Step 43: Advise Students Unofficially

I feel competent in most parts of my new job as a professor – I have taught before, I have done research before, even if they were in a different context. One role in which I feel inadequate, however, is being an advisor to students. First-year faculty at Oxy do not officially have advisees, so we can learn the curricular requirements first. As one of two computer science professors, however, I inevitably get questions from students about whether and how they should continue with computer science. This number has recently increased as I meet students who have only just discovered computer science through my new intro course, and while the students I’ve built a relationship with are also coming to ask about careers and grad school.

For grad school – or at least PhD programs – I feel fairly comfortable with my advice. I had the opportunity to mentor an undergraduate for research during my last year of grad school, when they asked me whether I think they should get a PhD. I didn’t know how to advise them at the time, and although they ultimately settled on Master’s programs instead, my insufficient mentorship stuck in my head. Getting a PhD is a grueling process, and financially it is almost never the right decision. I asked for suggestions from some friends who have taught for a couple years. The best rule of thumb I’ve heard is that the student must be able to succinctly summarize why they need a PhD for what they want to do, at the level of “I want to be a professor”, and not just “I want to be on the cutting edge of human knowledge”. This rule will exclude some potentially brilliant researchers, but it seems to be a good first-order approximation. I haven’t had enough students for this rule to apply.

The more general category of career advice is actually my favorite. I enjoy hearing what students want to do with their lives, the long-term plans they might have and why they are important. Most students who come to me for career advice are interested in technology in some form or another, but part of the fun is seeing the diversity of interests. I have talked to a student who is dead set on joining or creating a startup, while a different student is interested in social justice and data journalism. While I don’t have any inside scoop on either of these fields, I have a rough idea of the skillsets that these careers require, and can point students in the right direction or help them decide if it’s what they really want to do.

Strangely, I am the most anxious about advising students on how to continue with computer science. On one hand, as a faculty trying to build a new department, I want more computer science minors to show demand. On the other hand, I think my target student population for introductory computer science courses is exactly students who would not become minors or majors. I would rather see arts, history, and biology majors doing computational work in their fields than see them switch to computer science. I often end up telling students to forget about minor requirements and just taking whatever classes interest them (a strategy I have mentioned before).

The flux of the computer science curriculum does not help. We barely have enough faculty to teach all the existing courses, and there are more courses I personally want to teach that we cannot offer. As a result, I have suggested that students do an independent study with me as their next step, since the course they actually want to take has not been created yet. This is beneficial for the student, who would get the education they want, while also giving me experience on how to run the full course in the future. This policy probably makes some faculty unhappy, and definitely skews various statistics for institutional research, but I can’t think of a better way to compensate for what is essentially our inability to meet students’ needs.

Starting in the fall, I will have my own group of freshmen advisees, and will likely be advising new cognitive science majors. I will get a small amount of training before then, but I don’t expect it to solve my computer science problems.

Step 43: Advise Students Unofficially

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