some of us are brave

Becoming An Advisor

If you have been keeping track, I’m now an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. I’m also a faculty associate at the Berkman Institute for Internet & Society. And, I’m a contributing editor at Dissent and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

It’s a lot. I love it all.

This post is about one aspect of one of those roles.

I want to be a good advisor.

Advising is one of the most critical roles in the academic endeavor. As a student I had great advisors. I also had horrible, destructive advising. If you want to talk about a spectrum, I had advisors who said to me “you’re a phenomenal sociologist and you can be better” and I had advisors who told me “drop out and get another line of work”. I’ve had it all.

I’m aiming for becoming “you’re a phenomenal” kind of advisor.

The VCU sociology department is a living, breathing space. In addition to several hundred undergraduate majors we also have a terminal masters of science program.

The graduate program is what I am currently thinking about.

As a graduate advisor I want to guide my advisees on their chosen professional paths. But, I’m not *just* an academic. I also study higher education as an institution. That means I know very well the reality of higher education employment. Competition for graduate school and tenure track jobs is stiff. And, academia is not the only acceptable outcome of graduate education. I am a huge proponent of alt-ac careers. But more than that I think a well-trained sociological thinker and methodologist is good for just about every field. I’d trade my soul for a few thousand sociologists in tech start-ups, for instance.

As a profession, we’re so bad at training academics to be advisors that an entire cottage industry has evolved to do the job we don’t do. The Professor is In is one of the most famous. But, a quick google search shows a host of thesis advisors, editors and career counselors for people in advanced degree programs.

No offense to the hustle, but I don’t want my students to ever need these things. Or, if they do decide to use them, I don’t want it to be out of desperation. I’m not going to put Karen Kelsky out of business but I hope I give her a run for her money in my little corner of the world. I am also keen on responding to my own analysis that graduate school is not a net negative for all groups of students. For those who need it, for those that benefit from it, and for those that want it I’d like to help them get where they want to go.

When I started thinking about what kind of advisor I want to be I thought about all of that. And I went looking for research on something few of us were trained to do: becoming a good advisor for the contemporary reality of work in the new economy. Here are a few that I am finding useful:

  • Michigan has a great document on being an advisor. It is geared towards dissertation advising. But, it also does a good job of acknowledging the labor reality.
  • Versatile PhD has made some of the aggressive forays into formal academic-type services for students who are planning a career outside of academia. It picks up on what the Michigan document advises (“know that not all of your students will get a tenure track job and prepare them for it”) with concrete tool and advice.
  • Zanna and Darley have a good chapter (pdf) on mentoring that tackles some of the nuts-and-bolts concerns of mentoring graduate students. Seriously, how many is too many? It also has a summary of the dominant modes of advising, because we love that kind of stuff. Most useful are the questions listed for testing a student’s research ideas to help them formulate a practical research plan.

For my part, I am working on a set of advising documents. These documents set up my expectations and student responsibilities.

These documents will also do something that I personally found critical to my own professional development. They hopefully de-mystify the hidden curriculum of graduate school. I was fortunate to have advisors that let me follow them around and write down everything they said. That isn’t feasible for everyone and not every student will know to tackle interactions with faculty as a learning process. That is especially true for students who come from some group we’d considered “unprivileged”, i.e first gen, working class, minority students. Basically, the students I’m especially committed to helping.

My advising documents set up a series of intermediate goals for degree progress. That’s pretty critical for students who don’t intuitively “get” graduate school. In my experience, academics are fond of sending students off with a vague goal like “find an area of research”. There are a lot of steps to doing that. You need to know how to identify the important literature, how to pin down who you’re talking to, how to operationalize a research questions that contributes to that conversation, and how to get that done in a set amount of time.

Right now my advisees are squarely in my wheelhouse. They’re studying race and higher education curriculum and media portrayals of racialized groups, to name a few. Some of my students will go on to PhD programs (many of our students do). Some of them will teach in community colleges. Others are interested in government work and some others are interested in non-profit work. In all these roles, disciplined systematic inquiry is a huge bonus. I take for granted that we’ll work on that but I don’t take for granted that every student will know how to work on that.

Eventually my advising portfolio will include theory construction, literature reviews, career planning and research design. For now, I’ve gotten as far as an advisement document that I share with interested students.

It’s week three, yo.


2 comments on “Becoming An Advisor

  1. katherinejlegry
    September 19, 2015

    Hands down, you are phenomenal. I knew that instantly. I don’t mind patting myself on the back for recognizing this about you. 🙂

    Go get ’em Ms.Tressie!

    ever your fan-reader student-wanna-be,

  2. Yvonne
    September 17, 2015

    Your current and future students are lucky to have you as an advisor. Higher education needs more academics who understand both the importance of developing students who can contribute to rigorous scholarly inquiry and who can advise, or at least support students, who choose to take that training outside of academia.

Talk back...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on September 16, 2015 by in Uncategorized and tagged , .
%d bloggers like this: