Authors: Kathryn N. Gallien & Allison Ewing-Cooper
Academic advisors help students achieve their goals and earn their degrees, but what do we know about advisors’ own achievements and degrees? Some studies have explored how advisors feel about their jobs (e.g., Aiken-Wisniewski et al., 2015), but few studies have explored who academic advisors are. Since advisors work in higher education, one important aspect of their professional identities is their educational background. Results from the National Survey of Academic Advising found that 43.3% of respondents reported that a bachelor’s degree was the minimum credential required for an advisor. Another 40.6% of respondents reported that their institutions required advisors to hold a master’s degree (Carlstrom & Miller, 2013). The same survey found that 65% of respondents reported that a master’s degree was the most common degree for academic advisors at their institution, 17.6% reported it was a bachelor’s degree, and 2.5% reported that the most common degree was a doctorate (Carlstrom & Miller, 2013). While these survey results provided a useful foundation for understanding the educational backgrounds of academic advisors across the United States, they did not ask respondents specifically about their education or how their education shaped their work as advisors. We, the authors, created a survey to explore the professional experiences and activities of academic advisors with advanced degrees. The IRB-approved survey asked questions about advisors’ educational backgrounds, including types of degrees and majors, the academic activities they participate in (teaching and research), the advantages and drawbacks to having an advanced degree, and how they think their degrees impact their advising.
An email invitation to complete the survey was mailed with NACADA permission to the 10,247 NACADA listserv recipients. Five hundred fifteen respondents confirmed that their primary job duty was academic advising or advising administration. Of those participants, 426 had master’s degrees (82.7%) and 73 had doctorates (14.2%). The rest of the results will pertain to the 430 advisors with advanced degrees who completed the entire survey. The majority (66.2%) started their highest degree before they worked as an academic advisor.
The three most common advanced degree categories were: higher education (including higher education administration, adult education, college personnel, and academic advising) at 35%, education (including secondary, primary, and leadership) at 21.4%, and counseling (including mental and school) at 12.6%. Although education and counseling were very popular majors, 31% of advanced degrees were in non-education or counseling fields, including 14 degrees in business administration; 13 in English or literature; four in history; three in civil engineering, music, and biology; and two in entomology.
Participants, in general, had significant advising experience, with 38.8% advising for 10 or more years and 63.9% advising for six or more years. Additionally, 25.1% of participants had advised for a major in which they earned an advanced degree. When looking at participants with doctorates, almost half (46.6%) had advised for a major in which they earned an advanced degree.
Advisors reported being very active in teaching, with 69.3% having taught a college or university class as part of their advising job. Of those advisors who had taught, 85% taught a first year or success class, 21.5% taught a general education class, and 20.5% taught a major class. Participants were also very engaged in scholarship with 67% participating in research, conference presentations, or publications. The most common activity was presenting at a professional conference (54.4%), followed by 33% engaging in research, 20.5% submitting a scholarly work for publication, 20% submitting an IRB application, and 12.8% publishing. Of advisors with doctorates, 91.7% reported engaging in scholarly activities while working as academic advisors.
Participants also reported on how their advanced degrees influenced their advising. The vast majority (95.3%) reported that their degrees contributed to their knowledge of higher education and allowed them to develop skills and practices that facilitate student success. Most advisors, for example, reported that their degrees strengthened their problem solving and critical thinking (92.3%) and taught them about perseverance (75%). One advisor wrote, “I am very well acquainted with how academia functions. . . . It gives me the ability to explain to students why professors/instructors ask for what they do. Students benefit from my knowledge of the system of academics as does the university.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, advisors with advanced degrees reported that their degrees strengthened their knowledge of graduate school (78.1%). They reported being better equipped to help undergraduate students plan for graduate school and discuss the application process. Additionally, their own experiences with challenging aspects of graduate school, such as juggling work and the rigor of graduate classes, building relationships with faculty, and writing a thesis, also informed their conversations with prospective graduate students. One participant wrote, “Since I have gone through advanced study, I can better talk to students about the process.” They also reported that graduate work allowed them to hone general academic and life skills, such as critical thinking and communication. One advisor wrote, “Having an advanced degree means I am good at organization, time management and problem solving.”
The survey also asked participants if they experienced any disadvantages or drawbacks to being an academic advisor with any advanced degree. The question was open-ended, and respondents had the option of skipping the question. We coded responses using Saldaña’s (2016) method of theming qualitative data. Two-thirds of respondents identified drawbacks of holding advanced degrees.
Forty percent indicated that pay was too low. “Pay, pay, pay” was the common cry. First, many noted that they were not paid enough to compensate for the debt they incurred during their graduate programs. Although some indicated that they had obtained a master’s degree because it was the minimum education requirement for the position, others wrote that their degree was not necessary for their position and was not valued within their institution. While many derived personal satisfaction from their degrees, many indicated they had no financial benefit. “Pay isn't enough to justify the graduate degree,” wrote one respondent.
Second, many noted that they could be making more money in a different field. "Despite requiring master's degrees for advisor positions, the institution does not pay competitively based on knowledge and experience.” Another lamented, “Making no money. Knowing that my strengths and education would be better compensated elsewhere.”
Third, salaries for advisors with advanced degrees do not differ significantly, or at all, from advisors with less education. One participant commented, “There is no financial compensation for having completed advanced degrees; I could hold this job with just a bachelor's degree.” Finally, 10% of respondents mentioned a lack of career growth opportunities in advising and revealed some advisors’ desires for greater responsibility and autonomy in their jobs. They wrote about feeling stuck in their positions, having few to no opportunities for advancement within advising, and seeing no clear paths into higher positions. “At some point in higher education, especially advising, you reach the ceiling,” wrote one advisor. “Most people in education argue that with higher degrees, a person should continue to rise in position level instead of remaining in advising.” Another reflected, “There seems to be a lack of a career ladder in academic advising, at least in my institution, so at times it feels like the degree was not worth the cost.”
On the other hand, 34% experienced no drawbacks in holding an advanced degree. A quarter (26%) indicated explicitly that they could identify no disadvantages, and another 7% left the answer blank. Some exclaimed with enthusiasm that they saw no drawbacks—“I have no regrets with earning an advanced degree.” Others indicated once again that they felt advanced degrees enhanced their performance as advisors.
Others reflected on the less tangible benefits of higher degrees: “Prestige, confidence, and credibility,” as one participant succinctly summarized. One advisor commented, “I think my students and my university trust me to provide the informed guidance and appropriate information, at least in part because of my degree.” Another wrote, “As a researcher, I bring acknowledgement to my university each time I publish.”
In contrast to advisors who saw no concrete career benefits from their advanced degrees, other participants contended that their degrees enabled them to grow professionally and take on roles beyond advising, including teaching and serving on university committees. One advisor explained how their advanced degree directly helped them with career advancement: “My PhD gave me the opportunity to assume progressively more responsible roles, all of which have involved academic advising, at seven different campuses.”
Participants’ responses to this survey raise essential questions about the value of advanced degrees to advisors’ job performance, satisfaction, and career trajectories. The results of the survey indicate that advisors with advanced degrees have made long careers that combine academic advising with core functions of higher education including scholarly production and teaching. The survey revealed that advisors hold mixed feelings about the value of their degrees to their careers. While many respondents identified low pay and a lack of clear paths for professional advancement as primary drawbacks to advising, others indicated that their degrees opened opportunities for greater responsibility, complexity, and intellectual stimulation.
The experiences of academic advisors with advanced degrees illuminate ways that institutions of higher learning could improve advisor satisfaction and strengthen universities. First, create clear pathways for advancement and compensation that place value on advanced degrees. Second, include raises for educational attainment within careers ladders. Finally, integrate scholarly and academic service activities into core job functions for advisors with advanced degrees. Benefits to this approach include creating criteria for advancement that do not include supervising and elevating the role of academic advisors by integrating administrative and scholarly functions. Academic advisors with advanced degrees enrich not only students’ lives, but also strengthen their colleges and universities with their critical thinking, problem solving, and knowledge of academia.
Kathryn N. Gallien
Academic Advisor II
College of Social & Behavioral Sciences
University of Arizona
Director of Academic Advising and Student Success
College of Social & Behavioral Sciences
University of Arizona
Aiken-Wisniewski, S. A., Johnson, A., Larson, J., & Barkemeyer, J. (2015). A preliminary report of advisor perceptions of advising and of a profession. NACADA Journal, 35(2), 60–70.
Carlstrom, A. H., & Miller, M. A. (Eds.). (2013). 2011 NACADA national survey of academic advising (Monograph No. 25). NACADA: National Academic Advising Association. https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/2011-NACADA-National-Survey.aspx
Saldaña, J. (2016). The coding manual for qualitative researchers. Sage.