PoSt Selection: how to get through it without dying [Part I]

(Note: this is by far the longest entry I have written for UpbeaT, but I strongly feel that all information here is pertinent to your future health, happiness and sanity, so please bear with me--you won't regret it) (Note Note: after having been at this for several hours, I've decided that at the rate I'm going, this entry is going to take about several days to read. So I gave up, and split the post into two--for now.) Hello first year darlings. So, you've survived Frosh Week without embarrassing yourself too much. You've made some friends, added some acquaintances on Facebook, and acquired some fleeting memories of nameless faces you will see on campus now and then. You've managed to miraculously live off of instant noodles and cereal during those midterm and exam weeks of hell without actually getting scurvy. And now, finally, you've made it to the moment you've always dreamed of since the beginning of university: declaring majors (cue music from Psycho's shower scene). Which is why I'm here, at this critical time of year, dedicating this week's post entirely to the subject that, for years, have caused so much confusion and chaos amongst students. I have personally had a really rough time choosing programs, not to mention switching programs at the end of second year to something that, well, now I enjoy infinitely more of. As a result of this experience, I've researched and critically analyzed most Life Science programs, weighed the pros and cons carefully too many times, planned and re-planned my future too many times (yes charts were actually involved), and got frustrated and confused too many times. In the end, I couldn't help but wonder if I would've been happier if I had been blessed with just ONE OPTION. I think it's now officially proven true that more choices in life leads to more stress and thus more depression. Me being the ultimate lab rat. In order to make your PoSt selection process as painless as possible, I've come up with a few most commonly occurring scenarios that first years (and some upper years) go through that often result in trauma, mental afflictions or excessive eating. Since I'm in Life Science, most of my examples would thus pertain to different Life Sci programs. However, I will try my best to generalize my experience so that it applies to as many people as possible. SCENARIO #1: WHA? PoSts, or Programs of Studies, are things like majors, minors and specialists that you will have to enroll in at the end of your first year. To graduate, Arts and Science students are required to have a minimum of either:
  • 2 majors
  • 1 major and 2 minors
  • 1 specialist
Anything beyond that is up to you. Some people do choose to do two specialists--and they tend stay for a 5th year (oh the thrill...I can barely contain myself). Generally, each department offers a variation of PoSts. For example, the Department of Biochemistry offers both a Major program as well as a Specialist program, the difference of which will be discussed below. All general descriptions of each program can be found in the Calendar (but you should know by now to never take things at face when profs say they've made the test "easy"). Unlike Queen's, which is either too cheap or too environmentally friendly, UofT actually gives each student his or her own copy of the most updated version of both the Calendar and Fall-Winter Registration Handbook and Timetable, which will be available at your Registrar's Office some time in the spring months (March or April or...MAY???). After being notified via e-mail, you can go pick up your copies, using your student card as proof of identification. The Registration Handbook and Timetable has the whole PoSt selection process outlined in idiot-proof style (I think they made it into a flow chart). You won't miss it. SCENARIO #2: Um, so school they never taught us how to choose programs or making other life-changing decisions... First of all, don't be scared to go into what you are really interested in. Don't worry about how they'll apply to life after graduation--at least not for the time being. Even if you don't end up getting into LMP (Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology) because your GPA was 0.05 lower than the cut-throat cutoff, you still have as much of a chance as any of the future LMPers in terms of getting into med school (because  every person in LMP knows that only about 50% of them actually end up in medicine). Don't go into Human Bio's Health and Disease just because you've heard that it's the "pre-med" program. If you do intend to apply to a professional school, it is far more important to have the prerequisite courses, which, in most cases, you can still take regardless of which program you are in. The trick is to go with the flow of things, and not let external factors influence your decision. Forget about your parents for a moment and the Biography they've already written for you before you were even born (in fact, it's better not to consult your parents because in most cases they don't even know what the hell PoSts are or why you'd ever need to choose one). Forget about your previous plans for yourself that you made in high school. For a second, just focus completely on the present, on the YOU right now, and who you think you are at this very moment. Ask yourself: what do you want to learn more about, and why? And start from there. Chances are, like careers, although most of us have trouble deciding on one, deep down inside we already know the answer. That being said, pick something challenging that you can also handle. If you don't know how much it is that you can handle yet, don't worry, you will be tested against your limit in due time. Don't pick a program because you've heard that it's "easy", and will guarantee high marks for med school. You would most likely look back on your undergraduate experience and feel that you've wasted all that money by killing time (3 whole years of valuable time, to be exact). A good program for you will have many "good courses", which, by my definition, are those that actually make you feel better about yourself when you walk out of the classroom or finish its term test. Three-hour long lectures fly by and at the end you feel a "good kind of tired", and studying for it is not necessarily a breeze, but it's almost addictive. Now, be careful when people say: "Yes, it's hard, but it's doable...". The word "doable". I don't know what your preconceived definition for this is, but in UofT Life Science PoSt context, for most people this literally translates into: "Go ahead, if you are willing to work so hard in order to do well in this program that you would let blood for every hour of studying you do." However, know that it is up to you to realize which part of the bell curve you sit at. Are you usually a part of the 90+ percentile? If yes, then it's probably doable! Know thyself. Know thyself. Know thyself. Over these past few years, I've heard so many questions such as "Which PoSt would lead to better jobs after graduation?" While it's fairly comforting to hope that there is indeed this magical program that would be the solution to all your academic and life woes, life just doesn't operate on simple terms. As you continue your university education, you'll slowly discover that Going With the Flow, while it looks difficult, would make your life significantly easier in the long run, mostly because there wouldn't be as much self-doubting and going backwards to fix past mistakes. Fact is, if you want to be happy, either you follow your heart now, or you follow your heart later on. If you don't think you know your heart's desires, pick an option that you don't desperately hate, one that leaves doors open in case you change your mind later on. Sooner or later, by either feeling really happy or really sad about what you are doing, you'd know if this is "your thing" or not. It's really just that simple. It's important to realize that unlike many other things in life, when you are only entering second year, the initial PoSt selection process isn't final. There is plenty of room for making changes in case you want to switch to a different program, and every year many, many students do switch. The key is to find the right "general area" of study that you are interested in, so that even if you do want to switch, the change wouldn't be as drastic and many of your past courses might also be required for your new program. For Life Science, in second year despite being in a specific program, the courses are still very much generalized and many courses (BCH210, BIO240/241, HMB265, CHM247, CHM220, STA220) would be required for upper year courses. Even if, by any chance, you find that your new program requires a course you haven't taken, you can probably still take it during the summer. SCENARIO #3: Majors, minors and specialists? I can't seem to decide! I used to feel like there's some sort of conspiracy around the group of people who consistently tell me: "Majors, minors or specialists, don't make no difference!" The truth is, depending on the context, it really might not make much of a difference. The only difference between the three is the flexibility for course selection. Specialists require the most number of courses, some of which will be gruesome but since you are in the program, you are stuck with it. Minors are the most flexible. English minor, for example, only requires that you take 4 full English courses. Specialists are more tricky. I've consistently been a specialist no matter which program I've been in, mostly because I personally think I could gain more from that particular subject area this way. The best thing about specialists is that because of the way the program is designed, all the required courses sort of come together as a whole and really shape your education. There is considerable overlap in some of your courses, which means you get to feel like an expert in your field and you can potentially make a lot more connections between the pools of knowledge you gain from each individual course. This is also an advantage in upper year courses, because even though the material gets more detailed and there might be a lot to memorize, you wouldn't feel as overwhelmed because in your head, everything's actually falling into place. It's like a puzzle: the more you know about it, the easier it is to piece things together and see the bigger picture, which is in itself a very rewarding experience. However, because of the number of required courses you must take, specialists often don't allow you the room for another major (if you plan to graduate with about 20 credits), though it's very possible to do a specialist and a minor in something you've always loved. Being in a specialist also means dealing with tough courses--in many cases, several tough courses in one semester. Again, it's all about how much you can handle, and how good your study skills are. Doing a specialist versus a double major are both very good options, but when you make the decision, you should keep your future in mind. The most important one is graduate school. If this is in your plans, do consider a specialist because its aim is to expose you to research, and most specialist programs require you to do a 4th year independent research project under the supervision of a professor in your department, which is very helpful in prepping you for grad school in many aspects. Finally, it's usually a lot easier to switch from a specialist down to a major or even minor, because at least you wouldn't need to take any additional courses to fulfill program requirements, and also, you wouldn't be limited by the lack of required courses for your new program. If you are definitely interested in, say, psychology, but are not sure if you'd commit to a specialist, apply to it anyway--you can always switch to a major later on at very little cost. It's more of a balance between depth versus breadth, with breadth being what you gain from a double major. As far as I know, other than the benefit of specialist for grad school, there's no harm in choosing either, and often a double major does open more doors (for example, if you major in both physiology and psychology, you can either go to professional school later on, or go into more people-oriented careers, like education). A A I think this entry has officially reached its word limit, and I have dark circles under my eyes which is always a sign that I've been writing for too long (ahem, amongst other things). Therefore, I will continue in my next post on the same topic. Next week, look for: SCENARIO #4: OMG...what is this?!?!! Type 1, Type 2, Type 4. Oh wait I meant Type 3. I'm sorry, I'm too stressed out to count properly. SCENARIO #5: Life Science programs: is it true what people say about (insert interesting/frightening PoSt here)? SCENARIO #6: I want to know more about individual PoSts and departments, but there are so much information out there and I am overwhelmed. SCENARIO #7: My parents think (insert interesting/fun PoSt here) doesn't lead to anything glorious. If I go into it I'll be disowned. SCENARIO #8: Ahh I'm crazy and I have trust issues and I don't buy any of what you just said! --Lucy

10 comments on “PoSt Selection: how to get through it without dying [Part I]

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  1. Hi, this was such an awesome post and im surprised that no one has commented. Just thought id say that it was very helpful 🙂

  2. Thanks Bobinder! Good luck with your PoSt selection! Feel free to ask any questions and I’ll try to answer them to the best of my abilities 🙂

  3. Hi Lucy,
    Thanks for the great post! I am a Life Science student going into 2nd year, wondering about courses. Is there any chance you kept your second year syllabi? If so, can you send them to me? 🙂

  4. Hey Lucy,
    This is one amazing post. Why don’t they put something like this in the course calendar? haha. Looking forward to your next post.

  5. Hi Zoe,

    Thanks for your comment! I am very excited to write my next UpbeaT post as well! It’s actually going to be posted probably some time in the next week or so, so keep an eye out for it!

    Good luck with your program and course selection! It’s almost time for the annual War of ROSI, yarr! 🙂

  6. I am afraid of losing the opportunity to enroll in a limited special post such as Immunology major but also losing too much breadth if I do so and thus losing requirements to enroll in PhD programs in slightly different fields of Biology (although probably not as far as Ecology in my case).

    Immunology major versus Cell and Molecular Biology major in my case seems to be an issue for me. This is because I’m still planning on keeping a HMB major as a post in human anatomy & physiology as good breadth.

    I’m mostly interested in Cell and Molecular Biology at the moment mainly because I’m very eager to work with and discover molecules, specialized cells, and their interactions. I’m also interested in Biotechnology such as genomics, cloning, or maybe even cryopreservations lol as biotech is sprouting. These are mainly as backup plans (which I 99.9% will be enthusiastic to enter) if I do not enter Medical school (which I 99.999999999999999999999999% will work hard as I need to to do so).

    As a side note, is there any general post which assist in Med Schools entry such as Imm or Health and Disease, or Physiology? Due to high relevance and/or level of rigorousness? Thanks.

    So which combination is best in terms of Breadth and Training:
    1) IMM + HMB:GGB/H&Disease
    2) IMM + Cell and Molecular Biology
    3) Cell & Molecular Biology + HMB:GGB/H&D

    Thank you very much for your help and time. This is just extremely helpful for me.

  7. Hi A:

    These are some pretty detailed questions! I would highly recommend you start talking to your registrar’s office about these questions. It’s definitely your first stop with topics like these and they can at least point you in the right direction.

  8. Dear A:

    I saw both of your comments on these UpbeaT posts, and allow me to answer them below (I’m sure a lot of U of T life sci students have the same kind of burning questions–I know I definitely did).

    First of all, I would agree with what’s being said above, in that you should still see your registrar and discuss these topics with him in detail. That being said, from personal experience (I did a lot of switching–from PSL specialist to CSB specialist in cell/molecular to CSB major/HMB general major), I think all three options are great. You need to realize that PhD programs don’t just look at your relevant course work. It is a part of the package for sure, but say you’re from CSB/H&D: this doesn’t really hurt your chances of going into an imm PhD program, IF you have other relevant experiences to make your case a strong one. For example, you can be taking some CSB lab and knowledge courses, but at the same time do continuous research in an imm lab on a project relevant to what you’d want to do in your PhD program. Also it’s not like people in these PhD programs expect you to know everything you need to know in their area of specialty, BEFORE you even start school. You will be trained in what would be necessary for your project. Diff labs also have different ways of doing things, so you might have experience doing a lot of Western blots but your project now requires a lot of RT-PCR and imaging (just sayin’–it’s been a while since I did any of this), so you will be taught these things. It’s not something you should worry about right now.

    As you advance in your studies, you will notice 2 things: 1. majors are inherently not as rigorous as specialist programs (= less program requirements), so since all three of your options are majors, you will have the opportunity to mix and match courses to your needs at the time of course selection. 2. As a result, you’ll notice that regardless of what you do, it’s ALL under the bigger umbrella of “micro” scale biology, so it’s all connected. In the long run, you will not be at any significant disadvantage (in terms of what you LEARN) if you pick any of these 3 options.

    However, let’s get real now: what programs are less difficult to do well in? Or will allow you to pick easier courses to balance out the hard ones? Also, are you looking for a purely scientific undergrad educational experience (i.e. “hard sciences”, lots of lab stuff) or are you interested in expanding your scope of learning, and learn about the interdisciplinary aspects of life science? The latter might require you to take some “soft” science courses, like some offered by HMB, and it will expose you to a different kind of thinking about the same problems. This might help you in applying for med school and other professional degrees, while a more solid laboratory focus will help you in the biotech industry and in your PhD even.

    In terms of the rigor of programs, I think it’s very much an individual thing: some people I know LOVE imm and do super well in it, but don’t do as well in some H&D courses because they can’t stand things where they can’t just use logic and rational reasoning to solve problems (i.e. you might have to do more essay-typed writing). Some, like me, enjoy learning about the social science aspect of the sciences, so like, I liked incorporating the molecular aspects of virology (CSB351) with epidemiology and medical anthropology courses I was taking. I think before you think about job prospects, you need to figure out the nature of work/knowledge/courses you’re more inclined toward, so that should job prospects, etc change in the near future, you wouldn’t regret anything.

    I know this isn’t one of your options right now, but I would actually highly recommend the general HMB major if it’s still being offered. I personally think undergrad is a time of exploration, and the the HMB major allows you to do just that. You can twist it any way you like to suit your own needs, and should your goals change in the near future, it will still accommodate them. I honestly do not think professional schools care too too much about what your undergrad programs are, as long as they’re in “life science” for example–the bigger directions match. Even though my undergrad was in CSB/HMB, I did a lot of other non-science courses and gained a lot of non-lab experiences, which allowed me to get into Master of Public Health programs in health promotion (a mostly social science field).

    In terms of PhD: there’s no promise that any will necessarily lead to a “safe” and “well-paying” job. I think in science, at this level, if you can get ANY job, it would be pretty senior level and safe and well-paying. I think sometimes the challenge for PhD students comes from finding jobs and knowing how, simply because they’ve been in school for so long and have limited work experience. In terms of jobs experience is always key. Even if you decide to go into PhD, try to get some extra job experience along the side to help boost your credentials –my previous lab mates (PhD students were all doing that).

    So with all this being said, here’s the down-low:

    -Imm courses have a history of being very difficult (the specialist program I heard is deadly, not sure about the newer major). If you can, try doing H&D BUT leave room to take imm courses if you want
    -I personally like H&D better than GGB because I think it’s more exciting and pertains to more areas of life science. It is commonly understood that GGB is one of the easiest programs within HMB
    -I love the CSB department. It is large but profs are very approachable and friendly, and they do a great variety of research. However USRA is kind of hard to get since a LOT of students go for few profs. Imm is affiliated with Faculty of Medicine, which might influence prof availability/funding for research projects. Being in the department already might also give you an advantage when it comes to applying for grad school in the same department depending on how you network. HMB is NOT a department and does not get its own NSERC funding, so if you’re looking for a prof to work with, you can’t do summer NSERC with anyone in HMB. But I’ve always felt it’s the nicest in all of these life sci programs. It’s not hard to do well in HMB courses, generally speaking (of course there are always the few odd balls).

    I hope that answers most of your worries/concerns! I would suggest don’t corner yourself right now in terms of your options, because you never know how you might feel about life 2-3 years down the road. You might think med school and/or research are the ONLY ways out right now, but if you keep your grades up and are always looking for new experiences to learn from, you might arrive at a path that right now you can’t foresee.

    Feel free to comment if you have any more questions.