By Jacob Ferguson and Victoria Lee-Kim
Science students are often unsure about what the best path through Western Science is for them. There are many common questions that often don’t have clear answers: Orgo in the school year or during the summer? Should I do a major, minor, or an honors specialization? What exactly is a thesis?
Currently, students tend to get guidance on these questions by asking upper-year friends for advice, by speaking with academic counselling, or by talking to some of their professors. These are all valuable sources of information, but there is one other big source of help that is drastically underused: department counsellors.
Every science program and BMSc module has a department counsellor whose role is to help students navigate tough questions and big decisions. They can provide detailed program-specific information to students enrolled in the various science departments and modules.
Different from academic counsellors, department counsellors can help decide whether a particular department would be a good choice for a student, and can go over what type of degree structure—major or honors specialization or any other option—is best for them. Department counsellors also help students to figure out what career options are available to them and can grant students special permissions to take certain courses. You can find a list of department counsellors on Western Science website.
Recently, the Science Students’ Council sat down with one of the department counsellors from biology, Brenda Beretta, and from physiology and pharmacology, Tom Stavraky, in order to get a better sense of their roles and to understand how students can best make use of their knowledge.
One common theme that they both noted was that many students could benefit from talking with a department counsellor more frequently. According to Beretta, students often wait until they are in a tough spot, such as having missed a requirement for degree progression, before coming to her office. Department counsellors are happy to help students in these situations, but reaching out to the department counsellor earlier can prevent these issues from occurring, as the counsellors can help students pick courses that are best suited for them and will allow the student to succeed. Stavraky similarly noted that fairly few students come to see him, and expressed that students should feel free to come by whenever they have questions about how best to achieve their degree.
The department counsellor’s role often extends beyond interacting with students. They can pass on concerns to administrative bodies, such as faculty committees. For instance, Beretta has monthly meetings with general academic counselling services, and Stavraky is a member of an undergraduate executive committee that discusses undergraduate program issues. Department counsellors are not required to fulfill these additional roles, but many do so voluntarily, and can use their positions to voice student concerns.
The biggest single message that both department counsellors emphasized was that they were available to help students with a broad range of academic issues—all they need is for students to come to their office and start the conversation. If you have questions about upcoming academic decisions, consider asking your department counsellor for some guidance. In addition to having your question answered, this will help shorten the wait at academic counselling.