Advisement in the Health Professions

This document is drawn from a handout and lecture presented in BMS 195, Introduction to the Health Professions.

Definitions, Responsibilities, Insights, and Pointers for Students

In addition to teaching, research, and service obligations, most university faculty have responsibilities in advising students and serving as academic advisors. A smaller group of these faculty members may also serve as pre-professional advisors.

  • The academic advisor advises the student on completing the requirements of the academic major and minor programs of study.
  • The pre-professional advisor advises the student on meeting the admission requirements for postbaccalaureate, professional programs. This advisement resource becomes very important to students planning to enter the health professions when one considers that only a portion of the applicants who desire acceptance to a professional program will be admitted. The advice of a pre-professional advisor can help make students aware of non-academic requirements and other factors that increase the level of their competitive consideration in the eyes of professional school admissions committees.

The pre-professional advisor may also recommend specific programs, assist students in being aware of and exploring, alternate career choices, and evaluate applicants through letters of recommendation. Virtually all postbaccalaureate health programs require or prefer a letter of recommendation from a pre-professional advisor or from a health care professions committee.

In some circumstances, a single faculty member may serve as both academic and pre-professional advisor, but with the variety of professions and student interests, some students may have two advisors, one academic advisor and one or more pre-professional advisors. At MSU, most departments will have faculty advisors who can serve both advisement functions. In departments where advisors may be assigned, it is important that the pre-health professions students make sure the assigned advisor meets both their academic major and pre-professional needs.

What Is Evidence of Good Advisement?

Anyone can advise and offer advice. However, advice is only as good as the information and experience of the person who gives it. How does a student know what is good advice? Unfortunately the answer is that the inexperienced student cannot be sure. When possible, students should always seek out several different sources of advice. The advisor's attitude toward his/her advisement functions is usually a positive sign. Advisors who blindly sign the student's schedule for the next semester may be carrying out a responsibility of an advisor, but is not advising. Some advisors may want to help a student and give advice; yet this advisor may not be the most knowledgeable to do so.

Regardless of the knowledge of an advisor, a good advisor is one who becomes involved primarily and constructively in the student's overall well being, academic and personal. A successful advisement relationship requires more than one minute of contact each semester. Success in admission to a professional program may boil down to how well a student has been able to follow the general and individualized advice of his/her advisor. A good academic advisor may have limited expertise, and may not feel competent to offer personal counseling or basic career counseling. However, that advisor should know where to refer a student for such services.

A good advisor is objective and honest. This sometimes means giving advice that a student may not want to hear. A good advisor will never tell a student that the chances of getting into a professional program are zero. But a good advisor will be frank about the low probability of a student reaching his or her goal when the academic performance of that student is below a minimum, or when there are other factors that decrease a student's chance for successful admission to a professional program. Students must take the responsibility to have alternate career choices if reaching their primary career goal is unlikely or impossible. Advisors should be capable of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of advisees to help the students have realistic career goals and exploring alternate career goals.

Different advice from different advisors can be confusing, but helpful, to the student. Advice is not absolute. Different faculty members have different experiences and make different recommendations based on what they feel is best for their advisees. The ideal suggestions that a medical school administrator might make in regard to what courses pre-medical students should take will differ from those courses recommended by students in the medical school program. Thus, students are the ones who must determine what advice is best in their specific situations. Decisions should always be made to keep as many options open when confronted with different advice.

Advisors in the health professions usually come from two different backgrounds, academic faculty and career counseling. Academic faculty advisors are usually faculty members in an academic department with teaching responsibilities. Faculty advisors tend to be more specific on the health professions for which they advise, and their skills are learned on the job through experience and interactions with professional schools and advisement organizations. They are often required to write letters of recommendation for students. Few faculty advisors have training in counseling. Full-time pre-professional advisors in advisement centers have educational backgrounds in guidance or career counseling. They tend not to have backgrounds in the sciences, tend to counsel a broad heterogeneous group of students, and tend to excel in people-skills. The National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) is the primary professional organization for career counselors, whereas the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions (NAAHP) is the advisement support organization for faculty advisors in the health professions.

Good advisors must be in contact with the health professions for which they advise. Career advice tends to change from year to year because of what is going on in the profession today, and trends that will continue to make that field different tomorrow. The best advice one received five years ago may not be appropriate advice today. Many pre-health profession advisors now subscribe to list serve groups of advisors where answers to difficult questions can be sought among members of the advisor group.

Generally, to advise for the benefit of the student, a good pre-professional faculty advisor is one who:

  1. Is aware of changes, trends, and projections of opportunities and shifts in the total health care delivery system, and how such changes may impact on the recruitment, pre-professional preparation, and successful entry into the various health care professions.
  2. Keeps in touch with professionals in the field and relates changes in the field to the type of advisement that is given. This includes being aware of current and proposed demographics relating to the number of applicants, the range of their qualifications, and the relationship of these considerations to the number of matriculants (those gaining entrance).
  3. Purposely seeks out information that is made available to advisors by representatives of the professional field for the purpose of advisement.
  4. Communicates and interacts with other advisors locally, regionally, and nationally who have similar advisement functions at other institutions.
  5. Collects, posts, and provides information and resource materials about the profession and professional schools for student use.
  6. Helps students gain access to preparatory materials and preparatory programs that help students prepare for professional entrance examinations (i.e. PCAT, OAT, MCAT, VCAT, AHPAT, DAT, and the general and advanced portions of the GRE). Advisors should be prepared to help students interpret the scores and sub-scores on these examinations with respect to specific professional admission standards.
  7. Initiates, when necessary, supports, promotes, and contributes time and resources to student associations organized for the purpose of disseminating information about the profession and professional schools.
  8. Sets aside time to be available to advisees for the purpose of professional advisement.

Who Are Good Advisees? What Are the Responsibilities of Advisees?

Regardless of the quality of advisement, the advisement resource is worthless to the student if the student does not seek advice or, likewise, if the advice is not followed. There are many "horror stories" shared among advisors about students who attempted to go after a career goal alone. Students have certain responsibilities in the advisement process. Advisors cannot advise if the student does not seek advisement and develop the advisement relationship. This requires the initiative and action of the advisee. Advisees with different backgrounds, strengths, and weaknesses are best able to determine whether they relate to an advisor. If a good relationship is lacking and the advice given is impersonal, it is the student's responsibility to seek sources of better advice. Advisees should be aware of publications such as, The Advisor, that contain advisement information for most of the health professions over time. Advisees should be communicating with the professional organizations serving the profession they wish to enter, and requesting information about the profession from these sources. Many professional organizations sponsor student organizations for students with interests in the profession. On request, nearly all health professional organizations provide informational brochures or packets to students who are exploring a profession. Advisees should survey the various reference sources about health-related careers that are located in the Meyer Library, or at the University's Advisement Center.

Wanting to enter particular heath career does not ensure that one will be admitted to a health professional program. Nearly all health professional schools have a limited number of first year seats to fill, regardless of the number of applicants for those slots. Health professional schools are selective and admit only the better portion of those in an applicant pool. Therefore, students must be able to present competitive credentials for admission, even though the minimum requirements have been met. Only those students most likely to succeed in a professional program are selected. The primary criteria that professional schools use to ensure high performance in professional studies include the student's demonstrated high performance in prior academic work (i.e. a high GPA). Generally, a certain level of performance is required to open the door to consideration for admission, and then the other attributes of the applicant determine who in that group are admitted. The higher the GPA, the less these other considerations need to be examined closely. Unfortunately, the failure of consideration by an admissions committee in health professional programs is often associated with student immaturity, non-convincing motivation, and poor performance early in the university career, and not with the student's potential ability. Advisors routinely witness situations in which really good applicants fail to be admitted because of average or below average performance in course work during part of their freshman and sophomore years.

Wanting a particular career, and being willing to work to achieve entry into that career field, are two different matters. You must have, or endeavor to acquire, the ability, the time and monetary resources, and commitment and personal motivation that are required to endure the process. The determination to do this ultimately comes from the student alone, but good advisors can be most helpful in this most important life decision. Make sure you know what physical, personal, and professional attributes are required for the profession you wish to enter. Do you possess those attributes? A student who is not interested in people nor enjoys interactions with people will encounter difficulties in many of the health professions.

Many times, advisors and professors become very concerned when they recognize that certain course work and types of class activities are considered boring to students who are seeking a career where they will be expected to do similar activities as a part of that profession for the rest of their lives. Do you really know the day-to-day activities of the profession you plan to enter? Would you like doing these things every day for the rest of your working life? If something presented is boring to you, is it the subject itself, or is it merely the presentation of it? If courses related to your chosen health profession are not among your favorite, you need to be seriously thinking of some other profession.

With good advisement, students are admitted into professional school on the basis of their own excellent credentials and preparation. Rumors that a particular advisor can "get students into professional school" is the worst thing that can happen to a good advisor. Advisors are not magicians; rather, they are facilitators who do their best with quality credentials provided by the applicant.

Begin Planning For Your Professional Goal Now

Many students fail to prepare for their professional goals until its time to apply to the professional program. If your goal is to become a(n) [insert-your-professional-goal-here], then you should be working toward that goal at the same time you are preparing yourself academically. Students should always be asking why certain course work is required for the profession they plan to enter. Students should know the workings of the profession well enough to answer these questions themselves. Are you achieving the preparation for the profession that is required by such course work? Are you preparing for any standardized admissions test required for entry into your chosen profession? Mathematics and the physical sciences may not be among the most interesting topics to students who plan to go into the health professions, but you will be tested for your physical science and mathematics knowledge in standardized admissions examinations. Therefore, you need to do well in those areas of tests for admission.

One advising suggestion that students find helpful is to keep a diary or journal of your explorations into a given profession. Thought-provoking questions for this diary/journal include:

  • What have you learned about the profession you are planning to enter? Yesterday? Today?
  • What new information are you going to seek out tomorrow? Is this information readily accessible to you for retrieval and review?
  • As you make a decision about a profession, what did you consider? Write it down.
  • What professional and clinical sites did you visit?
  • What professionals did you talk with?
  • What aspects of the profession were discussed?
  • On what dates did this occur?
  • What were the names and titles of the individuals you talked with?
  • What were your impressions of them and their representation of the profession?
  • How did you feel?

Often, the admissions committees of health professions programs will ask these questions of you, both on application forms and in interviews. You should be able to explain the basis of your career decision fully. Being able to discuss your reasons, with personal examples, is important in the admissions and interview processes.

Warning! Most health professional programs and job sites where health professionals work have zero tolerance for drug usage. If you have used illegal drugs in the past you must stop regardless of any rationalizations you have. Many programs now require both routine and spot drug testing. Many professional programs, clinical sites, and places of employment will immediately terminate student or employee who tests positive for drugs. All students entering the health professions should be prepared to agree to submit to drug testing at any time. A termination for drug usage virtually removes any possibilities for entering or re-entering the health professions.

Are you building your circle of friends with the same goal? Are you enlarging the circle of potential contacts of those professionals already in the field? Do you know the common acronyms related to the application process and the field you seek to enter? Have you reached the point of being able to evaluate the educational programs of various professional schools in being able to match your specific needs? If these questions are foreign or seem premature to you, then you still have work to do in preparing yourself for your selected profession.