University investigates major trends, seeks boost in smaller departments
While there are 30 AB departments to choose from, more than half the class of 2002 concentrated in only five.
At the November CPUC meeting, Michael Hecht, a chemistry professor and director of undergraduate studies for the chemistry department, presented statistics from the registrar showing that 55 percent of the 902 AB majors in 2002 chose to major in what he calls the "major majors," history, English, politics, economics and the Wilson School.
"We as a University are putting a great deal of emphasis on diversity," Hecht said. "However, for intellectual diversity, we're not really with it."
Hecht noted that the academic concentration at Princeton reflects a nationwide trend.
According to the Office of Budget, Financial Planning and Institutional Research at Harvard University, Harvard's top five majors for 2001 graduates were economics, political science, psychology, history and biology.
Hecht said many strong departments are underutilized as a result of Princeton's uneven distribution, while other departments are overwhelmed — an issue that will be of particular relevance as the University adds 500 additional students over the next decade.
Jeffrey Herbst, chair of the politics department — which graduated 112 students last year — said faculty must work very hard to keep up with the number of students.
"When you have a department with 12 to 13 percent of the majors and a far fewer percentage of the University faculty, there have to be implications," Herbst said. "My colleagues work very hard, but there are only 24 hours in a day."
In response to the concerns voiced by Hecht, President Tilghman asked the USG to create a survey to assess the reasons behind a student's choice in major. The first initiative of its kind, the survey was sent to juniors and seniors and had received 722 responses as of Monday, said USG president Nina Langsam. The questions asked students about the influence of grade point average, career plans, the opinions of peers or parents, prestige and introductory courses.
Matt Gale '03, a molecular biology major, said he thought the survey was useful in allowing him to reflect back on sophomore year.
"I hate to admit it, but the survey did address one of my reasons for choosing mol bio, which was to avoid a prerequisite for majoring in chemistry," Gale said in an email.
Members of the University community have offered multiple explanations for the trend in major choices. Hecht noted that many of the underpopulated departments, such as those in science or foreign language, require a fairly linear sequence of classes. In contrast, the "major majors" often allow students to begin with upper-level courses.
Hecht said that introductory courses can be very influential in students' choices.
Tilghman also stressed the importance of "gateway courses."
"Some of it is that we haven't paid enough attention to entry-level courses," Tilghman said. "We're good at teaching the nuts and bolts, but we often forget to convey the excitement of the field."
Robin Hindery '03, a major in the Department of French and Italian, said she thinks many students choose the "major majors" because of their practicality in the real world.
"On a resume or a graduate school application, those majors are well-respected and solid, while not necessarily the most interesting to a reviewer who has seen 'economics' written on nine out of 10 of the forms he's looked at," Hindery said in an email. "Also, those majors seem to offer students a jumping off point to a huge range of postgraduate careers, schools, etc."
Alex Haislip '03 said he has had a good experience with the economics department.
"The economics department is not as big as it seems," Haislip said in an email. "The people who work in the department do a really great job of remembering names and offering specific advice."
Maura Bolger '03, an economics major, said many of the junior paper advisers in her department were graduate students who were very busy with their own work.
Bolger said that she enjoys the way the students work together in her department, despite its impersonality.
"Students seem to work together more," Bolger said in an email. "We don't get any department help, so we really have to help each other. You meet more Princeton students when you choose a larger major, and have more choice of classes and professors."
Students in smaller majors see both advantages and disadvantages in the size of their departments.
David Dean '03, an architecture major, said that while he sees a lack of funding and a more narrow choice of courses as disadvantages, he has benefited from the interaction within his smaller department.
"Every architecture major knows everyone else . . . it's almost like a family atmosphere," Dean said in an email. "The lines between grad students and undergrads probably blur more in architecture than in any other major as well; the grad students interact with the undergrads a lot."
While Tilghman and Hecht said they believe the admission office has at least a modest role in determining the academic diversity of the student body, Tilghman said research has shown it is very difficult to predict the department in which a student will major based on an application.
Tilghman said she believes the survey is of particular relevance because of the upcoming 10 percent enlargement in class size. Many departments cannot accommodate this increase and would benefit if the new students distributed more evenly among departments. "Everyone is assuming these 500 students will act the same as the students already here," Herbst said. "This is the most important issue facing the undergraduate program."
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