How to get to know a professor?
December 3, 2006 6:10 AM   Subscribe

How do I get to know my professors better (without coming off as a brown noser)?

I'm a college student and after much reflection and nearly having a major mental crisis, I finally switched majors from software engineering to economics. Classes for the new quarter start tomorrow and with my new major, I want to get a new start, so to speak.

Anyway, since I want to go to grad school (and my GPA isn't so well at the moment and even if I get all A's until graduation, I'll only have about a 3.4 GPA by then), and since it'd help for getting a job, I really could use a nice recommendation from a professor. However, my problem is - how do I go about getting to know a professor such that it could result in a good letter of recommendation or just a "connection"?

I know that it's important to "get to know your professor" but I've found it rather difficult for me, the fact that I'm rather shy aside. I know that just doing well in the class works, but I don't know how someone who only sees me once or twice a week for ten weeks and who might only grade one or two multiple choice or short answer tests can really know me. Furthermore, I'm usually not the type who asks a lot of questiosn as I usually understand what the professor is saying or if I don't, it's usually because I've been slacking off (I intend to change the latter, of course). Also, I don't want to come off like a brown noser by e-mailing them all the time or something like that.

So, how can I get to know my professors better?

Thanks in advance. This is my first question and I hope it wasn't too detailed.
posted by champthom to Human Relations (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Ask about their research interests. Read their papers. Talk to them about their work. Don't try to cross the line with queries about personal lives or offering invitations for drinks and meals.

I teach part time at a University in London, and don't mind talking about things I'm interested in but when students start asking me to go on the piss with them is when it's no longer professional; it's personal.
posted by Mutant at 6:19 AM on December 3, 2006

Go to the professor's office when s/he has tutorials, many students never do this. Ask questions related to the class. Show an interest in their classes and they will show an interest in you.
posted by sic at 6:29 AM on December 3, 2006

There's really only one way to get to know your professors better, and that is to spend more time outside of class talking to them. You have to take the initiative in going to their office hours or setting up other meeting times. And then you should have something to talk about – try talking about stuff related to the subject you're studying with them, but not directly what's going to be on the next exam or homework (this way you seem genuinely interested in the subejct, rather than like you're trying to grade-grub). Ask for advice about future courses to take, or ask for more ideas and readings to investigate outside of class.

Mutant is right, too: don't act like you're trying to become their best friend. It's fine to reciprocate if they seem interested in non-academic chat, or even in becoming friends, but don't let your discussions be completely off topic at first. You'll get a better recommendation by seeming professional and motivated in your academic work than you will by seeming like a really nice guy.
posted by RogerB at 6:31 AM on December 3, 2006

Sit in the front row and pay attention. Look up the professors publications. Read them. Be interested. Since you're starting over you will have more questions but it helps to know where your professors are coming from before you open your mouth.
posted by ptm at 6:39 AM on December 3, 2006

Since you're in the US, it's likely that your professors have scheduled office hours (like what sic and RogerB suggested). Use that time! Speaking from experience as a TA, almost no students use that time, but I always remember the ones that do. Talk to the professor about topics you're discussing in class. Things in which you're interested. Don't go every week--that gets a bit weird--but go three or four or five times over the course of the semester. Be enthusiastic about the material, and be positive also. Don't so much ask for help (unless you need it, in which case go right ahead), but rather explore topics more deeply, and be prepared with questions and a thorough knowledge of the material. A good professor should be glad to do it. I loved when students would come in for office hours, as it saved me from two hours of boredom.
posted by The Michael The at 6:47 AM on December 3, 2006

The suggestions above are all excellent. Taking advantage of office hours is something too few students do.

One other recommendation: see if anyone needs a research assistant. This is probably something you should volunteer for if you can commit regular time each week. Someone may need help tracking down sources, doing data entry, etc. It lets you interact with professors on actual research and may possibly turn into conference presentations or the like. In my field of Anthropology, this is how many serious students get their start.
posted by Tallguy at 6:59 AM on December 3, 2006

Seconding everything that has been said so far, especially the bit about office hours. As Mutant and others have said, keep the talk professional, and don't linger.

As ptm pointed out, behavior inside the classroom counts, too. Though you've said you're not the speaking-out type, actively participating with well thought-out comments and questions which show you're listening attentively will always register with a professor/lecturer.

To make a lasting, good impression, pay very close attention to details when handing in assignments. Follow to the letter any guidelines that were given, and never hand in anything late.

Finally, if there's any kind of an online community that your class offers (intranet forums or cyberclassrooms), make sure to participate there, too. In some ways this is even better than classroom participation as profs/lecturers will be able to go back and re-read your comments and see that you've been consistent.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 7:10 AM on December 3, 2006

IAAP, but will offer slightly different advice.

To avoid looking likea brown-noser, be straight up about brown-nosing.

"I'm thinking of graduate school in X and was hoping that you'd be willing to write a good letter of recommendation for me. What should I do so that you can do that?"

Like most academics, my work is intensely inside-baseball, oriented around long-running and obscure debates, and of real interest to no more than 1000 people on the entire planet. I don't expect you to be interested in it. I don't think you've read the umpty-billion pages of preceding crap that would be necessary to really find my work interesting.

So if you come by with "Gosh, I read your paper on game-theoretic models of internal rule choices in legislatures and it was so good!" and then follow it up with some question that really only shows that you have no fucking idea what I was on about, I'll just think you're King of the Brown-Nosers.

I'd much rather you just show up and honestly and straightforwardly ask for a recommendation, or tell me that you're interested in graduate school, want to know what it's like, and are looking for something of a mentor for the next year or two.

Re grad school in econ: Do you enjoy matrix algebra, statistical estimators, and differential calculus? If you don't, do something else.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:27 AM on December 3, 2006

I agree with ROU. Go to office hours and be upfront. Explain your situation and your new direction and ask if they can help you. Be as clear as possible. Balance the practical with the intellectual and ask for clarification on how much time they can give you. It may sound odd but students who suddenly find their focus and pull their studies together are one of the joys of the job and you may find you get more attention than that student who has been pulling down top marks from day one.
posted by anglophiliated at 7:50 AM on December 3, 2006

These are all very good suggestions. You didn't mention what kind of grad degree you're interested in- ie MBA v PhD or MA, but as far as the latter two are concerned, when admissions muckety-mucks evaluate candidates for grad school they look for people who have done something more than earn good grades in their chosen discipline. They are looking for people who think beyond the limits of an assignment, using the material from a particular class to consider a more complex and interesting questions that show they are capable of doing independent research and making a valuable contribution to a discipline.

This takes some extra "homework," in the sense of taking time to devote some serious thought to the issues, methodologies etc. you're looking at in class. Developing a relationship with your teacher outside the lecture hall (i.e. office hours) is the best way to show that you're interesting in asking these kinds of questions and to get more direct guidance in framing and refining your thinking so you can ask even better questions. Office hours are about cultivating potential supporters, but they're also about sharpening your thinking one-on-one. Most profs. can distinguish intellectual sincerity from brown-nosing, and are happy to help students who have a genuine interest in the material. If they're curmudgeonly about it, you can reconsider your approach or look elsewhere to find folks who are more interested and supportive.

In addition to the great suggestion re: RAing, see if your university offers undergraduates any opportunities to conduct independent research, such as an honors thesis. This is a great way to demonstrate your engagement with a discipline, and working closely with a thesis advisor will create a close working relationship with a prof. who can support your applications to grad school with a detailed and specific letter.

Good luck!
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 8:03 AM on December 3, 2006

Even if he thinks you're a brown-noser, that's still better than being a faceless name on a page.
posted by smackfu at 8:21 AM on December 3, 2006

My favorite way to meet my profs was to schedule time with them to discuss topics that I needed help with or that I wasn't 100% clear on.
posted by dgeiser13 at 8:29 AM on December 3, 2006

how about asking them to donate to a charitable cause?

when i was in school, i was really into fundraising (at the time, the AIDS walk was a favourite of mine- in my city, it was a late-september event). i would hover after class, introduce myself, and politely ask teachers to donate.

i was only doing this as an idealized little activist, but realized later what a great brownnoser trick this was. it meant the teacher learned my name and associated me with altruism and social conscience. since most of my profs didn't have cheques or sufficent cash at the first moment of contact, i'd usually end up dropping by their office to collect, allowing a non-awkward chat time that created a casual friendship. and then i could send a thank you email or drop off a card later, which is polite and also reminds them of your name one more time. and now suddenly, you're memorable as a caring, hardworking person with a life outside of school. score.

this strategy helps you AND the charitable organization; it worked great for me. i highly recommend it!
posted by twistofrhyme at 8:53 AM on December 3, 2006

how about asking them to donate to a charitable cause?

This depends on the professor in question. If you did that to me, I'd think you were the sort of jerk who abuses even a slight notionally-personal relationship as an excuse to bother me for money. Why not ask me to wash your car for you, or give you a back rub, for Christ's sake?

For that matter, most academic graduate programs will not care in the slightest how altruistic you are or how big your social conscience is, and a life outside of school is a distinct detriment, not an asset. Academic graduate programs do not want well-rounded people. They want single-minded OCD-level devotion and a businesslike, realistic attitude to the work.

This means that if I'm recommending you for an academic graduate program, *I* do not give the slightest fuck how altruistic or noble you are, because me blethering about it at length wouldn't help you at all.

This isn't some sort of grand social engineering problem, where you have to subconsciously wheedle your way into the professor's good graces and constant thoughts. Show up, state your goals, and ask for what you need.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:37 AM on December 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Well, first of all, a 3.4 is not bad. I got into a grad program just fine with that GPA--had a dismal first year but got back on track once I figured out the whole "college" thing. Graduate admissions people will probably take your particular situation into consideration. The trick is to find internships/leadership positions/research opportunities and capitalize on them, although your "making connections" idea is good too.

All of the above sound like good suggestions. I would also suggest good ol' participation in class, particularly in smaller classes (provided, of course, you know the material and can talk about it competently). I found that sort of opened the door for post-class discussions with profs, and made at least a little impression on them when I couldn't find the time to meet with them regularly.
posted by landedjentry at 9:39 AM on December 3, 2006

If you're thinking about grad school in econ, there must be issues in the field that you're curious about, right? Stuff you care about not because it's required but because it interests you?

Because if you're worried about looking like a grade-grubber, you can always go to office hours and ask about that. "Hey, Professor So-and-so — I know it won't be on the final or anything, but I've been wondering about X. Where can I learn more about it?"
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:03 AM on December 3, 2006

Yes, go to their office hours. Go prepared with questions that stem from class. Go early in the term so that the shit hasn't hit the fan yet, and, you will have less competition ( I hardly ever get students in my office hours except for the week before midterms and the week before finals. But it's a rising trend through the semester. YMMV). Do not take up the entire hour or whatever it may be. Be very sensitive to signs the professor is not engaged with you. Don't go every week. During those office-hour low-demand periods I often use the time to catch up on email or whatever. I am required to see students in that time, but they should be coming with intent if they come at all.

I wouldn't necessarily come with questions drawn from the professor's own work. As ROU said, if some student came with a question about some obscure paper of mine that had nothing to do with my course, my brown-nose detector would go off and it would not enhance my feeling towards you: I would feel manipulated. If you come with a reasonably intelligent questions about some major issue in the domain of economics your course is about, that is fine.

If you can do an honours thesis, great. If there are other venues for interaction, great. Use them.

I think your calling card may be that you switched from software engineering. While economics profs are probably more computer literate than many, I doubt all of them are, especially, perhaps, older ones. if you are able to offer some spiffy skillz in their lab, write macros for them, enhance the usability of common software tools, etc., then you may really bring something to the table. Learn enough to know what the professors use for software, do they need to code within that, can you offer some expertise. It's not likely you can make yourself indispensable, but if you can make yourself useful, that puts you on the map in the good sector of "interesting students who's name I know and face I don't dread seeing at my door".

It strikes me as a little hubristic to be talking of graduate school already: not because of your GPA but because you don't yet appear to have any contact with Economics and therefore you can't possibly know you have the passion and OCD commitment ROU refers to. So, don't mention this in your first meeting with the professor. If I had a student who said, well, I just switched from software engineering to archaeology and its the first week of my new program and I want to know how to get into graduate school and will you write me a reference I would be coloured unimpressed. You earn the right to have the letter of reference conversation by achieving something in economics within your undergraduate program.

Thus, at the end of the day, the greatest thing you can do is work hard and ace the course, and all your courses. If you put yourself at the head of the class then you will be noticed and perhaps even sought out.
posted by Rumple at 10:09 AM on December 3, 2006

What ROU said. Also, is there a student economics club at your school? If not, start one. One club activity could be a rotating coffee hour with individual professors where they explain their research and answer questions.
posted by LarryC at 11:36 AM on December 3, 2006

If you are serious about economics, you should at least read this, this, and this daily. Also, it will give you someting to talk about with the pros.
posted by thijsk at 11:42 AM on December 3, 2006

I just want to second Tallguy's suggestion. Being an RA is a great way to get a recommendation, and if you can get your name on some publication, even better, as far as getting into grad school is concerned.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 11:48 AM on December 3, 2006

Getting ready for graduate school is a process in itself. Talk with your professors about that.

Rumple has a valid point that you may be jumping the gun (or look like you are jumping the gun) if you are really new to the field and already planning on grad school. I am guessing, however, that you probably took some classes in economics before deciding to switch majors. If that is the case, then I do not think it is too early to speak with your professors about grad school. Start with an email saying, "I'm thinking about grad school and I'd like to talk with you about it. Would your office hours next week be a good time?" and then go in with "intent," as Rumple says.

Questions you might want to ask: What is grad school like in this field? Where did you go to grad school, and what was it like there? Did you enjoy it? How much do you think the grad student experience has changed or stayed the same since you were a grad student? Can you suggest anyone else (other faculty in the department, recent graduates, etc.) I should talk with to get their perspectives? What do people do with a graduate degree in economics, besides become econ professors?

Further questions, maybe for later quarters: My goals are [blah blah blah], which type of grad program would be the best match for me? What can I be doing now to get ready to apply? What can I do now to help me figure out what subfield I might want to work in? I'm really interested in [subfield X], which schools do you think have the best programs in that area? Are there programs that you think are really worth looking into, but that do not stand out in the published rankings?

Right now, your professors are the best resource you have available for answering all of the vital questions that someone heading towards grad school must have. Use that resource and the rest (you getting to know them, them getting to know you, recommendations) will follow.

Oh, and meanwhile, do not undervalue your relationship with the administrative staff in the department. Tallguy has a good idea about working as a research assistant, and the department secretary may be able to hook you up. Even if there are no research assistant jobs, departments often need a work-study student to hang around for a few hours a week, running the photocopier and answering the phone. That's another way to get on everybody's radar. The professors will see a bit more of you, and the administrative assistants will regard you as one of their own, which can be an immensely valuable "in" when it comes time to make all the grad-app paperwork happen.
posted by Orinda at 11:52 AM on December 3, 2006

The problem is that it is all such a lottery; talking to a Prof won't help that much.
posted by A189Nut at 2:10 PM on December 3, 2006

Yes yes: Go to office hours with some questions in mind about the subject. If you can't find anything that interests you about a given course, enough to want to talk about it, don't do this in that course. If you can't do this for any of your courses, then don't go to grad school in economics.

Don't say "I'm hoping you'll write me a letter of reference, what can I do to ensure you write a good one?" That would put me off immediately; makes you look smug. Say "I'm finding this class really interesting because of X. I just switched majors into econ, and would like to know what I can best do to get the most out of this time -- what courses should I take, what outside reading could I be doing, given that I am interested in things like X?"

The best letters I've written for students are for this who (a) want to talk about the subject in an intellectually curious way, (b) follow up on at least some advice about external readings. If you come back two weeks later, saying "I got that book you recommended, and I'm about 3/4 of the way through. Would you mind if we talked about it during your office hours?" I will be impressed.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:02 PM on December 3, 2006

Don't say "I'm hoping you'll write me a letter of reference, what can I do to ensure you write a good one?" That would put me off immediately; makes you look smug.

Obviously profs differ. That's exactly what I'd like to hear, because it gets to the point instead of dancing uselessly around it.

Don't waste my time with insincere or at best semi-sincere bullshit in order to try to curry favor. And since you're talking about doing this sort of thing in order to obtain a better letter, you're going to be at best semi-sincere.

Tell me what you want, and I'll have a frank discussion about graduate school with you, and tell you whether or not I could write a good letter for you as it stands, and what you might do to give me ammunition for a better letter. I don't give a fuck whether you're smug, confident, need more self-esteem, or smell funny. I do care how your behavior affects my workday. I can give you as much time as you want, but for crying out put it to effective use.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:05 PM on December 3, 2006

s/out put/out loud put/
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:06 PM on December 3, 2006

I'm a grad student and I think that there are three things that I did as an undergrad that got professors' attention and helped me get into grad school. The first was to pay attention in class. I know it doesn't seem like much but I've learned that actually paying attention in class (e.g. sitting up straight, looking alert, sitting near the front and taking notes) gets the instructors attention and helps me make my time in class more productive. I often found that the professor would end up looking back at me, teaching to me, and remembering who I was. And I'm pretty shy in front of people and generally don't ask questions in class. The second thing that I did a lot was help out other people; I would stay late in the lab or the tutorial sessions working with people and explaining concepts to them (and often having them explained to me). I studied engineering as an undergrad and had a lot of labs and tutorials so this might not apply to you as much though. I did this because it was helpful to me to work with other people (I find that I don't really understand something unless I can explain it to someone else) but in my last couple years a few professors came up to me and mentioned that they noticed the extra time I put in with other students. The third and probably the most important was I worked in a lab as an research assistant for a couple summers. This gave me some idea of what it would be like to be a grad student and helped me develop a better idea of what type of research I wanted to do.

The classes I took where the professors remembered me were always small (less than 40). I'd be hard pressed to remember my profs from my large lectures and would be even more surprised if they had any idea who I was.

I'm a big advocate of going to professor's offices during office hours and asking them questions but, that said, I think I can count on one hand the number of times I went to a professor's office (pre grad school) so don't think it's necessary.

And this probably doesn't need to be said but I totally disagree with A189Nut. If you have a great reference letter from someone who is respected in the field it will make getting in to grad school a lot easier.
posted by kechi at 4:32 PM on December 3, 2006

Agree with all of the above. The thing I would recommend the most, though, is to learn to ask questions. I know you say that you don't ask many questions because you know what's going on, but getting un-confused is only one reason to ask questions, and perhaps the most basic reason. There are also questions that try to integrate the subject matter with other topics in the course or other areas all together. You can also try out examples in questions. "So I'm trying to think of an example of theory X, would this be a good example...?" There are also (polite) challenging questions such as, "I really liked theory Y, doesn't this new theory call into question parts of Y?" and so on. As you get more advanced in the subject, your questions should get better and better. And you'll become precisely the kind of student whom professors gush about in letters of recommendation.

Heck, if you're shy you may want to aim for brown nosing. First of all, not all professors find it annoying and second of all, as a shy person you're not likely to realize just how outgoing you need to be in order to really be an annoying brown-noser.

Finally, my school has a rather elaborate program of undergraduate research. See if your school has something like that and ask your professors if they have research you can help with. It's a great way to get your foot in the door, learn the discipline, and become more friendly with your professors. Here, they actually give you a stipend in addition to that!
posted by ontic at 8:00 PM on December 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

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