Registration and the hiring freeze as a STEM major

Emma Howell   
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One of the biggest selling points Sewanee offered when I was first applying here- other than the gowns (stifling!), the goats (cute!), and the scholarships (helpful!)- was their placement rate for pre-medical students. As of 2019, it was at a solid 85 percent. As a point of comparison, the other school I was seriously considering had a rate of 45 percent. Nationally, 40 percent of applicants are accepted to medical school every year, which means 60 percent are… not.

It’s understandable why Sewanee does well here- it’s difficult to complain about the pre-health program. It’s clearly one of the better-funded STEM majors (sorry CompSci- enjoy your basement), and there are an almost superfluous amount of resources available to students.  Sewanee has not one, but two pre-health societies (SMHS and SHPS- they are very different, and no, I will not explain why). There are multiple practice MCATS per year, and MCAT practice questions are sent out every day. Pre-health advising is continuously offered from freshman year on, and the professors in charge of it are polite enough not to laugh in your face if you, say, come in thinking you’re going to complete a double major and pre-med and a minor. Dr. Summers, if you’re reading this, I’m very sorry- I was very stupid.

That said, when applying to medical school, it’s sort of important that you actually complete the courses you need to take, which is looking like more and more of a challenge!

I’m not trying to make it sound like pre-med students are uniquely hard done by- the hiring freeze has affected everyone, it’s hard for everyone to get classes. But I do think that they provide an interesting microcosm of the registration crisis.  

Pre-medicine is basically a second major, one made up of the most popular biology, statistics, and chemistry courses. These classes typically have limited space, but this is especially true this year, where the biology labs recommended for pre-med can only accommodate around sixteen students.  Pre-med students need at least two of these. As I write this, it’s the morning after the first night of registration and they’re already all gone!  These are classes with prerequisites! They should be safe!  Statistics is also almost gone- so is psychology. The options left are the year-long tracks of organic chemistry and physics- and chemistry will probably be gone by tonight.

Why do these classes go so fast? It’s not just because pre-health is very popular, but because the classes required for it- biology labs, physics, organic chemistry, statistics, even basic English courses- are also required for every other STEM major, so it’s a rat race between the nerdiest of the nerds to get themselves into thermodynamics every semester.  

I’m not really making this complaint on my behalf. I have most of my courses done, because I spent both halves of sophomore year hoarding science credits like the world’s lamest packrat. But the reality is, if your course trajectory is even a bit off base, it’s going to be extraordinarily hard to get back on track with the limited amounts of wiggle room the sparse class schedule provides. Say you’ve decided to study abroad. You better load up on pre-med credits because a lot of the classes you need for medicine- organic chemistry, physics, statistics- either aren’t offered abroad or aren’t given credit. Say you come to the field late- you have some dramatic epiphany sophomore year and want to turn your life around. You’re going to need several prerequisite science courses before you can even think about doing the difficult labs. Neither of these scenarios can really happen this year, where most people are able to get into one or maybe two pre-med courses before they’re filled.

And of course, you probably wouldn’t know how to do all this if you didn’t have an advisor familiar with the pre-med curriculum, which is the case for many underclassmen before they pick their majors. I completely understand why a professor in an unrelated department wouldn’t have the context for the myriad requirements and recommendations and specific order of registration involved in picking these classes, but neither would a freshman! This makes a lot of students in this situation have to be very proactive, seeking out advice from other students or the pre-med faculty, or else be led astray.  

Troublingly, this can scare pre-med students away from the humanities because there’s so much extra work involved in picking classes, which should be the easiest part of a major. This is a very bad sign! Diversity of skill sets is essential in the medical field- there needs to be an understanding of philosophy and ethics, of history and politics, to effectively care for other people with different experiences. Also, as someone who does research, I can not stress enough the importance of English and writing to STEM majors in general. If you’ve ever read a research paper (or tragically failed in the attempt), you understand what I’m saying. There is literally an entire class at this school dedicated to teaching people how to read scientific papers because they’re written in such a way as to be (somehow!) simultaneously maddening and boring all at once.

The situation also isn’t helped by the fact that pre-med isn’t an actual major, so students need to also figure in other classes. A disproportionate number of pre-med students will also feel the strain there because many of those majors are both extremely popular and extremely understaffed. Chemistry, for example, has had several professors leave permanently, and will have professors on leave or sabbatical next year. Psychology, in addition to being one of the most popular majors in the school with introductory classes that seem to fill instantaneously, is now offering fewer courses than they ever have in my time at Sewanee because they are so understaffed. My major is also not immune. Neuroscience is very new but has been growing quickly because it is (empirically speaking) the best. There are now fifty neuroscience majors at the school- and three neuroscience professors. And one of them is going on sabbatical next year!   

Also- and this is perhaps my most petty complaint- there’s something terribly soul-crushing about fighting tooth and nail to get into a class that will haunt your every living nightmare for the next semester. Competing to get a spot in Orgo seems like skipping the line to jump straight into hell.

Now, I am under no delusions that this is news to pre-med students because pre-med students have made complaining about classes not just a treasured pastime but an art. I am also not complaining that pre-med is hard because that seems a bit like complaining that water is wet. But it seems clear that, while Sewanee has all the accouterment of a successful pre-health program and is staffed by incredibly helpful and talented faculty, the administration has done little to facilitate this field of study at the most basic level.