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Ellyn R. Mulcahy, Kansas State University

Ellen Mulcahy.jpgMy philosophy of advising has evolved each year of working in academia. This year marks my fifteenth year of advising and teaching undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Over this time, I have moved from exclusively undergraduate advising to almost exclusively graduate advising. My mental process for developing an evolving philosophy is a strategy I utilize for many areas of my professional and personal life. I consider the advising that I have experienced, in addition to the advising I provide; I think about the advising practice I aspire to provide, and then I execute my plan.

My advising philosophy is to advise the student who is in front of me. This reads as a simple and short statement, but it is in that simplicity that lies the complexity of advising. I agree with Freitag (2015): it is not a fast or easy process and requires self-reflection. As explained by Freitag (2015), an advising philosophy is personal and belongs to oneself alone. This philosophy can include personal preferences, personal strengths, and one’s own view of how advising can be best practiced. In addition, this philosophy is a dynamic entity and not simply a static document that is formulated and written once and never again amended.

The purpose of a philosophy is clear to me and should be clear to my fellow advisors and advisees. The philosophy should be sufficiently structured to give a framework to the advising process, but fluid enough to allow encounters with new scenarios, new students, and new academic and curricular developments. It should be nimble enough to respond to an ever-changing world of higher education within the larger context of constant global change. This is rather ambitious, and can it even be possible? As with many facets of education, it is not necessarily the end result, but the pathway that is formative. The content of a philosophy of academic advising may be guided by the experience of the advisor, the academic home of the advisor, the requirements of the advising unit, and the needs of the advisees. These may, in combination, guide the development of the content, or one may be more influential than another. I believe that one of the most important roles and responsibilities of an advisor is to help students to identify and then realize their personal, academic, and career goals. I believe the advisee is also a partner and is responsible for the success of advising. Crookston affirms my belief that the advisee shares responsibility with the advisor for the success of the advising process (Crookston, 1994).

How does an advisor develop a philosophy of advising for graduate students? Graduate students are not simply older undergraduate students, and advising therefore is not merely advising adult learners or older students. As Preisman (2019) bluntly states, “it’s much more than what class comes next.” In a study of perceptions of their advisors, graduate students rated accessibility and knowledge as important features of their advising experience (Cross, 2018). In a second study of graduate student perceptions of their advisors, five themes emerged of the most helpful characteristics of an advisor, including a demonstrated care for their advisees, accessibility, being a role model in both professional and personal matters, the ability to provide individually tailored guidance, and proactive integration of students into their profession (Bloom et al., 2007). This echoes my personal experiences with my advisees, whereby they are seeking timely, definitive answers to sometimes not definitive questions.

What resources then should advisors provide to graduate student advisees and how do advisors plan for questions that are not yet asked? A comprehensive orientation is one of the most efficient and well-received resources. A successful orientation sets the stage for advisee and advisor expectations, provides resources that are needed right now and those that will be needed later, connects advisees to their peers and faculty (who may become secondary advisors), and initiates the all-important relationship with their primary and secondary advisors. As Almanazar et al. (2018) described, an orientation can be designed to ease the transition for students into their new role as graduate students.

Another essential advising service for graduate students comes in the form of connections to campus resources that will assist with their retention and success. As described by Vickio and Tack (1989), and Poison (1999), graduate students are a diverse population that need help and guidance to navigate their way through an often anxiety-causing and challenging chapter in their lives. Even though advisors should not assume to advise graduate students as another category of adult learners, it is important not to interpret graduate students as adults who may not need support (Vickio & Tack, 1989). This is where advising graduate students becomes challenging and, as explained by Selke and Wong (1993), is “a balancing act that frequently involves trial and error on the part of professors and students.”

How then do advisors provide timely resources, that are specific to individual student needs, while engaging them on a psychosocial level as adults? Advisors first acknowledge that graduate students are indeed adult learners, with responsibilities outside academia, and active personal and professional commitments. Advisors must understand that while graduate students understand academia, graduate study is new territory, and they will have questions requiring specific answers. Advisors must also acknowledge that their graduate degree is a vital step to a new career or a pathway to advancement in their current career. Therefore, advising takes on an individualized, tailored approach. Bloom et al. (2016) outlines strategies for graduate advisors to assist with this complex process, including setting clear expectations, regular progress meetings, and advocacy. These strategies are echoed by Powers and Wartalski (2021) in adult learner advising, whereby trust, communication, and programmatic documentation emerged as key themes to support adult learning.

As a scientist in an advising role, I look to the theoretical framework of advising to enhance my practice (Mulcahy, 2020; 2021). My philosophy of advising is most shaped by the theory of mattering and marginality developed by Nancy Schlossberg (1989) and self-authorship developed by Marcia Baxter Magolda (2010). These authors have influenced my view of advising as both theories discuss the support and development of the student as a person. The theory of mattering and marginality explains that the advisor supports the advisee to ensure that the advisee feels engaged, welcomed, and valued. The theoretical perspective of self-authorship describes how in the process of self-authorship, advisees become more self-reliant and less reliant on other people to define themselves. These theories both incorporate support of the person and development of the person outside of their identity as a student. I believe that an important part of my role as an advisor is to help prepare and guide students in their lives after their graduate studies and therefore these theories appeal to me. These theories support my advising philosophy, as they are based on the support of the student’s emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing. These theories help me guide and advise the student who is in sitting in my office, waiting in my inbox, calling, or teleconferencing—a student that needs my help.

Last, advising is a continuum. Academic advising delivery approaches that best fit the student should be learned and delivered. Approaches may work well for most students but may not work for other students. Therefore, it is important to understand and be able to implement a number of approaches for the student sitting right there in front of you.

Ellyn R. Mulcahy (she/her/hers)
Director, Master of Public Health Program
Associate Professor, Department of Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology
Kansas State University


Almanazar, R. R., Hapes, R., & Rowe, G. (2018, March). Strategies for a successful graduate student orientation program. Academic Advising Today, 41(1). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Strategies-for-a-Successful-Graduate-Student-Orientation-Program.aspx

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2010). The interweaving of epistemological, intrapersonal, and interpersonal development in the evolution of self-authorship. In M. B. Magolda, E. F. Creamer, & P. S. Meszaros (Eds.), Development and assessment of self-authorship (pp. 25—43). Stylus Publishing.

Bloom, J. L., Propst Cuevas, A. E., Hall, J. W., Evans, C. V. (2007). Graduate students' perceptions of outstanding graduate advisor characteristics. NACADA Journal, 27(2), 28–35. https://doi.org/10.12930/0271-9517-27.2.28

Bloom, J. L., Mulhern Halasz, H., & Hapes, R. (2016, June). Advising strategies for
graduate student degree progression. Academic Advising Today, 39(2). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Advising-Strategies-for-Graduate-Student-Degree-Progression.aspx

Crookston, B. B. (1994). A developmental view of academic advising as teaching. NACADA Journal, 14(2), 5–9. https://doi.org/10.12930/0271-9517-14.2.5

Cross, L. K. (2018). Graduate student perceptions of online advising. NACADA Journal, 38(2), 72–80. https://doi.org/10.12930/NACADA-17-015

Freitag, D. (2015). Voices from the field: Creating a personal philosophy of academic advising. In P. Folsom, F. Yoder, & J. E. Joslin (Eds.), The new advisor guidebook (pp. 91–94). Jossey-Bass.

Mulcahy, E. R. (2020, September). Timing is everything: Coronavirus and the chronosystem. Academic Advising Today, 43(3). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Timing-is-Everything-Coronavirus-and-the-Chronosystem.aspx   

Mulcahy, E. R. (2021, June). Vectors of competence and purpose: Transmission of knowledge to prepare for an uncertain present and future. Academic Advising Today, 44(2). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Vectors-of-Competence-and-Purpose-Transmission-of-Knowledge-to-Prepare-for-an-Uncertain-Present-and-Future.aspx

Poison, C. J. (1999). Programming for successful retention of graduate students. NACADA Journal, 19(2), 28–33. https://doi.org/10.12930/0271-9517-19.2.28

Powers, N., & Wartalski, R. (2021). The academic advising experiences of adult learners: Preliminary findings from one department [Paper presentation. American Association for Adult and Continuing Education Conference, online. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED611624.pdf

Preisman, K. A. (2019, December). Online graduate advising: It’s much more than what class comes next. Academic Advising Today, 42(4). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Online-Graduate-Advising-Its-Much-More-than-What-Class-Comes-Next.aspx

Schlossberg, N. K. (1989). Marginality and mattering: Key issues in building community. In New directions for student services. (pp. 50–15). Jossey-Bass.

Selke, M. J., & Wong, T.D. (1993). The mentoring-empowered model: Professional role functions in graduate student advisement. NACADA Journal, 13(2), 21–26. https://doi.org/10.12930/0271-9517-13.2.21

Vickio, C. J., & Tack, M. W. (1989). Orientation programming for graduate students: An institutional imperative. NACADA Journal, 9(2), 37–42. https://doi.org/10.12930/0271-9517-9.2.37

Cite this article using APA style as: Mulcahy, E.R. (2022, March). Developing a philosophy of advising graduate students. Academic Advising Today, 45(1). [insert url here]

Posted in: 2022 March 45:1


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