Monday, December 17, 2012

Advising Pre Med Penny

So, a student came to me for advising last week.  She wants to be a Physician's Assistant.  What courses should she take next?  Here's a playback of our conversation.


Professor Bella:  "Okay, Penny.  Physician's Assistant is a pretty rigorous Master's degree program, and it is very competitive, at least at the universities around here.  Let's take a look at your transcript."

Pause while Professor Bella pulls up Penny's transcript.  Penny is smiling blankly at Professor Bella.  Longer pause while Professor Bella frowns at Penny's transcript. Penny continues smiling blankly.

Professor Bella: "Penny, I see you are enrolled in Inner City Community College's generic does-not-really-do-anything-for-you associate's degree program. Students who want to transfer, especially those who would like most of their classes to transfer, too, should NOT be in that program.  If you want a career in the medical field where you need a Master's Level of education, you need to be in a pre med program when you get your bachelor's degree.  So this program, over here in the STEM Sciences, is your best bet."

Penny continues smiling blankly, although her smile is now a little less broad, and she has a little wrinkle between her brow.  She says nothing, so Professor Bella continues.

Professor Bella:  "These two science courses you took?  You got a C- in both.  That grade won't transfer.   So you need to take those again.  You should try for an A as this is, as I said, a very competitive program.  So, my first advice is to retake the first of those sciences again next semester."

Penny  has stopped smiling.  She sits up very straight in her chair.

Penny:  "Well, I have just had it with those science classes for now.  And I did very well in my two psychology classes, my three pre composition remedial English classes, and my public speaking class.  Will that help me get into the program?"

Professor Bella shifts in her seat so that she is entirely facing Penny.  She wants her to really listen.

Professor Bella:  "Penny, of course those good grades mean something.  You should be proud of those Bs.  But for the STEM science program here at Inner City, you only need one social science.  Your public speaking class can count as an elective, but as you see, you don't have many of those available in this program.  You need more four credit science and math classes.  And you need a C or better if you want them to transfer.  But as I said, you need a higher grade than a C if you want to get into that program at a four  year college.  Also, you should take your first Composition class next semester."

Penny seems upset.  She shifts in her seat.  She is now looking more out the window than at Professor Bella.  Professor Bella is thinking of what other programs she can suggest.  None of the medical field associate's programs at ICCC seem like a great fit for Penny.  

Penny:  "I like to help people. I saw that PAs make a ton of money.  I want to be a PA. I'll take those science classes later.  Can I just take something else next semester?  Look, right there it says you have to have a fine art.  I'll take painting and sociology.  That's what I wanted to take anyway."  Penny seems to have forgotten about the Comp class suggestion.

Professor Bella is exhausted, stressed, and wants Penny to leave.  

Professor Bella:  "Penny, you seem to like the social sciences.  Have you thought about a career in Human Services?"  The human services program is the biggest bunch of bullshit at ICCC.  Professor Bella thinks Penny would be a good fit.

Penny:  "No.  I don't want that.  I keep having advisers suggest that to me, but I saw how much those people make.  No way.  I want to be a PA."   Penny has lost patience.  "Don't worry.  I've got it. I'll be fine."  Penny gathers her things and leaves. Before she walks out the door, Professor Bella gives her a sticker that says she was advised, just as the folks at Student Services told her to do.  Penny puts it on her jacket as she walks out the door.

Professor Bella breathes a sigh of relief.


  1. Very sad... like the engineering students who are taking so-called "college" algebra and geometry and are doing miserably.

  2. I've had those, too. At least they figure it out when they fail General Chemistry, the pre-requisite for damn near anything in STEM.

  3. This is, of course, one of the downsides of picking a major by the projected salary for one of the jobs for which that major prepares the student. It doesn't work anyway (there are usually also plenty of lower-paid jobs in the same/a closely related field, and once a bunch of students flock to what the Labor department describes as a high need/high salary field, the market gets saturated anyway), and it results in very poor matches of talent and projected career field. I'm all for being decently paid for what one does (even if I'm not, at least not by comparison with TT faculty), but picking a major for which one has a genuine talent (perhaps, if the major seems particularly impractical, combined with a more practical minor for which one also has some real ability) has to be the first step.

  4. I've heard of an employer who has decided to stay 10% below competitive salaries, and make it up with other benefits, in an effort to not get job applicants driven primarily by money.

    It seems to work well for them, the company leads its sector and has very low turnover.

  5. Your "I promise you, she will never get into PA" snowflake seems to have refused to LISTEN to you. That is not acceptable.

    When I advise, I always tell the students that they are free to ignore my advice, but they must FIRST show they understand what I'm telling them.

  6. I had a student at one time who was close to finishing his tech diploma. But he had a decision to make and he asked my advice. He had a chance at what sounded like a pretty good job for him but he was also considering going to university into engineering. He wanted to know what to do.

    I told him that studying engineering is tough (at least it was when I was an undergrad nearly 40 years ago) and that it would require a lot of hard work, but that he *might* succeed. It was an honest answer and perhaps not one he necessarily wanted to hear. He wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer but I knew he was willing to put in a good effort when required to do so. I didn't, however, want to mislead him and give him false hope, only to hear later that he failed or dropped out.

    But I made an additional comment which, I believe, made him think. I said that he would be making a decision he might have to live with for the rest of his life. I told him to think ahead, say, 20 years and imagine himself looking back at that moment and ask himself whether he would regret whatever decision he made.

    He thanked me and went on his way. Several days later, we spoke again and he had made up his mind. He decided to take the job. He enthusiastically explained about the area in which it was located because he could go hunting in the fall and that sort of thing.

    I knew that he had made the right choice for himself.

  7. I suspect that Penny might have been a student who didn't really know what she wanted to do after finishing high school. It sounds like she spoke with a guidance counsellor who convinced her that pre med was what she should be studying, using the they-make-lots-of-money line as an incentive.

    During my time teaching at a tech school, I had lots of students who were sold similar bills of goods. They had neither the talent nor inclination to study what they were enrolled in and many of them were insufferable. Some, however, had the good sense to either drop out or transfer into a different program.

  8. You lasted longer with her than I would have.

  9. The good news is that the American higher ed system offers multiple opportunities to enter and re-enter, at multiple ages/stages of life. So the guy who mostly wanted to go hunting in his twenties can still, if he becomes frustrated with his stalled salary in his 30s or 40s, pursue further education. It will be harder in some ways, but easier in others, since he'll have greater maturity, better life skills, and a clearer sense of purpose.

    We do need better advising, which includes a recognition that sometimes the best advice is to withdraw for a semester or two (or a decade) in order to gain a clearer sense of what one wants to study, and why.

    And/or we need stricter standards, so Bella's advisee would be forced to confront the unrealistic nature of her plans via the courses she had to take and the grades she received in those courses.

    I have no desire to return to the bad old days when too many people were told they simply "weren't college material," often as much on the basis of gender, race, and/or class/social/educational background as on any real assessment of their abilities, but we're also doing students no favors by telling them they can do and be anything they desire.

  10. Well, when you are told all of your life how great and "speshull" you are, it's hard to be accepting of realistic limitations.

  11. Admirable balance of tact and honesty, Bella. Too bad Penny didn't listen.

    In addition to being driven by future earnings, students like Penny don't connect success with hard work. She needs Randy Newman's "Korean Parents" (

  12. "Well, I have just had it with those science classes for now."

    This is the point at which I would have just stopped and said, "If you're not willing to succeed in science classes, what makes you think you are fit for a science-based program?"

    1. You know, I think maybe I should have been harder on her. BUT, here at ICCC, we are known for being so kind and sweet and understanding and helpful. I am expected to be like that. I have been like that for so long. I vent here, but I don't think my colleagues, if they came on this site, would ever guess that this was me.

      I try to uphold standards while also upholding the nice mantra of ICCC. It's how I get by. And also, the chair of the Math/Science is an amazing icon of an epic bitch to snowflakes. That department is going to crucify Penny, just crucify her.

      Just crucify her.

      I can smell her burning flesh in my nostrils now.....they will eat her for breakfast and then send her carcass back to the general does-not-do-much-for-you-program in which English Profs like me end up advising students. They take real pride in upholding standards over there, and that is why ICCC has a great track record for transferring students in our STEM programs to great schools.

    2. Funny how departments where the stakes include life, death, and bodily safety are allowed to uphold standards, and, not surprisingly, turn out quite successful students, even starting with the least-prepared.

      And then people complain that we don't teach the same students to write, but expect us to be "nice." Mind you, I have no desire to be mean, but I wouldn't object to being able to tell students who fail to follow straightforward directions for citation, etc. "do it right or no credit." If I could have the time I spend futilely trying to enforce basic rules that the great majority of my students have already encountered multiple times back, I could make a lot of progress in other, more important, areas.

    3. The funny thing is, I will probably even get a call from that department Chair, chastising me for even adviser her that she should enroll in that program. She won't like me sending riffraff over to her. She'll say that.

      But Penny wants to be a PA. I think she might be able to do it, if she was motivated to work hard. Let her give it a shot and see how Professors who are allowed to act like their work is very serious act. Heck, maybe she'll even rise to the occasion. I doubt it, but stranger things have happened. If she ever does actually change programs like I told her, she'll have to experience what it is like over there.

      You are right, they are allowed to be "mean"---meaning, to give them shit about behavior like this. I'd hear about it all the time, from lots of different admins, if I were like that. Oh, I have tenure, but I'd hear about it all the time. And so, I fail lots of them. I do, but I do it with a sorrowful look on my face, and I listen to a lot of their shit.

      In this case, I was so turned off by Penny's attitude that I did not try that hard to make her understand what she should do. She'll have a hard time registering for anything other than an intro course without Comp, for example. But all she wants to take is intro to soc and painting, fercyinoutloud. When she finally makes it over to the STEM program, she'll have lots of classes that don't count for that. I did tell her, I just didn't drive it home; let life tell her the rest.

      In other news, I had another student I just advised ask me how to change programs. I told him to fill out a form at the registrar. He e-mailed me, asking me how to fill out the form. I told him to follow the directions on the form. He brought the form in for me to help! I did not help. I told him he needed to be able to fill out a form!!!!

      You have to remember, I advise people in the does-not-do-much-for-you-generic associates degree, since I don't teach any particular program courses. We have a lot of great students here. I see some of them in my classes, but I don't really advise many of them!

  13. I once had a student who was set on being a pharmacist ("They make $70,000 a year and only work four days a week, you know.") despite making excellent grades in humanities courses and only mediocre grades in science courses. She flunked her Chemistry course Spring semester of her Freshman year, which put her scholarship in jeopardy due to some other bad grades (in STEM courses, of course). During a discussion about her plans for the Fall semester, I advised her to take some courses she felt comfortable with and that would fulfill other requirements so that she could ride out the academic probation and not endanger her scholarship - in the meantime, she could do some prep work to get ready for her Chemistry course again. Of course, I also advised her that she might reconsider pharmacy and think about going into English, where she performed the best and seemed happiest.

    "Oh, I'm retaking that over the summer."

    "The summer? It's the same course, only moving at a faster pace. It'll be harder than the one you already failed."

    She blithely assured me that she wanted to 'get it out of the way'.

    She flunked it, of course, lost her scholarship and had to transfer schools. The only good news is that I've since learned that she, ah, refocused her efforts... and became a high school English teacher.

    Better they listen late than never, I guess.