Leaving the Sciences (and maybe Philosophy too)

There’s a New York Times piece, Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard), that’s been making the rounds about the alarming number of students who start out in Science and Engineering, but then switch to another field of academic study. The general tone of the article is that students leave because these subjects are hard, they often aren’t well taught, and students receive the lowest grades they’ve ever received in any subject. It contrasts the way science is taught in elementary and high school as “fun,” filled with science fairs and experiments where you get to blow things up, with the grim reality of first year calculus. There are worries raised about the number of scientists the United States needs and whether that goal will be met but it also raises concerns about who leaves. It’s not just weak students or underprepared students who abandon science in the early years of university, it turns out. The article doesn’t address gender specifically but I found myself wondering if female undergraduates are more likely to think that they ought to leave the sciences if they get bad grades. One the studies cited is by Ben Ost. Ost, a doctoral student at Cornell, found that STEM students are both “pulled away” by high grades in their courses in other fields and “pushed out” by lower grades in their majors.” (Ost’s study, The Role of Peers and Grades in Determining Major Persistence in the Sciences is here. Ost’s abstract says, “In both the physical and life sciences, I find evidence that students are “pulled away” by their high grades in non-science courses and “pushed out” by their low grades in their major field. In the physical sciences, females are found to be more responsive to grades than males, consistent with psychological theories of stereotype vulnerability.” I haven’t read through all of Ost’s paper yet but I did find myself wondering about Philosophy. Philosophers often boast about being tough graders and I think that we like that our grades are lower than other Humanities subjects. Does that grading culture cost us our female students? If so, what ought we to do about it?

9 thoughts on “Leaving the Sciences (and maybe Philosophy too)

  1. I am studying both philosophy and economics, for separate degrees.
    If I were to drop out of one or change it, it would be economics because of the maths part. I might change it to political science.
    Philosophy might be hard at times and a lot to read, but you know that if you are somehow smart and you read and write enough, you’ll get your head around it somehow. But with maths (and I suspect other science and technology), it seems to me that some people just can’t open their mind to it. And I might have to include myself in this later group.
    So I think the problem are not only bad grades, but the lack of any vision about how to improve these grades or the understanding of the subject.
    Also, people who study philosophy tend to be less career-oriented (I would say), so we might not care about grades that much as long as we enjoy our studies.

  2. The question I have is why hard classes push students away? For me it was really the opposite. I went to a science intensive high school, and when I got to college I liked philosophy better than physics and math, because I found philosophy much more challenging. I studied for college physics and calc using my high school notes and kicked butt. In my math and science classes, I felt like I just needed to remember a bunch of stuff and use it. In my philosophy classes I actually got to think and that was fun (and difficult). Logic was the bottleneck course, but to me it just seemed like geometry with more words. I wonder if class size and quality of instruction play a role. My science and math classes were huge, the profs and TAs were not happy to be there and the experience seemed yucky for everyone. My philosophy classes were small and the profs seemed to like what they were doing. Perhaps Phil is not a good comparison to maths and sciences because both are considered hard. But, things like quality of instruction, class size and the chance to think about things that might make the world a better place were crucial for me.

    The gender question is an interesting one because of what we know about implicit gender bias and stereotype threat. But when we focus on gender, I think that pedagogy ought to be the heart of the issue. I wonder if bad grades are a marker for bad teaching in the study. This is not a criticism of science teachers, it is a criticism of a university reward system that doesn’t incentivize good teaching, and institutional pressures that make giant classes the norm.

  3. This is an interesting take on the article especially since I read it in a very different way. It seemed to me that students dropping out of the sciences had less to do with bad grades and more to do with the boring/dull/tedious nature of the course work. I suppose I just paid particular attention to the parts about how Notre Dame and Worcester Polytech have seen improved attrition rates since they introduced more hands-on strategies.

    That aside, I do think students are more likely to remain in fields where they feel encouraged. Encouragement could come in the form of high grades, praise from professors or their own enjoyment. I think it’s also important to be upfront with students about so called “harsh grading” if that is the way philosophy is perceived at your school. As an undergraduate I was aware that a B I fought to earn meant more than the A I got without much effort (but I was also aware that anyone looking at my transcript would just see the letters and nothing more). Students are (or should be) bright enough to understand the distinction.

  4. This was an interesting article. I tend to agree with ebeth that the problem of students dropping out has more to do with the dull nature of the courses than with grades. In my experience, courses where As were hard earned were always my favorites. These included modern philosophy, latin, and formal logic classes. The material seemed more valuable to my life. (This is my personal experience and not a general statement.) I ended up as philosophy major and have gone on to pursue my doctorate in the field. Looking back on my reasons why, I realize that it was because of the encouragement to explore that I was given at my undergraduate institution and the worth that I placed on the knowledge obtained from the classes. My partner is in nuclear physics and heads an outreach program funded by the NSF aimed at increasing diversity within the sciences. She graduated from the top doctorate program in the world (for nuclear physics) but found that her desire to do research was harmed in the process. She told me once that students aren’t told “why” they should research x. They are simply told to research x. As a consequence, few students have a grasp of the larger picture and this hampers the desire to do science. Perhaps, this is the reason why students leave the field. Teachers fail to explain the larger picture and why the particular experiment is important to perform and, without this broader knowledge, they lose enthusiasm or a greater sense of purpose. Pre college science is often about solving particular problems or building objects, like robots. Perhaps science has moved too far from philosophy, in that it no longer addresses normative, or even simple “why” questions. (This is in reference to the post ww2 “value free” science ideal.) As a consequence, students find less meaning in studying it. But then I may be biased as I have been known to argue that scientists should read more Aristotle.

  5. I have studied physics and am now a graduate student in the foundations of physics, which is more philosophical. I started out wanting to do theoretical physics but I was not quick enough at understanding and doing calculations and quickly became discouraged although I am very stubborn and still visit and try to understand lectures on theoretical physics. What for me was, and still is, the hardest thing to fight is the attitude that many people in physics at my university have (students as well as professors) that you should somehow immediately understand everything. This seems to be because of the strange idea they have that only extremely smart (almost autistic in my opinion) people can do physics. Often they don’t bother to explain things but actively seem to select only a certain type of geniuses-to-be.
    I think this is so sad. I think that physics is missing out on a lot of other qualities that students who are not just calculating machines can bring, like students with perhaps a more inquisitive or creative mind.

    I have no idea what it is like for first year philosophy students. I do think that some philosophers also tend to radiate the message that they are supersmart and that you have to be supersmart to join them. But very much less structurally so than physicists, in my experience at least (I have done some courses at the philosophy department). I also don’t know what it is like for students at other departments.

    Perhaps it is bad for female students because of the stereotype of the male genius. I have not noticed any specific problem with grading except that high grades are usually only easy to obtain if you are already ‘a natural’ at mathematics and physics and that with the idea in the back of your head that you are either a genius or not good enough, a low grade (or something lower than an excellent grade) seems to tell you that you are simply not good enough and never will be.

  6. I wonder if the graduate school process also influences this. As an undergrad, i worried that if I got a B or a C in a more advanced class as opposed to the A I would have gotten by sticking with something easier, my lower GPA might exclude me from certain graduate programs I could otherwise have gotten in to. The net result was to avoid overly challenging courses. This is I think especially relevant in philosophy, where graduate school admissions are highly competitive and a student with a lower GPA may not even be considered for higher ranked programs.

  7. I’m currently a science faculty member at an R1 university, but all through high school I excelled at English & History and disliked science and math classes. I started college as an English major and then picked up a second major in Chemistry.

    As the post describes, I initially received some of the lowest grades I’d ever encountered. I stuck with it and ended up going to graduate school and on to a career in scientific research, but I agree that the initial shock probably drives a lot of people away.

    There’s a gendered aspect to that. Blogger Courtney Martin over at Feministing has written a few posts about not exploring academically as much as she might have in college for fear of no longer being the perfect straight A average daughter she was used to being.

    I wonder if there is also a generational aspect. I was in college around 1990. We hear a lot about kids being conditioned more and more intensively to build the perfect resume from an increasingly early age. I wonder if college students today, as a group, are less inclined to risk their high GPA’s then college students back in 1990.

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