Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Ask the Administrator: What Should I Take?

A Western correspondent writes:
I am in my Junior year at a huge research university of 30,000 students. I am 20 years old, I have a 9-month-old baby boy, and am married to a full time working man in the midst of his career. We moved so that he could pursue his dreams and receive a promotion. I worked tremendously hard to get into the university Broadcasting Journalism program which has a 30% acceptance rate, and the program's degree serves virtually as a shoo-in for job proposals upon graduation. I refused to drop out of school, so I commute four hours round trip every day to take classes and finish my degree. I have 1.5 years left and I am home free, yet suddenly I am getting overwhelming pangs of distaste and boredom for Journalism.

Originally, I wanted to go to school for nursing but after falling in love with journalism - and having a genuine talent for it- I pursued a career in my current program. I have, since my freshman year, felt feelings of regret for the decision that I made, but my peers and family consistently told me it was just a "phase" and I should persevere, so I have. Finally upon a true epiphany just recently, I have realized that I don't want to do journalism anymore and would LOVE to be a nurse. I come from a long line of doctors and nurses whom continue to inspire me every day and only fuel my passion for the field. My husband is completely supportive. He says I should do what makes me happy, no matter what it is. Still, I am sure you can imagine my hesitance as I am so late in the college game and to switch majors now would tack on another good three years of course work before I got my degree.

I have sought the guidance of my college dean, my advisors, professors and mentors and surprisingly each and every one told me to yet again ignore the desire for nursing and finish journalism. They contend that if I still have these feelings after my graduation I can join an accelerated nursing program and still have journalism to fall back on. I am shocked at this advice because I don't know if I should really spend the next 1.5 years of my life wasting time and money on a degree I no longer feel passionately about. I think my four hour commute proves that I am serious about my education, so serious that I can't afford to waste my precious efforts on something I will not pursue. My heart tells me to go for nursing, but my mind tells me that if I leave all that I have accomplished behind I will have even more regrets than I already do....if you were my dean, what would you advise?

Now that I’m, well, eligible for my town’s over-35 softball league, 20 doesn’t strike me as all that old. If you have support on the home front, it’s certainly not too late to make a change, if that’s what you finally decide to do. But before you do that…

Like a good administrator, I’d first advise you to get more information. Right now you’re comparing a fantasy to a reality, which isn’t a fair comparison. Get some facts about the nursing program at the school closest to you (if you’re changing fields anyway, you might as well shorten your commute); ideally, schedule an appointment with the nursing department chair. When you meet with the chair, ask about the selectivity of the program, your odds of getting in, which courses would transfer, and what you’d need to take (if anything) before applying. At my college, for example, nursing students have to apply for the nursing program after first taking a full year of general education courses, including a year of biology (anatomy & physiology). In a way, this should make you feel better about the time you’ve spent already; the courses you’ve already taken will probably fill most, if not all, of the gen ed prereqs, so you won’t lose everything. Find out about GPA requirements, science and math requirements, criminal background checks, etc. If you don’t have those yet, you know what you need to do. (Keep in mind, those science courses have pretty nasty attrition rates. If two semesters of biology slap you silly, then nursing isn’t for you.)

If those all check out, have some frank conversations with the doctors and (especially) nurses you know about their daily lives. It’s obvious that family is important to you, so you should probably take stock of how each career would impact family life: nursing involves long, stressful shifts, for example, but allows you to stay in one place; broadcast journalism pretty much requires you to move around the country to move up in your profession. If your husband is place-bound, something would have to give.

The good news for you is that nurses are very employable, and that’s unlikely to change for the foreseeable future, as the baby boomers get older. The bad news is that slots in nursing programs are very competitive, and the programs are pretty unforgiving.

Either field makes sense, but my general belief is that you’ll be better at the things for which you have a sustained passion. Your university may have a good track record at placing journalism grads in first jobs, but it’s a very competitive industry, and a halfhearted journalist isn’t likely to go very far beyond that first job. Better a dedicated nurse than an indifferent journalist.

As far as the concern for wasted education, I wouldn’t get too focused on that. The communication skills you honed will serve you well, and may open up other doors in the future (i.e. management, medical journalism, grant-writing, public relations, fundraising). Your toolbox will have things others’ won’t, and that could work to your benefit. It’s no coincidence that liberal arts colleges are major feeders for medical schools; the abilities to communicate with patients, to write clearly, to synthesize disparate information, and to tell a story that makes sense come in handy in real-world medical practice. Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

That is an outstanding answer, covering all important issues succinctly, directly. You are manifestly a genius at Deaning.

Keep it up and you'll be a college president some day, which according to yesterday's NYTimes now pays a million bucks a year.
Great answer, Dean Dad.

Might I also suggest she talk to the nursing programs about doing a "shadow" week or whatever? (That's where a student shadows a person for a week or whatever, watching everything they do, and getting a good sense of what the job actually entails.)

If nursing's for you, you'll know it after that week. And if it's not, you'll also know that.
I would also suggest that among the deans, professors, advisors and mentors, she seek out specifically the career development office to gain additional information on the field, job specifics, etc. Perhaps she already did so, but she did not mention specifically if the career development office was part of the advice-seeking process. They could help her figure out what the best "fit" might be given her skills, values and evolving interests. This may help clarify her decision-making process.

I agree with bardiac that a job shadowing experience is excellent and am impressed with Dean Dad's comprehensive answer about how to find out where she stands.

As for why everyone suggested she do journalism and nursing as a fallback after graduation, I have a couple of thoughts:

1) Clearly, they may have been reacting to her being "so close" to finishing, and they don't want to see an obviously bright, motivated student veer off an established path for something that (to them) may be coming ou9t of the blue. Sometimes as deans and advisors, we look for the most expedient solution, not necessarily the "best one." (The more cynical part of me says "switching programs looks bad for the four year graduation rates.")

2) She is only 20 years old. From the perspective of a dean, prof, advisor, etc., she is obviously someone with a lot of time. So why not finish and if need be, do an accelerated program. When she'll still be an under 25 nurse when all is said and done. (I'm eligible for the over-35 softball league, myself)

3. She may have been ambivalent about leaving journalism while talking to her advisors. They may well have picked up on that, and it's only after talking it all out that she's decided journalism is not what she wants.

Just my $.02!

Career/Academic Counselor
I don't think journalism is that great of a "fallback", personally. I understand your school has good placement rates, but it is in general a hard field to find work in, and poorly paid when you do.
I always feel like I am adding very little to the excellent posts by Dean Dad but here's my ramble anyway...

pro-leave) A year and half doing something you question the validity of and are just 'suffering through' can seem an interminable amount of time. And time should be precious to both the senior citizen set and to those without wrinkle cream so just because you (the reader who wrote this Q) has loads of time after finishing to pursue other degrees doesn't mean you should spend your time now doing journalism study. I would definitely encourage you to stop thinking in terms of 'only 1.5 years left'. Looking at the other side of that argument: that's just over 1/2 done in a 4 year program. Why kill even more time pursuing the journalism degree?

flip side

con leave) Be aware that "the grass is always greener". Having taught an intro chem class for pre-nursing majors, I know that a lot of them are there with false ideas of what it means to be a nurse. First, according to them, "helping people" does not actually require that they know anything about what they are doing. This isn't true. It's not just about having a good bedside manner and giving the drugs. It requires years of study for a reason - the job is HARD. I have friends who are nurses. To be a good nurse, they have to be aware of the patient's needs physically, mentally, AND emotionally. Plus, they need to be able to address those needs. Sometimes this includes being 'rude' to the family members who won't leave and are keeping the patient awake or arguing with the doctor to get something needed (example: pain killers) prescribed. Nevermind that this job requires you be on your feet for 12+ hours at a shot or because of a national shortage you will often be assigned more patients than you should have for good care.

I would definitely support "shadowing", as suggested by bardiac. Also, as far as I know, all nurses are part of a union. Maybe try to meet with the Union rep. and find out what the "real life" expectations are for nurses in your area (it will vary widely between regions and hospitals/care facilites).

One last note: You mention that you have doctors and nurses in your family. Make sure you are listening to the nurses when you consider this career track change. Being a nurse is a world of difference from being a doctor. A doctor's view of the nursing profession is likely to be less than completely accurate.

In any case, I wish you the best of luck in deciding. The good thing about it is you have a choice. Yeay for the supportive husband and your own personal drive to excel at whatever you pursue.
Excellent advice. I would add that I have personal experience making a big switch from a geophysics/interdisciplinary engineering major to history at the end of my third year. I was able to graduate in only two more years due to helpful guidance from advisors who helped me get as much applicable credit transferred into the new school and streamlined my new program.
The hardest course for nursing students to get through is chemistry, even if it is offered as "chemistry for health sciences". Drop out for a semester (tell everyone it is for family reasons, making sure you can come back next fall if you decide to) and take the approriate chemistry course at the school you would do the nursing degree at. That should let you know in no time if you can make it through the nursing degree.

Also, there is an enormous industry in health science journalism publishing newsletters, pamphlets, etc. Your experience in journalism can still be useful.

Eli Rabett
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