Stranger in a strange land

A primer on advising undergraduates
Peter Kennelly
Feb. 1, 2012

Most 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_mousetrapAvoid 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.

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. to offer advice to
  2. to recommend; suggest
  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.

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Peter Kennelly

Peter Kennelly is a professor of biochemistry at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

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