The Role of Advisors at HDS & Making the Most of Faculty Relationships  

by Maggie Helmick, MTS ’24

Editor’s Note: In this post, Maggie provides insight into how HDS advisors are paired with students, and she shares her advice for building meaningful faculty relationships in addition to that with your advisor.

Among the most common questions incoming students ask about the student experience at HDS are what our advisor-advisee relationships look like and how students can make the most of faculty relationships in their time here. For a number of reasons, including that our school’s advisors are our faculty members, the answers to these questions overlap in many ways, making it productive to address them in unison. If you’re considering who you may request as your advisor or how you can maximize your relationship with your professors once enrolled, this is a good place to start.  

Advisors are assigned to students according to the compatibility of the areas of interests of both students and faculty members. When completing the enrollment response form to indicate that you plan to attend HDS, you’ll be asked to list the top three faculty members you would like to have as your advisor during your time at HDS. The advisor preferences a student designates are taken into consideration by the Registrar’s Office in the process of assigning faculty members to incoming students, but, ultimately, each faculty member can only take on so many advisees at one time. So, if you don’t get the advisor you listed as one of your top choices, it may simply be because they were highly requested and your areas of interest did not align with theirs as fully as someone else’s did. Likely, the advisor you were assigned will be just as capable of meeting your needs as the advisor you originally requested. 

The role of an advisor at HDS is primarily to guide their advisees in their class selections and to ensure they are meeting their graduation requirements, tracking a clear course according to their interests, and making the most out of their time at HDS. At minimum, students are required to meet with their advisors twice a year to discuss their course selections for the upcoming semester and get their advisor to lift the hold on their ability to register. The level of involvement an advisor has with their advisees varies significantly from one faculty member to another. Some stick to the minimum of two meetings unless their advisees request more and others meet much more frequently, checking in every few months to see how things are progressing.   

If you find that your relationship with your advisor is not as involved as you want, you can take the initiative to ask them to meet outside of simply scheduling your classes – perhaps asking them to meet with you to discuss which professors or classes they think would be most advantageous for you to learn from given your particular interests or asking them about their own career path to help you discern your academic and career objectives as you move through this degree program. It is also a good idea to make clear from the beginning what your academic and professional goals are so that your advisor can be sure to guide you in that regard. For example, if you are considering applying to PhD programs, they can aid you in understanding the timeline during which you should be preparing your application. Once you’ve started applying  they may meet with you more often to go over the schools you are considering, the content of your personal statement, or the process of interviewing.  

On the flipside, you may find that you and your advisor just don’t connect in any sort of personal way, and that is fine! There are so many other professors, staff members, and even students who may be better fit to mentor you than your advisor is, so don’t hesitate to bring your questions and concerns to them – they’ll likely be flattered that you think highly enough of them to ask. It is possible to change your advisor if you really do not think they are a good fit for you, but I would suggest trying to form relationships with other faculty members in addition to your assigned advisor over replacing them completely.  

There are numerous ways to go about forming relationships with faculty beyond your advisor. The most straight forward option, in my opinion, is to really be at your best in the classroom. Coming to class prepared, having completed the readings and formulated questions and comments related to them, and then sharing those thoughts in class is a great way for a professor to get to know who you are as a student and to gain a peek into what you care about. Similarly, submitting high quality work on any assignments will help grab your professor’s attention. If a class you are taking is directly related to your own interests and trajectory, take the time to go to your professor’s office hours or to schedule a private meeting in which you can share with them your own interests and how they tie into the course material, ask them about what led them to their interest in the subject, and get their advice on interesting directions to take your work on the subject in the future.  

Finally, I recommend being vulnerable and open with your professors both in and out of class. In class, don’t be afraid to ask questions and make mistakes – you are here to learn and they will appreciate that you are actively attempting to do so and not putting on a front of expertise. Outside of class, if you have personal experiences that led you to do the work that you are doing or that is related to the subjects you are learning, share that with teaching staff so that they can better understand your perspective and motivations. If you are struggling in a class or struggling personally and finding that it is impacting your class performance, tell them! They want you to succeed and can guide you towards resources to help you, no matter what it is you may be dealing with.  

In my experience, the classroom culture at HDS, wherein most classes are seminar-style and limited in enrollment in order to better facilitate productive conversation and in which faculty tend to treat students more as colleagues with valuable knowledge and experience to share than as novices with little to offer, is very conducive for constructing meaningful relationships with faculty. Possibilities of connecting with faculty abound at HDS, it is simply in the hands of the student to capitalize on those opportunities. So, don’t hesitate to schedule that meeting or to raise your point in class – every interaction you initiate could be an act of relationship building if that is what you want it to be. 

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