February 2012

Stranger in a strange land

A realistic job description
The key to being an effective and satisfied undergraduate adviser is to develop a realistic set of expectations. According to the Second College Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, “advise” means:

  1. 1. to offer advice to
  2. 2. to recommend; suggest
  3. 3. to inform; notify.

I would suggest that a faculty member’s responsibility as an undergraduate adviser is to assist students in making informed decisions on academic matters. Although you will quickly acquire a surprising spectrum of relevant information, your job is to assist students in getting answers and making decisions – not to be the source of all answers and decisions.

Perhaps the most important aspect of being an undergraduate adviser is to serve as an interface between the student and the university bureaucracy, a user-friendly guide for identifying where the student can get the information needed. Don’t know where to send the student? Call a colleague for advice. A second important role is to serve as a mature sounding board regarding expectations. Often, struggling students will attempt to raise their grade point averages by taking course overloads. Now is the time when someone needs to ask how the student will get better grades while taking on more work. A third role is to try and identify potentially serious errors. For example, at most universities a delay in taking organic chemistry will set back a BMB student’s entire program of study, given that this course is a prerequisite for many required courses.

Students may turn to you for advice regarding career options, potential graduate schools, etc. These are all areas that you are well qualified to discuss. The same cannot be said regarding emotional or psychological issues. Always remember that when a student begins talking about personal problems, you are hearing only one side of the story. Resist the urge to jump to conclusions. If you suspect that a student is experiencing emotional or psychological difficulties, contact the counseling office for advice on how to proceed.

Ideally, your institution offers training workshops to help prepare you for this important task as well as an experienced mentor to serve as a source of information and advice. If not, recruit your own mentor from the senior faculty. If your department has some sort of undergraduate coordinator, he or she generally will be more than happy to help. The chairperson of the curriculum committee also likely keeps well-informed about issues of importance to undergraduate BMB majors. If you aren’t sure how to proceed, ask the department head or chairperson to help link you with a suitable mentor.

EPD_signBeware of your good intentions
A parent calls you up and asks how his or her son or daughter, one of your advisees, is doing. Your first instinct is to check the student’s records and tell the caller the student’s current GPA and the courses he or she is taking this particular semester and perhaps segue into a discussion of the student’s strengths, weaknesses, work habits, etc. Before you say a word, however, determine whether the student has given you permission, generally in the form of a signed document, to disclose this information. Faculty advisers are bound by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and relevant university policies. Although the parent may be paying for a son’s or daughter’s education, these contributions do not supersede the rights of the student. Nor does it matter if the caller is the editor of the hometown newspaper who wants to run a flattering story about a local young person or a friend or relation claiming an emergency: You have no discretion in this matter.

Should the caller be dissatisfied with your response, refer him or her to the university attorney’s office for an authoritative explanation. As in all aspects of advising, take full advantage of the experience and expertise available on campus to promote the most constructive outcome possible.

Peter-KennellyPeter J. Kennelly (pjkennel@vt.edu) is a professor and head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Tech and serves as chairman of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee.


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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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