Iowa City Stories

April 3, 2010

Major Indecision: Issues and Logistics for UI’s Top Five Majors

Filed under: IC Stories: Goater, UI Majors, Iowa City Stories, Local Issues — claegoater @ 1:18 pm

Choosing a major is a difficult and complicated step in a person’s academic journey. Deciding on a major is a source of stress for lots of undergraduates. Even those who have already chosen their major are often plagued by doubts.

In the end, many undergrads sign up for a major based on what interests them, without knowing much about the program. Here, we’ll take a look at the most popular majors at the University of Iowa, and what type of classroom experience a student can expect from each department. To read about gender issues as related to university majors, click here.

Jump to Biology, Communication Studies, English, Political Science, Psychology


People tend to think of biology as a stuffy, fact-oriented discipline that requires high levels of recall from students. Is it true? How does it translate into the classroom setting?


Biology majors will find that a lot of their courses will be large lecture-type classes and discussion. Many other colleges design their biology programs so that every course you take will have a lab section along with it. According to Undergraduate Biology Advisor Amy Korthank Gabaldon, UIuses a different system. “Here at the University of Iowa, we really emphasize research. So we like to see students do a very intensive research project.” Iowa biology students are required to take only a single, intensive lab based on their area of degree specialization.

-Assignments and Skills

The type of work a biology student will perform varies from class to class. Students in lab classes will make up a significant portion of their grade through daily work, papers and lab reports. Lecture courses may be evaluated solely by exams, or through a combination of written papers and exams. Biology students will also have to create presentations and lead class discussions.

“All of the skills that you associate with being a good student are necessary,” said UI sophomore and biology major Chris Ajluni. “You have to be able to demonstrate your knowledge in lots of different forms. You have to be able to communicate what you know on tests and in papers. You’ve got to be able to present information publicly, think on your feet and make yourself understood.”


Both Gabaldon and Ajluni agreed that tests are one of the thornier aspects of being a biology major. “You’ve got to be able to study for a long time,” Ajluni said. “It helps if you have your own system for studying, your own way of preparation. Biology teaches you how to study if you don’t already know how.”

Biology tests are notoriously tricky. “You have to apply the material, instead of a regurgitation of facts,” said Gabaldon, “So it’s not a lot of memorization, which I think that students assume that biology’s going to be. Because that, typically, is how science courses are in high school. “

As for the format of tests, most of the them will have some multiple choice and some short answer. Most of the tests also require students to fill in a diagram. “In the sciences, diagrams tend to lend themselves very easily towards exams,” said Gabaldon. “Almost all of the exams in biology will have some sort of diagram problem.”


Biology may be one of the more stressful majors a University of Iowa student can undertake. “I think it’s one of the harder majors,” said Gabaldon.  “The courses, naturally, because they’re in the sciences, are very hard. A biology major, no matter where you go, is going to be very difficult. You really have to understand the material to be able to do well.”

“I think it’s more stressful than a lot of other majors,” Ajluni said. “The classes themselves are difficult, and they’re very time-consuming. You’ve got long hours in the lab. It can be really frustrating when you don’t get results. It can also be philosophically challenging, say, with religion for instance. If you’re very content with your worldview, very set in your ways, than this is not a good discipline.” (For more on the intersect between science and religion, click here.)

Communication Studies

If biology’s got you at the end of your rope, you might consider majoring communication studies instead, in order to relax you a little. The prevalent image of communication studies portrays it as a major for slackers. But, intrapersonal learners may well find communication studies more nerve-wracking than biology. It turns out that communication studies involves a lot of communication.

-Course Content

Communication Studies Academic Advisor Monica  Madura said that many communication studies majors enter the program with only a vague idea of what it entails. “A lot of them come in with a general idea of what they want to be when they grow up. A lot of people come up with a general idea of what people around them have done, but they haven’t really gotten to do internships, or gotten their feet wet in the field.”

Communication studies covers a whole lot of different areas of study and can be applied to many different careers. “There’s thousands of jobs you can do with a communication studies degree,” Madura said. “So it’s very general. Some people love that aspect of it. On the other hand, some people need to know what they’re going to do.”

According to Madura, Comm studies focuses on theory, not practice. “Are we going to teach you how to talk? No. We’re going to teach you why it’s important. I think that’s the main thing that students need to understand.”


The format of communication studies courses change as you progress through the program. Introductory courses are often taught in a large-lecture setting. Middle-layer courses are generally smaller lectures with around 25-50 students. Upper level courses are professor-driven, and have fewer than 25 students. According to UI communication studies major Emily Pink, “Only the large lectures have a lecture format for the whole class, but those classes also have discussion groups. The discussion groups involve a lot of interaction. I would say that the majority of comm studies classes rely heavily on class discussion.”

-Assignments and Skills

As for classwork, Madura said, “We are a more theoretical type major, so a lot of our classes are going to be tests and papers.”

”We also do a whole lot of group work that typically involves a presentation…most of the papers are probably on the shorter side,” said Pink

According to Pink, presentation skills the ability to work in groups is very useful for a communication studies major. But the main skill she sees as necessary is the ability to write. “We have a lot of papers, and we do a lot of writing on exams… The majority of exams tend to be written exams with short answer and essay questions. Even multiple choice exams typically have a writing section included. I’m a person that would much rather take a test any day of the week than write a paper. However, even though I don’t always like it, I can say that it has forced me to work on my writing and communication skills. Those are two skills that are obviously important to have, so while it isn’t my favorite thing, it has been beneficial.”


Thinking about an English major? Well, it goes without saying that you better be prepared to read, but you also have to be ready to discuss your experiences with the literature. If the thought of presenting and debating your views on literary works has you shaking, you might want to reconsider English as your choice. On the other hand, you may be pleasantly surprised at the broad perspective that an English major could afford you.

The English Department is noteworthy for the intimate classroom environment it creates for majors. Classes tend to be smaller in size and are led by faculty who are either tenured or on the tenure-track. “Most of the English classes I’ve been in have had between 20 and 25 people and are heavily based on discussion,” said Senior English major Melissa Brockway. “(There’s) lots of interaction in class, both student-teacher and student-student.” Writing classes tend to be run as workshops.

According to Chair of the English Dept. Claire Sponsler “Quizzes and testing usually take a back seat to participation and written work.” English tests tend to be essay-based with short-answer or passage identification portions. “A little over half of the classes I’ve taken have given 1-2 exams over the readings,” Brockway said. The ability to recognize themes, meanings, and parallels is often stressed. “You see that on every single test: ‘Identify and give the significance of this character/this location/this event from the novel,’” said Brockway. “And the significance part is always worth more points.”

Assignments and Skills
The bulk of an English major’s workload comes from an unsurprising source. ”There’s just a hell of a lot of reading.” Brockway said. ”For example, during spring break I had over a thousand pages to read in various novels, anthologies, critical theory essays, and historical background essays. Falling behind is inevitable unless you’re one of the 3% of the student population that doesn’t procrastinate.” According to Brockway, a typical one-semester English class “will require you to read 5-7 novels, 7-10 essays or articles by critics or historians, write 2-3 short essays and 1-2 long essays with outside sources.”

A Wide Scope

One of the things that Brockway finds particularly appealing about majoring in English is the wide scope of topics that are covered. Many English classes are organized around time period. In this way, majoring in English can be a great way to get a detailed snapshot of the norms and values of a particular era in history. “Studying English gives you the opportunity to sneak in other studies on the side,” Brockway said. “World War II, racism, mental disorders, zombies, paranoia, imperialism, Ebonics, the nuclear family, extramarital affairs, manifest destiny, apocalypse, religious fundamentalists.” English may be the perfect major for the eclectic or eccentric soul. “I gave a presentation on cannibalism in my Pulitzer Lit class after reading Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road. I literally stood in front of my classmates and 70 year old professor and talked about the origins and prevailing incidents of eating people. The nutritional value. The social assumptions and fears. It was awesome.”

Political Science

Do you curse the fact that you were too young to vote in the 2008 presidential election? When someone mistakes Republicanism for Conservatism, do you die a little inside? Do people refuse to drink with you, for fear of getting involved in a lengthy political debate? Then Political Science might just be your cup of tea. Just don’t go into it with a closed mind and an axe to grind.

Classes in the Political Science department are divided into upper-level and lower-level classes. According to Poli Sci Professor and Chair of the Department William Reisinger, the lower level courses generally feature lectures with 60-plus students combined with smaller discussion groups. Freshman and sophomores are going to be in pretty large classes. The upper level courses are smaller and more specialized, generally running about 25-50 students. “What’s good about Poli Sci is the relatively small size of the lectures,” said sophomore Dane Hudson. “The biggest ones that I have been in have topped at around 96 people for the general lecture. Smaller ones {are great} since you have more access to the professor. In the smaller ones, there is a great amount of discussion and we can be easily sidetracked. This is mostly in the upper level classes where students are more learned in the field and have firsthand experiences to speak of.”

There’s a wide variety of testing styles in the Political Science Department. Reisinger said it’s common for tests to be divided into two equal subjective and objective portions. The first half is usually subjective, and can feature a mix of closed ended (i.e. multiple choice) and open-ended (i.e. short answer) questions. The subjective portion will be comprised by essay questions. “We cover a lot of ground so the tests take a lot of time to study for,” Hudson said.

Assignments and Skills
There’s usually not a lot of daily work in Political Science classes, so most of a student’s workload is going to be comprised of writing papers and reading the assigned texts. In the upper level courses, student participation and “creative” assignments become more prevalent because of the smaller class size. “The type of work in the classes is pretty varied, but one thing is constant and that is a heavy load of reading,” said Hudson.

The ability to read analytically and identify arguments is valuable to a Political Science major. “You have to be able to read something and figure out what is the one thing that this person wants me to remember,” said Reisinger. “You have to learn how to pull apart Political Science writings to get them. I go over it in class. ‘What’s the tune the author wants you to be whistling?”
Hudson stresses the importance of open-mindedness and tact when discussing political affairs.”Don’t be a Poli Sci major if you just like to bicker about partisan issues. You never do that in class. You never know where your professor is on the political spectrum and rarely do you know where your fellow students are, either,” Hudson said.


So you’re thinking about a psychology major, eh? Well, depending on how you plan to use it, you might need to start thinking about graduate school. And those of you who are searching for insight into the human mind might be a little surprised by the lack of a “human” element.

Majors in the psychology department will spend the majority of their time in larger lectures, with corresponding weekly discussion sections. Lectures tend to run longer, usually 75 minutes, depending on the level of the class. Psychology major Rachel Pauley thinks that the lectures are the heart and soul of the program. “I don’t know if I find them {discussion sections} that useful, but maybe it depends on the person and the class.”

Assignments and Skills
There aren’t a whole lot of papers assigned in the psychology department, so the majority of the points that a psychology major will accrue will come from tests. Some classes will have daily assignments as well. Tests in the psychology department tend to be multiple choice format, but short answer and essay questions become more prevalent as a student begins to take upper-level classes. “They’re not extremely hard, so I enjoy that.” Pauley said. “Basically, if you do the reading and you go to class you’ll do fine.”

The major skill necessary to succeed in psychology is diligence. “You’ve got to keep up with the reading, and a lot of people procrastinate,” Pauley said. “You might have one or two chapters a week. You don’t necessarily have to read them, but it’s hard to catch up.”

Studying People (In Their Absence)
One of the things that came as a surprise to Pauley was how abstract and theoretical the conversations were. “It’s a lot more generalized, since you can’t actually interview patients. So you’re kind of learning about how they do it, but not actually doing it.”

Graduate School
Incoming freshman who want to go into the field of psychology might be signing up for more school than they bargained for. “If you want to go into psychology, you probably have to get a doctorate to get a decent job, so that’s at least five years,” Pauley said. “I didn’t know that going in.” There are other options for people who don’t entertain the notion of getting their Ph.D. “If you don’t want to do strictly psychology, you can do occupational therapy or something business-related, which are shorter.”


1 Comment »

  1. […] a look at some more major-specific issues, click here. Comments […]

    Pingback by Male Nursing Students Breach the Gender Barrier at UI « Iowa City Stories — May 13, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

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