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An Important Tool for Advising at Research Institutions

Britt Andreatta, University of California, Santa Barbara

Britt Andreatta.jpgFor advisors at research universities, one important framework for advising students and their parents often goes unused, and that is the research mission of the institution. Advisors spend countless hours helping students understand requirements and policies, course selection, standards for academic performance, and counseling students through choices they have when facing a personal crisis. But we may overlook the one thing that makes all those other issues make sense… the mission of the research university.

The research university is a unique and academically rigorous learning environment. Every single aspect of the student’s experience (as well as the staff’s and faculty’s) is dictated by the research mission.  It is so ever present that it is invisible and rarely discussed, as it is taken for granted as common knowledge. Yet, when students and parents understand, it creates “the AHA! moment” that helps them make better choices about all aspects of their education.

In reality, the research mission is related to, or explains: the competitive admissions process, the student cohort, the academic rigor of courses, the types of majors and degrees offered, the theoretical content of classes, the holdings of the library, who the faculty are and how they are promoted, the quality of teaching, requirements for graduation, campus policies and procedures, and of course, how money is allocated in tough financial times.

There are some challenges with attending a research university, and students and/or their parents often seek an advisor when they experience these challenges. Advisors can address the concern by explaining the research mission and appropriate suggestions. For example:

  • It is more difficult for students to achieve top grades. What was “excellent” for freshmen and transfer students at their previous schools is now recalibrated to be “average,” as the admissions process is competitive. Students must work harder to earn good grades.
  • The student experiences poor teaching. Faculty are brilliant researchers but some are not great teachers. And because they are hired and promoted based on their research talent, there is no consistent system for training faculty on classroom skills like creating exams or giving lectures. As a result, students may need to utilize office hours and campus services to ensure their own learning successes.
  • At times, students may find their coursework difficult or boring with little connection to current society. New knowledge is often theoretical and/or statistical and the academic language of scholarly journals is objective and analytical.
  • Students experience a wide range of faculty expectations. Research faculty are given academic freedom, via tenure, and there is no standardization of how many pages of reading or writing they can assign, or even what content to teach in their courses. As a result, students need to adjust their study skills to each individual instructor.
  • Academic integrity is a critical value and students will experience serious consequences if they cheat or plagiarize. The search for new knowledge rests on the value of doing accurate work as well as giving appropriate credit to the work of others. Intellectual theft is not tolerated on any level.
  • Students are not necessarily trained for certain careers. Majors will prepare them to be good researchers and future academicians in a certain discipline, so students need to pick majors based on both interest and aptitude. Students will need to build their vocational skills outside of class through internships and jobs.
  • Student services often take the brunt of budget cuts. Because research is the primary function, every budget and staffing decision prioritizes it. This is felt most keenly in times of financial crisis when funding for faculty and research is protected while student services and staff are cut.

However, there are many benefits to attending a research university, and advisors can help students and parents make the most of this educational opportunity.

  • Students receive a “cutting edge” education that puts them years ahead of their peers at other institutions. The research mission charges faculty with the important task of creating new knowledge. It takes about five years before a new discovery appears in a textbook, but faculty often share this new knowledge with their students immediately.
  • Students take classes from the world’s foremost minds in their respective disciplines, thus “learning at the feet of the masters.” This gives students an advantage when applying to graduate schools.
  • Students are trained to be critical thinkers. Faculty constantly evaluate problems and solutions, question what we think of as “the truth,” and explore new ideas through valid and reliable research. Students will be trained in these same skills, making them discerning adults and citizens.
  • Many employers seek graduates from research universities because they realize those graduates possess two key qualities – the most recent information about a field, and more importantly, the skills to stay current on research for a lifetime.
  • Students can network with other intelligent peers. Most research universities are considered prestigious, and as a result, the competitive admissions process ensures a vibrant community of scholars.

Since faculty and their research are given priority, students, especially today’s more fragile generation of Millennials, need more help than ever to be successful in this environment. The reality is that while students can thrive at a research university, they are not the first priority of the faculty. This makes advisors integral to student success.

Advisors play a vital role in helping students understand this new environment, as well as make good choices. Whether that is to change their major because they are not well suited to a discipline, or to withdraw for a term because their parent is dying of cancer, advisors provide the support students need to navigate and succeed. That’s a big job – one for which we are not fairly compensated financially, but for which we are more than compensated in the knowledge that we make a real difference in the lives of bright young adults who are the nation’s future leaders.

The next time you work with a student or parent, take a few moments to explain what the research mission is and how it shapes the student’s experience. You will find this to be an important tool in your advising toolbox.

Advisors and students may find the following resources helpful:

Britt Andreatta
Office of First-Year, Graduate and Instructional Programs
University of California, Santa Barbara
[email protected]

Cite this article using APA style as: Andreatta, B. (2009, December). An important tool for advising at research institutions. Academic Advising Today, 32(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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