If you are Asian, this particular dilemma is easier to confront: since your sole purpose in life is to give your parents something to brag about to their friends at Mah-Jhong parties, you are faced with a simple decision of either majoring in Engineering, a Physical Science, pre-med … or dragging down the family name in eternal shame by selecting a non-science degree.
In the end, one is still confronted with a dizzying array of academic disciplines, and little basis to judge them on, aside from the empty-but-impressive self-promoting blurb each department gives itself. For all the undecided students who sense a bit of duplicity and wonder what specific majors really involve, I present the following academic major review guide:
Engineering (Mechanical, Chemical, Electrical & Industrial)
You watched Star Trek religiously as a kid - because you loved to point out scientific inconsistencies in specific episodes. This later segued into 6-hour Trekkie convention meetings where you discussed specific scientific laws broken in each episode and bitched about its lack of 'realism.' While ridiculed in elementary school and junior high for being a geek, you wondered if all your fascination with science would ever pay off in college as an engineering major.
On the downside, you will spend 30 hours a week for 4 to 6 years to earn a degree to realize that modern-day engineers represent the white-collar, college-educated, slave-labor market - grossly underpaid, expendable cogs of the corporate machine, pushed around and lorded over by clueless 25-year-old Harvard MBAs.
On the upside, an engineering major will allow you to earn units by building cool toothpick bridges (and have your professor and try to break them and grade you on how long it held), playing around with fifty-thousand-dollar machine tools, and learning more than you ever cared to know about Fourier Series and LaPlace Transforms, and … ahh, well, this is not a very strong point.
For those psychotically ambitious enough to want to compete against the other 800 other premeds in your Biochem/O-Chem classes, a Biology major represent an viable choice. If you are good at memorizing long strings of unrelated trivia and able to regurgitate them under the pressure of a midterm or final exam, a Biology/Biochem degree might be just what you are looking for. While it could be argued that the ability to memorize worthless trivia might not be the best criteria for admission to medical school, imagine all the fun those late-night games of Trivial Pursuit must be at Medical Schools around the country.
On the downside, bear in mind that you will spend north of four years fighting a pack of the most bloodthirsty human piranhas ever assembled in a classroom. This means that study groups are largely impossible to form - people who think they're smarter than you will refuse to work with you (for fear that you might raise the curve) and people who think you're smarter will want to leech off your assignments and notes. It takes a strong stomach to endure the pre-med route-the - since only friends you'll make as a pre-med are with Jack Daniels, Samuel Adams and Johnnie Walker.
Dumping ground for failed computer science/engineering majors.
For computer science majors who spent too much time on-line playing Dungeons & Dragons on college computer networks, the CogSci degree is the default second choice. Cons: Learn to program in LISP - an AI programming language nobody outside of CogSci understands or uses. Pros: Feel superior to the dim-bulb Psychology students you take cross-listed classes with.
Earth Science (Earth Science/Chemistry, Earth Science/Physics)
Actually subspecialties within the Chemistry and Physics departments, the Earth Science concentration allows one to substitute Earth Science electives for core courses with their respective departments. Better known by full Chemistry and Physics students as "Chem Lite" and "Physics For Weenies," the Earth Science major allows one to earn units for looking at pretty rocks and pretending to be scientists. A shrewd choice for the lazy Asian student, the Earth Science degree allows your parents to brag about their bright kid who is majoring in "Physics" or "Chemistry" without all the ugly work that a full Physics or Chem degree would actually demand.
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Dumping ground for failed science/engineering majors.
It has been said that anyone who calls themselves a economics major, then go out to spend $80 on a econ textbook, should be failed on principle. This is true. Of course, high attrition is bad in a course of study designed for people who already burned out of a science, so the courseload is designed around elementary calculus and grade-school reading. Marginally useful courses in Operations Research and Finance will give you significant edge when you interview for work as a bank teller after graduation.
Poli Sci academics have a serious inferiority/envy complex to Economists and work tirelessly to hijack mathematical economic models/concepts to describe political scenarios ... often with hilariously inappropriate analogies and applications (as a result of their poor understanding of mathematics).
Searching desperately to validate themselves as real "scientists," PoliSci professors engage in meaningless regressions and data mining of history to predict the future with increasingly loopy theories. PoliSci is an excellent choice if you are supported by your parents, as PoliSci classes are notorious for assigning hundreds of dollars worth of worthless books that you will read once (if that) for the one quote that the prof will as for on your final. One must also be proficient at sprinkling essays with PoliSci "power words" like "hegemony," "coalition," "bilateral," and "paradigm."
The payoff comes when you land work as a "political consultant" and get some sap on the Bush '04 campaign to pay you $500,000 to hear sage advice like: "Historically, no Republican with a one-syllable last name lost a reelection run in an even-number election year." Not a bad living, if you don't mind getting paid once every four years.
Dumping ground for failed Biology majors.
The field of psychology is disturbingly fascinated by rats. I remember reading a text about an experiment with a rat whose pleasure center was directly wired to a bar. As anyone with a bit of imagination could have told you, the rat kept hitting lever over and over and over and over ... until you had to read about the rat in a college psychology textbook.
The only sensible thing to arise from the entire field of Psychology is an observation a friend of mine made, talking about rats in a maze. "You take away the incentive - the food reward at the end of the maze, and they'll eventually stop. That's the difference between humans and rats - the rats eventually stop."
The only thing studying psychology will do is make you lose faith in human nature. And who needs that? Choose again.
As one who has suffered through our grueling-yet-vocationally-worthless Physics program I've concluded that Physics is God's way of telling us that there are things mortals just shouldn't know. When getting over 30% on midterms and finals earns an "A" in an upper-division class in E&M, you know something is wrong with the discipline - even the best students are doing worse than what would flunk you in any other class. The only good thing I learned from studying physics: now I know why the Space Shuttle blew up.
Consider: NASA hired a bunch of scientists with seemingly impeccable academic qualifications ("straight-A Physics students") with stupid confidence of those who do not realize physicists can earn their straight-As being WRONG 70 percent of the time. Only in baseball can a successful career be built on a comprable failure rate.
In my more naïve and innocent freshman days I saw the "Women's Studies" degree and thought to myself "Woo HOO! Imagine getting UNITS and even a DEGREE for something I DO ALREADY!"
We've all heard the warning: if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. My dreams of dating my way to a bachelor's degree (or out of bachelorhood, as it were) dashed against the cruel rocks of reality. I was not going to survive four years of dull lectures on the evils of white heterosexual males.
It takes years of experience to pierce the veil of propaganda woven by devious departments trying to hustle naïve undergrads into their programs. I hope my experience can be of service to steer impressionable freshmen from the worst of your professors' deceptions.
And if you still can't figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life, well, isn't that the point of graduate school?