This post is in response to The Other Part of Student Choice: Advising by Dana S Dunn

As I sat down to write my post this week, I was headed for something really topical, like campaign tactics, how John Boehner will lead differently than Nancy Pelosi, or Keith Olbermann's spotless employment record. Then (out of my love for everything having to do with teaching and psychology, and to procrastinate without feeling guilty), I read Dana Dunn's wonderful post, "The Other Part of Student Choice: Advising." It struck me that although I've been blogging for seven months I hadn't even considered writing about the ethics of advising. I believe I may have fallen into the twin traps of (a) not taking advising that seriously, and (b) not thinking explicitly about how advising is yet another arena in which we can fulfill our ethical ideals (and, of course, get into trouble). Go read Dunn's post; I'll wait here until you get back.

It's easy to devalue advising; professors often do not receive explicit recognition, let alone compensation, for advising students. Many schools consider advising a "service" activity, which is usually third in importance behind research (read: securing grant money) and teaching (read: securing good student course evaluations). When it comes to annual reviews, pay raises, and promotions, service activities are often like icing on the steak (that's not a typo).

Thus, professors may consider advising to have little impact on their own careers and on students' lives. But in my experience (and I could hunt down some empirical data if you want me to), the most important interactions many students have with professors are outside the classroom and may very well be during advising meetings. During these routine appointments, mundane conversations about major requirements sometimes evolve into meaningful explorations of how to consider more than grades and schedules, how to be a good college student, and/or how to live in a self-reflective, educated way.

Dunn's post reminds us how important advising can be, and he demonstrates some ethically excellent practices. The stories he tells show that he is not just trying to stay out of trouble; rather, he is taking his responsibilities seriously and focusing on a broad definition of student welfare. Let's take a look at some of the positive ethical principles involved.

Advising Formula

The first issue is competence. Interestingly enough, graduate programs don't typically train future professors to advise. It's assumed, I guess, that we just naturally know how to do it. But advising is more than telling students to take the courses we took, or to apply to the graduate programs that we applied to. It was clear to me that Dunn works from clear principles and empirically derived knowledge in addition to his own (vast) experience. He also seems open with students about what advising is, what college is, and what students can expect. His frankness and sincerity models good communication and exemplifies the principle of informed consent.

Being upfront with students is a major component of the principle of respect for autonomy. In psychotherapy, medicine, financial planning, ski instructing, and almost every other professional activity, making choices is a collaborative effort in which the patient/client/student is a partner.

However, respecting student choice does not mean, as Dunn puts it, being a "rubber stamp" who blithely and blindly endorses all student choices. He reminds us that students are not always good at making decisions—that's one of the reasons they're going to college, no? Thus, as in many ethically-charged situations, autonomy runs up against the principle of beneficence: doing good. Excellent advisors like Dunn are not just enforcing university rules and telling students the right courses to take. They take students' goals, views, and dreams into account. But they are also teaching students how to make good, informed decisions-by presenting information, providing feedback, and engaging in an active and thoughtful process. These skills that advisors are teaching will last students a lifetime, well beyond their knowledge of social psychology statistics, history, and—dare I say it?—even statistics. Excellent advisors are also modeling ethical skills, including the ability to balance the implementation of autonomy and beneficence.

Another balancing act concerns the principle of justice, which can be defined as "treating equals equally and unequals unequally but in proportion to their relevant differences" (Kitchener, 1984. p.49). Dunn has written eloquently about how students with different backgrounds experience choice differently. Thus, a basic element of competent advising is getting to know students as individuals with life stories that are just as important to them as ours are to us. At the same time, we have to enforce rules and policies fairly. Some of you will recognize echoes in this discussion of the classic issue in psychology about studying people from a nomothetic vs. idiographic approach.

When I'm on top of my game as a major advisor, I will ask students questions like, "What's important to you?" and, "In ten years when you get up and go to work, where do you go, whom do you work with, and what do you do?" These types of questions help me understand students ideographically. As students reflect on these challenging questions, they broaden their own perspectives and work toward integrating their own values with the demands of the college curriculum.

Of course, when I'm not on top of my game, I think of how seeing my advisees will fit into my schedule, kind of like the way students think about how courses fit into their schedules....

If you've had particularly good advisors or advice in college, I'd love to hear about it.


Kitchener, K. S. (1984). Intuition, critical evaluation and ethical principles: The foundation for ethical decisions in counseling psychology. Counseling Psychologist, 12(3), 43-55.


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

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