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Introduction to Undergraduate Majors at MIT

By Dan Cho and Amerson Lin


I - Civil & Environmental Engineering

In this major a student may choose to be in the Bachelor of Science program for Civil Engineering (1-C) or Environmental Engineering Science (1-E). What attracts people to this major is that students not only explore this field in class, they also explore it in the laboratory and on field trips.

About 25 undergraduates enroll in the department each year with a slightly higher percentage of females in the department. Class sizes are generally small, and the faculty is accommodating towards UROP requests and often these research opportunities turn out to be very fulfilling. If UROPs are insufficient, special programs that are available include TREX, a travel trip during IAP to discover civil engineering away from MIT.

Many Course I majors agree that the most valuable perks they enjoy are the amount of personal attention and the benefits of a well-balanced major.

II - Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical Engineering is one of the largest undergraduate departments, and it is also one of the broadest in scope. Mechanical engineers apply their knowledge to many fields including robotics, manufacturing, energy, micro-electromechanical machines (MEMS), and biomedical engineering.

The Course II curriculum is relatively standardized, with a few upper class electives. Because of this, classes often contain well over 50 students. The famous design class 2.007 features a robot tournament each spring. UROP participation is common and positions are heavily weighted towards hands-on work. A growing number of undergrads pursue a biomedical minor.

While there are relatively many job openings for mechanical engineers, a large fraction of undergrads choose to continue on to graduate study.

III - Materials Science & Engineering

Materials scientists and engineers develop advanced polymers, ceramics, semiconductors, and more. Their skills are applicable to nearly every manufacturing industry.

Course III is a mid-sized department, with roughly 40 students in all of the required subjects and slightly fewer in the electives. According to students, the curriculum is moderately difficult. One popular subject is 3.082, which has students use their materials knowledge to design objects like skateboards or ice skates.

UROPs are not difficult to find in the department. Most UROPs involve lab work, though a few entail computational materials modeling. Many Course III students take the experimental skills they have learned to graduate school.

IV - Architecture

MIT has the oldest architecture school in the U.S. The department’s range of activity extends from addressing significant social, ecological, and environmental issues to building in today’s market economy, focusing mainly in the areas of computation and energy.

Around 15 to 20 undergraduates enroll in Course IV each year with and classes usually consist of only one recitation where instruction is somewhat seminar based.

There are not many UROPs available in Course IV and those that are available often include a large proportion of ground work. However, there are special programs offered during the summer where more advanced architecture students can do internships at architectural firms. Landscape Engineering (4.125) is one example where the difficulty in Course IV comes not from hard material but rather time-consuming studios that require some talent in art.

While architecture is relatively time-consuming, a few undergraduates still double major in architecture and management. Pet peeves include the promise of a low starting salary and the need to take three more years to further obtain a Masters degree before one is sufficiently armed to enter the professional world. On the other hand, Course IV majors find the not-so-computationally intensive environment that focuses more on creativity very refreshing.

V- Chemistry

The department’s program of teaching and research spans the breadth of chemistry. General areas covered include biological chemistry, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and physical chemistry. Specialized areas such as biophysical chemistry and organometallic chemistry are also covered.

There are currently nearly 30 faculty members, 130 undergraduate chemistry majors, nearly 250 graduate students, and about 100 post-doctoral associates and visiting fellows in the department. The class size in upper level classes range from 30 to 50 students with slightly more females in this major and plenty of pre-med students.

One can easily find a UROP by searching and personally requesting one from a professor. Some professors might even allow undergrads to undertake their own research projects.

Most chemistry majors agree that the vast amount of lab work required is the drawback.

VI - Electrical Engineering & Computer Science

The Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science aims to prepare students with professional skills, develop abilities in the application of necessary mathematical tools, scientific basis, and fundamental knowledge of EECS. Undergrads can choose either electrical engineering (VI-I), electrical engineering and computer science (VI-2) or computer science (VI-3).

Always the largest department at MIT, roughly 45 percent of the undergraduate population enrolls in EECS. Upper-level class sizes range from 30 to 60 students and there is an obvious bias in the size of the male population. Professors conduct recitations while graduate students conduct tutorials.

There are plenty of famous names in Course VI such as Professor Patrick Winston who teaches 6.024 (Artificial Intelligence), one of the most interesting classes in Course VI. There are many UROPs available from famous labs like the Media Lab and the AI Lab. Special programs during IAP such as 6.270 and 6.370 offer students an opportunity to explore their interests in robotics and programming. On top of that, MIT’s EECS department also features an MEng program that requires only one extra year.

Being a Course VI major is hard work and while the workload is often merciless, EECS majors find gratification in having the opportunity to work with big names, obtain internships with big companies and definitely find a good job after graduation.

VII - Biology

The undergraduate program in biology is designed to provide rigorous training in the basic areas of biology, providing excellent preparation for a wide variety of careers. Biology graduates have gone on to medical school, graduate school, teaching, and industry.

About two-thirds of biology majors are female and plenty are pre-med students. Interesting electives such as 7.22 (developmental biology) and many UROPs in areas such as biotechnology and genetics. Furthermore, students may be allowed to undertake their own research projects. Biology is not an extremely competitive major and the main bulk of the course load comes from understanding concepts to be used in knowledge application.

Course VII majors often complain of a lack of attention from professors and that a bachelor’s degree is rather insufficient. Most move on to either medical school or to obtain a Masters degree in bio-engineering. On the other hand, biology takes care of one’s pre-med requirements and serves as a great double degree that goes hand in hand with chemistry and the Biomedical Engineering minor (BME).

VIII - Physics

The emphasis in the undergraduate Physics Department is on understanding the fundamental principles that appear to govern the behavior of the physical world, from phenomena in the small-scale domain of subatomic particles to the large-scale structure of the universe.

The general class size of upper-level classes is 20 to 40 students and about 10 to 20 students for electives, and there are more males than females in the department.

UROPs are not easy to obtain but persistence will get you one and you will get to work with some of the biggest names in physics. Special programs include physics colloquiums that happen weekly.

While some Course VIII majors say that their pet peeve is the third year laboratory class some insist that the coolest class they have done so far is also junior lab. As printed on the department t-shirt in summary of what Course VIII majors think of physics, “Physics is the law, the rest is commentary...”

IX - Brain & Cognitive Sciences

The department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at combines the experimental technologies of neurobiology, neuroscience, and psychology, with the theoretical power that comes from the fields of computational neuroscience and cognitive science.

A stark difference from the ton of people who take Introduction to Psychology (9.00) as an introductory HASS-D class, most upper-level class sizes are around 15 to 20 people with a roughly equal number of males and females. The upper-level classes are conducted like a seminar where one or more professors hold discussions with the students.

Course IX majors can get to work with one of the biggest names in neuroscience, Professor Steven Pinker. They also have a wide range of very interesting electives to choose from in fields such as cognitive sciences and neurobiology. Furthermore, there are many research opportunities but most of these UROPs are more biology based and less related to psychology.

The one dislike some Course IX majors have is that they don’t get quite enough of psychological and philosophical theory but more of physiology in the course.

X - Chemical Engineering

Students in Course X apply chemical principles to industrial processes. Industries that hire chemical engineers include biotech, polymers, electronics materials, and many others. Class sizes in this major generally range from 50 to 70 students.

According to students, the curriculum is one of the most rigorous and rigidly structured ones offered at the Institute. It is also, however, one of the most professionally oriented. The senior level subject, Integrated Chemical Engineering (ICE), and other upper level labs not only require students to solve real-life problems, but also develop their skills in report writing, teamwork, and public speaking.

A fair number -- though not a majority -- of students participate in UROP. The department also offers a non-accredited 10-C degree option, which has fewer requirements than the general curriculum and allows students to pursue individual interests.

XI - Urban Studies & Planning

When most people hear of Urban Studies, they think of city planning. Yet the 12 undergrads currently enrolled in Course XI use their technical knowledge to solve a range of problems in community development, international economics, and environmental policy, as well as urban design.

As one of the smaller departments, Course XI allows students and faculty to become well acquainted with each other. UROPs are not difficult to arrange and can involve tasks such as interviewing urban residents, data analysis, or participating in the design of a city. The department sponsors an annual IAP trip to a foreign city where they meet local urban planners and interact with the local community leaders.

Class sizes never exceed 20 students, while the smaller electives can contain as few as three. The relatively flexible curriculum along with a moderate unit requirement allow many upperclassmen to take graduate level classes.

Many students prefer Course XI over the other social science departments because of its practical approach to social issues. A bachelor’s degree can prepare students for work in such places as federal and local government, the UN, the World Bank, or grad school in a variety of social sciences.

XII - Earth Atmospheric & Planetary Sciences

Course XII students specialize in either earth, atmospheric, or planetary science. Graduates often go on to work on geological surveys, at environmental companies, the oil industry, or in academia.

Students appreciate the intimacy that exists among students and faculty in this tiny department. Upper class subjects contain less than 10 students each. While the unit requirements in this major are not overly high, some degree of planning is necessary because certain electives are not offered every year.

UROP participation in Course XII is practically universal. The department also conducts an annual geological field trip to western Massachusetts.

XIII - Ocean Engineering

Ocean engineering encompasses a wide array of disciplines that relate to the exploration and utilization of the earth’s oceans. Research ranges from acoustics to the design of underwater robots.

Course XIII students appreciate the advantages of being in a small department, with typical class sizes of five to seven and friendly faculty who are often willing to adjust their schedules to accommodate students. Still, the department does its best to recruit more freshmen through its Discover Ocean Engineering program offered each year during Orientation. Its extensive UROP opportunities often attract undergrads from other departments.

A large number of Course XIII pursue graduate studies. The remainder find jobs with employers who quickly learn of the large set of sound general engineering skills possessed by graduates of this relatively exotic major.

XIV - Economics

The unique analytical skills of the MIT undergraduate student body allows the faculty to offer a rigorous and comprehensive program unlike that of any other U.S. college or university. The Economics Department aims to give students a firm mathematical grounding in microeconomics, macroeconomics, international trade, and economic development.

Around 120 students enroll in Course XIV each year, with an equal number of male and female undergraduates. The average class size is about 20 people and the faculty includes several Nobel Laureates. There are many interesting classes such as game theory and at a department which is ranked first in the US, you can be sure of nothing short of an excellent education.

Research projects are often limited to graduate students. The course material is harder than at most other colleges and while most Course XIV majors say that their pet peeve is the amount of math involved and a lack of writing, at the same time the thing they enjoy most about Course XIV is the amount of math and the lack of writing. Many other undergraduates also minor in economics because the classes can be used to fulfill the HASS concentration requirement.

XV - Management

MIT Sloan, in the same league as Harvard Business School and Wharton, is one of the biggest names in business. Sloan’s undergraduate curriculum provides students with fundamental analytical skills and insights required to grasp and solve problems in today’s technologically intensive business environment.

On average, approximately 75 students choose to enroll in Course XV with equal numbers of females and males. In upper-level classes, there are about 50 students per lecture and 15 students per recitation, mainly because many choose not to turn up. The classes taught, such as Corporate Finance Theory (15.402), are not always considered to have challenging material, but are extremely applicable and substantial to future careers.

Many people who do Course XV also double in another field such as Course VI or Course VII. Freshmen should note, however, that having been an undergraduate in Sloan does not give any leverage for admission into the graduate Sloan business school.

XVI - Aeronautics & Astronautics

The department’s mission is to prepare engineers for success and leadership in the conception, design, implementation, and operation of aerospace and related complex high-performance systems.

There is a slightly larger number of males in this major and the normal class size is 30. Students often consider professors to be very dynamic and encourage students to explore through a lot of hands-on work. And this is where classes like 16.621 and 16.622 comes into play, where undergraduates have to come up with their own project, design it and then construct it out of basic materials. In addition to that, UROPs are normally plentiful.

Course XVI requires a total of 198 units, the most of all majors, and has an extremely heavy course load with relatively challenging material. One of the toughest classes at MIT is Unified Engineering, a required class where students integrate multiple engineering fields into aeronautical engineering. Many Course XVI majors often complain about the intensity of the course but admit that they value the industrial experience that they are receiving.

XVII - Political Science

Political science attracts those students who enjoy thinking about how people and governments interact, and want to explain social problems and devise solutions to them. Course XVII majors study such topics as international relations, national security, political philosophy, and domestic policy.

Course XVII is a relatively small department, with typical class sizes of 15 to 25. The curriculum is generally flexible, with a few core courses taken by all undergrads. Many students participate in UROP.

Course XVII students are also regular participants in the MIT Washington Summer Internship Program, where they apply their technical training to public policy issues. Graduates of the department can go on to law school, graduate school, or the work force.

XVIII - Mathematics

The Mathematics Department offers a very diverse program with subjects ranging from such fields as fluid mechanics, mathematical physics, combinatorics, computer science, and statistics, to such basic areas of mathematics as analysis, modern algebra, logic and geometry/topology.

The typical class size is 25 people with about 20 percent females. Many upper-level classes have just lectures and no recitations and hence very few class hours. Classes focus a lot on logical reasoning and exhaustive thinking and will no doubt give you strong thinking. UROPs in pure mathematics are limited but one may find more choices in applied math. There is a special summer program which is equivalent to a UROP over summer held here at MIT.

Mathematics is not very demanding in terms of required classes and there are many unrestricted electives. Many students double in Course XVIII and Course VIII or Course VI as the requirements often overlap.

XXI - Humanities

Certainly one of the less popular majors at MIT, Humanities also happens to be the most diverse. It is further divided into anthropology, literature, history, foreign languages, music and theatre art, and humanistic studies.

The professor to student ratio is extremely high and classes are taught like a seminar where mainly discussions take place. Class size is about 10 to 12 people per recitation. There are not many UROPs available in this department, but there are special programs such as writing internships that one can apply for. As expected, the main bulk of the course load comes from the need to read and write many papers but it gives a good balance to an education from MIT which is why Course XXI is somewhat designed to complement an engineering or science field.

The easily accessible professors will often make time for personal discussion and advice.

XXII - Nuclear Engineering

These days, nuclear engineers don’t just work in power plants. Course XXII graduates can also conduct research in plasma physics, develop medical applications for radiation, or help formulate government policy.

The department’s small undergraduate population enjoys close interaction with the faculty. This makes it easy for Course XXII students to participate in UROP. Some students also work as staff of the MIT nuclear reactor for experience.

Course XXII classes typically contain less than 10 students, although students often take classes from other departments to fulfill degree requirements. In one nuclear systems design class, 22.033, MIT students often win prizes in American Nuclear Society student competitions.

XXIV - Linguistics and Philosophy

MIT’s philosophy department is ranked top ten in the U.S. and it is designed to provide familiarity with the history and current status of the main problems in epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics; mastery of some of the technical skills requisite for advanced work in philosophy; facility at independent philosophical study; and work at an advanced level in an allied field.

In contrast to an enormous enrollment in 24.00 (Introduction in Philosophy), the philosophy department would find itself lucky to even get even or two majors each year. There are 13 professors in the department, all of whom interact with the other humanities departments here at MIT.

Most MIT students interested in philosophy minor rather than major.

Comparative Media Studies

Incorporating sources ranging from the Iliad to recent video games, Comparative Media Studies prefers to call itself “Applied Humanism,” where the comprehension and understanding of media is put into real world practicality. Many classes deal with film, digital media, and other unique forms of communication. Quite often classes include speakers from industry and media outlets as guests or lecturers.

Presently, 10 courses are required for a major, but requirements are being changed in order for the department to stand alone as an interdisciplinary major. However, most students tend to minor in CMS. The department is small with an acclaimed and frequently published faculty who are affiliated with other departments around campus. Higher level classes tend to be very small and discussion intensive.

The department has around 15 UROPs, which is large for a humanities discipline. Many UROPs are part of the Microsoft I-campus project and involve hands on work in production and development. During IAP, the department hosts an amazingly successful workshop on video game design with designers from Sony Entertainment in which teams present video game projects to the leaders at the end of the seminar.