How You Can Turn Good Listening Skills Into an Advising Career

If you've ever been told you were a good listener, you probably appreciated the compliment but did you know it's also a requisite for some careers? If listening and providing feedback/guidance is a strength of yours, you may want to consider a career in academic advising/counseling.

What Is an Academic Advisor?

college kids standing outside school

Image via Flickr by University of Michigan's Ford School

An academic advisor or counselor is a student's main point of contact for academic issues, mainly at the college level. He/she can advise on topics such as course load and planning, registration, academic counseling and more. At a high school level, this person can direct a student toward early completion of college coursework or advanced placement opportunities.

Some advisors provide advice and counseling on going into the job market or which colleges are best suited for the student's interests and needs. Advisors can also help students navigate the issues of peer pressure and stress or suggest other professionals who can help.

An advisor makes suggestions and offers counseling based on the information provided. They are not there to make decisions for the students or their parents. That's why being an active listener is so important. Sometimes the student is not sure of the questions to ask. An effective advisor can facilitate conversation and interpret the true needs of the student in order to ask the right probing questions and thus be able to provide the most effective counsel.  

The Academic Advisor Skillset

Personal and Professional

In addition to being good listeners, academic advisors have a strong desire to aid students in making the best decisions for themselves. A good advisor has strong interpersonal skills and devotes the time it takes to have meaningful conversations with his or her students. While appointments are necessary, advisors will have open door policies at times to encourage students to come in when they feel comfortable. Registration is a particularly busy time for college-level advisors, while fall and early winter (when students are applying for college and enrolling for classes) are busiest for high school advisors. 

Advisors must understand the school's policies and programs well enough to effectively guide students in decision-making. 

If the student is encountering difficulties that are beyond the knowledge level of the advisor, this person must be able to direct the student to someone who can help. For instance, if a student mentions being overwhelmed by stress, depression, or homesickness, a good advisor can refer the student to someone better suited to discuss these needs. Being a good listener and asking questions can also help an advisor spot someone who requires additional assistance but is afraid - or doesn't know how - to ask for it.

Guiding, Not Shoving

An advisor is not there to solve problems. They are there to provide the tools and information to the student to help them make a sound decision. Advisors support students and partner with them to set up pathways that will take them to their goals.

Advisors can be great teachers in the decision-making process. Helping students understand the right questions to ask to make their own decisions is a valuable lifelong skill. Advisors do more than just counsel on the question at hand. They coach students on long-range planning as well.

Advisors strive to understand the student's point of view, even if they don't share it. While there is no student/advisor confidentiality, a good advisor understands what student conversations are not for public consumption. They will hold their students' concerns in strictest confidence unless a problem involves the student's welfare or the welfare of classmates.

Academic advisors hone their skills, exchange ideas with other advising professionals, and continue to educate themselves on counseling best practices through training programs and in-service opportunities throughout their careers.

How to Become an Academic Advisor

While it is possible to attain an academic advisor position with just a bachelor's degree, the more common approach is by getting one's master's in higher education, higher education administration/student affairs, counseling, psychology, or a specific degree within liberal arts and advising students (only) within that major. There are a handful of schools that offer a master's degree in academic advising.

Most schools hiring for academic advisor positions are looking for more than just an advanced degree. Most require experience. The best way to get this is through internships during both undergraduate and graduate coursework. Building your résumé through volunteer advising positions is also a good choice and shows an ability to do the job and understand the expectations behind it. Working in your college admissions or advising office during your undergraduate and graduate education provides on-the-job training experience and valuable insight into the rigors and expectations of the job. 

There are also assistantship positions available for graduate students. These positions generally have a teaching requirement, which helps the future advisor with his or her communication and presentation skills.

Shadowing advisors is also a good idea, as is writing your graduate thesis on a theme linked with advising. This gives you an opportunity to work on your written communication skills, something that is essential for an academic advisor. 

Salary and Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for an advising professional is $53,610. Over the next 10 years the job is expected to see a 12 percent growth rate, which is the average growth rate for jobs in the U.S. 

In the past, there were no clear-cut career ladders for advisors. Some institutions of higher learning are working to change that. The University of Iowa instituted an Advisor II position that recognizes senior advisors with 4-5 years or more experience. This gave advisors the ability to move up without going into administration.

Many advisors do take the route into administration and parlay their communication and listening skills into overseeing things like the admissions process or curriculum for the college. However, these sorts of roles remove advisors from the day-to-day interaction with students, so creating opportunities for excellent advisors to be promoted without feeling the need to change paths is something many schools are trying to address.  

Can your listening ear become your greatest career asset? Yes, if you get the proper education and embark on a journey in academic advising.

Contributed to by Kim Evans

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