Humanities majors give science a chance

If you are a humanities major, you may think of science as a foreign subject. Even with an interest in science, you may look at a building like the new Shineman Center and feel like an outsider looking in.

You may have bought into the cliché that there are humanities types and science types, and may suspect that you’re not the latter.

It seems to me, however, that students who are clever at the humanities are clever enough to do well in science. Science doesn’t require a different kind of intelligence, only a different approach. As someone who decided on a career in science after almost completing a philosophy degree, let me assure you that yes, you can succeed in science if you approach it right.

When you’re planning your first science courses, you need to keep in mind that, at first, your self-confidence is very fragile. Take precautions to restore, protect and cultivate that confidence.

One key to your success is getting good professors. Make good use of fellow students and to find a professor who is enthusiastic and clear. Believe me: I am still working to convince myself that chemistry tests were not designed to mock me after a dreadful general chemistry professor.

You also need to get a head start on developing the study skills necessary for success in science. Reading “How to Study Science” by Fred Drewes and Kristen Milligan was especially useful to me, and there are many other guides available. Most of your work will be in learning how to make that advice work for you and your way of learning.

In the humanities courses, you’re probably used to just “getting it” when the professor makes a point. This won’t always happen in science class, and it’s not because you’re dumb. It’s because those classes are designed so that “getting it” requires work.

The problem is, not all work is equally productive. You need a good strategy to choose the right kind of work. I would say that there are two main kinds, and each requires a different approach. I call them information-soaking and skill-building. Most courses require a combination of both, but in different degrees.

Information-soaking is sometimes just memorizing. For this, I use flashcard programs. Don’t let it upset you when the information seems to have no rhyme or reason. People once gave stupid Latin names to things, and sometimes you just need to learn them.

Skill-building does not happen by memorizing, and you can’t use the same tools and strategies for both. Typically, the goal of skill-building is to learn how to solve problems. For this, practice problems are your friend. Do as many as you can, and take advantage of study groups, the Internet, peer tutoring and your professor’s office hours when you get stuck. Try to get a picture of what’s going on in each problem by literally drawing a picture, if possible. As a humanities major, you may find something satisfying about turning to the back of the book to discover that you’re right, instead of being merely “insightful.”

It also takes work to develop the study skills that you need. Approach this like a scientist: test what is and isn’t working for you, and make tweaks. My bad experience in chemistry was partly caused by wrongly trying to apply my memorizing skills, which got me through biology, to a subject that requires skill-building. That was never going to work. What I needed to do is to get good at solving problems. If you find yourself in a similar position, pay attention to how people who know what they’re doing think about the problems that stump you. You’re smart enough to soak up their approach. All it takes is a bit of work.

I’m writing this to reassure humanities majors that they have it in them to also be good at science, and that this process will be good for them. If you’re considering switching over, I applaud you. There’s something harmful about enforcing a separation between science and the humanities, and I think that the world would benefit from more integration. You may find that the market treats you better when you have a science degree.