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Back to School: Talk to Your Professor!

Back to School: Talk to Your Professor!

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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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