Thursday, June 27, 2013

Academic Advising as a Post-Ac or Alt-Ac Career: Info and Advice

This post originally appeared on my personal blog, Mama Nervosa.

It’s been awhile since I rapped at ya about alt-ac life and my work as an academic advisor. Last year, when I started my position as an undergraduate advisor at an R1 school, I wrote extensively about what it was like, how it felt, etc etc. I haven’t written about it since then because, well, it’s work, and eventually it stops being that novel and compelling and just becomes your day job. Nevertheless, I get regular queries from friends and readers who want to know what the work is like and how it’s going, so I wanted to give you an update at just under 1 year of work as an advisor. Obviously, this reflects my personal experience and doesn't speak for all advisors in every context (although a colleague in my office with 20 years' experience read this and said it was pretty representative of our gig, at our school). YMMV.


What is Advising Like? Who Is Cut Out For It?

Overall, I like advising. I work with students almost all day, every day, and feel satisfied that I make a difference in their college experience. Although the relationships aren’t as in depth as teaching, I do get to know my 200-odd students well. If you enjoy teaching at the college level, and like freshmen and their quirks and personal issues, then you’ll probably like advising.

Advising keeps me on my toes. There’s always something new happening, and the way advising is set up at my U means that I work with students across a variety of disciplines, which is cool. If you are behind the whole liberal arts mission and enjoy hearing about and learning about stuff happening in different departments, you’ll probably like advising. On the other hand, if you like a lot of consistency, advising can be challenging. Rules, requirements, and policy change all the time. Just when you get something figured out, it will change on you.

Advising can be stressful, but there is really no such thing as an academic emergency. I think that people who can avoid taking on their students problems, emotions, or decisions will find advising less stressful than people who will fret over a student’s schedule or whatever. I can lament a student’s choice or look at something and say “uh oh,” but at the end of the day all I can do is what my job title says: advise. The rest is on the student.

A lot of advising stress comes from the feast-or-famine intensity of it. Some weeks, we are working very hard from the minute we hit the door to the minute we leave. We’re dealing with last minute crises, making phone calls, seeing a dozen students. The next month, we may see two or three students total. We may have nothing on our calendar, and few responsibilities, meetings, or tasks. It’s extremes with few periods of regularity. I kind of enjoy that, because I know the intense periods end, and I don't struggle to find something to do during down time, although I often struggle with boredom. But for some people, the unpredictability is really challenging.

The things I enjoy least about my job are things most people don’t enjoy about jobs. Being here for 40 hours can be a drag, especially if I’ve wrapped up my work early. Meetings are… meetings :) . Sometimes productive, sometimes frustrating. Advising focuses quite a lot on broad, institution-wide, bureaucratic stuff. There’s a TON of policy and procedure talk. We can be at the mercy of administration at times. This is higher ed, after all!

I tell you what, though, I love getting paid. I enjoy my weekends and evenings free from grading, prepping, or student emails. I like coming to work, having a special place where I do my work, and then leaving it all behind when I depart at the end of the day. I like the social nature of the work, and have great colleagues. I think there’s far too much ignorant poo-pooing of working life among grad students. Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

My situation is unique to my school, its advising structure, and the (frankly) amazing group of people I work with. And to me and my preferences. I never got super hung up on research or fell deeply in love with my discipline in grad school. I like students, and I can get into just about anything. Every school has a different way of doing advising, but in my opinion, it’s a great career option for teaching-oriented grad students. I hope someday I can get back into teaching, but in general, this is a good place to land if you care about students and like academics.

So how can you get into advising?

As always, your mileage may vary, caveat, etc etc. But here’s what I think:

Work closely with college freshmen. TA, tutor, etc. Teaching experience at the college level is a huge factor in the hiring done at my center. Work with different populations of students — high achieving, low achieving, first gen, transfer, international, whatever. You’ll need lots of stories and strategies to work with different students towards their goals.

Do some research about the school you’re applying to so you can speak to their specific population, resources, challenges, etc. Being knowledgeable about the school makes you stand out. A metropolitan campus with a largely commuter population will have very different issues in advising than a flagship state school in an agricultural town in the middle of nowhere. If you have time, do some light research in advising websites and journals about advising any special groups that that school serves (NACADA is the place to start). Does this school have a large Native American population? Learn a little about advising them. Is the position for a special subset of student, such as Honors? Learn about it. If you have institutional access, you should be able to read journals and such. But don't get carried away -- this isn't grad school!

Learn about the advising structure of that school beforehand if possible. Is it a large center or small? Will you be in a department, or an office that acts only as an advising center? Is advising mandatory or optional? Will you work with one major or multiple? This is good in terms of preparing for an interview, but also in terms of understanding if you want this gig. I work at a large advising center that serves mostly first- and second-year students, and advising is mandatory. I like this setup because I don’t have to deal with faculty meetings and my students are compelled to come sit in my office, which is better for both of us.

Look at the backgrounds of advisors at that school, if possible. It seems that some schools are very open to, or even actively seek, former academics to staff their advising. Other schools may lean more heavily towards people with backgrounds in higher ed admin or student services. This may help you suss out your likelihood as a candidate. Again, there is a huge variance across schools as to how advising is structured, staffed, and managed.

Lastly, think about what you can contribute as a colleague. This is kind of different from how grad students typically think of work life, because teaching and research are largely independent activities. But advising is often a team thing, and people will want to know what it will be like to work with you. If you can speak to experience team-teaching, collaborating, etc, that will probably be good. Sound competent and fun.

You may want to do an informational interview or ask to do some job shadowing at an advising center. Although I’ve never heard of that happening at my center, I can’t imagine we’d have a problem with it, although you may not get to sit in on student meetings due to privacy concerns. The more you can speak to the actual work of advising, versus the fantasy or hypothetical, the better your candidacy is. In my humble, novice, non-hiring committee opinion.

So there you have it: my final say on advising as an alt-ac career for quittas and post-PhD leavers. Feel free to ask questions!


  1. you know, this actually sounds like a great job. and it's one I hadn't considered before. my job tutoring dyslexic students sort of fell into my lap when I quit adjuncting because I'd been tutoring my son and people just started asking. I love it and it pays well, but as the years have gone by, I've gotten a little burnt out. and my kids have grown, so it's easier to think about having less flexible hours. anyway, thanks for giving me something to think about...(and glad you're enjoying it!)

  2. I have about 7 years experience teaching in higher ed and have been applying to a variety of advising and admissions jobs after quitting academia. Unfortunately, I have yet to receive even a phone interview. I'm passionate about helping students and know that it's the type of job I want to go in to, but I just can't understand how my experience is not translating in to getting a job yet. Any tips for how you wrote your cover letter, resume, and possibly how you connected your past experience to the advising job?


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