Switching majors and deciding I was no longer pre-med was one of the most defining moments of my undergraduate career. I mean, think about it! I literally worked myself up all throughout high school and went through those exceedingly tedious college applications to become one thing and one thing only—a doctor. And then all of a sudden, poof! My plans suddenly changed halfway through college, leaving me going solo with plan B without the life gameplan that I had written up for myself years in advance. But then again…what did my high school self know about the future, right?
For those readers who are not familiar with the term, ‘pre-med’ simply is short for ‘pre-medical,’ meaning that you want to go into the medical field after college (specifically, if you want to be a medical doctor and earn an MD or MD/PhD). There are certain prerequisite classes necessary for entrance into medical schools, and therefore, pre-med students must follow a fairly straightforward courseload. For those readers who are pre-med, I am in no way suggesting that you should change your major or your career! What I am suggesting however is to take some time every now and then for self-evaluation about your personal as well as academic goals. Are you enjoying what you are learning? What do you see yourself doing vs. what others want? Is there anything you want to explore or a career you are curious about in college? Ask yourself honestly: how are you feeling? I regret not asking myself those critical questions before, but they were important concerns that structured the rest of my academic career. In the rush that is college life and academics, I found little time to reflect and be honest with myself, and chose to ignore my growing concerns about my pre-med lifestyle. Out of fear of the lack of academic direction resulting from reouncing my pre-med curriculum and genuine stubbornness, I continued to pursue the pre-med curriculum until late sophomore year.
I will never forget the moment I made the ultimate decision to pursue engineering; I had just come home from a long three hour materials science midterm exam. I remember feeling relieved that the exam was over, but also strangely excited about the class, which was a completely new feeling for me. To be honest, up until that point, I was feeling very jaded about the science courses that I had taken as a freshman and sophomore. The lectures for the required pre-med courses that I took (Inorganic Chem, Organic Chem, Physics, Biology, etc) had HUGE lecture halls full of people, and I constantly felt as though I was being unfairly judged by how many facts I can memorize rather than understanding the fundamental concepts. I had also recently finished shadowing a physician at the Stanford Hospital and though he was an amazing mentor and friend, I honestly didn’t enjoy my experience very much and found it to be very stressful. All in all, I was a tired and unhappy sophomore and yearned to be excited about learning again. That was around the time that I had taken my Introduction to Materials Science course by Professor Bob Sinclair and found the new topics I was learning very refreshing as well as a completely new perspective on science. He wanted his students to build a toolbox, rather than memorize a bunch of facts. He asked us questions like: “If we know that this is true of materials microscopically, how does this play in the overall physical property of materials macroscopically?” In class we had to expand on our knowledge from what we learned in lectures and apply them in situations with different conditions and parameters. He didn’t ask us to memorize three complete organ systems within a week of an exam (it wasn’t a fun memory), and he encouraged group work.
Because this was such an important decision for me to make, I am going to be posting multiple articles about this topic. In this article (part 1) I will present the answers to some questions, and later I will go more into depth about how I have grown as a student from this experience. So keep an eye out for that! I hope that everyone can glean something from my experience, whether it be advice on how to choose a major, the differences between engineering and premed curriculums, or even introduce you to the wonderful world of materials science!
Why did you do it?
Long story short, because I had to. I was unsatisfied with my courses and had time to reflect on the woes of my life. Read the introduction for more information!
What did you switch from?
I switched from being a Biology major intent on becoming a medical doctor to a Materials Science Engineer (abbreviated as MatSci) still figuring out what I should do with all the possibilities ahead of me!
What about the classes you did already take for your previous major?
Fortunately, most of the classes that I had taken for Biology were able be applied towards my MatSci degree. I still did have to take quite a few extra prerequisite courses for engineering, but I can tell you that it was worth all of the coffee runs.
What was the hardest part about switching?
The uncertainty. A huge reason why it took me so long to switch was because I was really attracted to the straightforwardness of premedical studies. Fulfill certain prerequisite classes. Get good grades. Shadow a physician. Do some research. Do some service. There were checkboxes. And being the obsessive compulsive list-writer that I am, I really really like checking off boxes. So it gave me a sense of security to be on a career path that I more or less knew what I had to do.
Engineering isn’t like that. There aren’t really any straightforward prerequisites for an engineer, as there isn’t just one path that engineers can take after graduation (unlike premeds, who are all explicitly preparing to go to medical school). One can choose to pursue graduate school. Or immediately work at a company. There was a lot of freedom in what I can do after college, and it scared me. But what I love more than checking off boxes is opportunity, and I saw engineering as a new world full of potential where I will have the opportunity be challenged and to grow.
What was the easiest part about switching?
Also the uncertainty. Though the engineering curriculum is a lot less structured than the premed curriculum, it gave me time in my schedule to pursue other interests and take totally random classes! If I had still been premed, I would have had to be extremely strategic about my course schedule. Is this class required by medical schools for entrance? Would this class help me on my MCAT? What quarter and what professor should I take this class with so that I could save my GPA? Where can I fit in physician shadowing in my schedule? What about community service? Where should I fit that into my schedule? You get my point.
Was anyone influential to your decision?
Though I absolutely believe in support systems, one of the most important things I learned was that at the end of the day, I am the one to make the decision. So to anyone out there who is in the same boat—I am sure you have heard this many times, but it is true—it is your choice and your choice only.
That being said, lots of people were part of my decision process—my close friends, my classmates, my parents, my advisor. They helped me know that it was possible to rebuild and to start again, even halfway through college.
It’s true that there is a significant gender gap within STEM fields. If you don’t believe me, read about it in some of the other articles in this blog until you are convinced. Of course I can only go off of my own experience (and I can only expect the same of others), but this topic is one that should be talked about. The answer is yes and no. Was I intimidated? Hell yes. I hate to say this, but the largest single reason why I didn’t consider engineering earlier was because I was afraid of being in a male-dominated field. And ashamedly, yes, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the rest of my peers. I came from a pretty conservative family in a traditional Vietnamese community that still held a lot of gender stereotypes. Even though I had a lot of people tell me I was ‘smart,’ over the years, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone telling me that I was ‘good at math.’ Being a first generation college student is never easy and on top of that, the thought of being a woman in engineering made it that much more intimidating.
Now, I certainly did struggle in a lot of my classes, but that isn’t to say that I didn’t also receive a lot of support from my peers (regardless of the gender). As you can tell from my answers above, I am exceedingly fortunate to have found a field I enjoy and am passionate about. Though the gender gap exists, I also believe that the environment that your cohort produces becomes that much more important to rectifying intimidation and encouraging women to thrive in STEM. I am fortunate to have found a community that supports me in Matsci. Though I felt intimidated, I never felt like I was disadvantaged just because I was female. I was actually surprised to find out that my department (at least from 2013-2014) was only about 25% female, from this really cool visualization of gender within different majors at Stanford. Anyway, TLDR: yes, there are a lot of nuances that come with being a woman in STEM, but my community made up for it.
Now that I have answered several questions that I get a lot from people, I will talk more about personal growth in my next post. As I started to talk about here, there are a lot of walls that I had to break in order to make this transition from being a premed to an engineer. Some of those walls were expectations that others had of me, while other walls I set up myself. I hope that by sharing this experience and how I have grown from it will encourage others to be more mindful and honest to themselves. Be confident and seek for opportunities to thrive in your time at college. Don’t close yourself off to new experiences. It is possible to switch gear late in your college career. If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org !