The Berkeley Astronomy Advising System

The advising system of the Astronomy Department aims to provide a support network for BADgrads—and faculty (research is a two-way street).

Though the advising system's mission is to address all non-research needs, research-related issues are very much within its purview, including research strategy (e.g., “How should I prioritize my activities?”), relationship with one's Research Adviser (e.g., “What are my Research Adviser's expectations of me, and what are my expectations of my Adviser?”), and job hunting (e.g., “How can I get one?”).

The formal structure of the system is a little complicated, for two reasons:

  1. We recognize that good advising is not always at the top of everyone's priority list, so we try to have a system with many redundant parts so that you have several options when you're looking for advice;
  2. Over the years, the system has been tinkered with a lot, and we're still experimenting and trying to develop a system that works well for every BADgrad and Adviser1).

It may be obvious, but it's important to note that while the department has a formal advising system, “advising” in practice is usually done very informally, in hallways or over lunch. The formal system should bend to accommodate what's working best in practice. That said, the minimal requirements of the formal system are extremely light, perhaps 6 hours a year, and we don't think it's asking too much to do the bare minimum, even if students feel strongly that they “don't need any advising”.

The advising system breaks down as follows:

  • The Mentor is an older graduate student who provides advice to younger graduate students, from before they arrive in Berkeley until they pass their Prelims.
  • Each graduate student has an Academic Adviser, a faculty member who provides non-research advice. Student-specific Academic Advisers are assigned before the beginning of students' first year, but these assignments can be changed at will.
  • Each class of BADgrads has a Class Shepherd, a faculty member who is responsible for tracking the progress of the students in that class throughout their graduate careers.
  • The Mentor Masters are BADgrads who manage the mentoring program for a year.
  • The Head Graduate Adviser is the faculty member (currently Eugene Chiang) responsible for overseeing the advising system.
  • It is hoped that your Research Adviser is a valuable source of advice for non-research matters too, but Research Advisers intentionally have no formal responsibilities in this system.
  • The Annual Progress Report is a way for the department to monitor students' progress and ensure that minimal advising interactions occur.

Mentors and Mentor Masters

The BAD mentoring system is described on the mentoring page. It's an entirely informal program, with the only departmental support coming in the form of funds for a few meals. We hope that younger BADgrads will find their mentors to be helpful and that most of their “advising activities” occur with their mentors.

Responsibilities. Responsibilities of the mentors and mentees are flexible. Mentors should take an active interest in their mentees' situations and meet with them at least semesterly, and more often if appropriate. Mentors and mentees should both show up to group mentoring activities when possible.

Academic Advisers

Every BADgrad has an Academic Adviser, a faculty member who is not the student's Research Adviser. Academic Advisers are assigned before a student arrives in Berkeley. It is recommended that the assignment be based on a shared research interest, or on the possibility that the Academic Adviser play a complementary role to the Research Adviser in the student's education (e.g., an Academic Adviser who is a theorist can complement a Research Adviser who is an observer).

The assignment of Academic Adviser is not permanent and can be changed whenever the student so desires. If a particular pairing isn't turning out to be very helpful, there's no reason to continue with it! Seek out either your Class Shepherd, the Head Graduate Advisor, or the Department Chair for a new assignment.

The Department Chair runs the introductory Astro 290A course in which all first-year students are required to enroll. Sessions of this class may be used as group advising sessions.

Responsibilities. (1) Students should meet with their Academic Advisers one-on-one at least once a semester. The content of these meetings is entirely open. It can include research progress; classes; job hunting strategy; and even—believe it or not—science! The Annual Progress Report can serve as a natural launching point for discussion for the Fall meeting. (2) Academic Advisers should help students meet the formal deadlines for their Prelim exam (which must be taken before the end of the second year) and Qualifying Exam (which must be taken before the end of the fourth year). (3) The Academic Adviser may also be called upon to mediate specific problems with their Advisees—including problems in relations between the student and their Research Adviser.

Class Shepherds

Every class of BADgrads has a single Class Shepherd, a faculty member tasked with keeping track of the class as a whole. The Shepherd for a class is assigned by the Head Graduate Advisor shortly after the completion of the first year. Usually the Class Shepherd is selected from the instructors of first-year classes, since they will have been acquainted with the students. (The Department Chair serves as de facto Shepherd for first-years since he/she is the Academic Adviser for the whole class and sees them regularly in 290A.)

The Class Shepherd for the 4th (monster@astro) and 3rd years (juicy@astro) is Eugene Chiang. The Class Shepherd for the 2nd years (gaggle@astro) is Geoff Bower.

Responsibilities. Class Shepherds are responsible for maintaining the Academic Adviser system for the students in their assigned class(es). This includes (1) assigning Academic Advisers at the end of the first year, (2) ensuring that one-on-one Adviser/Advisee meetings occur every semester, and (3) reading all the Reports of their class members and providing feedback as necessary. Class Shepherds should also (4) make sure the class understands what is required of them for the Preliminary and Qualifying Exams, and enforce their deadlines (end of second year for the Prelim; end of fourth year for the Qual). (6) Finally, Class Shepherds—together with the Head Graduate Adviser, the Academic Adviser, and the Chair—be called upon to mediate specific problems with specific students—including problems between students and Research Advisers.

In general, Class Shepherds should keep tabs on the entire class and notify the right people (Mentors, Academic Advisers, the Chair, Research Advisers) as problems arise.

Head Graduate Adviser

The Head Graduate Adviser (HGA) is a faculty member responsible for overseeing the entire advising system. The current HGA is Eugene Chiang.

Responsibilities. (1) The HGA is on-call to dispense any and all kinds of advice to all students.2) (2) Improving adviser-student relations, and identifying and defusing problem situations, are tasks very much shared between the HGA, the Class Shepherds, the Academic Adviser, the Research Advisers, and the Chair. (3) The HGA solicits feedback and ideas for improving the advising system, and implements changes to the system, in consultation with other faculty as necessary. (4) The HGA also advises the Department Chair on which classes should be taught when, and by whom. (5) Last and deservedly least, the HGA reviews and signs off on the endless number of bureaucratic forms required by the University.

Annual Progress Report

BADgrads who have completed their first year are required to submit an Annual Progress Report (APR) every Fall. The Report can be as short as you like, though the longer you make it, the potentially more helpful it can be for the faculty—and for you. The Report is reviewed first by your Research Advisor, who provides feedback as necessary, and signs off on it.

There is a section on the APR cover sheet that requires that the student's source of funding be explicitly spelled out.

Once filed, all Reports are read by the Head Graduate Advisor. The Class Shepherd reads all Reports of their assigned class members. And Academic Advisers reads the Reports of their individual Advisees.

The purposes of the APR are many:

  • It can serve as a helpful retrospective for students (e.g., “How have I grown and developed as an astronomer? As a teacher?”)
  • It is an opportunity to chart the way forward (e.g., “What should I do next for the coming year? What can I do better?”)
  • It helps to ensure that the student and Research Advisor are on the same page with regard to their progress—and their funding.
  • It helps the faculty identify problems, so that they can begin the hard work of solving them.
  • It is an opportunity to celebrate accomplishment—either in research or teaching, including outreach. Write down your bibliography!

The 2012 APR cover sheet is on the departmental website.

Responsibilities. Students beyond their first year should write an APR every Fall. There is usually some griping about this, but seriously, people, it can be as long as you want it to be. Typically it's just a page long. Some students who feel they are making good progress and don't want to be bogged down with writing an APR merely reprint the abstracts of their publications! (Some faculty do this for the Annual Reports they have to file with grant agencies!) Students should meet with their Research Advisers, discuss their APRs, get them signed by their Research Advisers, and return them to the HGA before the deadline.

Effective Advising

How do we get the most out of the small amount of time that we devote to advising? Googling for “graduate advising best practices” seems to yield some promising leads, such as this PDF. Anyone know any other tips or resources?

1) It's tempting, and acceptable, to spell this word “advisor”, but Merriam-Webster indicates that “adviser” is preferred.
2) Including which television serials and movies are worth watching