How do advisors help students pick majors?

By EUNICE NAMKOONG | October 10, 2019

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PUBLIC DOMAIN Academic advisors discuss the potential benefits and risks of declaring a pre-major at Hopkins.

For many, one of the most daunting decisions that comes with college life is choosing a major to pursue for the next four years. While many incoming freshmen matriculate with at least an academic field of interest in mind, many also enter college entirely undecided. Others later end up switching their majors.

Advising services at the University are split by school, with the Office of Academic Advising serving students in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS) and the Engineering Advising Office serving students in the Whiting School of Engineering (WSE).

Although advising works to help students academically, they also provide support in other areas. Sophomore Katherine Sun recounted to The News-Letter how valuable she found advisors beyond their academic role. 

“They were a great resource just because I got to talk about my issues and thoughts out loud to an adult and a person that had experience with things like class scheduling and major requests,” she said. “So to me it was just great knowing that there was a person that was always at the office that I could voice my  concerns to.” 

A new initiative this year called success coaching is a program tailored to help first-year, first-generation and limited-income students. 

There are 75 students in this pilot program. The mission of this program is to meet more frequently with these students to not only support students’ academics but also their overall school experience. 

Denise Shipley, a senior academic advisor with WSE, explained that the program is just another part of the role the advisors see themselves fulfilling for students.  

Thuc Dzu, a sophomore who is undecided, said that he is still looking for his major program.

“I was undecided my freshman year. I thought I might want to do economics but decided at the end of my freshman year that I wasn’t interested. I’m still undecided, but I’m leaning a lot more towards the sciences, specifically Molecular and Cellular Biology or Biophysics,” he said.

He said that his process for determining his major has been eased by meeting with his advisor and talking through about his passions, career paths and lifestyle with them.

Madison Langrin, a sophomore studying Public Health, frequently booked advising appointments and attended walk-ins during freshman year, up to seven times. 

“They are good. They know what they are talking about — the resources and classes. They know how to do their jobs. They are the experts,” Langrin said. 

All incoming students, whether in KSAS or WSE, are now required to fill out an advising profile the summer before freshman year. This is one of the main inventories that advisors use to help guide their students in selecting a major that best aligns with each individual student’s passions, interests and strengths. 

Samuel Kim, a sophomore majoring in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, reflected on his most recent success-coaching appointment. Whereas he went into the meeting intent on seeking help with course planning, he left with more.

“I decided to switch advisors based on the email about the new success coaching opportunity. She was just asking about what my worries were for the year, and everything from academics to financial situation to the social situations. She covered a good amount of topics,” Kim said. 

Jessie Martin, the assistant dean for academic advising with KSAS, said that the most common pattern she sees with KSAS students is that they tend to want to do a lot. 

Sometimes, she said, this means switching majors. But not always. 

“There is not as much switching of majors as one might believe. But there is a lot of adding on,” Martin said. 

Freshman Sarah Lee wrote to The News-Letter to explain some of her major plans. She said that she really is open to dabbling in different courses to find what most engages her.

“I already switched over to chemistry major but I might do double major with public health if I like Intro to Public Health in the spring,” she said.

Sun said that she decided to switch her second major from Sociology to Economics after a course she described as fascinating. 

“It was my first introduction to economics class here at Hopkins. It made me realize that I was actually really interested in learning more about the topic the way that it was taught at JHU,” Sun said.

Senyoung Kim, a senior currently majoring in Economics, recalled how his field of interest changed as he progressed through his time at Hopkins. 

“I came in Biophysics, switched to Neuroscience [and] Economics during that first semester, switched to Molecular and Cellular Biology, Public Health [and] Econ during freshman second semester, and then switched to [Applied Math and Statistics] [and] Econ during sophomore second semester, then just Econ junior fall,” Kim said.

Timothy Beaucage, KSAS academic advisor and success coach, added that this kind of flexibility is something that sets Hopkins apart from some of its peers.

“Whereas many other institutions have a required [common core] and whereas they don’t allow as much double-counting, Hopkins does. So, in reality, triple major is completely feasible and [they] have room for electives because there is so much overlapping,” Beaucage said.

Although each advising office tries to stick closely to the other’s procedures, the nature of how majors and course curricula are structured differently between the two schools makes that difficult sometimes.  

Martin explained that a major difference she sees is that all KSAS students enter the school as officially “undecided.” 

“A majority of students have an idea of what they want to do but they don’t officially declare until they are a sophomore,” she said.

In KSAS, freshmen meet with an advisor from Martin’s office during their first year. 

It is only once students formally declare a major, often in their sophomore year, that their new department then assigns them a faculty advisor that takes over primary responsibility for that student. 

However, WSE operates very differently, explained Janet Weise, the assistant dean for undergraduate academic affairs with WSE. 

“Unless students make a proactive decision to change their major, the major they indicated at the time of admission persists during their time here. They come in having made an initial choice,” Weise said.

However, she elaborated, some students defer and take a status best compared with the pre-major status so prevalent at KSAS.

“About 90 percent of our students come in with a declared major, and it is the major they indicated on their admissions application. About 10 percent of our students come in a general category called ‘undecided engineering,’” she said. 

Despite the stark differences between the two schools, switching majors across the two is not as difficult as one might assume. 

Shipley explained that only sometimes do students run into serious problems.

“It’s no problem, but it’s probably a little easier for our students to switch to arts and sciences. The only challenge would be for the converse, or the opposite, depending on where they are... with their classes because a lot of our engineering majors are really sequential,” Shipley said.  

Shipley also expressed concern that students may not feel prepared if they have not taken the necessary courses. 

“They may be slightly behind if they haven’t taken any physical science classes,” Shipley said.  

The only major that comes with restrictions is Biomedical Engineering, a major that students specifically apply for during their admissions process. 

“It’s okay to switch every major back and forth except our Biomedical Engineering, which is the only caveat. If you don’t get in initially, there’s no switching into that,” Shipley said.

Overall, undergraduate advising tries to assist students in all situations, whether they are declared, undecided or thinking of switching majors. However, a concern some students raised is the location.

“I don’t think that having advising office[s] in Wyman is encouraging for students considering their help. It’s kind of like the Counseling Center. Because it’s off campus, even if someone wants to go to it, there’s just that little extra barrier,” Langrin said. 

Shipley encouraged students to make use of advising services and expressed the department’s desire to help undergraduates.

“We are just here to serve the students, so we hope that they seek us out. Even if we might not be the most direct resource for a particular problem, they can still come to us, and if we are not the best fit for that situation, we will help figure out where to go or direct them to a more appropriate avenue,” Shipley said. “That’s what our role is, and that’s what we enjoy.”

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