How to Talk to Professors

How to Talk to Professors

One of the greatest aspects of attending a college or university is the opportunity to form relationships with some incredibly smart and accomplished professors. 

However, at larger universities with big lecture classes, your professors can end up feeling a little remote. The spring of my freshman year, I enrolled in Introduction to Microeconomics, a 400-person lecture taught by Harvey Rosen, former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President George H.W. Bush and an all-around big deal in the field of economics. Rosen wore a microphone to deliver his 50-minute lectures in the cavernous McCosh 50, the largest classroom at Princeton, while 400 students frantically took notes. After every class, I would follow the herd of students that stampeded the gothic doors and watch as a different group boldly marched onto the stage to talk to Rosen about his lecture.

When I first asked about managing relationships with professors, many people told me that it was important to make sure that all of your professors know you, which meant staying after class to talk one-on-one with the professor.

As a humanities major enrolled in economics to satisfy a requirement, I never dreamed of hanging around after class to shoot the breeze with Harvey Rosen. In fact, I didn’t feel comfortable doing this in any of my big lecture classes, and I worried that this would mean I wasn’t getting the most out of my classes. However, I eventually came to realize that there were other ways to build relationships with professors that were less intimidating and equally valid.  

For obvious reasons, the professors that you will usually form relationships with are the ones in your major department, or at least within your general interest of study. If you want to reach out to a professor outside your field and you feel comfortable doing so, then go for it, but you are not obligated. Either way, don’t be intimidated; most professors who teach the big introductory courses also teach smaller, seminar type classes every couple of semesters, so keep an eye on the course catalogue. A smaller class size means that reaching out will feel more natural, and it will be easier to get to know your instructor. You can even invite professors to get coffee after class if you really want to pick their brain. This might feel presumptuous, but keep in mind that professors are people, too, and they have dedicated their whole lives to the study of a particular subject. They are keen on passing on that knowledge, meaning they are usually more than happy to grab coffee with a student who is interested in their field of expertise.

Whatever your preference is, just make sure that you are reaching out to your professors, and even preceptors and teaching assistants, in some form or another. 

If you are applying to internships or programs through your university, you will most likely be asked for letters of recommendation from instructors, and you will want to have a few people who know you reasonably well from whom you can ask this favor. Not only will it pay to know your professors in these situations, but building a relationship with a professor whose work you admire can also lead to summer research positions and other great connections. Most of all, as a college student you have the unique opportunity get to know some of the most talented, passionate, and intelligent individuals across a huge variety of fields, so seize it.

Picture of Katie Williams

Katie Williams

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