Choosing Her Major Takes Two Years for this Dean of Engineering

Dean Janet Callahan (left) congratulates an engineering graduate during Fall Commencement at Michigan Tech.

Vague Notions

Like many students, when I started university, I had only a vague notion about what my major would be. So, I selected courses that would count in any major. That first semester I took a university required course, Calculus 1, an elective (choir), and Chemistry 1. In my second semester, I just kept going, with Calc 2, Chemistry 2, another university requirement, and an elective (keyboarding). Soon, that first year led to a second, and by then I had a vague notion of being “pre-med,” knowing that doctors made a good living.

Doing the Work

In my second year I kept taking math (Calc 3 and “Diffy-Qs”) and also took two semesters of Physics with Calculus. It turns out there are two levels of physics, and physics with calculus is the higher level. That year, I also took organic chemistry, which was required for the examination that pre-med students take, the MCAT. I thought Physics would be really hard; I hadn’t had it in high school, but I just kept doing all the homework. This was how I made it through all those math courses, and I did fine. I struggled a bit in Differential Equations but squeaked through that, earning my lowest grade ever (C).

A Revelation

In my fourth semester, I took biology, required for pre-meds, and Holy Cow—I suddenly knew I DIDN’T want to be a doctor. It was just mushy dead frog, and I had no interest in which organ was the kidney. Or actually any interest in frog organs. That precipitated a spate of research, as I needed a major that would yield a job in two more years. Back then—and I assure you this is true—there was no internet, so I headed off to the library. I had three constraints: First, I had to love the major, second, it had to pay well, and third—I needed to be able to finish it in my two remaining years.

Finding the Fit

At the highest range of salaries, I found a major I had never heard of before, “chemical engineering.” Flipping through the university catalog, I found I was actually on track for my junior year, if I could convince someone to override a first-year engineering course prerequisite. I headed over to the chemical engineering department office, and it turned out the person in charge of such things was the department chair. And so I found myself in a meeting with the chemical engineering chair, earnestly explaining why he should let me into two key courses, Unit Operations and Thermodynamics. I had taken all the chemistry and physics, I explained. I had to wear him down a bit, but he finally did let me in the junior year courses, and I was a chemical engineering major! And that is how I came to earn my Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering, class of ’83.

If you are a student who is not quite sure what to major in—don’t sweat it. You’ll figure it out over time. And if I can be of help to you along your journey, please let me know—

Janet Callahan, Dean
College of Engineering
Michigan Tech