Working with Professors

No matter how intelligent, clever, or driven students might be, the most important factor governing their success academically and professionally is how they interact with their fellow students and professors.

Andrew Roberts, an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern and author of The Thinking Student’s Guide to Colleges: 75 Tips for getting a Better Education, details how universities deliver an education. With tuition fast approaching the $50,000 mark at private universities, knowing how to navigate the academics, and most importantly, how to work with professors is invaluable.

Below is a distillation of some of Professor Robert’s tips for getting to know professors. Naturally, some are applicable for dealing with high school teachers and counselors as well.

Tip #1: Use and respect your professor’s time. Few students take advantage of their professor’s office hours. Fewer still actually seek out personal contact. This is a shameful waste of a valuable resource since many of the professors are acclaimed experts in their fields and are a wealth of information. Worse, those students who do set up office hour meetings often do not follow proper protocol: they use their cell phones in the meeting, forget to bring essential materials or fail to take notes as the professor offers advice. Come prepared, show proper respect and your professorial relationships might eventually forge into friendships.

Tip #2: Show interest in your professors’ fields of study. Dale Carnegie, the acknowledged expert on how to make friends and influence people, teaches that the key to attracting and befriending people is showing you’re interested in them. People love to talk about themselves, and professors, in particular, could talk for hours about their fields of study. They’ve dedicated their lives to their field. A student who shows a strong interest in a professor’s subject or research will quickly rise in the professor’s estimation.

Tip #3: Discover your professors’ research. Professor Roberts tells us that, ‘the intellectual center of professor’s lives is research’ (p.117). If you want to stand out among your classmates, read one of your professor’s publications or articles. Mention that you enjoyed his or her work, and you’re well on your way to making a friend.

Tip #4: Work for a professor as a Research Assistant (RA). Being a part of a research project consolidates your knowledge in a field, while allowing you to work under the mentorship of a professor, and even earning a stipend to offset your labors. An RA performs a lot of the support work within a research project such as photocopying articles or entering data. Perform well and you will likely be entrusted with more responsibilities, which might lead to actually conducting a portion of the research and writing up some of the findings.  

Tip #5: Get to know one professor well. Professors are people who enjoy being with young, eager, ambitious students—after all that’s why many are at a university in the first place.  How do you get to know them? Visit during office hours, take his or her small seminars, write a senior thesis with the professor as your advisor, or become an RA for his or her department or specific research project.

Tip #6 Get a recommendation from a professor who knows you well. Professors view writing recommendations for students they know well as part of their job. After all, they too, depended on the recommendations of others to gain their positions in the world of academics.  If the professor taught you in several classes, assisted you in a thesis, or guided you in independent research, you want a personal recommendation from him or her. You want the recommendation to contain details of the quality of your work. The better you can assist with a resume, cover letter, and meeting to direct the writing, the more cogent your recommendation will be.

Working with professors is really more about understanding and getting to know them as people. While intellectual prowess and capability are part of the encounter, taking an interest in the professor and his or her research is even more important. As with any friendship it will follow its own course, but properly nurtured it will probably be the most important part of your undergraduate career.