Posted 1:24 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021
Eleven things to consider if you are interested in a science major
When asked to picture your future in science, what comes to mind?
A messy-haired scientist concocting explosive experiments in a basement alone? This stereotypical image of science and scientists limits our understanding of what science majors can actually do, which is almost limitless, says UW-La Crosse Chemistry Professor Todd Weaver.
Science majors are all around us on teams solving problems for businesses, organizations and government. They become doctors, dentists, teachers, patent lawyers, technology managers, quality assurance specialists, hydrologists, marine biologists, and more. What science majors have in common is a desire to use knowledge and data to find answers to important questions.
If you are considering majoring in science, you have a lot of career options ahead of you. Don’t worry. You don’t need to figure out everything on day one of college or even within your first year. College advisors will help you think through your skills, interests, personality and values, as well as give you steps to explore potential degree paths. Taking college classes will give you great clues about the directions to keep going.
If you’re pondering a science major or have a more specific goal such as biology, pre-med or pre-physical therapy, take a look at this advice for those thinking about a science major from college advisors and science professors at UW-La Crosse.
What to consider when thinking about a science major
- Do you actually like science? OK — This is a no-brainer, but it can be confusing if you are not thinking about your interests realistically. Liking science is not the same as liking your high school science teacher or the idea of having a particular professional title like “genetic counselor.” Did you enjoy the actual process of taking science classes and labs in high school? It may be that you haven’t had enough experience in science classes to know. That’s OK. You’ll gain more experiences in college, so keep exploring this area. But be honest with yourself about the topics that draw you in and those that you dread spending time on. Sometimes we like the idea or vision we have of doing something more than actually doing it. In a career, you are typically working for eight or more hours a day, so make sure it is something you like.
- How does reading science course descriptions make you feel? Look at course descriptions for science-related majors of interest online. Read some of those courses and evaluate how they make you feel. UWL Advisor Erin Flottmeyer says she can often tell by students’ faces as she reads a course description whether they are excited or dreading it. You likely will not love all of your foundational science courses, but you shouldn’t be dreading the majority of courses leading to your future career. They should become increasingly appealing as you get into your specific niche. Pay attention to how you feel. You can find course descriptions on college websites. UWL sample courses are available to view at the bottom of all UW-La Crosse academic program pages (click overview under your preferred major/minor). Course descriptions are also available in the UWL catalog.
- Is it your idea to major in science? Whose idea is it that you pick a science major? Your parent or guardian? Your older sibling? Your high school guidance counselor? It should be you. Don’t let someone else’s dreams overtake your own.
- Are you ready to embrace math? A strong math foundation can come with practice, but it can’t be skipped if you plan to major in science. Strong foundational math skills are a pre-requisite for intro level chemistry courses, often required at many universities including at UWL for all science majors. Also, the linear way of thinking that students learn from doing a lot of math problems helps their brain begin to solve problems more efficiently, which is also important for problem solving in science classes, explains UWL Associate Professor of Biology Anne Galbraith.
- Are you OK with failure? Science — especially when you get beyond the intro level courses with cookbook-style lab experiments — is very much about failure. You design plans or experiments to solve problems and, more often than not, it doesn’t work out. You need to pick yourself up, figure out what didn’t work and try again. If you take great joy in accomplishing tasks routinely, you’ll need to get used to thinking differently when it comes to science, says Professor Weaver. Scientific accomplishments are more of a marathon than a sprint, he explains. The ability to take slow, methodical steps and persist, even in the face of failure, are keys to getting results.
- Are you curious? Professor Galbraith says she can see it in a students’ eyes if they are really digging the material or not. If science-related topics tend to light a fire under you and get you asking a lot of questions — that’s a good sign. You can’t feign curiosity and that drive to know will power you in your studies beyond belief.
- Do you like working on a team? Contrary to the stereotype of a scientist sitting alone in a basement, scientists are always sharing what they learn and working collaboratively. Science majors are trained in this way as well. Professors stress the importance of communication, collaboration and teamwork.
- Do you like variety? As a science major, you’ll take a lot of science classes — even outside of your declared major. So, biology majors will take chemistry and microbiology and a host of other science-related courses that have no “biology” in the name. That surprises many students, but having a broad science background is by design. Not only does it create graduates who have broader perspectives and flexibility, it also exposes students to more potential career paths. For instance, a biology student may discover microbiology or clinical laboratory science is a better fit and excites them even more than biology. That is what college is all about.
- Do you like to experience what you’re learning? As a science major, you will be encouraged to get a lot of practice — and that means a lot of labs. Yes, you’ll be wearing the goggles, preparing solutions and lighting Bunsen burners. Each science class may have a 55-minute lecture a few days per week, but that lecture is typically accompanied by 2-3 hours of lab a week. Labs are considered foundational in science courses, so there is no skipping out. Science-related careers are inherently hands-on, and you can’t learn those skills by just watching. In addition to labs, students also participate in undergraduate research, join various clubs, gain volunteer experiences, take internships and more. Some universities may place less emphasis on hands-on experiences, but it is common for students to experience them as part of their science courses at UW-La Crosse.
- Are you ready to work hard? You will eventually have to take more than two science/math courses at the same time to be a science major. For some students, it can feel difficult to take a group of these very involved and complex classes at once, but that is eventually what you need to do if you want to major in science and graduate in a reasonable amount of time. Seniors can expect to have mostly science courses on their schedule, unless they happen to have some general electives left. Weaver advises students not to shy away from the more challenging courses in math and science. They will be surprised what they can accomplish. And opting out of more complex math and science courses can limit major options you can pursue in science.
- Do you want to find your niche? As a science major, you will have a unique experience — like no other science major. No two biology majors are alike. No two chemistry majors are alike. And the list goes on … When you take college classes, you are building your own major as you choose your courses. While some foundational courses are required and are the same for every student, course electives can be selected on your interest. You will gain specialized abilities in that area.
What are good majors for pre-med or pre-physical therapy?
This is one of the top questions for UWL college advisors. The answer? You can pick just about any undergraduate major and still be accepted to medical school. The same goes for pre-physical therapy. You don’t even need to limit yourself to a science major. While a strong science foundation will be important for taking the MCAT and medical school classes, a science major is not a must. Consider that some medical schools will want applicants with different interests, abilities and backgrounds to diversify their class. In addition to various science degrees, students enter medical schools with degrees in humanities or social sciences routinely. And there is no major that appears to have any advantage over the other for getting into medical school, according to data from the Association of American of Medical Colleges.
So, although biological sciences is one of the most common majors for students who are accepted to medical school, don’t be stuck to the idea that biology is your only choice. Let your interests and passions guide you as that is what will make you stand out from the pack as you pursue graduate and professional schools. When you get to campus, work with advisors to discuss major options based on your interests, skills and goals.
Other common science major questions
Why can’t I find the science major I want?
If you’re perusing science major lists available at universities, you may be surprised when you don’t see the exact option you are looking for. Where is genetics? Where is horticulture? Just because a school doesn’t have a specific major, doesn’t mean they don’t offer programming that will prepare you for those careers. Connect with Admissions officials who can help you understand the offerings available and how they can translate to different careers. Many times a particular subject area is offered through numerous courses or an area of emphasis, but it is not part of the larger department or program name.
What if I can’t afford graduate school in science?
If you continue on to graduate school in a hard science, it will be free. Many students don’t realize that if they are accepted into a graduate school at the doctoral level in one of the hard sciences, their tuition will be free and they’ll receive a stipend for living expenses. This is because the federal government and granting agencies such as the National Science Foundation often support salaries for graduate students and other scientists at schools or the department will have funds earmarked for tuition and stipends for graduate students. Money shouldn’t be an obstacle to graduate school in the sciences as long as you can get accepted.
Am I smart enough to be a science major?
You don’t need to be a genius to be a science major. Anyone can major in science. Weaver worries that some students are dissuaded from science because they think it is for only the highest achieving students academically. He reminds students that he earned average grades in school, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming a chemistry professor. If you are truly interested in a topic, you can work hard and overcome the academic hurdles. And many professors would prefer a student with genuine ambition to discover and only average grades than a student who is simply jumping through hoops with the goal of getting a perfect letter grade.