight only because there is no other option.
My cousin is studying to be a lawyer. There are other ways to work on public policy, too. I don’t know that I want to work in public policy in this way exactly, but it does seem to me like a clear way to be actually effective, instead of tinkering with chemicals or tools in some fancy lab and hoping that whatever I make is eventually useful to someone.
In spring I took organic chemistry and a chem lab, fully expecting to be stockholmed into majoring in chem. Which would mean tinkering with chemicals and hoping they’ll be useful.
Meanwhile I discovered that I was on track to double-major in history; all it takes is one history class per semester, and a thesis senior year. I might major, I might minor; this is a case where I can take whichever classes I want and see what they turn in to.
Then the Major Declaration Form came out, due at the end of April, and I resolved to find a major, the major, the one true major that spoke to me more than any other. If such a thing existed.
“I have to choose a major,” I complained to my mom on the phone, pacing my room. “This is revolting.”
“Do math,” she said. “It’s the easiest.” This is an opinion of my mother and not necessarily the opinion of MIT.
“I don’t care about math enough.”
“Okay, fine. Do mechanical engineering. The mechanical engineers I knew seemed happy.”
My mom is a software engineer, but she and I both know that computer science isn’t for me. I want to be a writer, and there are only so many hours I can spend hunched over a computer.
“MechE?” I frowned at the window. My reflection looked like she had not slept in days.
“Or do whatever you want,” my mom said, not unkindly. “Don’t listen to me.”
The thing is, I was considering MechE (course 2). My roommate in fall was a MechE major. She explained the set-up of a physics problem to me, and I remember being awed by her intuition. She did robotics in high school, already knew how to CAD, and was taking design classes her freshman fall. If I studied MechE, I’d be way behind her. But then, that’s true for pretty much any major here—there’s always someone who’s been doing it forever.
I think my trepidation came about not because she was very good at MechE—though she was—but because she loved it so much. I like making things, but not as much as she does. Which leads me to think that there is something out there which I do like that much, something which suits me better.
I love seeing people who love what they do. There’s a physics major on my floor in Next House who, when I asked him for help, said I was working on a “beautiful problem” and immediately drew it up on a whiteboard. He pushed me toward the solution without consulting any notes, because he understood the problem and never had to memorize it. At the end, I understood it, too.
My pod went bowling, and one of my podmates, a math major, looked at our final score and said, “that’s such a pretty number! It’s the square of 26.”
Another of my podmates, a MechE major, disappeared for hours in the middle of a week; we guessed she was in Metropolis, a makerspace. She came back after dark to show us that she had spontaneously made a papier mache goat. We named it Bert.
In the quest for my perfect major, I tried to move through the 20-odd majors methodically:
Course 1? (Civil and Environmental Engineering) Still dunno what it I googled it eventually, so this ignorance of mine hasn't persisted. Course 1s, forgive my slander
Course 2? (Mechanical Engineering) Maybe?
Course 3? (Materials Science) Seems pretty cool, but similar to chem, so might as well stick with chem…
I narrowed down the list using similarly arbitrary logic. It felt like there were too many courses, and at the same time like there were not nearly enough. What if I’d just glossed over the one thing that might call to me? How could I know what I liked without taking a class in that course? After much hemming and hawing, I got down to five options: chemistry Earth, Atmospheric, & Planetary Science Humanities and science joint major, similar to 21E physics! or maybe Mechanical engineering I planned to attend ‘meet course x’ zooms for each of these, then skipped nearly all of them because I was too busy. I wound up only going to the chemistry one.
I went running right after. It was mid-April; you could finally wear shorts, and everything was green. I ran past families of geese, gawking at the fluffy yellow goslings.
In the chemistry zoom, professors talked about their research and answered our questions. One professor told us how he’d gone to school for psych, I think, then discovered chem his freshman year. He liked that it was constant, fundamental, always true in a way one could prove. The professor seemed to be trying to encapsulate what he liked about chem, even though the words he said could be applied to anything. He could not elucidate exactly what hooked him, but you could see it in the way he spoke. His enthusiasm was glowing and infectious. It was exactly how I feel about writing.
I’m meeting majors one by one, looking at each one anew, imagining what could be. I realized after that zoom that I will not be seduced by chemistry. I have already met chemistry. Chemistry has nice hair and a cute smile, and could occupy my thoughts for a season or a year, but my heart belongs elsewhere. It always has.
I thought of these lines while running. I’d just read a Neil Gaiman story that personified the months of the year. I repeated the lines to myself, to refine them, to remember, so that I could jot them down later. It was a few miles before their meaning actually sank in.
It always has.
I don’t need to fall in love with a science the way I have with writing. I’m lucky to care about anything this much.
I just need something fun, something I’d enjoy doing for a few years. Something where I use both mind and hand, and meet wacky people, and go on adventures worth writing about. Maybe something good for this world.
I don’t want an English degree. I am fairly convinced that you learn writing by writing, and re-writing, and ripping up everything and starting over. You major in English, a fantasy author who gives pretty solid writing advice, and writes good books, too, such as <em>Mistborn</em> and <em>The Stormlight Archives</em> said, so that you have time to write, while your chemical engineer roommate stays up all night sourced from this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH9sJrAVeC0), though I'm heavily paraphrasing.
Which brings me back to chemistry and MechE, which aren’t my first and greatest loves, but which can entertain me for a season. Maybe they can entertain me for however many years it takes to get a book published. So which one will it be?
Chemistry is like a language. I love the logic of it, how one trend builds on another, so you can see where each new pattern comes from. You learn conventions, like how to draw molecular bonding orbitals or chair structures, but there’s always a useful application before too long, so you see why the conventions are made, why they are useful.
My zeide (grandpa) spilled bromine on himself and disintegrated his lab coat back in the 1960s. I don’t know if that sort of error happens much today—I will never be as cool as my grandparents—but it shows how chemistry is fickle, feral, in a way that few things are. The flasks and vials with all their myriad names feel like something from a novel, a mad scientist’s workshop.
MechE I don’t know as well, but I do like making things. I took an engineering class in high school and discovered that making anything takes twice as long as you think it will, and that solar ovens get pretty damn hot, especially in Arizona. I’m building methane bubble traps in my UROP and love it, even though some days are spent just gluing different types of PVC together. I don’t have the impetus to just up and make a goat, as demonstrated by my palpable lack of papier mache goats, but I can cultivate that. The Makerspace gave me a toolbox, my UROP advisor lets me steal Arduino parts, and I finally have time.
“What should I major in?” I asked my podmate, the one who made the goat, 45 minutes before major declaration forms were due.
“Dude, I thought you were doing chemistry,” she said.
“Yeah, but like… imagine if I didn’t,” I said. I clicked Chemistry, then MechE, then back again.
“I dunno.” Because chemistry is comfortable. It’s challenging and cool, and I will take more chemistry classes, maybe even blow things up in lab. But it is not the only thing I want to leave here knowing.
I looked at her. “What if I did MechE with you?”
“I mean… you do talk about that sometimes.”
If I don’t learn mechanical engineering now, I likely never will.
Gleefully I clicked on Course 2-A, typed some artlessly passionate responses into the ‘why this major?’ box, and hit submit.
“Huh,” my podmate said. “I did not expect that.”
I guess it’s goat girl summer now.
- First-year Pre-Orientation Program, a 4-day zoom event before fall term back to text ↑
- I googled it eventually, so this ignorance of mine hasn't persisted. Course 1s, forgive my slander back to text ↑
- chemistry back to text ↑
- Earth, Atmospheric, & Planetary Science back to text ↑
- Humanities and science joint major, similar to 21E back to text ↑
- physics! back to text ↑
- Mechanical engineering back to text ↑
- a fantasy author who gives pretty solid writing advice, and writes good books, too, such as Mistborn and The Stormlight Archives back to text ↑
- sourced from this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH9sJrAVeC0), though I'm heavily paraphrasing. back to text ↑