Working with Faculty Honors Advisors
Problems or shortcomings in the honors thesis advising relationship often transpire because misunderstandings arise about expectations the faculty mentor and undergraduate researcher have of each other. The following are some easily misunderstood expectations:
- Amount of contact
- Timelines and deadlines for work
- What constitutes an adequate draft for submission
- What qualifies as an acceptable honors thesis
Many misunderstandings can be avoided or overcome by following good academic mentoring practices, such as the ones that follow.
Choosing an Advisor
Begin with a critical self-appraisal to determine what you will need to thrive during the research and writing process:
- What are my strengths?
- What skills do I need to develop?
- How much independent (versus hand-in-hand) work do I want to do?
- What kind of scholarly expertise do I need for guidance of my project?
Identify faculty who share your intellectual interests. Ask faculty members (or graduate students) you already know in your department or field for names of faculty with whom you might consider working.
Schedule a meeting with the potential faculty mentor. Your goals at the meeting are, as follows:
- To assess whether the faculty member is a good fit for you
- To make a positive impression
- To begin establishing a working rapport
Areas into which you should attempt to gain insight include the following:
Availability. How often does the faculty member prefer to meet with honors students? What other commitments does the faculty member have? Will the faculty member be on leave during the coming year?
Communication. Are you able to understand the professor clearly? Do you feel comfortable communicating your ideas? Will you be able to accommodate her or his professional style?
Scholarly expertise. Does she or he have sufficient expertise in your area to provide you with the guidance you seek? Can the professor point you to useful resources? Do you feel that you share intellectual interests?
At the initial meeting, the faculty member will likely want to know the following about you:
Mutual interests. Share how your prior academic and personal experiences relate to the professor’s interests. Read the professor’s recent publications and be prepared to discuss how they relate to your interests.
Motivation and Direction. State your goals and be prepared to talk about your timeline for progress on your project.
Skills and Strengths. Let the faculty member know what qualities you bring to the relationship: research or language skills, creativity, analytical techniques, enthusiasm and commitment.
Remember that the initial conversation is simply the first step. Don’t approach early meetings as if you are asking someone to be your mentor. Mentoring relationships evolve over time, often arising out of a particular need.
After the initial meeting, you may feel that the faculty member will be able to provide you with the guidance you seek. Schedule a follow-up meeting and begin to build working agreements (see below).
If you determine that this faculty member is not the best fit for your needs, thank her or him for the time spent with you. Ask for recommendations for other faculty members who might share your interests.
Establishing Positive Working Agreements
Take responsibility for running meetings with your advisor. Arrive with an agenda of issues and questions you want to raise. Prioritize them so that you are asking the most important questions first.
Keep track of time during the meeting to assure that your most important concerns are addressed. At the same time, respect your mentor by knowing how much time she or he has available. Agree to schedule another meeting to discuss topics that remain at the end of the hour.
At the conclusion of a meeting or through email, summarize any agreements that have been reached. Restate what you will be doing and what your mentor has agreed to do for you. Ask your mentor to respond if she disagrees with anything you have stated.
In one of your early meetings with your advisor, your meeting agenda should include developing a work plan with short-term and long-terms goals. It should also include a timeframe for reaching your goals. If you need to modify your work plan later, inform your mentor and agree upon a new timeframe.
- Discuss how often you and your mentor will meet face-to-face and whether email is acceptable for certain issues or questions. Find out under what circumstances, if any, the faculty member feels it is appropriate to be called at home.
- Always read the books or articles your mentor suggests and let her know what you thought about those suggestions. Faculty want to know that the time they spend with you goes to good use.
- Rather than relying on one person — your thesis advisor — for all your guidance and support, try to build a mentoring community. This might include other faculty members, graduate students, librarians, staff and other undergraduates.
- These people probably won’t see themselves as part of a mentoring group. Yet for you they will represent a means of getting more of your mentoring needs met without relying solely on the resources of one person.
Turning in Your Work
Find out how rough or polished a draft your mentor is willing to read. Some faculty are willing to read a draft that is a combination of polished prose and rough outlines of arguments. Others will only read a well-polished and edited paper. In either case, you should always proofread meticulously for typographical errors.
When you turn in a draft for your mentor to read, consider submitting a list of your questions or concerns along with it. In which areas or sections would you like detailed feedback? Do you have any methodological, argumentation or theoretical concerns you would like your mentor to address in detail?
Ask you mentor what is the best way to remind her about getting your work back to you within an agreed upon timeframe. The following are some suggested ways:
- When you are very busy, how should I remind you about a paper you have of mine?
- Should I email you, call you, or come by your office?
- How much in advance should I remind you; is one week enough or would you prefer two?
Find out how long it typically takes your mentor to return papers or drafts. Ask how far in advance they must receive a draft to read and comment upon it before a fixed deadline.
These guidelines were compiled by the Undergraduate Advising and Research. They were compiled from the following resources:
- Conversations with Stanford faculty and students
- Unpublished resources from the Yale University McDougal Center for Graduate Student Life
- The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor “How to Get the Mentoring You Want.” (PDF)