From the time I was in elementary school to the summer before I came to Yale, if you had asked me what kind of career I was going to go into, I would have told you that I was going to go to medical school and become some kind of physician. When people back home in rural Georgia asked what my major was, I could have just said biology, but instead I told them “molecular, cellular and developmental biology” because it made me sound smarter. I read articles on how to prepare for the Medical College Admission Test as a senior in high school. I just knew that medical school would be where I found myself after graduating from Yale.
I had quite the career crisis when I discovered that I don’t actually enjoy learning about science and math, at least not the kinds you need to learn to pass the MCAT. Luckily, since I made my startling discovery during a Freshman Scholars at Yale information session on “The Sciences at Yale,” I never actually had to shop “General Chemistry I” or “University Physics” to know that I don’t find them the least bit interesting, but hearing about my friends in the courses constantly reassured me that I made the right decision by declaring my major in psychology. Still, around the halfway point of my freshman year, I became afraid that I was somehow wasting my brain by not studying something more scientific. I resolved to pursue the neuroscience track and enrolled in the first half of the introductory biology sequence in my second semester.
This quickly became a disaster. I just couldn’t grasp the concepts in biology that seemed to come so easily to everyone else in the lecture. I dreaded going to section and hearing my teaching assistant say, “No, not quite,” when I attempted to contribute to conversation to get my participation points. I doubted my own intelligence daily and developed severe anxiety about my future that permeated into almost every aspect of my daily life.
An honest conversation with one of my best friends at Yale led me to ask myself why I was putting myself through this. I didn’t have a real answer other that I felt an obligation to go into a STEM field and that I would be wasting my life if I didn’t. I realized that just because I had wanted to be a neurologist since fifth grade didn’t mean I had to make myself miserable in order to stick to that plan. I decided that I would drop the neuroscience track and not continue the second semester of the biology sequence for my own mental health.
As of now, I’m an academically thriving standard psychology major who plans to apply to the cognitive science major over winter break, and I haven’t looked back to the pre-med track in months. But as I talk to people about my experiences last year, I realize that the self-fueled expectation to go into a medical career, despite personal interests, is not unique to me.
What causes this? My theory is that because medicine is so stereotypically associated with intelligence, when well-meaning adults meet a young student with above-average intelligence, the question is always, “So, are you going to be a doctor?” Obviously, medicine isn’t the only route to success for the academically-gifted. For example, University President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Marvin Chun are both esteemed psychologists. In addition, many of our deans and heads of colleges are experts in fields that many may see as obscure, but obscurity does not equal unimportance. If we were all surgeons, who would analyze and interpret texts from ancient civilizations? If everyone became a mechanical engineer, there would be no one to develop new research techniques in social psychology. Our knowledge of the world as a whole is brought forward by professionals in every discipline, with no one area of thought more relevant than another.
This Thanksgiving, when your aunt asks you if you’re going to be a doctor, tell her yes, but not that kind. Tell her about your plans to get a doctorate in East Asian languages or your dream of becoming a philosophy professor. Or maybe you don’t want to go to graduate school at all and plan to work for a nonprofit or small startup instead. If you’ll get fulfillment from it, embrace it. If you only go up Science Hill to eat in the new colleges or see hockey games, your educational goals are no less valid than those of your friends who stay up until 4 a.m. doing physics problem sets. You can contribute to the world, too, and you don’t need to know multivariable calculus to do it.
Casey Ramsey is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .