Higher EducationPop QuizScience

Pop quiz: What to be when you grow up?

[Ed. note: the title of this piece has been changed since initial publication]


I teach biology in college and I advise our students in the major to prepare them for careers and post-graduate education.  I always start with “what do you want to be when you grow up?”  This generally breaks the ice as we chuckle over my silliness.

The interesting thing is “a doctor” is the number one answer I get.  Almost all my advisees want to go to med school.  The number of advisees who actually go?  None, so far.  Not only that, but doctors, while in high demand, aren’t cited as a “hot” major or one leading to jobs.  Most of the students don’t even know that the four years just to get a university degree is just the tip of that iceberg and they’re looking at four more years in med school then residency.  In fact, there’s now concern that residencies are scarce and becoming scarcer.

So what’s the allure?

I was reading this NYT article about science major attrition rates and the premise is, even though science is fun and the students who enjoyed it in middle and high schools choose a science as a major, they tend to drop out as soon as they have to take so many math and science classes.  The article posits that lower grades in science and a lack of educational reform in those popular programs (the weed out mentality) are to blame.

In a recent School of Doubt Required Readings, one of the links showed nurses with university degrees had lower death rates among their patients than those that had vocational training.  I have had a lot of pre-nursing students in my classes, and they absolutely hate science classes because they’re so hard.  Librarienne and I mused about what did these students think these majors and the later careers entail.  Interestingly, a lot of programs require internships or job shadowing as part of the student’s education, but not these pre-health career tracks.

THAT may be more of the crux of the problem than all the science classes!  A lot of the pre-nursing students wonder why they have to take so much science, and the pre-meds want to skip calculus, physics, and organic chemistry.  They don’t see how those courses apply.  I’m guessing all those hours of watching ER and Gray’s anatomy didn’t expose them to medical reality, where a solid grounding in science comes in handy.  The dreams of being the hero doctor who saves everyone seems to be a powerful one, but the actual doctoring gets glossed over.

Here’s my question to you: what makes students so intent on specific career options so early? And how do we expose them to what that will really mean?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon (ET).

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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.


  1. April 21, 2014 at 5:55 pm —

    I think many students haven’t critically assessed their assumptions. Doctors make money, are respected, save lives, etc. The profession checks a lot of boxes. In a way I think the exposure to those early, tough science courses are doing a good job of asking ” do you REALLY want to be a doctor?”

  2. April 23, 2014 at 4:50 pm —

    In some cases, the issue may simply be non-exposure to professions or a misunderstanding. I was a freshman in college before I realized that veterinarians had to go through 4 more years of school after the undergraduate degree. Some people may not realize that orderlies or the medical assistants who take your blood pressure aren’t nurses, the same way that people label everyone who works in a library as a librarian.

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