University of Rochester

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Those Inevitable Academic Detours

By Marcy Kraus, dean of first-year students and the Suzanne Jagel O’Brien Director of the College Center for Advising Services

What happens when the prospective economics major struggles in the first semester of calculus? Or the student who has dreamed of becoming a doctor since she was very young, finds that introductory biology is not as interesting as she expected? During the last weeks of the semester, pre-major advisors and advisors in Advising Services, have been meeting with students to plan for next semester. These meetings can be an optimum time to assess and reassess how students are doing in meeting their academic goals. Advisors—and parents—might hear "I was planning to major in history but I haven't earned very strong grades on my first research papers." Or perhaps the concern is expressed more along the lines of "I thought physics was what I wanted to do but I'm really interested in what my roommate is learning in international relations. Perhaps I need to change my major."

Keeping in mind that Rochester's flexible curriculum offers students unusual opportunities to explore a diverse range of academic offerings, students newly uncertain of their academic plans should not be discouraged from venturing off on an academic detour.  As students plan ahead for the spring semester, the following questions can be helpful: "Which courses did I like best this semester?" "How can I rearrange my spring course schedule to explore a newly discovered interest?"  Many students will discover that it is also helpful to ask friends "What professors have you enjoyed the most?" "What was the most interesting course you've taken?" Faculty can provide wonderful examples of academic detours from their own lives including prospective chemistry majors who went on to complete degrees in music.   Students who worry that majoring in a specific discipline will be impractical for their future earnings, should consult with an advisor from the Career Center who can help them explore their personal and academic goals, research employment opportunities, and identify internships and other experiences to test their interests. Students should also feel comfortable asking their advisors questions such as "how can I postpone taking organic chemistry a year so that I can explore history?"

If business or classics or engineering is now of interest, it's not too late to try out these courses next semester or next year, and for most students, still develop a plan to graduate on time. Students who are willing to take a chance on an academic detour, will often make new and unexpected discoveries that lead to more satisfying academic plans.