Advising: Expectations and Philosophy

[The following text is an adaptation of Anne M. Hunter's article "The Undergraduate and the Academic Advising System: What is Realistic to Expect from your Academic Advisor?" (MIT: 1996)]

| Meeting your advisor | What NOT to expect | Availability | What to talk about | Knowledge of administrative procedures | Why the advisor is important |

Step 1: Meet your advisor

To begin with, it is helpful if the advisor has a chance to meet with you outside of the rush of last minute deadlines and other distractions. It is up to you to initiate the first contact by calling or emailing your advisor to set up a time to meet. We also recommend that you determine the name and office number of the administrative staff person who supports your advisor in case you need further assistance locating or getting in touch with your advisor. Dropping in on an advisor between classes is perhaps the least effective way to establish a good advising relationship. So pick a time that works for both of you and plan to talk about the academic issues that are foremost on your agenda.


What NOT to expect!

Your advisor is not the oracle of all wisdom. Be clear about what it is that you are asking your advisor and be prepared to discuss options that you have already formulated and thought through. If you don't get the answers you are looking for from your advisor, you may not be asking the right person.

Students who expect their advisors to become close personal friends are often disappointed when that doesn't happen. In general, advisors are limited to discussing academic issues. While other issues may come up in discussion, advisors may not always be willing or able to respond effectively. When in doubt, just ask.

Other students become frustrated with the advising process and attempt to by-pass it altogether. "I just need my advisor to sign my form." This a risky approach that can go wrong in any number of ways. Whether it is a belated need for an advisor's recommendation on a graduate school application, or the endorsement of a simple petition, circumstances have a way of reframing the importance of the advising relationship. "Virtual" advising is no substitute for the real thing, so don't expect much from a system that you failed to use properly.



The student should expect the advisor to be available by appointment, during the regular term. The student should NOT expect to be able to drop by at random times and find the advisor in and willing to be interrupted. The advisor's secretary is usually the person to see to set up an appointment. If there is no secretary or the secretary does not keep the advisor's schedule, the student should learn from the advisor when office hours are held or when the advisor can be reached to make an appointment. Advisors will be out of town from time to time, even on Add and Drop Dates. While we encourage advisors to be available at such times, students should never assume that their advisor will be in. Always make an appointment about a week ahead of time. Students should not be overly upset at being "stood up" occasionally. Professors really can be absent-minded, and plans do change. Keep making appointments. In our experience, students are prime offenders in this regard, no-showing or being very late as much as a third of the time. Try not to forget your appointments.

All advisors are very busy. In addition to teaching, they have many other demands on their time: meetings, research deadlines, travel commitments, proposals and reports to write, etc. However advising is an important part of their job, and one they should take seriously. Some of our very best advisors are our very busiest. What is important is not how busy an advisor is, but what priority he or she gives to students. Occasionally an advisor will be out of town, or too busy to see advisees. But an advisor should make time, usually within a week, to see an advisee.

Students should not expect their advisors to take all the initiative. Advisors will not usually contact students just to see how their term is going. Students are actually much harder to reach than faculty. Fellow students don't take messages reliably, and mail often goes astray. Students often don't realize how hard they are to track down. At the beginning of the relationship, it is an excellent idea for the students to make a special effort to reach out to their advisors, making an appointment or two to ask questions about the advisor's research area, the Department's major research areas, and the theory behind the major requirements, etc. Your advisor is a better person to ask about these sorts of things than your fellow students or even graduate students. If you get to know your advisor well at the beginning, there is more of a chance to start an excellent advising relationship. It would be nice if advisors would make the effort themselves, but most of them need to be encouraged. The student should take responsibility for initiating contact, and feel brave enough to be persistent.


Sample Conversation Starters

Here are some examples of questions that might help you to break the ice and get into a conversation with your new advisor. Don't be embarrassed to sound like you don't know it all. Go ahead and ask lots of questions.

  • I've heard of all these "areas", or "sections" of the department. Can you explain the department's structure to me? How do these areas work and when are they important?
  • It's clear to me why I have to take "Intro to X" and "Advanced X" and "X Lab", but why does department X also require all these other subjects, some of which aren't even in department X, and have nothing to do with X, so far as I can see? What's the rationale behind the department's undergraduate program?
  • Where did you attend college?...What was it like then? How has it changed?...What was your college like? How is it different from this school?
  • I'm interested in computer theory, but I've heard that you need a Ph.D. to get a neat job. Is that true? Are there other, maybe related, areas where you can do nifty things with a Bachelor's? Could you tell me about them, and who to go talk to for finding a [project] in one of these areas?
  • What courses do you teach? Do you like teaching undergraduates or graduate students best? What kind of research are you doing? What is it really like doing that? Do you work alone, or with a group?


Administrative Procedures

While advisors are encouraged to be familiar with department and college administrative procedures, many of them are extremely impatient with bureaucracy and paperwork, a failing with which most students should sympathize. Advisors should be able to point students in a reasonable direction to find out about policies and procedures, but students should expect to do their own legwork. Similarly, advisors are not ultimately responsible for saving students from administrative disaster. Don't expect your advisor to warn you about every possible pitfall. Read all the guides to policies and procedures published by your department very carefully, and keep them handy. Each student must take responsibility for his or her own paperwork. Don't expect your advisor to save you, or blame him or her for failing to notify you about some petition or form you need to file. You, not your advisor, are responsible.

Students often expect to be able to drop off petitions, forms and Add/Drop [forms] with the advisor or his or her secretary, and assume that the advisor will sign them and see that they are sent on to the appropriate office. This is asking for disaster. Always check back to see that the advisor signed your form, and take charge of getting forms where they belong. Otherwise papers will be mislaid and forgotten, or sent to the wrong place.


How Important is the Academic Advisor? Why?

Almost as many students underestimate the importance of the advisor as expect too much. This leads them to ignore their advisor, to assume that their advisor is just for signing forms. They take no initiative to see their advisor, and may see them for as little as five minutes a term. Your advisor can make your time in the department easier, and help you get into graduate school, get jobs, etc.

  1. Your advisor is your primary resource, your best "entree" into the department, the best person to explain to you the Department's structure, and the best person to help you solve serious problem, and refer you to other faculty for projects, etc.
  2. In the event of academic disaster, your advisor is the person who recommends what action (e.g. [college] Warning, Department Warning, or Required Withdrawal) should be taken. While college officials may not follow the advisor's recommendation, they will listen and consider it seriously. Advisors are naturally more enthusiastic about "defending" a student whom they know well, in whom they have invested some interest, and whose problems they know about. Therefore you should keep your advisor informed about any major problems you have during a term, such as illness, family difficulties, etc. If you are doing poorly, talk to your advisor about your situation early and often. If you end up having done badly don't wait for communication from your advisor, the Department, or the [college]; get in touch with your advisor as fast as you can and discuss your grades thoroughly. If you've already left the area, call or write. Advisors really want to know what happened so that they can represent you at the meetings knowledgeably. If you've established a good advisor relationship, this will come a lot more naturally.
  3. Letters of Recommendation. To apply to various will need a letter of recommendation from your advisor...If you start out right away really making an effort to get to know your advisor, giving the advisor a chance to find out what kind of person you are, the letter will be more personal and helpful. You will need recommendations later, for graduate schools and jobs. If your advisor can only comment on your academic record, the letter does little but rehash your grade report. This won't be a very positive comment on your personality, which, since it includes important factors like drive, persistence, creativity, etc., is crucial to things like graduate school admissions and jobs.