Advising Students in the Sciences

Kara S. Schotter, University of Louisville


Advising students interested in science-related fields of study can present challenges for the academic adviser. These challenges lie in the diverse characteristics, preparation, and personal goals of science students as well as the development of a positive and lasting student-adviser relationship. Establishing a positive adviser-student relationship should be a priority to any academic adviser or faculty member who advises, because student retention is positively correlated to this relationship (Levin & Hussey, 2007). Approximately 69 percent of first-year science and engineering students continue in the sciences into the second year and only 34 percent graduate with a degree in science or engineering within six years (Levin & Hussey, 2007).

Identifying the diverse characteristics of science students

There are numerous factors an adviser must consider when advising a student in the sciences.  An adviser should first try to get to know as much as possible about the student’s background and personal interests, especially what makes him or her interested in pursuing a career in the sciences (Levin & Hussey, 2007). Many institutions distribute advising questionnaires to first-year students prior to their first advising sessions to help advisers get to know them. These general questions may need to be tailored to those interested in the sciences. For a student considering a major in the sciences, the questionnaire should include questions about a student’s motivation, the number and diversity of science credits the student earned in high school, any college-level science credits earned at another institution or during high school, and the type of science-related activities the student most enjoys. One such questionnaire is the Science Motivation Questionnaire II, which may be completed by high school students or students in their first semesters of college to evaluate their interest in higher education (Glynn, Brickman, & Taasoobshirazi, 2011). This questionnaire or a similar one could be used to foster discussion between an adviser and a student about the science programs offered at an institution and the expectations faculty have of students within the programs.

Faculty expectations

Many students considering studying the sciences or those already enrolled in a science program are not aware of faculty members’ expectations of students. Science faculty tend to have high expectations of students and grant few exceptions. Cogdell (1995) suggests that academic advisers in science programs can foster a discussion about faculty expectations by asking students if they like doing homework. After asking this question, Cogdell (1995) emphasizes that learning concepts are best achieved when a student is engaged in lecture and lab and reviews concepts outside of the classroom with a vision of how the concepts can be applied in real life situations. Due to this rigidity of science-course content and high expectations, students may find some science professors difficult to approach and learn from. There are three factors that advisers can use to prepare students to optimize learning from professors in all fields of study, including the sciences. First of all, students should be aware that faculty members are granted a great deal of academic freedom. Secondly, students usually learn more from professors they like, therefore it is essential that students develop a positive relationship with professors from the onset of a course. As a final point, adjusting to professors’ personalities and communicating with professors are all part of a student’s learning experience. Advisers should make sure that students understand that professors are permitted and encouraged to use their own techniques and styles.  Oftentimes a student will struggle to separate a professor’s personality from his or her style. Style is defined as a professor’s teaching methods and the process used while conducting class. A professor’s personality includes his or her traits and mannerisms. If a student is struggling to adjust to a professor, the adviser should help the student focus on the professor’s style. The student will learn more by putting his or her opinion of the professor aside and focusing on the course content. If the student continues to struggle to adjust, the adviser may recommend retaking the class with a different professor; however, in some cases there is only one professor who teaches the course, so the options available to the student may be limited. In this situation, the adviser should help the student view the course as part of his or her career goals. If the student cannot earn the required grade in the course, it may be necessary to assist the student in reevaluating his or her educational goals (Chapman, 1974).

Assisting students in choosing a major or program of study

Some students may also have an initial interest in attending professional or graduate school after earning bachelor’s degrees, while others may be unsure which science program of study will meet their needs and interests. Different advising approaches are useful in both situations. Students who are not certain which program of study may be the best fit may wish to complete a personality inventory such as the Myers Briggs Test, a special aptitude test focusing on science skills and knowledge, and an interest inventory. Advisers should encourage students to answer all test questions as honestly as possible rather than answer the questions with a desired result in mind. These tests are often administered through an institution’s career counseling office.  Academic advisers may also administer these tests, if certified to do so. Regardless, the adviser may need to help the student interpret or at least discuss the test results in order to identify a program of study that will meet the student’s needs. The combination of test results and student-adviser discussions may lead a student in several directions. In this situation, the student should be encouraged to explore courses within the different fields of study before declaring a major (Chapman, 1974).

Advisers may utilize the concept of educational environments to assist a student in choosing a major or program of study. Educational environments are defined by the subjects and the specific courses within a discipline that comprise a major. Advisers may find it beneficial to create a list of majors in ascending order by the number of courses required in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. In relation to this list, a student is encouraged to think about the combination of courses that his/her ideal major might contain. If the student has taken at least an introductory course in each subject area, this process is a little more feasible because the student will know in which area or areas he/she is most interested and knowledgeable. If the student has not taken an introductory course in one of the four subject areas, he/she should be encouraged to do so before continuing with this process. The student should first consider the number of foundational knowledge courses he/she would prefer to take in each of the four subject areas. Next the student should consider the number of elective courses he/she would prefer to take in each of the four subject areas. By comparing the preferred number of required and elective courses to the list of courses required for each major, the student and adviser can narrow the majors to one or two that will meet the student’s interests and goals. Some majors will vary only by a course or two, and the student may be interested in taking one course more than another.  After a thorough comparison, the student should have a good idea of his/her options and may chose to pursue one major over another; however the student may choose to take several more courses in one or several subject areas before making a decision (Levin & Hussey, 2007).

Advisers aiding students interested in attending medical or professional school such as pharmacy and dentistry should be aware that a large number of students declaring themselves to be pre-med, pre-pharmacy, or pre-dentistry have had a lifelong dream of obtaining the professional degree and may be distraught if they are not admitted to a professional school. In this situation, it is an adviser’s job to assist students in evaluating themselves and the requirements for enrollment in the professional program. A student interested in any professional program should initially be asked if she/he understands the qualification standards and the enrollment process for the desired professional program. Asking these questions requires the adviser to be knowledgeable about the requirements for admission to professional programs at various institutions. With these requirements in mind, the adviser can remind students about application deadlines, admission test dates, service-learning activities, and required grade-point averages, as well as monitor the student’s course completion. The adviser can also aid the student in developing the skills necessary to be successful during the application process by practicing interview skills and reviewing letters of application. The adviser may also refer the student to career services for extra practice and support. Above all, an adviser should be there to encourage a student on her/his endeavor while reminding the student about the competitiveness she/he will encounter while trying to get accepted into a professional school. It would be proactive for an adviser to guide a student in developing an alternative plan to professional school in case the student is not accepted (Church, Berg, & Robinson, 2006).

Developing an education plan

Once students have decided on a program of study, some will come to the adviser’s office with a draft of the courses they need to take and the semesters the courses will be scheduled. Other students may require more guidance and assistance in developing an academic plan. An adviser should be aware that much of her/his time will be spent on perhaps the 20 percent of advisees who need this additional support. These students tend to be in academic distress and need extra assistance in evaluating program options and developing a strategic plan to return to academic good standing. Advising these students will require a lot of patience but can be very rewarding.  Successfully advising these students will call for an adviser to be knowledgeable about the theories of developmental advising, since the majority of these students are adjusting to college life and evolving as learners (Cogdell, 1995).

An adviser should acknowledge the hard work of a student who has a general plan and is making progress toward graduation. Simply telling the student, “It is a pleasure to see that you are working hard. Keep up the good work” will make a positive impact. These students should be encouraged to pursue internship opportunities, service-learning courses, and graduate or professional school. It is beneficial to the student and adviser if the adviser develops a system of corresponding with these students to inform them of opportunities and to motivate them to pursue learning options outside of the classroom. Emailing students, posting information on a bulletin board, or organizing a website are ways to inform students about learning opportunities outside the classroom. It is important for students to be aware that their involvement outside the classroom will make them more marketable when they start to pursue careers after graduation (Cogdell, 1995).

Additional tips for developing a positive adviser-student relationship

In addition to the logistics previously mentioned, there are other steps the adviser can take to establish a positive adviser-student relationship. One consideration is to develop a welcoming and safe environment. A student will feel more at ease and willing to discuss his/her education plan, personal life, and problems during an advising discussion if the adviser’s office is well organized and has a soothing feeling. Bullard (2008) suggested that the two rocking chairs in her office help to place students at ease. She has found that her advisees feel like they are on her front porch and relax as they rock and talk about their goals and plans (Bullard, 2008). Bullard (2008) also suggested that an adviser’s door should always be open and that she should always make time to assist a student, even if an appointment is necessary. During a discussion, Bullard (2008) stated that the student should have the adviser’s undivided attention and the adviser should be dedicated to listening. Sometimes all a student needs is someone to listen to his problems and thoughts. The adviser should not glance at a clock, check email, or appear to be otherwise distracted, or else the student will feel the adviser is too busy to address his needs and will be unlikely to return for assistance in the future. The adviser can make suggestions and give advice as needed but only after hearing all of the student’s thoughts and problems (Bullard, 2008).

Time should be spent with students to ensure they are aware of the highly structured nature of curricula. As previously mentioned, students should progress from introductory to advanced courses and choose electives that focus on their career paths. It is important for advisers to be aware of course availability and to notify students when courses are offered because many elective courses are only offered once a year or every other year. Students do not want to miss opportunities to enroll in courses, as this could delay graduation and add an additional financial burden. If an adviser misguides a student about course availability, the student may no longer trust the adviser. If the student loses trust in the adviser, he/she will likely not approach the adviser for assistance outside of registration (Cogdell, 1995).

Closing remarks

Advisers serving science students should be aware of the academic requirements of all the science majors available at an institution, internship opportunities, service-learning courses, graduate and professional school programs, and should be knowledgeable about methods to utilize when assisting students. The development of a positive adviser-student relationship is essential to a student’s success. By being proactive, prepared, open-minded, and willing to listen, an adviser can guide a science student to a future filled with success and opportunity. For some students this may mean pursuing professional or graduate school, while for others it may mean entering the workforce.


Bullard, L. G. (2008). Advisors who rock: An approach to academic counseling. Chemical Engineering Education, 42(4), 218–220.

Chapman, E. N. (1974). College Survival. Palo Alto, CA: Science Research Associates.

Church, M., Berg, K., & Robinson, A. (2006, September 20). Advising students interested in medical school:  What is the best approach? The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal. Retrieved from

Cogdell, J. R. (1995). The role of faculty advising in science and engineering. In A. Reinarz & E. White (Eds.), Teaching through academic advising: A faculty perspective (pp. 65–70). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Glynn, S. M., Brickman, P., Armstrong, N., & Taasoobshirazi, G. (2011). Science Motivation Questionnaire II: Validation with science majors and nonscience majors. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(10), 1159­­-1176.

Levin, J., & Hussey, R. B. (2007). Improving advising in the sciences: Anaylsis of the educational environments of science- and math-related majors. Journal of College Science Teaching, 36(6), 28–35.

About the Author(s)

Kara S. Schotter, University of Louisville

Kara S. Schotter is a graduate student in the higher education administration program at the University of Louisville in Louisville, KY. She is also a pharmacy technology instructor at Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville. She can be reached at

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    Michael Williams

    I agree. I’m a high school science teacher and I try to get to know as much as possible about my students’ career interests in their first year, so I can advise them. I ask them a lot about their interests and invite local physicians and scientists to give talks in my classes. I also use surveys like the Science Motivation Questionnaire II because it helps me and my students to figure out why they like (or don’t like) learning science. I then talk to them about why they feel the way they do. I also like to show movies like October Sky to get them thinking about careers in science. Mike W.


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