(~Spring Quarter, 2000)
One of the things that I suppose I should get used to answering, as a college student, is that eternal question:
"What are you majoring in?"
It used to be fun enough to say chemistry. I'm not certain why, but most people seem to be surprised when they hear that answer. I don't know what they think I should be majoring in (though I know several people who guessed me to be a CS major—I must look cooler than I thought). Anyway, once upon a time, I received "oooo"s from liberal arts majors, "ugh"s from the other science majors, and "cool"s from the engineering majors. As of early February of 2000, however, the number of variations of responses have declined—they now fall equally into "wow"s and "you're crazy"s, scattered equally among all groups, reason being that I'm now double-majoring in chemistry and Japanese. Actually, technically speaking, I'm getting two degrees. As one degree is a BS and the other a BA, I'll actually be getting two little pieces of paper at some point down the road. I've been doing a great deal of thinking on my two majors, the last quarter or so.
And this is some of what resulted.
I decided that I wanted to major in chemistry a long time ago. My junior year of high school, first semester, I began taking chemistry. My teacher was one Richard Edgerton, who I'd had for math two years before. I was looking forward to the class—one of my father's degrees is chemistry, and I idolized Mr. Edgerton (who, I am still convinced, is one of the smartest men that I've ever known). A week in, it was my favorite class. A month later, I knew it was what I wanted to study in college. My parents smiled—perhaps they believed I'd still be interested in the subject in two years, perhaps they didn't. I suppose it doesn't matter much. They were happy with the idea, regardless.
As for Japanese, well, I'm not certain where that came from (I suppose it's actually quite possible that the interest grew out of watching Ninja Scroll my junior year of high school, but I won't swear to it). I was interested in Japanese history by my senior year of high school, I know—I did my senior project as a 15 page research paper on the subject. I spent the second semester of senior year working on that paper, hunting through the East Asian Library here on the UW campus and whatever other materials I could find. When I found out over the summer before college that I wouldn't be able to take chemistry my first quarter here, and I was fumbling for classes, classical Japanese literature seemed like a reasonable choice. By the end of that quarter, I was murmuring the word "minor" to people.
I fretted about not being able to start chemistry Autumn Quarter of my freshman year, but at least they offer all quarters of it, every quarter, and Winter Quarter of that year, I walked into Bagley Hall for the first time. I loved freshman chemistry, as well as organic chemistry the next year. I think I declared into the department after Winter Quarter of my sophomore year. I could have done it earlier—all one needs to do to be a chemistry major here is to walk into the departmental office and tell whoever is standing there that one wishes to be a major. No kidding.
That same year, I began taking Japanese for my foreign language credit. Two quarters in, I had decided on the minor that I'd joked about for a year. It wouldn't take too many more classes than I was already intending on taking, and would provide an excuse to study something that I was interested in. I declared the minor at the beginning of Autumn Quarter of my junior year; not a quarter later, however, I changed my mind, and switched to a full major in Japanese, linguistics track. I was already planning on being here for five years, anyway, and the extra coursework would simply flesh out my quarters.
Of course, the history of why I study what I study doesn't do a great deal of good. I would hope that anyone would be able to answer the question of major with an "I study ________, and I do it because I enjoy it." If things were always left there, many a college student would never fret again. However, there is inevitably a follow-up question, one which is much more difficult and uncomfortable to answer, one which makes me, at least, dread talking to friends of my parents who I haven't seen for a while.
"So, what are you going to do with it?"
This question is quite a bit more troublesome than the first. If you study accounting, it may be easier to answer, but for majors ranging from political science to physics, the direct application of your field of study may be a little difficult to ascertain. The cop-out answer is always "ummm... I'm going to go to grad school." This often evades the question of what you will do after you will do after finishing one's undergraduate degree, and has the added benefit of sounding impressive.
My problem, however, is that I really don't think that I want to go to graduate school very badly. The cut-and-dried reason for this is that I flat-out despise lab work. If I could find a graduate program somewhere that would emphasize theoretical chemistry, where I could use math and computers and learn how to teach people about a subject that I love, that'd be one thing. But my sense from most chemistry graduate programs is that they involve a lot of holding one chemical in your left hand, and another in your right, preparing to mix them, and hoping they don't explode. I've had more than enough of that in undergraduate chemistry, and I don't enjoy it. I fret that that means I'm not studying what I should be, but I can't deny that I truly enjoy the theory of chemistry.
So why not get a graduate degree in Japanese linguistics? The problem there is one of loyalty. I feel that if I were to pursue a graduate degree in Japanese, I'd be not only wasting my chemistry degree, but betraying it as well. I suppose it's a tad silly to feel bad for betraying an abstract concept like a field of study, but I can't quite help it. Were I to study chemistry after graduating, I could easily work in Japanese... somehow. Were I to study Japanese, my chemistry degree would simply go to waste.
Being so reluctant to enter grad school, I am forced to wonder what the hell I will do when I graduate in a few years. I'd like to go to Japan for a year, certainly; perhaps to work as a translator. I don't particularly want to go with the stand-by intent of teaching English—while I'm certain I would enjoy it, I'd feel as if my scientific training was languishing. The final year that I'm attending the University of Washington, I will be taking a series of classes in technical Japanese, which I hope would be of help finding me work as a translator for some company. If that company were a chemical or pharmaceutical one, that'd just be icing on the cake. While I wouldn't necessarily be directly applying the chemistry study, at least I'd be exposed to material relating to something interesting.
After that experience, however, I have no idea what I'd like to do. I doubt that I'll be incredibly interested in living in Japan on a permanent basis—I love Seattle too much, and am a little too firmly entrenched in being an American. The idea has been raised to me of going to graduate school in Japan, which might be something to consider. Terrifying, but worth thinking about. My Japanese by that time might possibly be better than the English of several Japanese TAs I've had in various subjects over the years, and they seem to have done alright over here. Perhaps the drudgery of lab work would be mitigated by the challenge of having to do it in another language, and I hear that Kyoto University's chemistry graduate program is pretty decent...
Assuming that I eventually leave school, I will have to think about what I want to do then. There's several things that I'd like to do—teaching chemistry at a college level, writing chemistry textbooks or working on bilingual (English/Japanese, of course) information dispersal in the chemical field all appeal very strongly to me.
A reader may notice a certain symmetry to all of those options—I want to help people. I've come to terms with the fact that I'm not really suited to stretch into undiscovered country to do research, but I've also learned in the past few years that I love to help other people learn. And I like to think that I'm good at doing so. I see myself as someone well-suited to be a conduit of information, and feel very strongly, for example, that I could inspire students to be interested in chemistry through instruction or better textbooks (we all know that most textbooks suck ass, which isn't the way it has to or should be).
Most people in the sciences are brilliant, but they can't communicate effectively to save their lives. I am not brilliant. I am smart, however, and can write or speak well when I put my mind to it. So, what will I be doing with my degrees? Who knows? So long as I feel useful in helping people to appreciate subjects that I personally find fascinating, I think I'll be happy. I've got two years and a quarter from now until I even graduate from the University of Washington. A lot may happen in two years—including my finally figuring out what I want to do.