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Advising Students to be More Entrepreneurial: How the Role of the Adviser is Changing

December 7, 2011

A recent article on The Chronicle of Education website got me thinking again: What are the best ways to advise your students?

Too often, as the article argues, professors look to create someone like themselves – a tenured, research-driven professor who arrived at that place by following the tried and true path of their predecessors. The only problem: Higher Education isn’t the same as it was thirty, or even fifteen, years ago.

Tenured positions are dwindling in the face of cutbacks and ‘efficiencies’, few stay at one institution for the majority of their career, the role of the professor and academic is being re-defined. So, how best to advise your students about the changing landscape?

Perhaps the best way to prepare them for life within the academic box is to get them to look outside the box. The above article is written for graduate students and argues that they need to:

  1. Propose, and participate in, unorthodox partnerships.
  2. Seek more technical training.
  3. Look beyond the semester system.
  4. Know how to appeal to different audiences.
  5. Be willing to enter into or create opportunities outside of academe.

While I am largely uncomfortable with the increased movement towards the technical/professionalization/entrepreneurial aspects of education as part of a larger corporatization of the university as a whole, there are some important points to be remembered here for students and their faculty advisers.

Knowledge is meant to go to work. Often the knock against the academy is that it exists for its own sake, i.e. Those who can’t do, teach. Knowledge is meant to be put to work and often that work is meant to happen outside of the university. As advisers, it is important to instill this in your students and push them to find the locations where their work can be most active. This might not be in a tenure track position…

Academic work is good for something beyond academia. The key for advisers and students is to recognize which skills are being learned within the academy and graduate education and, then, the connections between these and the skills employers are desiring outside the academy. As advisers, when you have students engage in research projects with you – how can you also foster teamwork skills, leadership qualities, communication techniques, etc… that transcend the project or even the university? A graduate education is about more than essay writing and taking notes, so how can we foster this recognition in our students?

Collaboration is important. Too often graduate students stick to their tight knit circle of peers, supervisors and close colleagues. Expanded networking is important, collaboration creates new challenges to conquer, and seeing new methods and ways of doing familiar tasks pushes students to expand their learning styles. The role of supervisors is to both challenge students to seek out new opportunities and to support them in this process; it’s part of the learning experience.

The role of the academic is changing and, with that, the role of the supervisor is changing. Perhaps it is no longer enough for supervisors to co-author a paper with a lucky graduate student or ensure that they have some research experience before they graduate. These experiences were part of the larger goal that, though changed, still remains: How best to prepare our students for life after graduate school?

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