Lydia Cross, Georgia Southern University
Editor’s Note: The Advising Graduate & Professional Students Commission meeting will take place this year at Annual Conference in Las Vegas on Monday, October 5th at 3:15 p.m. Check the Annual Conference schedule for location if you would like to attend.
Traditionally, graduate students have been advised by faculty within their academic programs. As faculty demands increase in other areas, there has been a shift at some institutions from faculty to professional academic advisors, mostly in master’s degree and professional programs. Unlike the undergraduate level, which has had time for considerable focus on resources, advisor practices, and specific outcomes for professional academic advisors, the shift to professional academic advisors on the graduate level remains small and difficult to track due to the inconsistency in institution and program types. Within this shift, there is a small group of professional graduate academic advisors who meet yearly at NACADA’s annual conference. This has been the only formal outlet to share ideas and best practices and takes place through peer presentations and informal conversations. This is an area in need of attention and research to better train, prepare, and provide resources to assist graduate student professional academic advisors who come from staff positions other than faculty.
The majority of scholarly research on graduate student advisement has been on the faculty-student relationship, with a focus on career and research mentoring (Bloom, Propst Cueva, Hall, & Evans, 2007; Selke & Wong, 1993). With both the proliferation of online graduate programs and the incorporation of more full-time professional staff for campus-based graduate programs, there has been a slight uptick in the numbers of professional staff as graduate student advisors, but there has been little to no research on best practices offered for these professional academic advisors. Until more research is done, professional academic advisors of graduate students must extrapolate and draw from current research and best practices in graduate advisement and modify where appropriate. These factors and characteristics from research on the traditional faculty-graduate student advising relationship can help professional academic advisors forge meaningful relationships with their students and provide legitimacy to their role as professional academic graduate advisors. Some of these ideas are described below with a commentary of personal experiences as a professional graduate advisor. This is not meant to be an exhaustive review of the research, but to provide a starting point to have conversations about the role of graduate professional academic advisors.
Successful Graduate Advisor Characteristics
As seen in the study by Bloom, et al. (2007), an outstanding graduate advisor cares for students and their successes and is accessible. Selke and Wong (1993) highlight maintaining regular contact with graduate advisees. These are universal characteristics that any advisor, professional or faculty, undergraduate or graduate, can exhibit to create a successful advising relationship.
While the context from the Bloom et al. (2007) study was of faculty advisors, professional academic advisors can show concern for successes by advocating for their student, ensuring benchmarks in programs of study are recognized and celebrated, and creating a relationship with the student outside of simply relaying academic information and processes. A professional academic advisor can relate to a graduate student personally and professionally by inquiring about the student’s goals, family, and personal interests. While the career and research mentoring relationship may not be there, especially if the professional advisor comes from a different discipline, the advisor can build a successful working relationship with the graduate student. In many situations, a professional advisor can assist graduate student connections to the faculty as professional academic advisors have daily workings with faculty in their schools or colleges. Partnerships are critical between professional staff and faculty as these partnerships can provide a more robust advising experience for students.
Accessibility and availability can be easily achieved by professional academic advisors and in many cases, are a primary benefit of having a professional graduate academic advisor model. As professional academic advisors tend to be 12 month staff positions, accessibility is inherent in the job description. Professional academic advisors are generally available between semesters and are able to respond to most advisee needs relatively quickly. With increasing numbers of graduate students completing programs and courses through distance education, many of the issues students encounter are related to technology. In these situations, professional academic advisors have the opportunity to learn the systems and offer quick guidance to students struggling with the administrative aspects of enrolling and taking courses. Embedded within accessibility is the concept of maintaining regular contact with advisees. It is essential, especially as mentioned with distance education graduate students, to maintain regular contact with graduate students. Professional academic advisors can excel in this area by using student information systems and advisement tracking models to track progression.
Personal Experiences as a Graduate Student Professional Academic Advisor
As with most experiences related to graduate education, my own experience as a graduate academic advisor is not meant to be a generalizable experience. This narrative is simply meant to begin the discussion on professional staff as graduate academic advisors and share the knowledge I have accumulated in the last four years. The students I advise are from the same discipline I received my master’s degree in, so I can relate to many of their experiences, understand the vernacular of the field, and have seen many of the issues they and their teachers face.
The benefits I have noticed as a professional advisor of graduate students include having the time to learn about my advisees and being generally aware of what life events are happening for them. I am accessible, to a fault at times. I regularly respond to emails and issues on the weekends, after hours, and during school breaks. By the nature of my 40 hour work week, I can easily find someone in another office that the student needs to reach for an issue (financial aid, registration, etc.). A challenge I face as a professional graduate academic advisor is that I have not gone through the same program of study as my advisees and my knowledge of some of their courses and expectations are limited to what I know of each instructor’s syllabus. An additional challenge is not having the extensive access to networking and resources related to advising: when meeting at NACADA, there are no more than 20-30 graduate advisors who attend sessions or the general meeting to discuss ideas and share best practices.
Gaps in the Research and Conclusion
As discussed above, there are significant gaps in the research on the best practices, advisement models, and effectiveness of professional academic advisors for graduate students. There also has been no systemic examination of what types of institutions or programs have moved to a professional academic advisor model. For now, it is necessary to extrapolate factors and characteristics from prior studies on the faculty-graduate student relationship, but the professional advisor-graduate student relationship needs to be explored more fully to ensure effective advising will take place. As more graduate and professional programs begin to rely on professional advisors and program directors to work daily with and advise graduate students, there needs to be research and resources to draw upon. My sincere hope is that this article gets the conversation started among graduate student academic advisors to build the networks and resources necessary. This is an exciting challenge and one I hope professional academic advisors of graduate students will take on.
College of Education
Georgia Southern University
Bloom, J., Cuevas, A., Hall, J., & Evans, C. (2007). Graduate students’ perceptions of outstanding graduate advisor characteristics. NACADA Journal, 27(2), 28-35.
Selke, M., & Wong, T. (1993). The mentoring-empowered model: Professional role functions in graduate student advisement. NACADA Journal, (13)2, pp. 21-26.
Cite this article using APA style as: Cross, L. (2015, September). Professional staff as graduate student academic advisors. Academic Advising Today, 38(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]