Talk to Your Professor!

For university students around the US it’s time to go back to school, or go for the first time for freshmen. European and other students might have a while before the next school year starts up, but this advice is for them, too.

Talk to your professors!

In one of my earliest posts here at Lifehack, I explained how to talk to a professor – today, I want to talk about why you should talk with your professors.

You know that word “collegiality”? “Colleague”? What about “college”? OK, just testing with that last one. Anyway, they’re all words that describe a sense of community, a sense of people working together towards a common goal. That’s what college is about – working together, both with other students and professors, towards the goal of increasing both your own knowledge and the world’s total store of knowledge.

It’s in that spirit that I’m telling you, talk to your professors. Approach them after class, visit them during their office hours, drop them an email – just open a channel of communication.

I hear you asking, “What’s in it for me?” Well, if the higher calling of collegiality doesn’t quite move you, maybe some of these reasons will:

  1. Professors know lots of people in your chosen discipline. A lot of professors are well-connected with people at other universities, as well as in government and in the private sector. They can often give you a leg up on summer internships, post-college jobs, and events where you can network.
  2. Professors have lots of students and you’re just one name among many. I teach about 150 students a semester, and I’m lucky – I have friends at other schools who teach 800-1000 or more students every semester. Making personal contact outside of class can help your professors get to know you as more than just a name and student ID number – and though it might not be entirely fair, that can help you in terms of grading, feedback on assignments, and the inside track on research projects.
  3. Professors write letters of recommendation. Whether you’re applying for a scholarship, heading to graduate school, or trying to get your dream job, having a reference letter from a professor who knows you well can be a huge benefit – especially if someone on the scholarship committee, graduate admissions board, or hiring committee knows who they are.
  4. Professors know the literature in your field. If you’re looking to delve further into some aspect of your major, put together a research paper, or just differentiate yourself from your fellow classmates, a professor can be a great help in directing you to books, articles, films, even artwork you might want to check out.
  5. Professors are frequently asked to recommend students for special honors. I get a number of notices of scholarships, leadership awards, and other honors every year, asking me to recommend students of mine who qualify. If I don’t know you, I don’t recommend you.
  6. Professors know the various career paths in your field. No small number of students approach graduation every year with no idea of what they should, could, or want to do next. Most students pick majors they’re interested in, with no clear sense of what they could actually do with their degree. Whether it’s grad school, a non-profit job, or even freelancing, a professor can help you understand the potential of your degree.
  7. Professors are interesting people. At the risk of tooting my own horn, can I just say that we professors aren’t entirely without certain conversational abilities? We’ve often led exciting, even adventurous lives, and just as often have amassed a thorough knowledge not just of our chosen disciplines but of many areas of knowledge. If you’re in school out of a love of learning, your professor can be quite an encouragement!
  8. Professors can help straighten out administrative snafus. I put this last because often, we professors are just as baffled by the various Catch-22s and Kafka-esque procedures that make up college administrations as you are. But once in a while, we do know a thing or two about how to get things done on campus – it’s always worth a shot.

Most of all, you should talk to your professors because it’s what we’re there for. There’s a reason college isn’t just a stack of books and a reading list – the idea isn’t to memorize a bunch of other people’s ideas but to work with the people around you to develop your own.

You don’t need to have anything lofty to say or ask to approach your professors. Just dropping by their office during office hours and saying “Hi, I’m in your history [or whatever] class and I just wanted to introduce myself” can be a fine way to get the ball rolling. I owe my entire major, anthropology, to just that – a couple of conversations with the anthropology professor at my community college. By peeking “behind the scenes” a little, as it were, I saw a richer, deeper field than my introductory classes might have suggested, which led me to do some independent reading, which led me to major in anthropology. That same professor wrote a letter of reference for my transfer to a UC school, and then again for my graduate school applications.

So, with the semester just begun or about to begin, that’s your first assignment, from Professor Lifehack: pick at least one of your professors and introduce yourself. You might well be surprised at the reception you get. Remember, most of us chose this job because we like interacting with students – you’ll be doing your prof a favor as much as yourself!

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