You will get a good deal of traffic from majors seeking your advice or a signature. Being readily accessible is important, both via e-mail and in your office. Here are some of the types of interactions with majors that come with the territory. (See section on "Delegating" for suggestions on which of these tasks might most readily be delegated to others.) 

Signing up new majors; assigning advisors

Major Declaration Cards are due on February 1 of the sophomore year, in preparation for spring registration. Advise departmental colleagues who have heavier advising loads to decline new advisees, and to steer students toward faculty with lighter advising loads. The distribution of advisees in your department can be obtained from the Office of Academic Advising.

For short-term leaves, you may also need to get involved in lining up a substitute advisor, as faculty on leave are not responsible for advising.  In the case of a semester or longer, the Office of Academic Advising will redistribute the faculty member's advisees. (Some faculty who will be on leave for only a term or two and who will be in town may say that they'll continue advising. Discourage them from doing so! Leave time is precious.) When the faculty member on leave returns, it is appropriate for former advisees to return, unless they are happier where they landed.


Many requests will come to you for approval of substitutions of various sorts, that is, for something to count towards a major requirement other than the designated course. These requests often come because of scheduling problems, but may also be to take advantage of a course that is a logical substitution just on its own merit (e.g., a special topics course newly offered). You have a large amount of discretion on this. If you're unsure about what you should allow, talk with others in the department; the previous chair may be of special help. Some departments have a written (or unwritten) policy that has been developed regarding substitutions of particular kinds of courses. When you agree with the student's request for substitution, send a brief e-mail to the Registrar, copied to the student.

Some specific categories of substitution requests for requirements in the major or minor:

  • One specific Cornell course substituting for another, either a course from within or outside the department; this may be an independent study. Some departments routinely allow such substitutions, while others do not.
  • One specific course from another institution substituting for a departmental offering. If the student has transfer credit for the course and you approve the substitution, send an email to the Registrar, copied to the student, to that effect. The student may request transfer credit by submitting a "Transfer of Credit Petition" to the Registrar. The form can be found on the Registrar's website.

Social occasions

Different departments have different customs for socializing with students. It's common to have one gathering a year to which all majors are invited, and perhaps also a reception for seniors or one for recently declared majors. If your department gathers with majors for other reasons (e.g., a regular colloquium), a special large-group gathering is less important. If you think your department might be able to do something a little more fun, a little less work, a little more productive of faculty-student interaction, or whatever, ask around for what other departments do. It's nice to have a gathering at a faculty home, but on-campus venues (e.g., Zamora's Market) or off-campus establishments are also possible. If the gathering is at a home, give some forethought to the serving of alcohol. In any gathering of majors (except, perhaps, for graduating seniors), there will be some students who are not of legal drinking age. The safest approach is to serve no alcohol at all. If you break the law and serve a minor, there is no protection from the college. Even if all the students are of legal age (e.g., a spring-term gathering for seniors), you may want to consider the wisdom of serving alcohol, and, if you do decide to serve, to also be sure that students will be able to return to campus safely (e.g., by the use of designated drivers). See the Student Handbook (The Compass) for the policy on alcohol on campus.

Department clubs

Some departments have lively, active clubs, while in other departments the club has been moribund for years. One needs interested and responsible majors in leadership roles for a club to thrive; it may take some searching on your part to identify and encourage such students. Funding for departmental clubs comes from the Student Senate, with funding petitions due in the spring. Why bother?  If the club works out well, it helps build a sense of community among the majors (and minors), and provides them with some non-class related activities that are relevant to the discipline. There are all sorts of things that might be done, for example: field trips, outside speakers, tutoring, theme dinners, etc. You can get ideas from other chairs, and from noticing events publicized on flyers or over e-mail.

Career, internship, and graduate school information

Students have access to a wide range of resources on internships, careers, and graduate school through the Career Engagement Office. But the department should also be a resource for majors. You might have files or a shelf of materials passed on to you from the previous chair. If you're starting from scratch, or wanting to build up the base, you can find relevant material from the professional organization for your discipline (they might have a web-page devoted to information for undergraduate majors) and from the Career Engagement Office. You might want to make up a list of the professions that alumni/ae in your department have gone into; you can request this information from the Alumni Office. Consider having an annual session for majors early in the fall term, where you (and others in the department) talk about graduate school and careers-this will save you time spent on multiple individual conversations.

Contact with alumni/ae

It's great for majors to have a chance to listen to and talk with alumni/ae who have gone on and done interesting things. You might occasionally make an effort to bring back alumni/ae to talk with students. Or, if you know someone interesting is coming back for a visit, set up lunch or a session with students; sometimes Homecoming provides good opportunities for such a gathering, although fitting a gathering into the busy Homecoming schedule provided by the Advancement Office can be challenging.

Some departments do an annual or occasional newsletter, gathering information from alumni/ae and then sending out news of the department and its alumni/ae. The Alumni Office will be happy to help you by providing names and addresses upon request. Other departments keep up-to-date web pages on the activities of their alumni/ae. If you are comfortable with online social networking sites, Departments and Programs may consider a presence on Facebook or a similar site as a way to stay in touch with alumns.


Most departments have prizes designated for majors (or for work done in the department). There are a variety of tasks involved in the awarding of prizes, depending on the criteria for the awards. If a prize is based on GPA in the department, you need to request that information from the Registrar with at least one week's lead time. (More would be appreciated!)  If it's based on written work, you need to solicit entries and arrange for a judge. If you're not sure of the criteria for one or another award (and some of them are fairly arcane), ask at the Office of Academic Affairs. You (or someone you delegate) will also need to attend the annual academic awards dinner in late spring, and announce department award-winners.

Keeping track of student achievements

From time to time you will receive queries asking for lists or examples of student achievements in your department. Queries come from various sources: Admission, College Communications, Career Engagement, the Alumni Office, and the Office of Academic Affairs. In order to have the information on hand for these requests, and also to inspire or encourage students and faculty within the department, it is a good idea to keep a running list of whatever you happen to find out, including information that comes from alumni/ae. The Career Engagement and Alumni Relations offices also welcome any updates on alumni/ae that you can send. You might want to have a Word document into which you type the information as it comes to you, or a file into which you put notes for later organizing.

Information to keep track of:

  • honors projects (student name and title of project)
  • notable internships (during college or post-grad)
  • non-Cornell prizes
  • graduate and/or professional school admissions (note multiple offers)
  • graduate and/or professional school fellowships/assistantships
  • 3rd party (e.g., NSF) graduate fellowships
  • notable post-grad jobs