Uncertainty in College
I came to college pretty sure that I wanted to be an engineer. Math and physics were always my strong suits, and along with my logical thinking style – as well as the rest of the people in my life saying how great of a career it would be for me – it just seemed like the right fit. I liked the idea of creating devices or systems that could change the world. To me, engineering seemed like a very stable, straight-forward career path, so on all of my applications I wrote “mechanical engineering” without even thinking.
However, there had always been this other side of me that really enjoyed exploring the human mind and brain. I loved my AP Psychology class senior year, so on a whim, I decided to sign up for a class called “Mind and Brain” (PSY 3760) first semester as my liberal arts elective. This was by far my favorite class last semester. As a cognitive neuroscience class, it explained theories from cognitive psychology and presented brain imaging/lesion/behavioral studies to support or refute those ideas. We learned about perception, memory, attention, decision-making, imagery, and host of other fascinating subjects. Compared to general chemistry, multi variable calculus, and my introduction to engineering modules, I was most excited to go to this class every week.
While it sounds great in retrospect that I found something that interests me so much, throughout last semester it was actually quite problematic for me. It is true that I had always been interested in psychology and neuroscience casually – maybe a book here or an article there – but I had never considered it to be something I would pursue further. However, the more I truly reflected, I realized that even though I would be able to work through the engineering coursework and classes just fine, I would not have enjoyed it. I remember looking at the course requirements for engineering next to those for neuroscience and feeling more excited about the neuroscience classes. Classes like “neurobiology of addiction,” “social cognition and neuroscience” and “human memory” all sounded like classes that would actually make me want to go to lecture, whereas classes like thermodynamics and instrumentation laboratory did not.
The idea of changing majors meant letting go of certainty. With engineering, I knew that I would graduate, maybe do a grad program, get a job, and work a typical 9-5 job. However, I had no idea what sorts of jobs or careers I could pursue in the psych/neuro fields. I knew I didn’t want to be a school or clinical psychologist, didn’t see myself going to med school (which is where most neuro majors go), and certainly had never thought of going into academia.
For a long time, I was really anxious about my future. This realization happened midway through my first semester here, and throughout finals and even winter break I constantly felt terrified that I didn’t have a set plan for my major and career path. As a person who loves to plan and be in control of her time, my anxiety would keep me up at night worrying and questioning. I kept telling myself that it really was okay to not have everything figured out – I’m a freshman, after all – but my mind refused to settle.
I am fortunate enough to have an amazing support system through my family. By talking to multiple members of my family over winter break, I started to realize that what I was feeling was completely normal for people my age. Of course I have no idea what I want to do with my life – most people my age don’t, and even adults change their minds all the time. They kept telling me that everything is going to work itself out, because life kind of has a way of falling into place. These conversations reassured me significantly and I started to relax a little bit. Another piece of advice I received – and have heard multiple times now – is that college is not necessarily a place to become employable, but a place to find something you love to do.
Even though I feel way less anxious than I did previous months, I still feel uncertain about my future. And that’s totally okay. I’m learning to take things one semester at a time. Luckily, this semester I’ve gotten the chance to take some pretty awesome classes that will help me explore my interests. I’m currently taking cognitive psychology, introduction to neuroscience, a first year writing seminar about brain-computer interfaces, computer science [matlab], and general chemistry. I actually started out taking Spanish instead of gen chem’s semester 2, but decided to switch into it last minute to give myself more options (gen chem is needed as a prerequisite for organic chemistry in the neuro track). I also have been leaning more towards neuroscience because the major here is very diverse and allows you to count classes in biology, neuroscience, and psychology towards the major. I’ll also be volunteering as an research assistant (RA) in my cognitive psychology professor’s lab. Hopefully this will help me figure out if I enjoy doing research.
I’ve really been enjoying my classes so far. All of my professors are not only very knowledgeable, but good at teaching and enthusiastic about their fields. Taking these classes has made me more energized and more excited to wake up in the morning and go to class, as well as making the work more bearable.
I think the main lesson I’ve learned is that nobody knows where their life will take them, and that’s completely okay. It’s a good thing, really – how boring would it be if we knew the plot of a book before we read it? I know it’s cheesy, but we are really all on our own adventure. Our job is to listen to where life is calling us and follow it. That’s what I’m trying to do, at least: to just go with the flow and make it up as I go.
Wilson Hall: where all of my psych/neuro classes are
credit: Vanderbilt Flickr