Undergraduate Student Blog, Speaking of Princeton

Undergraduate Student Blog

Author: Kevin McElwee ’18

Brick, New Jersey • Music View Profile

A Major Major Change

How Princeton helped me switch from physics to music

Switching majors can be incredibly stressful: thinking about job prospects, talking to your parents, undergoing an existential crisis, etc, etc.  When considering what feels like your entire future, the last thing you want to worry about is paperwork, scheduling and other bureaucratic logistics.  I moved from the physics department to the music department halfway through my junior year; as one might guess, the change is pretty dramatic, regardless of what school you attend.  Thankfully, because of Princeton’s academic flexibility and because of an incredible team of people helping me, my transition was easier than I could have imagined. 

Building a spectrometer for Professor Lyman Page

Spending my first-year summer building a spectrometer for Professor Lyman Page is one of my favorite memories with the physics department. Left to right: Rajeev Erramilli '18, Matthew O'Rourke '17, and me. Photo courtesy of Rajeev Erramilli.

Entering Princeton at the wise age of 17, I knew (more than anything and anyone) that I wanted to major in physics. Granted I still love physics—worry not, I still maintain my Physics Today subscription—but unfortunately, as I entered my junior year, it felt more like my education was getting in the way of my education.  I had known for a while that I didn’t want to pursue physics as a career and I was always disappointed when I couldn't fit every music class available into my schedule.  More and more, the questions that interested me were outside the scope of physics and mathematics. After a great deal of thought, I decided that I was content with my physics education and began preparing to shift into the music department as a musicologist.

I should probably first acknowledge that my switch would have been impossible if Princeton didn’t allow (and encourage) a broad, liberal arts education, especially during the first few years. If I were at another school and had to make a similar decision, I would have been forced to start ostensibly from scratch or to spend a year and a half in a degree program I no longer wanted to pursue.  Although classes are often incredibly fast-paced, I am very thankful that intensive classes allow students to have a flexible schedule without sacrificing a thorough education.  My first year, my adviser recommended I look into the music certificate program; I explored a few music classes, making my switch all the more easier!

Despite all the thought I put into my decision, I can’t pretend that I wasn’t stressed.  But thankfully, the physics department, music department, and my residential college advising office all worked together beautifully in a way that allowed me to worry less about trivial things as I changed departments. They also handled most all the paperwork. I met with the music undergraduate head, then Assistant Professor of Music Donnacha Dennehy, who helped me make sure that classes could sort themselves out. Each junior has to perform independent work, and the music department extended the deadline for me. The physics department was gracious and very understanding.  My residential college dean was in constant contact with both departments to make sure everything was set. They bent over backwards and I was set in less than two days.

And the rest is history! I’ve just finished a great semester with the music department, already working directly with three professors: I’ve researched how the 1960s race politics affected the development of music with Associate Professor Robert Wegman, I used my quantitative background to find statistical patterns in 14th century music with Professor Dmitri Tymocsko, and right now I’m in Moscow with Professor Simon Morrison learning about Russian politics, art, history and culture through the University’s Global Seminar program.  I’m very happy with my decision. A big thank you to Princeton and its incredible staff for making it possible!