February 2012

Stranger in a strange land

A primer on advising undergraduates

Duty or opportunity?
EPD_compassMost young faculty members arrive at their new jobs eager to establish their research programs, to guide the bright young students within their laboratory groups through those first critical steps on the path to a career in research and even, perhaps, to emulate those teachers who enlivened the classroom through their creativity and commitment to education. Rarely, however, will an aspiring young faculty member mention advising undergraduate majors as one of the attractions of a faculty career. Indeed, for many the word “advising” conjures up images of students lined up outside their office doors, a sea of uninterpretable forms and constant demands for signatures and letters of reference.

But in fact student advising can serve as an effective and surprisingly efficient mechanism for learning about your new institution and the students that it serves. After all, these students constitute both the raison d’être for your college or university and a prime source of revenue. Student advising not only serves as a vehicle for learning what biochemistry and molecular biology majors actually do when they are not taking your course, it also provides direct feedback regarding student perceptions regarding the intent, value and delivery of each item within the curriculum. The value of such firsthand testimony in informing the assessment and revision of curricula should not be discounted. In terms of your own self-interest, advising offers a venue for identifying and recruiting exceptional undergraduates for your research group.

Why do some prospective faculty members nonetheless view undergraduate advising as a burden, one that perhaps should be assigned to a staff member rather than an overburdened professor? Pragmatically speaking, while research, scholarship and teaching are all explicitly considered in making promotion and tenure decisions, little if any weight is given to generic student advising. The logical response for young faculty members caught between shrinking faculty numbers and an increasingly challenging researchfunding climate is to focus on those activities that are rewarded by the institution and minimize the time and energy invested in those responsibilities to which only lip service is paid. Many new faculty members harbor sincere reservations about giving advice regarding institutions that are, after all, new and strange to them. They see little value in having the blind leading the blind and are discouraged by the mass requirements, regulations, forms and deadlines with which they feel the need to become familiar.

EPD_mousetrap Avoid the expectations trap
As with learning itself, navigating the college experience is the responsibility of the individual student. Yet most of the advisees who knock at your office door will exude the palpable expectation that it is your responsibility to provide immediate answers to their questions or facile solutions to their problems. This expectation often will be advertised by statements such as, “It’s your job to help me, isn’t it?” or (from parents), “What is it we’re paying you for?” However, while most new faculty members have a good basic understanding of the responsibilities and relationship between a teacher and a student, all too frequently a new assistant professor will find himself or herself buying into the student expectation (or hope) that the job of an adviser is to serve as an infallible, all-knowing oracle.






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Just great. Pete is a wise fellow who knows well to say what he wants to say. Edmond H Fischer. Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry Univ. of Washington, Seattle WA



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