General Question

Hobbes's avatar

Should I study Physics, Organismal Biology, or Neuroscience?

Asked by Hobbes (7371points) July 18th, 2008

I am about to enter my first year of college, and I’m considering what major I should pursue. I know that I want to pursue the sciences, and I know that the fields of Physics, Organismal Biology (marine biology in particular) and Neuroscience all spark my interest more than anything else. I do not know very much about any of these fields – my interest is based on the bits and pieces I have learned, on perusing the course guide for the most interesting-sounding courses, and on a general aesthetic attraction.

What I will probably do is take the most interesting-looking introductory courses offered for each one and make a decision based on that. However, I would really value your opinion on the relative merits of these disciplines, just so that I don’t have to go in blind. Which will be most useful in the future (both career-wise and in relation to advancing technology and scientific understanding)? If you study one of these fields, why does it captivate you? Which of these do you feel creates the firmest foundation for further learning? Finally – is there some other field I haven’t considered yet which might bring these three areas together?

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22 Answers

shilolo's avatar

It sounds to me like you have a very well thought out plan. Any of the scientific disciplines you described should provide a strong foundation for critical thinking skills, even if you don’t end up as a physicist, marine biologist or neuroscientist. Definitely pursue what interests you the most.

I majored in chemistry, and went on to study medicine and immunology after that. I loved being a chemistry major (though in truth, I didn’t quite love physics). In particular, I focused more on biological chemistry (a bit more chemically oriented than biochemistry, but this is semantics). I feel that the rigorous training I received as a chemistry major definitely helped with my future career.

Certainly if you want the most fundamental training, then pursue physics. Physics is what makes everything work, and so you can eventually apply that to pretty much any discipline. But, this is just my two cents. The bottom line is that you have listed a great set of options, and you have the luxury of time to decide what you want. I am sure that the introductory classes will help narrow your focus, and in the meantime, your “entry-level” science classes (calculus, physics 101, chemistry 101, biology 101, etc.) will provide the foundation for any of your choices. Good luck, and enjoy!

Trance24's avatar

Marine Biology would be great in my opinion (I want to be a zoologist major). But Neuroscience sound amazing as well. Figuring out how the brain works and all.

monsoon's avatar

Yes, number 2.

But I hate physics, and as a student of Psychology who hates science I think Neuroscience is the most important one (science, that is). And some one has to do it.

But the organowhatsit sounds by far the most awesome.

soundedfury's avatar

I agree with shilolo. I’m always partial to physics, of course, but you’ll discover what you like in those intro courses.

Oh, and don’t listen to @nikipedia. She’s biased (and usually wrong).

Hobbes's avatar

Thanks everyone for your responses

@soundedfury – I happen to value nikipedia’s opinion, and I doubt she’s much more biased than anyone else (we all are, to some degree). If you have an issue with her, I suggest you message her privately, rather than trying to sully her name in public.

nikipedia's avatar


I honestly do not understand why people continue to study things that aren’t brains. We are at such a special time in history when suddenly we have so many new technologies, so much computing power, and so much unexplored territory—why would you study anything else!? So yes, neuroscience is where it’s at in terms of the future of technology/careers as well as being profoundly fascinating and crucial to advancing our understanding of the human condition.

And neuroscience is this beautiful coalescence of everything interesting in the universe: physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, computer science, and, of course, the eternal questions from philosophy.

I could go on all day and I have no idea if I’m giving you the kind of information you’re looking for. Do you have follow up questions? Can I recommend books for you to read?

Also don’t listen to @soundedfury. He’s just jealous that I found neuroscience and he got stuck studying boring stuff like books. Also that I’m right about everything.

marinelife's avatar

I vote for biology, particularly marine biology. Like the brain, it still has a lot of unexplored territory to discover. Oceans will continue to grow in importance to our planet in terms of food production, pollution, climate, water, and so much more. There will be a growing need for expertise in the field.

Hobbes's avatar

I’d love some book recommendations and further gushing, nikipedia. Thanks = ) Is there any particular subset of neuroscience that you’re most drawn to?

I’m interested in physics mainly because it’s so fundamental to everything else, and because there’s an elegance and simplicity to parts of it, which I’m drawn to aesthetically, as well as incredibly mind-bending, complex and confusing things, which I’m also drawn to.

Marine biology is mainly interesting because I like looking at weird critters and learning interesting things about them : ]

nikipedia's avatar

My plan at the moment is to study cell differentiation and migration/synaptogenesis—how you go from a blob of pluripotent cells to a well-organized machine. Other pet projects include autism, emotional memory, and moral decision making, but that kind of thing involves too many human subjects for me.

Which brings me to my next point—consider your day to day life as a scientist. Answering Big Interesting Questions is a big draw of science, but it’s not something you end up doing most of the time. I have no idea what physicists do all day other than make calculations and drink coffee and play World of Warcraft. Part of what I like about my little corner of neuroscience is that I enjoy doing things like running western blots, and I find working with animals, well, tolerable. So it’s crucial to get some lab experience in your chosen field before you…choose it.

And books: a great starting place is the brilliant and talented Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory, but I also have to recommend the old standbys as well—Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and VS Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain.

nocountry2's avatar

I second Niki – NEUROSCIENCE!!!!!!!

shilolo's avatar

I would never want to disagree with Niki, but in this instance, I will. If you (eventually) feel like you would like to focus on neuroscience (i.e. in graduate school), you are better served learning another discipline as an undergraduate. For example, I know many physics majors who ended up applying their knowledge in grad school to other things, such as biophysics, neuroscience, molecular biology, cell biology, etc. This reminds me that you might be able to bridge a number of disciplines if you major in biophysics (if your school has that major). In my opinion, if you major is something fundamental such as physics, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, biophysics, etc., you can then go to graduate school in whatever you want.

XCNuse's avatar

Hold on, you say you’re interested in these topics, but does the college you applied to HAVE them? If not then there is no point.

As a freshman I wouldn’t worry just yet, you’re going to be taking your base classes, maths, simple sciences, and just whatever.

Take a class for each field you think you want to persue that the school offers for freshmen, and if you like it, then go into it, if you don’t, then hell get out or else you’re going to be wasting a lot of time and money and a GPA.

I went in thinking I wanted to be an engineer. After first semester that quickly changed, the math was way to much for me, even the basic science classes were almost a little to much, the actual engineering classes were okay, but still insanely advanced. My roommate thought I was dumb because I had a low GPA, while he was taking freshmen whatever class so he has an idea, I was actually persueing a major. Now I’m looking into an art major, not sure yet though, I’ll be taking a lot of geographical sciences so we’ll see where that goes.

What you really don’t want to do is start taking classes that when you change majors will transfer in credits, otherwise you just wasted however many hours on a class that won’t get you anywhere.

Trust me, it isn’t time to decide yet. I know people that should be out of college now, but aren’t sure what they want to major in and still are in college, 6 years later.

mvgolden's avatar

I commend you for thinking about going into science. Not too many people end up liking physics and biology so you would be a rare bird that liked both.

I would suggest that you talk to people who work in the fields to find out what you can do with those degrees. Try to set up a few informational interviews. My freshman year classes are nothing like what I actually do all day.

I also want to put in a plug for acoustics. You can combine your fields of interest within acoustics. For example there is a whole field of underwater bioacoustics. They look at how sound travels underwater (physics) and how it effects underwater animals (marine biology). There is also psychoacoustics which is about how we think we hear. That combines physics and neuroscience. A lot of acoustics also deals with medical imaging.

What ever you study, just remember to have fun while in college. You are only young once.

XCNuse's avatar

Just know that in the end, your major will have very little to almost nothing to do with what you want to do.

If you want to be an artists with money, you will be working in a cubicle putting stuff together that other artists have given to the company for you to work with.
If you want to be an artists without money, you will do whatever you want, paint, design, you name it, but wont get a lot of money.

If you want to be a chemist, you could land up working in a cubicle on computers.
If you want to be a chemist, you could land up being a teacher.

If you want to be a physical therapist then you can go through 8 more years of school, and take insanely hard tests, and hope for the best you find a good job, or you could do anything else and get payed less, but still go through 8 years of school.

You can be a business major and land up doing art.

I would say wait two semesters until you decide, college is nothing at all like high school, high school gives you basics to work with, college makes you apply them using your own techniques.

well.. you’ll see in a few weeks.

Unfortunate for me, my dad just told me over dinner that I HAVE to decide my major at the end of this semester because I will have taken all core classes that I possible can except for 2 engineering classes.

seriously though, changing majors can be a pain in the ass or worse, a loss of ass, take your core classes and go from there.

marinelife's avatar

@XCNuse Aren’t you a little ray of sunshine? I suggest avoiding the pitfall of the self-fulfilling prophecy. You can also look at all of your opportunities. You can refuse to settle for a job you don’t enjoy. You can craft the life that you want.

nikipedia's avatar

@XCNuse: I knew what I wanted to do the first time I saw it. I was 15. Eight years later, I’m working in that field. No regrets whatsoever.

LKidKyle1985's avatar

I know, major in computer programming as an undergrad, then go to grad school for neuroscience. then you can build the next cyborg!

drhat77's avatar

@shilolo Randal Munroe would disagree with you about the purity of physics

Jreemy's avatar

I am majoring in Applied Physics/Engineering specifically so I can aid in the advancement of technology. I personally would recommend the Physics path because so much of it leads to tech advancement. Aerodynamics, thermodynamics, electrical mechanical and computer engineering, nuclear engineering, solid state physics, quantum physics, theoretical physics, particle physics, the list goes on and on.

maio's avatar


stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

I started out in physics and wound up in mechanical engineering with a dual major in history. You can’t always tell what you will like until you actually get into the “nuts and bolts” of it. Most universities have a basic science/technology track that has much the same courses for the first two years. You don’t really get “into” your major until the third year. So you can go into a “general science” track as a freshman and really not have to “declare” until sometime in your second year.
Unexpected things have a way of happening. I basically switched from physics to engineering because I thought there would be better career prospects without having to teach (which is where most physics majors wind up). I ultimately wound up putting 29 years in the US Army, go figure?

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