January 20, 2004

Students just can't concentrate: choosing a field becoming harder for undergraduates

Beth Malinowski came here last year convinced she wanted to work towards degrees in public policy and biology. By the end of last quarter, after taking courses in both, she found that she wanted to explore other options.

"Looking through the biological sciences requirements, I realized that many of the courses listed didn't interest me and that there [was] a significant amount of courses in varying disciplines outside of the sciences that did," Malinowski said.

This quarter, with much hesitation, she made the big decision to drop organic chemistry, a required course for biology concentrators. "I still may be a public policy concentrator, but for now I am not taking courses in either discipline," she said. "I have no set path and am taking courses ranging from Urban Geography to Human Rights 2."

Many second-years are going through a similar crisis to determine their concentration. At the University of Chicago—where the "life of the mind" and intellectual eclecticism takes precedence over vocational practicality—many have trouble settling on a specific field of study because they are torn between so many diverse interests.

"I don't really have a lack of [concentration] ideas. It's just that there are a lot of things that I'm interested in, which I could potentially focus on, but it's really hard to choose from among them and leave other things out," said Allison Kean, a second-year in the College.

Adviser in the College Andrea Hagen Gates notes that the pressure to choose a concentration seems to come from the students or their families.

"Many students seem to feel that the choice of a concentration will determine what they do with their life, so that makes it feel very scary. What [advisers] try to do is largely de-link the choice of a concentration and the choice of a career," Gates said.

She also says that students should focus on what they like rather than on what they deem a "practical" course of study.

"All of our students will gain skills that can be applied to a wide variety of careers. We try to encourage students to find a concentration that will really engage them intellectually, that they can be passionate about," Gates said. "Typically this leads to more involvement in the department, better quality contact with faculty, and better grades, since the student is really into the subject matter."

Last year, the office of the College Dean of Students held focus groups with third- and fourth-year students to find out more about their second-year experience. Most expressed a positive attitude toward their second year, regardless of having a concentration or not.

Students who became involved in something they cared about—whether an organization, volunteer work, a sport, or their house—reported the highest level of happiness. For many, making a meaningful connection with at least one professor also greatly enhanced their experience.

Gates said that though most second-years she meets tend to be uncertain about their concentrations, there are some students who know exactly what they want to do coming into college.

One such student is Adelle McElveen, an international studies concentrator, who has had the same career interests since she was in elementary school. "It wasn't that hard for me to choose a concentration. I've always wanted to do some kind of work involving government, politics, or law," McElveen said.

When she started taking classes in international studies during the spring of her first year, it became clear to her that she wanted to continue in that direction.

"About half of my friends know what they want to concentrate in, and about half of them don't," said McElveen. "I don't think it's necessarily important to choose a concentration by your second year. It's actually hard to do that, unless you're sure about what you like."

Gates said although it is not urgent that students immediately know what to concentrate, it is important that they begin the search. "A mix of general education courses and exploratory courses is ideal," she said. "It allows for a student to make an informed decision by the end of their second year or beginning of their third. In some concentrations this is absolutely necessary, because the courses are sequential."

Approximately one in four students at the University concentrates in economics, and a considerable number of first-years have already begun the concentration. In the last five years, the concentration has experienced substantial growth.

Victor Lima, head of the economics department, believes that "economics at Chicago is stimulating and challenging, and Chicago students like to be challenged."

Students are also attracted to the prestigious faculty in the economics department, many of whom have won either Nobel Prizes or John Bates Clark Medals. With such an impressive reputation throughout the business world and a curriculum that contains a more applicable set of skills, many believe that gaining an economics degree may afford more lucrative job opportunities.

Carlos Villarreal, a fourth-year, began as a physics concentrator but, in the middle of his second year, realized that it was not for him.

After attempting to concentrate in both psychology and economics—trying to balance his academic interests with practical skills—he soon found that economics was the subject he actually enjoyed the most. He declared his intent to concentrate in economics during the first quarter of his fourth-year.

He advises second-years to seek out courses that both spark their interest and that can count towards multiple concentrations.

"The best courses are not found in the introductory sequences. Try an upper-level class before eliminating a concentration option," Villarreal said. "The classes may be harder, but the effort is worth an informed perspective."

Lima agrees, saying it is not a bad idea to try Economics 198 or 199 before jumping into required economics courses.

"Many students fall in love with econ in these classes and are better prepared," Lima added.

Gates said the advising department worries that students decide on their concentrations without enough information, and she hopes that in the future students will put thoughtful consideration into their choices.

This year, a committee of advisers is focusing on the process through which students determine their concentrations. The committee will ask all third-year students to fill out a survey describing their experiences in choosing a concentration.

At the University, many students, like Malinowski, have an academic drive and discipline that makes them want to choose a concentration as soon as possible.

"Almost all of the pressure is self-inflicted. I like and desire direction. I want to have a goal and a path that will lead me to it," said Malinowski. "I know that what I concentrate in does not have to direct what I do in the future, but I still feel like this decision can have long-term effects."

The College Programming Office (CPO) will be sponsoring Faculty Roundtables on February 16 at 5:30 for second-year students. This evening is planned to give second-years the opportunity to eat dinner with a faculty member from a concentration in which they are interested. Call Carrie Goldin of the CPO (2-2449) for more information.