Today on The Professional Collegiate we’re talking about how to talk to your professor!
Talking to professors is a quintessential part of student life, and if you don’t talk to your professors, you should really start. Being able to have a real discussion with your prof is essential for so many reasons, the most important ones being (in my opinion):
- You don’t waste time struggling with material you don’t understand because you can just shoot them a question
- It’s a great networking opportunity for meeting professionals in your field
- You get extra information about the expectations for the course that isn’t in the syllabus
- It’s great practice for talking to people in any form of authority over you later in life
- You feel more confident in your school environment
That being said, talking to your professor can be scary!
These are the people who have your life in their control right now! They control your grades, they’re in a position of authority over you, and they just know so much more than you do in (what can sometimes feel like) absolutely everything. That being said, even if you’re still scared, there are some things that you can keep in mind to remain professional and to be a bit calmer and less stressed when talking to your professor. I’ve had 4 years of experience talking to professors, and I’ve compiled a list of “dos” and “don’ts” for talking to your professor that will help you maintain your professionalism and confidence.
Do: Remember that their job is to teach, not to do the work for you
I’ve seen far too many kids actually ask their professor to give them a few good thesis suggestions for an end-of-year paper. Don’t do that. It’s your job to brainstorm for ideas for the paper, write your outline, formulate a thesis, and study for the test–they’re not there to do your school work for you, they’re there to guide you along.
Similarly, don’t ask about what chapters will be on the exam (unless they specifically mentioned that some will be omitted but you didn’t quite catch which ones) or for them to look over your paper. They’re not allowed to do that–it’s your responsibility to have your paper up to par for the course! I cannot stress this enough: your professor is not there to do your work! You are!
Do: Remember that if you do your part, they’ll happily do theirs
The flip side of the first point is that when a professor does see a student truly putting in the effort, he’s more than happy to go above and beyond his duty to that student! I’ve had tons of professors discuss my topics at length with me instead of just brush me off because I proved that I want to do the work myself, not just mooch off of my professor’s expertise. Instead of going to office hours asking for research question suggestions, I’ll go with 3 or 4 potential questions already brainstormed so that the office hours are spent in discussion about which topics would fit best with the course.
If professors see you working hard, they want to help you succeed! This is where networking comes in handy. I have lots of professors who I can e-mail with any questions about graduate studies, scholarship applications, for letters of reference, etc. just because I’ve gone out of my way to be a good student and get to know them. When your professor sees you trying, they’ll do all they can to help you.
Don’t: Assume you’re a bother
Reaching out to them isn’t annoying or a hassle—it’s their job to listen to students and help them learn! Don’t worry about annoying them or infringing on their day, even if they’re one of the profs who has made it very clear that office hours are something they have to do, not want to do. You are paying them for their time–they’re not doing you any favours.
Do: feel free to ask questions
Professors want to hear from you! If you’re confused about a certain topic, or just curious about a study you’re reviewing in class, ask them about it! Like I said earlier, your professor wants to help you, and loves seeing you eager to learn in his/her class.
Don’t: Ask stupid questions
And yes, there is definitely such a thing as a stupid question. Here are some examples:
“What’s the reading for this week?” (Reason it’s stupid: It’s right in the syllabus. Look it up for yourself.)
“What sections in chapter 5 are on the exam?” (Reason it’s stupid: they’re not allowed to tell you and you sound like you’re lazy)
“How much is the assignment worth?” (It’s also in the syllabus! Just read your syllabus already!)
Related: 5 Things To Do During Syllabus Week
I feel like the most common stupid question to ask your prof is something that’s already answered for you. To avoid this, read the syllabus and reference it in your conversation so your professor knows that you have tried to find the answer on your own. Don’t go to office hours about a specific topic until you’ve done the reading on your own, and actually think through what you need help with rather than just asking questions every time that you hit the slightest speed bump!
What does NOT count as a stupid question is anything you’re having difficulty understanding! Often when we don’t get something, or we’re a bit behind the rest of the class, we put ourselves down and can feel like we’re not as smart, but that’s not necessarily the case at all! Maybe you just need it explained a different way! I’ve had this exact experience numerous times, and just going in to ask your prof to explain a concept in a new way can illuminate the whole week’s material in less than 10 minutes. Trust me. If you don’t understand something, that’s not a stupid question.
Do: be professional and polite
When you’re talking to professors be professional! They are your teacher, they are the person you are deferring to in this situation.
I always try to talk to my professor as I would talk to my boss. No swearing, call them by their title (Professor Smith, instead of just “Bob”), don’t tell crude jokes, and don’t get super personal (they don’t need to know about how you were throwing up last night from that leftover egg salad, for example). Be respectful–if they can’t give you the answer you want (for instance, what’s on a test), don’t throw a hissy fit. Just thank them for their time anyway, and keep studying hard for their class.
Yes, we’re paying professors to teach us, but that doesn’t give you permission to treat them with disrespect.
Don’t: Send them multiple e-mails.
Often when you try to talk to a professor they ask you to just e-mail you instead, sometimes because they’re just too busy at that moment to talk with you. After you send them your first e-mail, give them at least 48 hours to respond. This seems to be the average amount of time for my professors. Don’t e-mail them two hours later asking if they got your first message, and then re-send it all 5 hours later, and then the next morning, and then 2 hours after that…
Professors are busy people will full schedules, and mountains of e-mail. They’ll get to yours–if they don’t, ask them if they got your message at the next class, or send another quick message after two full days (AFTER you first wrote the e-mail) have passed, not before.
So there you have it! Those are my top tips for talking to professors. I hope they give you some confidence and a bit of a game plan next time you go into office hours!
What do you do when talking to professors? Do you find it intimidating, or are you more comfortable with them?
Read my other posts in The Professional Collegiate here!