One thing I noticed my freshman year at Cornell was that EVERYONE was premed. Granted, I was friends with a number of ambitious biology majors, but it wasn’t just them – the engineer across the hall, the math major next door to him taking one science class, the chemistry major in my research lab all called themselves premed (or at least “considering it”). But if I was to ask those same people now, I’m certain that the majority of them would tell me “No, I’m not premed. Not anymore.” I’m sure some of them realized that being a doctor was just not their calling, but I’m willing to bet that for most of them, it was because contrary to their initial expectations, being premed is hard. And it’s not just the notorious organic chemistry classes or even the biology classes with their weekly 4-hour labs, but in order to get into med school, you need good grades. And getting good grades is no joke when you’re competing with hundreds of other premed students in the same classes.
Yesterday I heaved a very long and knowing sigh when one of my friends and fellow chemistry majors linked on Facebook to a NY Times article “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)” (link to article here). In an age when scientists are indispensable in tackling the problems that plague our generation, from environmental conservation and sustainability, to combating the rise of drug-resistant disease, why are we driving them away?
The NY Times article argues that it’s because science majors are just too hard. Students in other majors have less work, easier work, higher GPAs – and sometimes get higher paying jobs. However, I don’t completely agree. I think that every student initially chooses a science major with at least some notion of what they’re in for, even if they underestimate the amount of work they’ll truly be getting. No one studies engineering thinking that it’ll be a breeze; even the most ignorant and optimistic of freshmen has to anticipate a few all-nighters and a few lower grades. The truth is that studying science is hard. Hard, though far from impossible. So then what is it that’s causing such a high dropout rate of science majors?
I can understand that low grades are an issue. Most-high achieving students are not used to getting low grades when they start college and are quickly disillusioned when they get back their first exams. I’ve had professors who aim to have the mean score of the exams be a 50/100. As demoralizing as a score of 57% may be (how the hell do I only know 57% of the material on this exam after studying for an entire week?), it also means that I’ve done better than half the students in the class. However, science students have to realize that college is not high school. While some students still get 80s and 90s, 70 might be the new B, and 85 the new A; many classes are curved, so absolute grades are less important than relative grades. And everyone is learning the same material and being graded on the same scale. This makes me wonder if maybe instead of saying that grades are too low, we should say that students in all studies were spoiled with too-high grades in high school. Of course that’s not to say that grade deflation doesn’t exist, but for the most part, you earn your grades. Professors aren’t out to get you and they have no reason to grade unfairly.
The last given reason why students switch out of science majors is that it’s simply not worth it. All the hard work and dissatisfyingly low grades aren’t worth it in the end. This is what worries me the most. It’s one thing to be honestly overwhelmed by all the work required to be an engineer or a physicist, but a completely different thing to give up becoming a chemist or mathematician because studying business will earn you more money with a more comfortable lifestyle. I’ve already written about the value of taking your education seriously (post here), but hand-in-hand with that is the value of a good education, a strong education. No one does anything meaningful by settling for what’s easy; ambition and persistence are what make people great and are the qualities of successful science students. If you truly want to be a doctor one day, stick with it. The work will be hard, and the hours long, but if in eight years you’ve made it and walk down that aisle to be handed your MD, you will not only have achieved your dream of becoming a doctor, but you will know that you are a well prepared, damn-good doctor – the kind of person this world needs.