Coming into Caltech, I was not like some of my peers who, from the first day of entering campus, knew exactly which field they wanted to pursue. I arrived at Caltech finding everything around me intriguing. From mathematics to mechanical engineering, from biology to computer science, all of the above! As (somewhat of) a joke, I would claim I wanted to do 18 majors at once! Once I reached campus, there came my challenge of trying to definitively determine what major fits best for me.
The general advice you hear for deciding your major is to take different types of classes, especially during your first two terms here at Caltech. This is primarily because the first two quarters at Caltech are graded pass-fail and so any experimentation will not reflect poorly on your GPA! However, with the requirements of the core curriculum during freshman year, it makes it rather difficult to distinguish between majors that are not directly represented in the core curriculum. As an example, the core curriculum is much more heavily weighted on physics, math, and chemistry, whereas biology, engineering, and applied science courses are seldom taken.
And thus I arrived at second term, only really whittling out one or two majors from my overall list. By now I had gone through the required classes of each possible major I was interested in, reading all of those classes’ descriptions in the course catalog and methodically eliminating those I thought were not nearly as interesting as others. Note that this is a tedious process, and I would not necessarily recommend you put yourself through this! It was just for me; I felt the need to be very thorough with a decision that could drastically change my career path.
Unfortunately, I kept coming back to the same few majors, and the time to declare a major was just around the corner. This is when I heard the key piece of advice from a friend that truly helped me decide: sit in on classes and talk to professors about their research. I would attend high-level classes (usually towards the graduate level) in majors I was interested in and see if I might find the material or the concepts interesting. While I admit I didn’t understand any of the details, those classes gave me a much much better grasp on what it meant to be an applied mathematician, a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, an applied physicist, etc. Further, asking professors about what major I should choose never helped: it always came back to “do what you’re interested in.” That’s easy if you aren’t interested in 5 majors at once! However, asking them about their research and what happens in the field and/or industry gave me a much clearer picture of what potential careers looked like.
Caltech’s MechE Building! This is where I go to class. Credit: Randall Howard (June 2015).
Thanks to all that continual exploration, I finally discovered what major I wanted to take: Mechanical Engineering. I enjoyed the classes way more than I had anticipated and learned that I did not previously have an accurate concept of what it meant to be a mechanical engineer at Caltech. Only through my discussions with professors (who were very knowledgeable and accessible and willing to take the time to discuss with me), and through my exploration of higher-level classes, did I come to this decision. I’ll admit it was a very close toss-up between mechanical and electrical engineering, but I enjoyed the classes and the increased flexibility of MechE slightly more, so my gut told me to go down that path.
Since then, I haven’t regretted it. As I progress through the classes in my major, I find them more and more interesting, and the experiences I gain through both my theoretical and project classes have greatly fulfilled my expectations. I now greatly enjoy designing and controlling robots for various tasks (but that can be a topic for another time). The underlying mathematics and challenges that stem from these tasks are those which I have found thoroughly fascinating. As a whole, the MechE major has given me tools to understand how systems in our immediate environment, both man-made and natural, work. It turns out that was what I was looking for this whole time.
My work bench when I’m working on a project. Quite busy, but I’ll be having a blast!
As a senior now I look back. Would I have liked to have known my major coming into Caltech? Absolutely - I only have four years and having known what I wanted to do would help me make the most out of the opportunities available to me here at Caltech.
But would I do anything differently? No. I needed this experience for myself and to convince myself that the path I’m on is the path I want to be on.