The spring semester is in full swing, and, for sophomores, concentration declaration is quickly approaching. Obviously, choosing a major is a big decision which will dictate what discipline you study in most of your courses and possibly direct your professional career. However, your department will also define your academic experience as an upperclass student in other ways; each department has different requirements for independent work, different research opportunities for undergraduates, and a different type of community. I found that considering all of these variables helped me to choose my major, but doing so may necessitate a bit of investigating.
So if you are a sophomore about to choose your concentration, what can you do over the next couple months to get to know the department(s) you are interested in?
Here are some tips to get you started, with examples from my beloved home Department of Geosciences:
Few students enter Princeton planning to study Geosciences–I certainly didn’t.
Fascinated by the natural world and enticed by the prospect of a field semester in Kenya, I confidently chose “Ecology and Evolutionary Biology” as my intended concentration every semester on Tigerhub’s Academic Planning Form. My backup plan, if the sciences weren’t the right fit, was to study History and get a certificate in American Studies.
So why, when it came time to declare my concentration, did I end up choosing Geosciences? There were three factors that I felt set GEO apart from the other departments I considered:
When I was considering which department to join, it was important to me that the department had a strong community with a space for undergraduate participation.
GEO has a vibrant department community that places a high value on undergraduates. Undergraduate participation is encouraged in weekly department wide events such as lunchtime lectures and snack breaks, as well as celebratory events such as annual department picnics. Even before I declared my concentration, faculty and staff in the department made it clear that there was a place for me in GEO.
The department even has its own undergraduate society, Princeton University Geosciences Society (PUGS), run entirely by students, which plans regular social events and field trips centered around building a close-knit community of engaged undergraduates. PUGS organized a department field trip to Iceland in 2015 and is planning a weeklong trip to the United Kingdom this year.
My fellow A.B. sophomores, this post is directed at you (not my already-declared B.S.E friends). Whether you feel like your time at Princeton has dragged on or flown by, we now find ourselves at a crossroads. Next semester, we commit ourselves to something in a way that we have never quite done before: we declare a concentration.
Sophomores are generally in one of several stages with regard to major declaration by this point in the year. Some are dead set on a particular concentration. Others are relatively confident about which department they’ll choose, with some degree of uncertainty. Others still are rather split between or amongst several departments. And finally, a portion of the class might have very little idea about what they’ll choose in April. I personally find myself somewhere in between the second and third groups above. I’m deciding between a concentration that is comfortable and familiar to me, and one that would present more of an academic stretch–I haven’t taken many classes in the department, and in general, know less about the subject.
Last February I wrote a post about reconciling my love for STEM with my humanities major. The summer before my junior year, I made a compromise with myself: take at least one quantitative course a semester. I thought this to be the most realistic plan to stay on track with my French major while keeping a promise to cultivate my inner Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I’m kicking off this plan with taking Intro to Data Science this fall.
This compromise is useful on an academic level, given my new interest in Digital Humanities, a field that combines both humanities and technology. I am hoping to prime my quantitative side to explore this field, potentially for my senior thesis.
While listening to an astrophysics podcast, I stumbled into an epiphany about my course of study at Princeton. It was Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk, and two female astrophysicists had been invited on the show to discuss women in the field. About halfway through the episode, I asked myself why I wasn’t pursuing astronomy as a major, especially since I’ve had a fascination with space since childhood. I circled back to high school for an explanation. I had gotten an A- in pre-calculus for the year, and since I was immersed in the high school mindset of perfectionism, I convinced myself I wasn’t good enough at math to pursue anything in the STEM fields. My fellow PCUR blogger Vidushi wrote about how this same feeling I had of lacking “innate brilliance” creates gender gaps in fields like astrophysics. She writes, “Women who don’t see themselves as innately brilliant mathematicians, musicians, or philosophers often do not give themselves the chance to pursue these disciplines.”
When it came time to apply to Princeton, I looked for things I thought I’d be “better” at, and that’s when I started looking into social sciences. I was attracted to the interdisciplinary nature of politics and had always enjoyed French in high school, so I decided to pursue these once I got to college. This course of study has not been easy by any means; however, I sometimes felt like I had settled into these fields because I wasn’t confident enough to pursue other ones. Complaints from my peers about the difficulty of the math and physics courses necessary to study astrophysics overwhelmed me, so I denied myself the opportunity to explore them. I also had this realization at the end of sophomore fall–right before having to declare a concentration in the spring. If you’re struggling with what you want to study at Princeton, hopefully I can give you some encouragement!
There are some things that department websites just don’t tell you.
For example: The History Department holds its mandatory senior thesis planning meeting one hour after spring junior papers are due. (“People hadn’t slept for days!” a friend told me recently.) The Spanish Department, on the other hand, hosts monthly department-wide dinners.
I am amazed — unfortunate scheduling and free food aside — by how much I didn’t know when I chose my major. Talking to other upperclassmen, I get the feeling that I’m not the only one. We all seem to have bumbled through the process, some better-informed than others. When April rolled around, we all picked something and moved on.
The basement of the Lewis Library Fine Hall Wing is quiet.
There aren’t many books down here, and the ones that are here don’t seem to have many readers. There are dim-lit shelves of dusty periodicals, and tomes with titles like Essential Entomology: An Order-by-Order Introduction (a book I actually borrowed for a project last semester).
And then there are the theses, and these are something else. For sophomores looking at concentration selection, theses give a true sense of what it means to be part of a given department at Princeton. Even simply flipping through titles can give a distilled, unbiased sense of the type – and diversity – of work that students in each department undertake.
As a junior, I went to the archives this week under the pressure of an impending deadline for my EEB thesis funding application. In the black-bound books, I felt optimism and excitement, a sense of both broad possibility inspired by all my peers have done, and realistic scope that comes from the recognition that these books are finite, and that writing one is possible.
For Princeton sophomores, the start of second semester can seem like a last-minute mad dash to fulfill prerequisites, choose concentrations and solidify academic paths. Especially for sophomores who have not yet decided on a major, this period can be considerably stressful and overwhelming. While I am not quite in this boat—I have already decided to concentrate in the Woodrow Wilson School—I am facing a similar struggle as I try to settle on a specific track. (For those of you unfamiliar with the track system, Wilson School majors are required to choose a specific field of study under the overarching subject of public and international affairs.)
With the concentration decision deadline rapidly approaching, I’ve decided to treat shopping period as the ultimate academic research experience. Choosing your major really is a lot like tackling a research project. Potential research questions include what are your academic passions? In which areas do you excel? In what ways do you want to be challenged? With whom do you wish to work?