The joys and challenges of advising undergraduates

Now that I am the go-to guy at my undergrad for all questions pertaining to graduate study in the US, I came to realize that, in fact, top students are not necessarily easy to advise. Sure, for me, it allows me to keep in touch with the undergraduates, beyond my duty as an applied abstract algebra grader, but the only ones that actually came to me to this end were strong enough to be at risk of becoming ego-boost students. Most students were turned off by direct PhD passage, claiming that it’s too big a commitment for a student, without any long-term research experience.

They’re just different from their less-accomplished peers; sometimes top students are more aloof, regardless of whether or not they are ego-boost students. Sometimes I have to remind them that they can’t bank on their achievements (and hard work) alone, and that a B plan is necessary. For entering undergraduates, however, advising is directed not at getting them in grad school, but in getting them internships. This is a little more straightforward than for grad school advising, as it usually means finding an area of research and then contact the professor to this end, since it’s usually OK to do a summer internship internally. This is perhaps a little limited but this is what I got to say:

  • Don’t hesitate to take an appointment with a professor for a summer internship, but ask an appointment to this end only late in the fall semester or at the beginning of the winter semester
  • At some point you will be asked for your credentials, if you demonstrated your motivation in front of the professor; don’t mention your grades before then
  • You may well be well-motivated to do a subject, but check whether the professor have any preferences with respect to the background required
  • Theorists (in STEM disciplines) usually don’t like rising sophomores very much because a summer internship doing theoretical research as a rising sophomore usually doesn’t yield much more than a summer doing readings. However, if you’re well-motivated, and have the background, they can be happy to support you through external funding applications for summer undergraduate research experiences (REU in the US, USRA in Canada, and so on, so forth).

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