I can still recall the mesmerizingly bright flash of light as a piece of magnesium was set ablaze in my high school chemistry lab. The mysterious nature of the individual atoms that constitute everything around us piqued my interest and got me thinking seriously about a career related to chemistry. Browsing college majors, I came across a sub-field that seemed even more perplexing: biochemistry.
Not only could I study the seemingly magical ways compounds form and decompose, but I could also study them specifically in the context of biological processes. For the first time, I was truly excited about my future. I had established within myself an excitement toward a field I had an abstract understanding of. Heading to college, I had visions of myself in the future wearing a lab coat and working on extensive research projects, perhaps investigating chemical signals between cancer cells or developing vaccines.
I realized soon after that thoughts occurred in ideality; they were dreams which were attainable, but you do not wake up the next day with the career you had dreamt about the night before. The various careers I envisioned myself with required high levels of commitment and dedication, which cannot be fully understood until experienced first-hand. While I still hold fast to my dream of working in a science-related field, the reality of my education thus far has changed the way I think about my future.
After a year of taking rigorous chemistry classes and learning the basics required for the biochemistry major, I had a bit of a quarter-life crisis, arguably as any good self-reflecting college student should at some point during one’s undergraduate experience. After being emerged in all the fun things a freshman chemistry student could possibly endure: problem sets, labs (which I did actually enjoy), three-hour exams and exhausting all-nighters, I began to reevaluate my interests.
That being said, here’s the major disclaimer (yes, I did change majors, but pun unintended): It is important to realize the undergraduate experience of a specific major does not necessarily reflect the reality of the career you will have upon graduation. An undergraduate experience is designed to allow you to learn as much as possible about a topic in the condensed period of a single semester. Essentially, you are taking these classes because they are required, and the tediousness of the work may not necessarily be relieved by your passion for the subject.
I will admit what is true: It is easy to quit. It is easy to walk away from what you thought you were passionate about in favor of something less time-consuming, to send the email requesting a major change to your advisor and be free of the stressful memories of daunting deadlines and the sheer volume of material your major requires.
Here is my advice, as someone who did send that email and change her major but lived to do so without regret and for reasons I stand by. Use your time as a freshman to understand what it really means to work in the field you are exploring. Whether you are a studying to become an engineer, doctor or chemist, remind yourself everyday what you are working to achieve, not the intensity of the work itself. Inspire yourself by reading about developments in your field of interest, such as current research articles or the latest technological advancements. It is important to remember that the career you are working to acquire lies outside of your four years as an undergrad, but it is not independent of your accomplishments and ability to stay both committed and motivated.
Personally, I found inspiration in the studies of behavioral neuroscientists during my freshman year and made the decision to change my major to neuroscience after much consideration (thank you, quarter-life crisis!). In the end, it wasn’t the tediousness of the work that led me away from biochemistry, (I still plan on pursuing a biochemistry minor!) but staying open and realistic to what my future career would entail and letting that influence my future academic endeavors.
Being honest with yourself is the most important thing you can do during your time as an undergraduate, and before you turn and run because things get too stressful or overwhelming, remember what you could potentially accomplish and, above all, listen to your heart.