Sunday, February 6, 2011

The English Major Versus the Science Major

I am, thank God, not insane enough to go for a double major (though I still have most of my college career in front of me.) My English major is... it's not easy, but it's certainly not a challenge for me. I started out reading the hardest books I could find. When I really got into reading, back in sophomore year of high school, two of my first extracurricular reads were Moby-Dick and Atlas Shrugged. So, when I moved through the grades and finally breached headlong into college, reading the Great Gatsby (for the third or fourth time) for a 300 level course really wasn't much of a challenge.

Having written a good four or five or six or seven... many times more than most 21 year olds have (or most 40 year olds... most people) I have no problem banging out paper after paper after paper. It's a challenge, but I'm well adapted. I'm majoring in my natural state - a book worm and an obsessive writer.

Then, like the fool I am, I discovered a second passion which challenged my first. I love the brain! I really do love neuroscience. Fortunately, after taking my first neuro class in high school, I tapped the shallow well of literature on neuroscience, reading a couple Oliver Sacks books and a wonderful, almost self-help book called The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (I think) and then letting my obsession fall to the back burner while I focussed on further refining my English abilities.

Then, after a year and a half in college, what do I realize? I've almost finished my English major. I binged English classes. I have that rare, precious thing - free time... an opportunity for another course. A second course. Reenter the periodic obsession.

I start reading online literature. I start reading chapters out of my old text book. I read A User's Guide to the Brain by Ratey. But it's not enough. So I decide to take classes. It's not enough. I'm a cognitive science minor in the psych department. I hope this is enough - this is possibly the only thing that could take the place of the goal I've had since the age of seven (to become some sort of novelist.) There were moments when I was inches from becoming a "science" student as opposed to an "English" student, though I think I could do both.

No amount of novel-reading (or even non-fiction reading) could have prepared me for the kind of reading I have to do in the classes I'm taking this semester. Well, no, not classes. One class I am in, very simply titled Perception is already challenging me beyond what any of my comfort-zone English classes could (except for maybe Shakespeare.)

I've just finished reading about the eye. Sure, in that high school class we did a lot of work on the sensory organs - but this shit is hard. Giving a damn, actually wanting to know something - not just for school / good grades, but out of a genuine desire for knowledge - is exhausting.

Satisfying! It takes me about three or four hours to read a single chapter in my text book, Sensation and Perception, whereas, had I been reading a novel for that period of time, unless it was Russian literature, I could have pounded through half the book. 30 pages in three hours. Flash cards, notes, underlining, and an online test...? Is this that other me? If I hadn't been turned on to writing back in the third grade would I have become a lab-rat, a science junky?

Would I be happier?

Would I be more successful?

I am neither unhappy nor am I unsuccessful, but there is always that "what if" itchy question scratching at my thoughts. Might it have been better if I had abandoned Rand and Melville in favor of Darwin, Dawkins, Pinker, and Sacks? Why do I feel that I can't do both!? Where is it written that I can't be some sort of neuroscientist and be a novelist? Nowhere. Why do I think that there is some edict against dual direction? Time! I only have so much time - not so much in school, but in life. School is direct. I know exactly what to do because administrators, councilors, and teachers all tell me what to do. Real life isn't so forward. I feel as though I have a one track mind. So, which way? Novelist or neurologist? I think I still need some time to figure that out.


  1. I am having a very similar dilemma at the moment--except that I am not a college student quite yet! I am extremely stressed on choosing between two colleges--then there is the even more stressful thought of choosing a major. My passions pine for English with a focus on journalism--yet my parents and my conscience say otherwise--that I must consider, and quite seriously, a practical, scientific major. If you do still keep up with this blog, I would love to know what track you chose to take in life, and whether you have any advice for this very confused student! Thank you!

  2. Wow, I haven't looked at this blog in over a year. I have quite a bit more to say about this subject now than I did then.

    Follow your passions first. There are practical reasons for this beyond the typical and cliche reasons "if you love your job you won't work a day in your life" and all that "listen to your heart" malarkey - which is true and sounds nice, but is not informative. The reason you should follow your passions is simple: you tend to perform better in those subjects that interest you.

    So, this means that you will get better grades (this is a good reason to give to your parents if they are the type who are concerned your maintaining a high GPA). This means that you will enjoy school more. And, if you enjoy school more, you'll do better over all. Furthermore, if you're truly passionate about English, there is a bonus specific to that particular mode of study.

    (1) You don't need a professor to teach you how to be good at English. I've been writing obsessively since I was 15, reading obsessively since I was 17 - doing well in English classes is as much a product of my own efforts outside of the classroom as in the classroom. I know my blog doesn't show it, but writing for hours and hours and hours every week outside of school differentiates the average English student from an exceptional English student. If you're passionate about English, you're likely already doing this.

    (2) Applicability: if you can write well you can work anywhere. English majors ARE NOT limited to journalism, teaching English, writing novels, and blogging. Think about it - what business doesn't need goo writers? Even if it's writing monthly reports, certain standards need to be met and the business major with no writing background might not be able to meet those standards. So, the company looks for an English major.

    (3) Moldability (not a word, but English majors can make up words): As you know, I went through the same dilemma. So, I began designing a major in Science Writing (specifically cognitive science). Because I would have had to give up my ultimate goal of becoming a professor, I gave up this personalized major. However, the fact that I was close to creating it, the fact that I had support interdepartmentally (both English and, in this case, Psychology) is definitely a positive.

    I don't know where you live - but in New England there is only one school that outright offers Science Writing as a major (or maybe it was a minor - one or the other). That was MIT. But, I'm sure if you're interested in both and you find cooperative, invested, open-minded professors in the English department and whatever science department you're interested in, they can help you out.

    I know I've already written too much, but you caught me at a unusually free time. Let me give you some last advice about journalism specifically.

    I am currently the managing editor at my university's student news paper so, believe me when I tell you, if you want to learn how to be a journalist, getting involved in the student news paper is more fruitful (both on your resume and in a practical sense) in terms learning how to be a journalist. Having done journalism for a couple years now along with my professional writing focus I can tell you it is not easy (it's not for me, but if you enjoy it you could be very good - you already write well).

    Bottom lines (important to parents): doing what you like in school = doing well in school. College costs a lot of money, and pardon me for being blunt, DON'T WASTE MONEY PURSUING OTHER PEOPLE'S AMBITIONS FOR YOU. Do what you like and you'll do well.

    English isn't a bad major in terms of making money when you get out of school - you just need to be creative, open, and willing to pursue writing wherever it takes you.

    Hope this was helpful! Feel free to ask me more questions,
    - Paul

  3. I have the same problem! I'm torn between English and Biology/Chemistry.

  4. So, did you every decide and resolve your original problem? I'm being honest, I'm going through the exact same dilemma: Neuroscience and English.This is the first shred of hope I've had that anyone shares my feeling.

    1. Holy cow. I haven't looked at this in years! I guess that works out though because things have "resolved" themselves.

      Whereas I was getting my undergrad degree in English when I wrote this original post, I am now working toward my masters in English with the ultimate goal of becoming a professor. However, science is not far from my mind. In fact, my background and interest in science in general, and cognitive / neuro science specifically, has made me much more specialized in my research and therefore more marketable as a professor / researcher / professional.

      My specific area of study incorporates English Victorian literature, science, philosophy of mind... kind of everything. Essentially I am trying to figure something out through the lens of Victorian science and literature: how did developments in brain science / science of mind / and other 19th century sciences influence people's understanding of their own mind / body / soul and how does this manifest itself in the literature.

      For example, I'm sure you know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, even if you have not read the novella. In it, Dr. Jekyll is able to alter his body to match his degenerate, more animalistic soul. This tells us two things about the science and understanding of the mind-body-soul problem of that period: (1) the soul and the body are divisible or multiple (there was a theory called the double brain theory at the time that directly correlates to J/H transformation. (2) People's minds are not one (look up a fellow named Lange and "parliament of souls"... or something close to that if you want to know more). This "degeneracy" also ties in the theory of evolution because Hyde is "ape like" and therefore a "de-evolution" of Jekyll on the evolutionary tree.

      So, my rant comes down to three things. (1) I can rant for a really long time.... (2) You don't have to sacrifice one for the other. Science writing might be a way to do the flip of what I've done. My research is basically using my English degree to understand the history of science. Science writing is similar, but you would need to be much more involved and understand modern science. It is a wonderfully niched field, and there is a relatively high demand for science writers, since (as you know from various science courses I'm sure) hard science majors tend to reject the skill of writing as unnecessary. Therefore, science writers are needed. (3) So long as you pursue what you're interested in / are willing to put in an insane effort, you can find a happy medium between the two.

      None of this is to say that you can't do both in isolation. But I almost guarantee that you cannot do them both at the same time, both English and Neuroscience demanding full devotion. If you do pursue both fields, although this might seem non-apparent now, one WILL inform the other and the skills of each will perforate the membrane of either. Having a scientific mind has improved my technical writing. Being able to write novels and essays informs my understanding of the human mind / brain.

      Hope this is helpful!

  5. Thanks for the reading. I just graduated from UC Davis in 2016. When I first started in 2012, I entered for Environmental Science because my idea was to go to medical school after. At first, I wanted to stay as close to a "high School" schedule while in college; as in, taking English, Science, Math, History. I realized that I needed Math and Science for the major, but english was needed as a general Ed...Long story short, I wanted to go make the most of my college adventure. I decided to switch from Environmental Science to History, and towards my senior year of college I declared my second major in Biological Sciences. I still was able to finish in 4 years. Now I am looking for a job but the good thing is that I don't have much trouble writing my cover letters or editing my resume because I have the writing skills that I've gain through my many years of writing History papers. Unlike most science people, I don't feel intimidated by writing or reading. :D Congrats for working on a Masters and good luck.