“You Just Watch Me!”

My undergraduate degree was in what my university (Queen’s University) called Life Sciences–what others might have once called pre-med. Many of us wrote the MCAT (as I did) but not all of us got into medicine (as I didn’t, but as my roommate did). In our first year, we predictably took courses in Chemistry, Biology, Physics (each of which had its own three hour lab too, of course), Calculus, and Psychology–the last being an elective but everyone pretty much took it. In other years we enrolled in such courses as Organic Chemistry, Genetics, Biochemistry, Histology, Abnormal Psych, Anatomy, Statistics, Brain and Behavior, Physiology, etc. I would imagine that many of my classmates who, like the vast majority of us, didn’t get into medicine, have ended up in one of the many adjacent fields–such as going on to do a Master of Science degree in Microbiology (“micro” for the initiated), or eventually going into, say, Pharmacology–either to do research, work for a drug company’s marketing division (as one friend did after getting his Ph.D.), or owning your own pharmacy (the route taken by another good friend from my Life Sciences days).

Me? I ended up getting a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Toronto.

What a waste that undergrad degree was…, right?

Maybe my point is obvious; not unlike many students who pursue a degree in the Humanities, many who earn an undergraduate degree in the sciences have to reinvent themselves once they graduate. But–and this is the interesting part–no one seems to see this as a problem in the sciences, while it worries us terribly in the Humanities. What gives? Enrolling in a BA in religious studies? “What on earth are you going to do with a degree like that?” asks Aunt Enid at pretty much every family get-together. But enroll in an engineering degree and everyone somehow knows that you’re on the right track. That few of my own undergrad friends who did a degree in engineering ever actually did any engineering in their careers–coz they all enrolled almost right away in an MBA degree and all became managers who never picked up a protractor again–doesn’t seem to tarnish that first degree, in which they were immersed in material that eventually, proved of little relevance to how they earned their daily bread.

Or…, was it directly relevant, perhaps? Coz I always thought, at the time, that my engineering friends, with the insane schedules and workloads that they had (they certainly had it worse than me in terms of hours per week in class, even though my 5 classes, each meeting three times per week, plus those three 3 hour labs per week, made my time pretty hectic), were actually being trained in how to manage their time, how to meet deadlines, and how to juggle multiple balls. That is, especially when they all started doing business degrees after graduation, it seemed to me that they were actually being taught skills and not content in that undergraduate degree, skills that would be handy to them, whatever they should decide to do.

Looking back now, it seems to me that the seemingly practical application of their degrees (an application few of my friends ever realized, remember) provided cover for their professors to teach them skills basic to any education. It never really was about the content of those classes, after all.

Well played, engineering professors, well played.

As for me? I didn’t do the final year of my Bachelor of Science degree, which means I earned a B.A. instead (that’s how the Canadian system was). For after three years of petri dishes, fruit flies, and carbon rings, I also moved on to other things. But I think that the sort of analytic problem-solving skills that I learned in those three years, the way to break something down into manageable parts you can tackle, have served me rather well in the place where I happen to have landed–in my research, my teaching, my professional service, and my administration. And this means to me that my undergraduate degree, seemingly so removed from what I do today. was anything but a waste of my time; for it turned out to be crucial in the formation of the scholar who I am today.

The moral of my story? Not all scientists wear lab coats.

Which brings me back to the unfair nature of Aunt Enid’s question, something that is never apparent at the time, when it is asked while you pass her a bowl of mashed potatoes. For she’s asking you to read the leftover coffee grounds in the bottom of a cup that you’ve not even finished making yet, much less started to drink, making your prediction of the future pretty inadequate. And so, to her “What on earth are you going to do with a degree like that?” question, I would advise a simple reply: “You just watch me!”