Thursday, January 10, 2008

On the name of my blog...

The name for my blog came from my desire to design my own major. When I decided I wanted to study paleontology, I found that the majority of paleontologists I admired had undergraduate degrees in geoscience. So to be safe, I declared geology as my major, with a minor in biology. Now, I certainly can't afford to minor in anything. OPU (over-priced university) costs around $20,000 a year to attend and the cost of living here is much higher than the national average. Hence the idea to consolidate the studies of geology and biology into one major; one I design. Hence the name of my blog.

But I can't do it. I can't design a major at this point in my academic career. It's ridiculous, really. I've about 25 courses left to take before I can get a degree in ANY science at OPU, but because I've got about 100 transfer credits, I'm considered a senior and seniors can't design their own majors; it must be done before the second semester of the junior year.

I'm seriously contemplating switching my major from geology to biology. Reason? Well, I can still study paleontology with a bio degree and if I decide I want to study something else, I believe a degree in bio offers more flexibility. Also, I'm really starting to get interested in evolutionary biology. I should probably wait to decide until I've taken a course in both areas...but for some reason this feels urgent.

So I'm not a self-designed student...at least not in the way I originally meant, but my tag line (fossil of the undergraduate world) still works:

Today, I was getting coffee at the hospital cafe (I work in a building attached to a hospital) and the barista commented on my shirt, which says "Jog your mind...run to your library." I got the shirt in high school and told her that it'd been washed and worn so often that it's almost falling apart. She laughed and said, "High school? Couldn't have been that long ago." I replied, "oh, I guess not...it was only ten years ago." She was stunned. I guess she thought I was a typical undergrad, fresh out of high school.

And then there was the time my chemistry lab mates asked my age and then decided they could not longer speak to me, lest I ruin their teenage fun.

11 comments:

Jerry D. Harris said...

I'm seriously contemplating switching my major from geology to biology. Reason? Well, I can still study paleontology with a bio degree and if I decide I want to study something else, I believe a degree in bio offers more flexibility.

That's been my impression, too, though as a geoscientist, I can't claim any actual knowledge of what kinds of jobs people with biology B.S. and B.A. degrees can actually get, given that they're (no offense!) a dime a dozen (moreso than geology majors, at any rate!). But in making your decision, it may behoove you to think, if you haven't already, about where your specific interests lie. Certainly, geoscience and bioscience are both perfectly good paths into paleontology, though not the only ones: some students with backgrounds in, say, anthropology go into paleo, and I don't wonder if degrees in chemistry and/or various computer sciences wouldn't be really beneficial for (at least some aspects of) paleo. But geo & bio are the most common, methinks.

Traditionally, when I'm asked by a student what they need to do to get into paleo, I invariably tell them to think about what aspects of paleo interest them the most. If, for example, one is seriously interested in things like anatomy, systematics, functional morphology, and the like, one is probably going to have more fun as a biology major. If, on the other hand, one is more interested in things like paleobiogeography, biostratigraphy, paleoenvironmental reconstruction, and paleoecology, then they'll probably be better off as a geoscience major of some sort. Now, of course, the best paleontologists are the ones that are as well-versed as possible in both worlds, which is where double-majors come in particularly handy...but for a variety of reasons (time, money, stress, etc.), they're not for everyone. I don't know if there are any stats out there about how many paleontologists actually have double major degrees, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say it ain't the majority!

Let me also say this: undergraduate degrees really aren't designed to allow one to specialize in any one particular field. There are exceptions, of course, but baccelaureate degrees are typically designed to (a) make one well rounded, and (b) get enough experience with some field or another to enable one to decide whether or not that's what one wants to do for a living. Paleo is a small enough specialty that undergrads that have enough knowledge (and/or maturity and experience) to be able to do quality research as an undergrad will typically go pretty far, and the small pool of such students makes it a pretty cutthroat culture (this is really a very recent development...it wasn't this way even 20 years ago!). But in general, the intention is for specialization to not happen 'til grad school -- that's where one would get the bulk of their paleo training and education. In most cases, a neophyte grad student might have to make up for whatever "deficiencies" one's undergrad background "gave" them -- a geoscience major might have to take a few extra courses -- or do some serious independent learning -- to bone up (ba-dum, chik) on what they might not have learned about bioscience as an undergrad, and vice-versa. There's no shame in this; it kind of falls out of the fact that paleontology isn't so much a science in and of itself as it is an amalgamation of a number of other sciences (heavy on the biology and geology, with decent amounts of chemistry and physics, plus a smattering of other sciences) -- in short, it's just the nature of the beast.

So I guess I'd say that if you have to choose one or the other for your undergrad, it's most certainly not the end of the world. If you're big on independent, extracurricular learning, you can make up for a significant portion of what you might not get from a double-major -- that is, doing a lot of reading and self-teaching can give you a good deal of information (just look at all the stuff Brian reads, for example -- it's a wonder he ever sees daylight! (Just kidding, Brian!) Not everyone is that good a self-teacher, though -- some people benefit more from interpersonal interactions (like classes) and hands-on stuff. To that end, I always strongly encourage students to do whatever it takes to get some actual experience in their chosen field. The easiest way to generally do that is to volunteer at a local museum. I don't know what Vermont's got by way of paleo-oriented museum facilities, but if there's anything you could get to a day a week or every couple of weeks, it would be very worth your while (and shows initiative, which is always good on grad school applications). I myself started as a fossil preparation volunteer at the Denver Museum, and really, I learned a heckuva lot more there than I did in most of my undergrad classes, at least about the kinds of things that go in to being a successful paleontologist! Another good move would be to spend at least one summer in the field -- there are a number of internship-style opportunities to which students can apply (several have been advertised on the vert paleo list serve recently, and more will probably come. Apply for these; maybe (if possible) pay for one, and get the experience! Lastly, if there's anyone at your school doing any research that's even vaguely of interest to you, see what you can do to get in on it. Undergrads often get stuck doing boring slave labor in such situations, but many profs are really big on undergraduate research and can mentor you on how to do research properly, and you might even get your name on a paper that comes out of it. That's a HUGE thing to have on a grad school application, but more importantly, it will give you some really important knowledge and understanding that you simply won't get in a typical classroom. In short, experience (and initiative) can not only be big boons to you getting into grad school and actually becoming a paleontologist, but they can supplement the knowledge you get from the classes you do take as part of your major, which is especially important if you simply can't "do it all" (and frankly, I'm wary of people that think they can do it all...are they even human?!?).

Julia said...

About the only thing I can add to Jerry's excellent advice is that, if you don't mind taking a little longer to get that doctorate, a masters can be a good way of getting experience in the "other" discipline. My undergraduate degree was in geology, but I did a masters in a biological science. Whether it was the cross-discipline study or the presence of a masters I don't know, but it was the difference between no offers at all and three offers and an interview.

And internships are great, as Jerry says. Almost impossible to do if you have a "real job" as you can't just give up 10 weeks to go off to the middle of nowhere and dress like Palaeo Barbie (maybe that was just my internship...), but they're good for credit and extra experience.

Zach Miller said...

I've accepted the fact that I'll probably never get a geo or bio degree up here, but like Julia says, my "real job" would impede upon such progress anyway. Like Jerry said, you have to decide what aspect of paleo you want to pursue, then go from there.

Of course, I should talk. I failed chem and switched majors from Bio to *shudder* English, then abandoned my Geo minor when the higher courses began stinking of chemistry (ore deposits? More like chemistry deposits!).

Jerry D. Harris said...

Of course, I should talk. I failed chem and switched majors from Bio to *shudder* English, then abandoned my Geo minor when the higher courses began stinking of chemistry (ore deposits? More like chemistry deposits!).

Well, aside from its role as an Institution of Learning (TM), college is, sad to say, to some degree a series of hoops through which one must jump to get to an endpoint. (I really hate calling it that because I watch students thinking this way all the time, and it is a dangerous perspective because it leads rapidly to apathy and uncaring about various bodies of material, and it's tough to have to teach to students that obviously feel this way about everything I say!) What I mean by this, though, is that one is invariably going to encounter classes that are either (a) really tough and laden with material beyond one's ready comprehension, and/or (b) made of material for which one does not see the ready relevance of to either one's career or everyday life. My (a) classes were calculus, chemistry, and physics. The latter because it was calculus-based (!), and the former two because, I think, I didn't have great teachers (though I did have great TAs and good friends that understood the material enough to spoon-feed me through them!). Geology-wise, I didn't do all that well with structure & field, largely because I had a prof that thought paleo was a complete waste of time, so I pig-headedly set my mind against him and therefore didn't give the material the attention it deserved (much to my later chagrin...!) -- I've since made up for those deficiencies after learning (by being a volunteer!) how important that material really was in the field of paleontology! I don't know that I had any (b) classes; that is, I don't remember for which, if any, classes I thought were a complete waste of my time...maybe my "History of Theater From Ancient Greece Through the 14th Century" class (yes, that was really a class!). But I've since learned that NOthing, no matter how frivolous or moronic it may seem at the time, is useless -- one absolutely never knows when some tidbit of material will come in handy, even if for no other reason than establishing a friendship with someone because of a shared body of knowledge! (And never, ever underestimate the importance of this in forming productive professional contacts!)

But my own path into paleo was kind of convoluted: after a graduation with a high position ranking from high school, intending to go into paleo, I turned around and did very poorly my first semester. Partly it was because I overwhelmed myself with too much too quickly; partly it was because I wasn't quite ready for how college worked, but mostly it was because I made the rookie mistake of thinking that having done really well in high school was going to automatically mean I could do really well in college without much effort. At the time, though, my doing poorly was enough to scare me into thinking that maybe I wasn't cut out for the "hard" sciences, so I opted to go with my second big love: psychology, and I was a psych major for a couple of years. (Honestly, what I learned there has been a BIG help in dealing with paleontologists... ;-D ) Eventually, I felt more that I really, really wanted to do paleo, but still not thinking that being a scientist was for me, decided that a happy medium might be science journalism, so I was a journalism major for a semester before finally just deciding that to be a paleontologist, I was going to have to knuckle down and do some real work (and suffering!) after switching to a geoscience major. (As a result of all this, it took my 5.5 years to get my B.A., which I got with 162 credit hours of coursework!) Ah, if I only knew then what I know now, this parable might have been very, very differnt...! But I present all this on the chance that it might help some student that reads this and is in a similar situation -- don't make the same mistakes I did!

Amanda said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone...they're really helpful. I think my plan is to just wait until I've taken a course in geology and a course in biology. Up until then, they require the same core courses: physics, calculus and chemistry.

I'm thinking the areas of paleo that I'm most interested relate more to biology, but I may change my mind after taking a geology course.

I like what you said, Jerry, about the (a) courses. I'm really afraid I'll run into a course that will be WAY over my head. So far, it's been fine, but I'm sure there's something out there that my little brain won't be able to wrap itself around...for some reason I have a feeling it'll be physics. We'll see.

Julia said...

It's very difficult to specialise in biology or geology without a good grounding in chemistry and maths. If you can understand these, everything else will follow. Because you'll find yourself doing geochemistry, probably some thermodynamics, geophysics if you take the geo route, and you'll be doing metabolism, statistics/population studies, genetics if you take the bio route. You take the classes and then you forget about them, but one day you'll suddenly find you've looked at a problem and worked out that you need to do a standard deviation, or that it's the conservation of energy, or something like that, and it will all fit together. But a good idea to wait until you've tried out the classes.

Brian said...

I'm a little late to the party here (and I can't really add anything to what Jerry and Julia have already aptly stated), but I wish you luck with your coursework. I won't mention my own academic hurdles/troubles, I definitely feel your pain. Even if you've got to finish your degree in something you don't like very much though, doing internships and teaching yourself can be a big boost when you get to the graduate level and want to get into what you're really interested in. It's never too early to make contacts, so I would definitely follow the advice Jerry and Julia already put out there. Good luck!

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