1052: Every Major's Terrible

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Every Major's Terrible
Someday I'll be the first to get a Ph. D in 'Undeclared'.
Title text: Someday I'll be the first to get a Ph. D in 'Undeclared'.

[edit] Explanation

The header notes that the song is based on the satirical Major-General's Song from Gilbert and Sullivan's 1879 comic opera The Pirates of Penzance. The song satirises the idea of the "modern" educated British Army officer of the latter 19th century. (Major general being a military rank in Britain and many other countries.) See a YouTube video of "I Am the Very Model of A Modern Major's General" to get the tune. The lyrics are commonly rewritten, the most famous rewrite likely being Tom Lehrer's Elements song, which is also available online. His other suggestion, "Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious", from Mary Poppins, is another fast-paced patter-song with a somewhat similar tune, though it doesn't fit quite so well, and the match falls apart at the end of the fourth line, when the "Um-diddly"s start up — still, it's better than nothing. "My eyes are fully open" from Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore would be a better fit, if anyone knew that that didn't already know the Major General's song.

There are at least two performances of this xkcd song online: a video with each major acted out by SFU Choir - Every Major's Terrible and a solo with piano: xkcd's 'Every Major's Terrible' Is Now A Real Song By Ben Miller. The transcription is also shown for each of them, so it is easier to understand the text.

The panels show Randall's rewritten lyrics to the song. Every verse ends with "Just put me down as 'Undecided' - Every Major's Terrible", which gives the strip its name — and "Major's Terrible" is similar enough to "Major General", the corresponding lyrics in the original version, to serve as a callback.

In the title text, "Undeclared" is sometimes called "General Studies". Most U.S. universities will not let you get a degree in this, let alone an advanced degree such as a Ph. D. Also, it should probably be noted that this song refers to U.S.-like university systems, in other countries, one will study little to nothing outside your major, making it more-or-less impossible to be undecided as to major.

[edit] Verse 1

Panel 1, Philosophy's just math sans rigor, sense, and practicality
The stick figure is posed as Rodin's The Thinker, a common symbol for Philosophy. The equation in the background (two plus light bulb equals sailboat) is nonsense, hence "math sans rigor, sense or practicality"
Panel 2, And Math's just physics unconstrained by precepts of reality.
A cannon is firing. However, instead of going in the normal parabolic arc (a precept of reality), the cannonball splits and splits again, so that it looks like a bifurcation diagram from chaos theory.
Panel 3, A Business Major's just a thing you get so you can graduate
Business is the most common major, often seen as a practical choice applicable to a wide variety of careers, or, as the comic illustrates, preferred by those who just want an easy way to graduate.
Panel 4, And Chemistry's for stamp collectors high on methylacetate.
Stamp collecting refers to the famous quote by Ernest Rutherford, "All science is either physics or stamp collecting." Methyl acetate is the solvent used to remove stamps from their envelope. The stamps in the background form the periodic table of the chemical elements.
Panels 5 and 6, Why anyone who wants a job would study Lit's a mystery / Unless their only other choice were something like Art History.
These lines refer to subjects where a majority of graduates will end up unemployed or eventually working in a field outside their majors. Topics such as Literature or Art History are often and historically said to be in this category — although from actual statistics, it is clear that there are far worse majors these days.
Panels 7 and 8, A BA in Communications guarantees that you'll achieve / A little less than if you'd learned to underwater basket-weave
Underwater basket weaving is a commonly used metaphor for any college major that is easy or worthless. "Communications" is a major chosen by people interested in news broadcasting or other media. For why that might be criticised, see http://bad-pr.tumblr.com/. Note that, if following the original music exactly, the line "A little less than if you'd learned to underwater basket-weave." will be repeated three times by the chorus after these panels.
Panel 9, I'd rather eat a Fowler's toad than major in Biology,
A Fowler's toad is a relatively common toad in the eastern US, and toads generally are not good eating. As well, a stereotype of studying biology is a frog dissection, which is likely part of the reference, albeit oblique.
Panel 10, And Social Psych is worse than either Psych or Sociology.
social psychology is compared to sociology (study of humans in society) and psychology (study of human minds); the first is represented by a mad chainsaw wielder in company, and the second by a mad chainsaw wielder by himself — the chainsaw wielder being stereotypical examples of "madness".
Panels 11 and 12, The thought of picking any one of these is too unbearable, / Just put me down as "Undecided" - every major's terrible.
End of the first verse. Every verse ends with some variation of this couplet, and in the original tune, each of these couplets are repeated by the chorus afterwards.
Unbearable and terrible rhyme for people who have the Mary-merry merger.

[edit] Verse 2

Panel 13, Now, if you can't prognosticate, that's OK in Seismology,
This refers to the inability of seismology to reliably predict catastrophic earthquakes, even after centuries of extensive research.
Panel 14, But if your hindsight's weak as well, you'd best stick to Theology.
The formal logic proposition shown in the illustration, "X ∴ ∃X", says "I say there's this thing called X, therefore, there exists this thing called X". This is basically what the popular ontological argument for God boils down to. Briefly, it asks you to imagine the best possible deity. A God like that that exists is better than one that doesn't. But we said we were imagining the best possible deity. Therefore, this proposition concludes that God exists.
Panel 15, CS will make each day a quest to find a missing close-paren.
"CS" is short for "Computer Science." Most programming languages use parentheses as part of their syntax, and often have multiply-nested parenthetical expressions. This is especially true of Lisp. It is often difficult for a programmer to determine where the unbalanced parenthesis begins or ends when the code and parentheses are not properly formatted and indented.
Panel 16, Virology will guarantee you'll never get a hug again.
Virology is the study of infectious diseases. The symbol above the central figure is the biohazard symbol, implying that people who study infectious diseases, and are therefore located near them at some points in time, should be shunned like the plague, because they're probably carrying it.
Panel 17, I.T. prepares you for a life of fighting with PCs nonstop.
"I.T." is short for "Information Technology", a degree for people who maintain computer systems. If there is a need for an I.T. position (in which I.T. Professionals are employed) there are computers which need fixing — hence the I.T. Professional is always fixing computers, which may or may not have been "broken" by users.
Panel 18, As Pratchett said, "Geography's just physics slowed with trees on top."
This is a slightly amended quote from Discworld author Terry Pratchett, from his book "The Last Continent". The actual quote is "Geography is just physics slowed down, with a couple of trees stuck in it." — but that doesn't scan.
Panel 19, Though physics seems to promise you a Richard Feynman-like career,
Richard Feynman was a 20th-century physicist known for his sense of fun, including being photographed for one of his books while holding a bongo drum.
Panel 20, The wiki page for "Physics Major" redirects to "Engineer."
A redirect on Wikipedia is a page which immediately sends the visitor to a different page. This implies that the title of the first is either a synonym or a sub-topic of the second. Physics majors usually learn to code, and the standard joke is that they invariably get hired as computer programmers after graduation. The Wikipedia page physics major didn't actually exist when this comic was published. It was created the same day, but as a redirect to physics education. In the subsequent days, there were dozens of instances of people changing it to redirect to engineer, usually reverted within minutes. As with the underwater basket-weaving line in the first verse, after the soloist sings this, the line would be repeated three times by the chorus.
Panels 21 and 22, They say to study history or find yourself repeating it, / But all that it prepares you for is forty years of teaching it.
This uses a version of a quote by George Santayana (although often attributed to others as well), Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it as a reason to study history — only to be followed by an indication that by studying history as a major, you will only be prepared to become a history teacher, and you will then spend the rest of your life teaching history.
Panels 23 and 24, I recognize my four-year plan's at this point not repairable, / But put me down as "Undecided" - every major's terrible.
End of the second verse. A "four-year plan" is the list of all the courses a student plans to include in his/her degree program. If you change majors every semester, or do not decide on one until too late, this list gets really difficult to turn into any one degree.

[edit] Verse 3

Panel 25, Astronomers all cringe when they hear "Supermoon" or "Zodiac".
Supermoon is a term invented by astrologers in the 1970s, with no significance in astronomy other than being the co-occurrence of orbital perigee and full-moon. But it comes up often in the press, linked to supernatural behavior. The zodiac is the circular band in the sky containing the apparent path of the sun, moon and planets. Most often when people talk about it, they're referring to astrology and horoscopes and other pseudo-scientific notions which often lead to conversations which are frustrating to astronomers.
Panel 26, Agronomy's a no-go; I'm a huge agorophobiac.
Agronomy is the science of farming, while agoraphobia is the fear of wide open spaces. Fields, where most farming happens, are wide open spaces.
Panel 27, I'm too ophiophobic to consider Herpetology,
Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians, while ophiophobia is the fear of snakes. A bad combination.
Panel 28, And I can't stomach any part of Gastroenterology.
As the pun suggests, gastroenterology is the study of the human digestive system.
Panel 29, While Pre-Med gives you twitchy-eyed obsession with your GPA,
Pre-med is a major chosen by students hoping to go on to medical school and eventually become doctors. Medical school is extremely competitive and usually requires a very high undergraduate GPA for prospective students.
Panel 30, a poetry degree bespeaks bewildering naïveté.
The text is in all lower-case and strangely laid out compared to text in other panels. All-lower-case and "free" layout are both associated with 20th century "Modernist" poetry, especially the works of e.e.cummings.
Panels 31 and 32, TV's behind the rush into Forensic Criminology / (Or so claims meta-academic epidemiology).
This refers to how forensic criminology shows, like CSI, that often dramatize, exaggerate or otherwise confuse the science behind forensics, give people unrealistically glamorous views of the career, thus encouraging them to join it. Epidemiology is the study of causes and effects of events and trends. This is, again, the point where the chorus joins in, as in the previous two verses.
Panels 33 and 34, By dubbing Econ "dismal science" adherents exaggerate; / The "dismal"'s fine - it's "science" where they patently prevaricate.
"Econ" is short for "Economics". Thomas Carlyle declared economics "the dismal science" in the Victorian era. Economists claim that economics is a science like any other; however, as the predictive power of all economic theories are exceedingly weak compared to any other science, this is disputed by those outside the field at times, and, of course, by this song.
Panels 35 and 36, In terms of choices, I'd say only Sophie's was comparable. / Just put me down as "Undecided" - every major's terrible!
End of the third verse, with yet another variant on the closing couplet. Choosing a major is compared to Sophie's Choice, which is any dilemma where choosing one cherished person or thing over the other will result in the death or destruction of the other, derived from the theme of the novel, which has also been turned into a romantic drama film (in which a mother must choose which of her children will die).

[edit] Transcript

Every Major's Terrible
to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan's
Modern Major-General Song
(Which you may know from Tom Lehrer's Elements. If not, just hum Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.)


Philosophy's just math sans rigor, sense, and practicality
[Cueball thinking, chin on fist, à la Rodin's sculpture; in the air is a pseudo-mathematical expression "2 + <picture of light bulb> = <picture of sailboat>"]
And Math's just physics unconstrained by precepts of reality.
[A cannon firing: a dashed line indicates the cannonball's trajectory, which bifurcates twice, although the sum of the momentums of the four resulting 1/4 sized cannonballs is presumably mathematically identical to the original.]
A Business Major's just a thing you get so you can graduate
[A student receives a diploma from a dean on a podium, while a second student, diploma in hand, runs gleefully away, shedding robe and mortarboard.]
And Chemistry's for stamp collectors high on methylacetate.
[A ponytailed student wearing goggles and holding an Erlenmeyer flask dances wildly to a light show -- or is it the Periodic Table? -- in the background.]
Why anyone who wants a job would study Lit's a mystery
[Cueball, saying this, holds up hands questioningly.]
Unless their only other choice were something like Art History.
[Cueball again, holding his chin speculatively.]
A BA in communications guarantees that you'll achieve
[close-up of a graduate wearing embroidered robe and tasseled mortarboard.]
A little less than if you'd learned to underwater basket-weave
[The same graduate, now underwater, surrounded by fish and a wicker basket.]
I'd rather eat a Fowler's toad than major in Biology,
[Cueball holding a frog at arm's length, which says:.]
Frog: RIBBIT
And Social Psych is worse than either Psych or Sociology.
[Megan indicating: a scruffy individual, an individual holding something which might be a chainsaw, and a scruffy individual holding something which might be a chainsaw.]
The thought of picking any one of these is too unbearable.
[Cueball at his adviser's desk holding a course catalog.]
Just put me down as "Undecided" - every major's terrible.
[He tosses the course catalog over his shoulder.]


Now, if you can't prognosticate, that's OK in Seismology,
[Seismograph chart; about halfway across one trace begins oscillating vigorously.]
But if your hindsight's weak as well, you'd best stick to Theology.
[A bearded individual pontificates.]
Bearded individual: X ∴ ∃X
CS will make each day a quest to find a missing close-paren.
[A code fragment.]
code: (((()((((()(
code: ))))())())())
Virology will guarantee you'll never get a hug again.
[A girl with a green Biohazard symbol floating above her head stands alone; to the left and right several people shun her.]
I.T. prepares you for a life of fighting with PCs nonstop.
[Megan running at a PC with an axe raised over her head.]
As Pratchett said, "Geography's just physics slowed with trees on top."
[Image of Pratchett, speaking this line.]
Though physics seems to promise you a Richard Feynman-like career,
[Richard Feynman plays the bongo drums while Megan and Ponytail look on admiringly.]
The wiki page for "Physics Major" redirects to "Engineer."
[Screenshot of so-mentioned redirect.]
They say to study history or find yourself repeating it,
[Flowchart: a grey box with a sad face chains to a decision diamond reading simply "?"; the "yes" branch leads to a yellow happy-face box while the "no" branch loops back to the initial sad face.]
But all that it prepares you for is forty years of teaching it.
[Teacher with boxy spectacles and a bun at a chalkboard indicating dates: 1935, 1969, 1991.]
I recognize my four-year plan's at this point not repairable,
[Cueball at his adviser's desk again.]
But put me down as "Undecided" - every major's terrible.
[Adviser has his hand to his mouth as if gasping.]


Astronomers all cringe when they hear "Supermoon" or "Zodiac".
[Image of an astrologer espousing theories.]
Agronomy's a no-go; I'm a huge agorophobiac.
[Silhouette of Cueball, agitated, in an open field near a fence and a tractor.]
I'm too ophiophobic to consider Herpetology,
[Cueball looking aghast at a snake on the ground; the snake may have other ideas.]
snake: ♥?
And I can't stomach any part of Gastroenterology.
[Anatomical image of a stomach.]
While Pre-Med gives you twitchy-eyed obsession with your GPA,
[A badly disheveled individual, glasses askew, clutching folders and papers and dropping several]
a poetry degree bespeaks bewildering naïveté.
[Ponytail reciting poetry; her poem is this panel's line, in a lighter, lower-case font.]
TV's behind the rush into Forensic Criminology
["CSI: Miami" logo.]
(Or so claims Meta-academic Epidemiology).
[Ponytail holding notebook, and balding individual wearing glasses and holding pipe, watch a wall-mounted flatscreen TV on which "CSI: Miami" logo is showing.]
By dubbing Econ "dismal science" adherents exaggerate;
[Cueball discoursing on his opinion here.]
The "dismal"'s fine - it's "science" where they patently prevaricate.
[Close-up on Cueball.]
In terms of choices, I'd say only Sophie's was comparable.
[Cueball at his adviser's desk once more.]
Just put me down as "Undecided" - every major's terrible!
[Cueball makes a final dramatic flair.]
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Discussion

Panel 1's cueball is in the same pose as Rodin's "The Thinker"

Panel 4 background is the periodic table of elements.

Panel 5, Fowler's Toad emits a noxious secretion that irritates skin and mucous membranes (it was previously thought to cause warts)

Panel 6, Psychology = a serial killer with a chainsaw, Sociology = hobo; Social Psych = hobo serial killer with chainsaw.

Panel 15, LISP, Scheme, and other computer languages with an excess of parentheses.

Panel 16, biohazard symbol

Panel 19, bongos were played by Richard Feynman

Panel 27, fear of snakes, study of reptiles

Panel 28, a picture of a stomach, pun on "stomach" being slang for "tolerate"

Panel 30, words in all lowercase like e.e.cummings

-- 75.103.23.206 22:04, 7 December 2012‎

Hobo serial killer with chainsaw? Social psych sounds awesome!
24.2.217.188 22:42, 22 October 2013 (UTC)

In panel 22 (History), what's the theme connecting the years 1935, 1969, and 1991? Wwoods (talk) 15:40, 21 May 2013 (UTC)


This explanation is very small for that big comic. I am starting to add the transcript and after that I will do more investigations to that opera. This should be the key to explain all the panels.--Dgbrt (talk) 19:13, 21 May 2013 (UTC)

The answer won't lie in the song, trust me. Pirates of Penzance is probably my favorite comic opera out there. Plus Randall gives that the lie in saying you can use the tune from the elements song (a well-known parody) or even Marry Poppins (similar tune, but not exactly the same). I think each panel is just a reference to the words, I don't think that Randall is actually involving The Pirates of Penzance in any way other than the tune. 173.245.52.211 20:53, 9 December 2013 (UTC)

Feynman was also known for being a ladies' man, so the two girls in panel 19 are significant IMHO. --141.101.80.117 13:51, 25 December 2013 (UTC)


Needs explanation what does it mean to choose a major, and what major is in this context. Note every reader is from U.S.A.; different countries have different higher education systems. --JakubNarebski (talk) 10:56, 9 January 2014 (UTC)

True that. 'Graduation' in Brazil means 'Undergraduation' in the US. 108.162.254.105 03:51, 1 February 2014 (UTC)

"Math's just physics unconstrained by precepts of reality" - that isn't a binary tree, its a bifurcation diagram from chaos theory. And, sorry, it has nothing to do with the Banach–Tarski paradox - that's just mindless name-dropping. Davidbak (talk) 20:54, 10 February 2014 (UTC)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRexBMPeRToHalfhat (talk) 18:59, 3 April 2014 (UTC)
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