Developing a Relationship with my Professor
March 28, 2009 1:25 PM   Subscribe

Hey all, I'm an incoming master's student with plans to apply to my institution's PhD program after my master's. As the first person in my family to go to college (let alone graduate school), I am quite green in many respects. What I'm really worried about is the professor(s) I want to work with in the future--how do I go about developing a professional relationship with them? I'm afraid of creating a negative impression about myself if I keep badgering them during office hours and blatantly trying to ingratiate myself with them. Also, any advice you could give me would be really helpful--especially with regards to a master's student in the humanities field. What should be my main focus and what common errors should I avoid?
posted by Genco_Olive_Oil to Education (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Read the professor's publications and related ones in a topic that interests you. Develop some ideas that further the topic. Then approach him/her with your general ideas. If you keep your contact focused on a topic that you share in common that's a good start.
posted by forrestal at 1:49 PM on March 28, 2009

Good questions, and common ones among new graduate students of all sorts. As a prof who advises many PhD students, let me advise you not to get so anxious about this, though. You know what to do. Breathe deeply, focus, relax, and prepare to bust your ass.

You do the best work you can. You come to seminars highly prepared. You submit drafts if the prof will accept them. You make appointments or come to office hours when you really have questions or problems. You support your fellow students in seminars, don't monopolize discussions (but don't be a wallflower either!), and don't strike a highly competitive pose within the program. You come to *every* departmental event you can make it to -- talks, colloquia, parties, etc. You help out when and where it's welcome -- having set up for hundreds of colloquia and conferences and talks, I can tell you that the students who show up early to help move chairs (etc.) "ingratiate" themselves in a whole different way from the ones who come to your office hours every single week even if they don't have a question. Get to know older students in the program and learn from them about the culture of the program, the standard of work expected, etc. Read the dissertations written in your program, especially those advised by the professors you want to work with; read those professors' own work. Ask about that work, read the sources listed in the bibliographies of that work. Make a good impression with faculty who are more tangential to the area of the program you are in or want to join. Work hard on your writing independently, or by forming a writing group with other students. Profs. hate having to be writing teachers and editors, wasting hours marking up errors you could have avoided by reading the relevant style guide or having a good writer you trust help you fix your sentences first.

But mostly, it was the first thing I said. Do the best work you can, and work as hard as you can. Nothing impresses a faculty member more, nor should it.

And I'll tell you a secret: working-class students who are the first in their family to go to grad school or college are often deeply anxious about these things. But the values that will get you ahead in academia are the ones you learned in your family, and apparently well enough to get this far. I for one am far more inclined to support students who appear to be trying to earn their place in the program than those who act entitled, no matter what their level of skill or brilliance. In the end, an academic career is truly 90 percent perspiration, like any other serious endeavor. Hard workers get ahead.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:50 PM on March 28, 2009 [31 favorites]

A lot of this depends on the features of your particular department, and the personalities of the profs you're interested in. So I don't think you're any greener than anyone else, despite being the first in your family to go to grad school. The best thing you can do is strike up conversations with other grad students in the department, both MAs and PhDs, to glean a sense of what's expected, what's appropriate, and what's liable to irritate the faculty.

In my humanities grad seminars, students tended to develop relationships with professors by impressing them with thoughtful comments in class, and later in the semester, dropping in on them once to discuss a fairly solid paper ideas/proposal that they'd prepared. In other words, hovering around for post-seminar worship generally wasn't practiced. I'm in my 4th year, and I've gradually learned that even students who are quite shy and not in-your-face (like me) can gain a good name for themselves.

I know that's not much in the way of specific positive advice. Common errors are easier to point out. Showboating, grandstanding...general egotism should be avoided. It's pretty common in some humanities disciplines to encounter new students who think they know better than (a) their peers, and often (b) their profs. When an insufferable prick starts to pontificate, especially by 'connecting' the subject at hand to their own exalted research, you should watch the faces of those peers and profs. If you see some rolled eyes, learn from it.

I think the risk of irritating a professor by trying to ingratiate yourself to them is quite a bit greater than the risk of being ignored by them if you don't. That's my two cents. But again, as long as you're not a total recluse or socially unperceptive, you'll pick up on the departmental culture pretty fast.
posted by Beardman at 1:59 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

And/or, what fourcheesemac said.
posted by Beardman at 2:01 PM on March 28, 2009

Fourcheesemac and Beardman have given you great answers.

One other thing I can suggest: Be especially nice and courteous to your department secretaries - they run the non-academic side of things and can potentially make your life a lot easier in certain respects. If you've got administration-related questions you need answered, you can ask them first instead of your prof, they will probably know. And if you're unpleasant to them, everyone else will know about it, I can assure you.
posted by lizbunny at 3:59 PM on March 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

To get a professor's positive attention: 1) find something you think is interesting and talk to them about it, 2) ask them what they think is interesting, 3) volunteer to work on something they care about (that ideally you both can and want to contribute to).

It's not ingratiating if it's a genuine interest. Professors are in academia in part because of the academic discourse. Take part.
posted by zippy at 4:01 PM on March 28, 2009

lizbunny, that is an excellent point. My dad was a professor, and very early in my life he told me "always be especially nice to the office staff." That advice has never failed me, from my undergrad years to my current role as a department chair. It's practically rule number one for success in any bureaucratic institution, but most certainly in academia.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:00 PM on March 28, 2009

I'm an almost-finished Ph.D. student in a humanities field. I write from the perspective of farther-along peer, not a professor.

I think the two "most common errors" I have observed among early-stage grad students (not excluding myself) have been arrogance and under-professionalization.

Arrogance is pretty well described by Beardman. Arrogant starting grad students in my field often flaunt the reading that they've done; they're high on the ideas of Theorist X and they let everybody know it, or they constantly name-drop the whole roster of star scholars that they've read. This gets tiresome.

What I mean by "under-professionalization" is the opposite problem: not showing any awareness of the ongoing discussions in your field. Having good ideas is what makes you a strong undergraduate student; having good, new ideas that respond to, build on, complicate, or overturn other people's (published) good ideas is what makes you a strong graduate student.
posted by Orinda at 9:03 PM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Great points, esp. from fourcheese. Adding only: check your self on the ingratiating. Any time you're spending with a prof or pursuing her/his interests because you are really interested is great. In other words, don't act in bad faith. Work hard, be a good citizen, but don't kiss up for the sake of.
posted by Mngo at 9:58 PM on March 28, 2009

What I'm really worried about is the professor(s) I want to work with in the future--how do I go about developing a professional relationship with them? I'm afraid of creating a negative impression about myself if I keep badgering them during office hours and blatantly trying to ingratiate myself with them.

After ruminating on this more, I was about to say something similar to what Mngo did: let things develop naturally. Don't avoid your professors, and don't be petrified and silent in class; but on the other hand, don't go hang around office hours just to suck up, and don't be in such a rush to show off in class that you trample over your fellow grad students. When you have burning questions that can't be addressed in class time, go to office hours. When you're getting started (early!) on the term paper, go to office hours and ask for feedback on your ideas. When you need advice on applying to fellowships and conferences, go to office hours.
posted by Orinda at 6:09 AM on March 29, 2009

One other thing I can suggest: Be especially nice and courteous to your department secretaries

Oh yeah. I'm currently working in just that sort of admin position, and let me tell you, student behaviour gets noticed. If you're rude, entitled, or aggressive, this will be likely informally relayed to the rest of the Department in various quiet ways. However, saying thank you, especially with a card or (depending on the staff member in question) chocolate is something that will never be forgotten, either. I speak from nearly 19 years of working in Univeristy administration.
posted by jokeefe at 10:35 AM on March 30, 2009

Response by poster: All-

Thanks so much for your help, I greatly appreciate it. This was my first time using metaflter and your advice/suggestions were exactly what I envisioned happening when I registered. Thanks so much!!

posted by Genco_Olive_Oil at 10:00 AM on April 2, 2009

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