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New book promotes choice of majors

Part of initiative to educate about range of intellectual opportunities

By Karin Dienst

Princeton NJ -- With approximately 43 percent of Princeton juniors and seniors concentrating in just five academic departments, the Office of the Dean of the College is highlighting the successes students have realized by majoring in one of the University's 29 other departments through a new book, ''Major Choices.''

book spread

''Major Choices''
(72 pages, 7x9 in.)

Encouraging students to follow their intellectual passions, the 71-page publication includes 30 first-person accounts written by alumni who concentrated in 19 of the smaller academic departments and went on to rewarding, often unexpected careers.

Currently, the most popular departments among concentrators are, in descending order, politics (250), history (247), economics (223), the Woodrow Wilson School (164) and English (128). In comparison, the lowest numbers of concentrators are in Slavic languages and literatures (6), German (8) and astrophysical sciences (9) (see ''By the numbers'' on page 2).

According to Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel, the intention of ''Major Choices'' is not to draw students away from any of the larger departments if that is where their academic interests lie, but to raise awareness of the many intellectual opportunities available to students, and the ways selecting a less subscribed academic concentration can bring unique benefits.

The book is part of a wider initiative by the Office of the Dean of the College to educate students about Princeton's range of majors. Other strategies under way include helping smaller departments strengthen introductory courses and create new courses; encouraging these departments to develop alternative or accelerated pathways into the concentration; working with departments to reach out to what Malkiel calls their natural freshman and sophomore constituencies; and developing enhanced programming on the part of Career Services and the residential colleges, including inviting upperclass students and faculty to speak in the colleges and bringing back alumni to talk about their experiences.

''Undergraduates should be choosing their concentrations on the basis of their intellectual passions, not because of what they (or their parents) believe to be the presumed utility or practicality of a field of study.''

In the introduction to ''Major Choices,'' Malkiel explains that the book is addressed to two audiences: Princeton freshmen and sophomores, who are in the process of choosing courses and concentrations; and Princeton parents who, through their involvement in their children's education, give advice about academic decisions based on their own values and knowledge.

''The book conveys a clear message,'' writes Malkiel. ''Undergraduates should be choosing their concentrations on the basis of their intellectual passions, not because of what they (or their parents) believe to be the presumed utility or practicality of a field of study. 'Major Choices' is intended to help students appreciate that, whatever their ultimate career goal, they can concentrate in any field, and that doing so will enrich their lives and equip them admirably for productive and rewarding careers.''

The alumni accounts provide rich testament to this message. Here are snapshots of three of their stories:

• Jane Shumate Alison, a concentrator in classics and a member of the class of 1983, used her training in Latin and Greek to get a first job at the National Endowment for the Humanities, then jobs in book and newspaper publishing, as well as television and publicity. She went on to graduate school in comparative literature and creative writing. Alison is now a novelist and a teacher of creative writing. She writes that ''The Love Artist,'' her first published novel, ''sprang straight from what most engrossed me at Princeton, the subject of much of my senior thesis: Ovid.'' Alison is also the author of ''The Marriage of the Sea,'' and the upcoming ''Natives and Exotics.''

• Mace Hack majored in biology and traveled the world doing wildlife research. A member of the class of 1986, Hack currently is the head of wildlife research for the state of Nebraska. He credits the small size of the department (now the ecology and evolutionary biology department) for, as he writes, ''providing opportunities for quality interaction'' between faculty and undergraduates. He points out that his senior thesis adviser was able to ''invest his time and funding in a few students rather than many,'' a level of attention out of which grew the opportunity for him to spend two months in the field studying wild horses off the coast of North Carolina.

• Vidya Krishnan concentrated in electrical engineering and is now an engineer at Nortel Networks, where she has worked since 1998. A member of the class of 1995, Krishnan had only 25 fellow electrical engineering classmates. She also took full advantage of the broad academic choices Princeton offers. She writes, ''My EE research taught me how to solve problems; my freshman seminar in civil rights taught me how to write and reason; my art history experience in Greece taught me how to appreciate what the imagination can do -- the varied education of my past continues to enrich my professional and personal life.''

''Major Choices'' also includes testimonials from numerous admissions deans at law and medical schools as well as representatives of the business sector who explain why students concentrating in the less-heavily-enrolled departments can be particularly attractive to professional schools and employers.

The publication was edited and designed by staff members of the Office of Communications. It was mailed to the class of 2008 and their parents prior to Freshman Parents Weekend, Oct. 8-10. This month, the book also is being distributed to the class of 2007 and their parents as well as faculty members and others.