First Time Grad Advisor: What I Wish I had Been Told as a Grad

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This series will explore what I wish I had known about advising and supervising students, staff and volunteers. The first in the series will be about being a first time grad advisor and supervisor.

First time graduate student supervisor

Earlier this summer, I asked my readers to help me choose topics to explore. The most popular choices will be part of a new series of posts. The first in the series will be about being a first time advisor and supervisor. I’ll explore this topic and look at the following roles I held: advising students, professional staff, and part-time employees. I’ll also look at times when I had to supervise volunteers.

In my career, I have learned that I need to ask people for help. I have worked in solo positions, so I have had to figure out what I don’t know quickly but still need to deliver. Most of the positions I have held I was the first person to do so. So I know and understand the pressure to start something I had no blueprint to do, or operational book to train me. And yet, two decades later I am still here. There is much I wish I had been told to get me started quicker, and I hope what I share will help you jumpstart the beginning of your own career.

Magic in Muncie

I consider myself very lucky to have received my introduction to student affairs at Ball State University. It was the crash-course in putting theory into practice that I personally needed, and above all, it had a mandatory graduate assistantship! While I loved my courses and instructors, I learned the most while working in the then-named Leadership and Service Programs office.

I worked with the Student Voluntary Services program, the institutional service-learning and community service programs office. My undergraduate experience had been mostly programming events, so it was a good fit. For the most part.

You see, like most new graduate students, I didn’t know or understand how to motivate others to do the work. As an undergrad, I had been the Big Fish, so to speak, so all I knew was how to do the work myself and get all the glory. Or at best, how to delegate but never follow-up on the work. What did I care, it wasn’t my responsibility to actually do the work, right?

My grad supervisor, Pete, was great at helping me understand that I needed to be the advisor and lead from behind. My moment to shine as the student leader happened before arriving in Muncie, and now it was time for others to shine. I would need to have the outcome in mind and mentor my students to achieve the goals.

Honestly, I can say that the diva inside me did not like to hear that. And it would take me a few years to understand how to do it effectively. Below are some of the things I wish I had learned sooner than later when advising students.

What I Learned: The Grad Years

I learned a great many lessons working with students that served me well when transitioning to working with professional staff. So, I will focus on my experiences during the first two years of my professional career, before I transitioned to a different professional role at a new institution across the country. This topic was first explored in Guiding Students to be Confident Decision Makers. I will give more lessons learned during that time.

What I Learned: Advising is not Supervising (and vice versa)

This seems like such a basic understanding, but not when you’ve been thrust into a new advising role. As an undergrad, I had both worked and held leadership roles. I knew and understood what it meant to work for a paycheck. I also knew what it was like to set my own goals and hold my peers accountable. What I didn’t understand was how to separate the two ideas when advising students.

It took me months to realize that I needed to speak to the students I advised with confidence, but without micromanaging the situation. I wish I had known to talk about shared outcomes and responsibilities, and what I was going to do and what I expected from my students. This was a hard first lesson to learn, but I did learn it. Eventually.

I had also attended an undergrad program that valued student-led initiatives, where our grad advisors were largely responsible for the administrative processes and the student leaders were responsible for the goals and outcomes of our programs. But my advising role was so different at Ball State, that it took me months to realize I needed to switch to the institution I was hired to work at, rather than change them to the role I felt most comfortable. As much as I wanted to be PJ, my last grad advisor, I had to become Joseph, the SVS grad advisor.

I really had to learn how to show up and be myself, but still figure out the culture of the institution where I worked. Not an easy task for a new grad student, but very helpful to learn!

What I Learned: Boundaries Matter for Advisors

When I worked with college students as a recent college graduate, I found it hard to create distance. Especially when I worked in a small college town and my cohort of peers was only a handful of people. I learned that there is a difference between being friends and being friendly with the students I advised. I eventually became more and more explicit when training students at the start of their time working with me on how these boundaries were necessary. Eventually, these students would become friends after they graduated and I believe that students appreciated these boundaries rather than resented them.

I probably needed a Lindsay Lohan to point out when I was about to cross the line early in my career!

What I Learned: As an Advisor, It’s Ok to Say No (and/or Yes)

When I was working with students during the start of my career, I felt I could only motivate my students to action if they liked me. But just like the importance of creating boundaries, I also had to be confident when telling students no. And I had to make sure I had created a respectful relationship that allowed me to say no and maintain momentum with projects and programs.

I had to learn how to discern when saying no was the best motivator, and when saying yes was the right answer. Be willing to be vulnerable when necessary.

But I also needed to be humble enough to tell my students that I was wrong, or that I was willing to change policies and expectations. It would take me years to figure out that I needed to be ‘flexible in the ambiguity’ of changing departmental needs. I wasted so much energy trying to keep my students on-track instead of reading the needs of the college. Encouraging constant feedback helps keep the students on-board and invested in a year of programming.

One More Thing for the Grads

Looking back after more than a few years at my graduate school experiences, I had a couple of unrelated tips for grads in higher ed programs that I would have appreciated. For anyone going into our student affairs field immediately after undergraduate degrees, there is a time crunch to learn as much as you can as quickly as you can. You have tremendous stress, both personal and professional, to manage. And you have a job search that could last months on months. Here are a few tips to help you manage these experiences.

What I Wish I Knew: Focus on Skills Rather Than Job Descriptions

Within the first 4 months of my assistantship, I knew I would work in a different field than volunteer services and began to look at job descriptions for jobs in student activities and diversity programming. I knew I could translate my skills outside of my assistantship and began to catalogue my skills of what I was doing relative to the jobs I wanted. As long as I could truthfully speak to my skills, I crafted a job description that better matched the work I wanted than the job description I was given.

What I Wish I Knew: Understand Your Triggers and Ways to Manage Them

It would take me years to understand what my triggers were (anything having to do with class, immigration status, race, first languages, education, really this list could go on and on) but when I was triggered, I would emotionally shut down for days. This is not a healthy way to manage personal emotions, but it was also ineffective in managing my work as well.

Dr. Kathy Obear writes about navigating triggers in the workplace, and offers professional development opportunities to explore them in depth. I know I would have been more focused in my career had I the skills to know and understand my triggers. It really has become a part of my self-care and has preserved my values in ways I didn’t understand for years. So thanks Kathy for the great advice!

What I Wish I Knew: Ask for Help When You Don’t Understand

I have seen graduate students spin their wheels trying to navigate their new career, school work, home life, social life and any other competing priorities. And I have seen some of these students blame themselves when they could not figure out what to do on their very own. It would be simplistic of me to say ‘just ask for help.’ If only it were that easy.

What I wish someone had told me is that you won’t make many decisions alone in student affairs. Learning how to use the group and peers to help you build consensus is a bankable skill. Putting aside our ego and shame actually shows we have strength. But I also learned that we don’t need to ask just anyone.

Direction sign with arrows that say advice, help, tips, support, assistance, guidance
Leaders know they can’t do all the work alone. Learn the best way to ask for help from others to help you achieve your goals!

I learned quickly in grad school that I had to ask for help. And I had to check my shame at the door. What I have learned since then is that the most successful people in the field cultivate a circle of peers with whom they share what they are stymied with. I think this is a skill that new grads should practice – create your own trust circle. Use it to share what you don’t know without shame. And still be the decision-maker but with some wisdom share among friends.

Moving from Advising to Supervising

I will explore tips for first-time supervisors, starting with supervising students. You can read my related content about advising students and supervising students, or read through any of my current posts about supervision. Feel free to ask questions in the comments below!

In addition, I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.

Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.

About Post Author

Joseph Rios, EdD

I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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