Managing Your Academic Adviser

Ann Forsyth's picture

It's the middle of summer and few people are thinking about the return to school. However, in the coming month or two new students will need to start interacting with their faculty adviser. The following tips can help make it a productive relationship. 

Know what advisers can and can't do. Typically advisers give advice about course options, warn you about potential academic pitfalls, and help you find resources (on campus, in the community, and in the profession).  If you interact with them enough, and in a positive way, they can also write letters of reference. For other issues they can refer you to specialists. For example, there are typically different staff members who actually monitor whether you have fulfilled degree requirements. If you have big financial, emotional, or personal issues an adviser can direct you to people who can help but faculty members typically aren't trained to help you themselves. Still, they can be an important first stop. 

The best way to introduce yourself, even with tech-savvy faculty, is to sign up for their office hours. This means they meet you in a slightly formal setting during time they have already allocated to student meetings. Have an agenda if only to explain your own plan for the next year of courses and how it fits into your larger future. You can also ask advice--how to get started on finding a summer internship, how to connecting with a student group on campus, or whether to go to a specific conference. I would typically advise against sending a long introductory email with a vita and work samples--advisers are busy.  

Understand how faculty members use social media. Social media include media where people interact socially at low cost-examples include blogs (particularly those using free software), social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, wikis, document management like Google Docs and Dropbox, multimedia sharing like Flikr and YouTube, shared product reviews like epinions, and entertainment like second life. Many faculty use such media--I use just about all of them--but in a strategic way. They may well steer clear of Facebook and even LinkedIn because of the potential of being swamped with requests to be "friends." Imagine that you'll need to be in touch through other means.  

Remember you are not their only charge but also meet with them at least once a semester. Faculty typically have multiple advisees--from a handful to dozens. Respect their time. However, I have had advisees who only came to see me when I pestered them or when they needed a signature. That kind of approach loses the opportunity for building a relationship that can lead to the writing good recommendations, passing along opportunities, or connecting you with alumni. I actually recommend meeting about two or three times per semester though one or two of those times can be a group advising session if it is available. If there is a particular problem to work through, or your adviser is also advising you on your thesis or final project that semester, you will likely need to meet more regularly. Even if their interests don't totally coincide with yours they can likely help you find people and groups that are a better match. 

It is fine to have an adviser who is not exactly in your area of interest but it is also fine to change advisers. Some universities give all incoming students to one or two faculty advisers--generally the degree program directors--to ensure consistent information for the first semester or the first year. They then transfer them to others. Other places spread them around and try to match interests. Some automatically change adviser when a student chooses an exit project or thesis committee. There is no hard and fast rule but if you do want to change advisers, and it isn't automatic, make sure you are polite and let the old adviser know. However, it may not be necessary. You can always sign up for office hours with faculty members whose classes you have taken and ask them for advice, leads, and feedback.

Finally, learn how to "manage up", fulfilling your goals while also respecting your adviser. It's a good lesson for the world of work.

This is June's blog a few days late. My various advice columns, except the most recent, are indexed at For a complete listing see I am about to start a series on big ideas in planning but welcome suggestions for more general advice entries. And by the way I love Kansas (!

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.


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