Physics Major, History Minor

Today we’re starting a new series of alumni and student interviews. Instead of highlighting students who majored in History, this series will introduce us to students from other, seemingly unrelated majors who nonetheless completed a History minor. As we do in our From AC 2nd… series of interviews with former majors, we’ll be asking these women and men why they studied History at Bethel and how they see it connecting to their primary fields of interest and expertise — or, in the case of alumni, to their careers.

We’ll start with Jimmy Thostenson (’10), who majored in Applied Physics at Bethel and finished minors in History and Mathematics.

What are you doing now?

I am currently working full-time for Duke University, inside the Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility (SMIF) at the Pratt School of Engineering as a Research and Development Engineer. My day-to-day is to help users of the facility to operate, understand, and glean information out of the high-tech instrumentation the facility houses for projects within STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] disciplines.. In addition to developing processes for fabricating and developing materials across numerous instruments, I mainly oversee the use of our x-ray micro-computed tomography scanner (micro-CT) and small angle x-ray scattering (SAXS) instruments, where samples come from projects across the spectrum of engineering disciplines, medicine, science and technology.

I am also pursuing part-time a master’s of science in mechanical engineering at Duke, and will have completed my first semester as of this November.

How did you decide to minor in History? Was it hard to do with your major?

Love at first cite of course!

Jimmy Thostenson in Sydney, Australia
Jimmy in Sydney, during his semester abroad in Australia

Honestly? I guess I would say that I was “unofficially minoring” in history from my very first memories of my childhood. My father loves Roman history and to this day he recites Gibbon’s Decline and Fall volumes to my sister [current History adjunct instructor Katie Thostenson]. The stories he recited were always very interesting to me and seemed very relevant to what was happening in current events. Moreover, I had a wild imagination (still do!) and I became affixed to living an imaginary life based on historical anecdotes of emperors, peasants, world leaders, generals, and even gods in a timeframe and location not my own.

With that seed planted for an interest in history, I began to naturally gravitate towards electives in history throughout high school and college so that I could continue to explore different cultures, eras, and ideologies that interested me. It was only late in my junior year that I made minoring in history an official part of my degree at Bethel. I did so after realizing I had only 1-2 classes left to fulfill the needed requirements for a minor in history. Since I was already registered for another history class the following semester, it was a no-brainer.

Pursuing a minor in history with a major in applied physics could seem difficult, but as you take classes and slowly knock out requirements, it will not become as hard as you might think. Like I wrote above, I naturally fell into a minor in history because I kept taking classes that sounded interesting to me, and my plan had never been to have one until late in the game when it became obvious on paper.

To fully invest myself in both fields and learn as much as I wanted to from both when deadlines approached was difficult. And I say this because I was by no means an exceptional student, and like most successful undergrads, I had to work hard and put in a lot of head-hitting-desk hours to fully learn material and make the most out of my educational experience while also balancing time with family, friends and a part-time job. I’ve always found time to do the things I love, and history was definitely one of those things so I never felt like I had to sacrifice much – except for a few hours of sleep here and there, of course. So yes, it is more work and could seem hard to do for someone in the sciences, but if you concentrate on understanding and learning material that you know you are interested in and concentrate less on deadlines, page length, grades, and other quantitative standards that stress out most students when balancing a heavy schedule, I think that you will find that minoring in history is more fun and far juicier than most movies, shows, books, or magazines that would otherwise fill your time when not in the lab or doing problems.

What would you say to someone who loves history but wants to major in a STEM field: why should they think about minoring in History?

I often defend my minor in history to STEM people as being as important, if not more important, to me than my major in applied physics. Why? Because of the tangible, practical skills I built through learning about various times in history. It wasn’t facts about the Cold War or the order of Roman emperors I took away that was important, it was how I learned to build and argue my view points, research topics I knew nothing about, critically think about biased material, balance other argued view points, and many other skills which are missed when students ask, “How will studying the humanities land me a job?” To this end, I would say that while applied physics was what allowed me to be considered for a job within a STEM occupation, a minor in history was what set me apart from the pool of candidates and also gave me the skills I needed to be a successful employee.

Jimmy ThostensonThe best evidence I can give for this was from a job fair I attended a month before graduating from Bethel which was held for STEM undergrads at the University of Minnesota. If you have ever been to one of these things, it’s obvious from the hundreds of students there that everyone is in desperate need of a job after graduation and, even though it’s STEM employers, there just aren’t that many jobs to go around for the number of applicants in the pool. Everyone is trying to set themselves apart from the rest of the crowd by communicating to employers their uniqueness in contrast to a crowd with which they all share a similar background.

I, not being a very confident applicant, made my way to a few booths set up by companies I knew. I smiled sheepishly, shook the recruiters’ hands with intermittent eye contact, introduced myself while offering them my resume, and asked if they were hiring — which usually concluded the interview as they glossed over my resume, saw nothing exceptional to note, and politely replied, “We are considering a few open positions for well-qualified candidates. We’ll be sure to contact you if your resume indicates relevant experience towards any of these job descriptions.” Before then placing my resume in a rather large pile of papers. After 4-6 booths and similar experiences, I began to feel dejected as I saw my resume added time and again to a pile at least 3-4 ft tall, which lay next to one that was a half-inch tall at highest  and contained what I concluded were the “well-qualified candidates’” resumes.

It wasn’t until I stopped at a patent law firm’s booth before it occurred to me the unique value of having a minor in history. The recruiter interviewing me was very upfront and to the point about weeding out “well-qualified” candidates from the rest of the pool when I was greeted by the question, “So, what is so special about you that we should consider you for employment?” After first removing my brain-dead expression from my face, I rattled off some work experience, lab experience, and the usual other important items employers like to see on the resume of STEM applicants. As she glossed over my resume with a sour look, I saw her eyes widen and look up at me over the frame of her bifocals, perplexed: “You have a minor in history?” I replied, “Is that not okay to put on a resume? Is it not relevant?” I felt nervous and — for some reason — ashamed. “Every single engineer, scientist and researcher here has some advanced science degree,” she explained, “but none of them can prove to us that they can write and communicate at the level we need them to. Each of them could write formulas all day long but at the end of day, no one would understand it but them.” I started to feel questionably reassured about listing my minor in history. “With a minor in history you have the background to be a very effective communicator AND also the [STEM] background needed to still write those formulas from dusk ‘til dawn.” Feeling more confident, I began to indicate how I felt my major and minor were complementary towards how I approach problems and follow through on solutions regarding any task at hand. Our conversation went on for another couple minutes and her interest in me seemed piqued, before we then shook hands, departed and I watched my resume land on the top of that well-sought after half-inch stack of resumes.

I did end up hearing from them again, but in the end was not offered a job even though I was told that I was a top candidate for which they had interest. Regardless, it was a valuable and defining experience for me and helped me to understand that my educational background highlighted me as both a problem solver and an effective communicator. Both of which I have come to learn from my education and professional experiences are necessary to have when pursuing a career in STEM or really, any other discipline.

With that said, the subject matter I learned from both a major in a STEM field and a minor in history was not my main takeaways – I don’t think it is for most students. The skill set I developed and solidified was. The fact that I have been able to prove to others that I can critically think and problem solve a variety of topics both familiar and unfamiliar to me has been the main characteristic I and my past employers (3M, American Museum of Natural History, and current employer/institution of study Duke University) indicate that they value most about me. Everyone wants a well-rounded, yet specialized background with a diversified skill set. A minor in history with a major in applied physics has allowed me to fulfill all of these traits while also allowing me to follow a career path with multiple horizons unseen by those with only a STEM or humanities oriented degree.

If nothing else, don’t forget that you win big bucks on game shows for knowing historical events and figures and not just F=ma.

Read the next entry in this series>>


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