College can be demanding in a number of ways. There are the social demands that can take up large swaths of time in the evening, academic demands, the more existential demands with regard to what path you will follow in your studies and beyond. But – besides all that – there is the added demand to be noticed among the potentially hundreds of students a professor may teach. The benefits of developing a relationship with professors are numerous, from potential connections to job providers within your field, to having a person to heap praises on you (I am speaking of the dreaded letters of recommendation). Recommendations are needed by the fistful when students get to the place in their studies when they start applying for grants, internships, fellowships, and higher degrees. These pesky pieces of paper are the bane of many student’s existence and are especially tricky to obtain if you are not a student who easily forms relationships with teachers and other mentor figures. For those who may not have their professors on speed dial, here are some tips for how to develop a relationship with professors.
1. Connect with a professor you actually respect.
Ideally, the professors that you end up forging a connection with will be renowned in their field, but if professors really rub you the wrong way, it will be extremely difficult to maintain any kind of meaningful relationship with them. It is likely that all the faculty in your program are pretty good at what they do, so allow the natural compatibility that helps all relationships form to act in the realm of professor-students relationships as well.
2. Connect with a professor whose field of study interests you.
One of the best resources that professors can offer beyond advice and letters of recommendation is an opportunity to connect you to work in their field, either by employing you directly or connecting you with others in the field who may need interns or employees. For this reason it is extremely important to connect with professors whose work you find interesting. Having access as an undergraduate to someone who is knowledgeable and passionate about a field of study is extremely helpful, especially for those interested in a field that could involve undergraduate research, as it creates a built in mentor who you can aid in research and who can help you in doing your own independent investigations.
3. Don’t just go to office hours if you have a question about class materials (though definitely go to office hours if you have questions about class materials).
Office hours are built into a professor’s schedule so that students can have access to the faculty one on one. Utilize this time! Certainly go if you’d like clarification on a topic from the lecture, but also just go and chat! Ask the professor about their research, ask what is hard and what is rewarding about their field, ask what advice they would give themselves at your age. People love to talk about themselves, so this will not be an inconvenience. This is also a great opportunity to talk about your own personal goals and ask for advice on how to achieve them. These conversations not only demonstrate that you are passionate enough to make time to talk, but will also give the professor things to chat about should you need to ask them for a letter of recommendation.
4. Follow up.
In general, this little networking trick is a great way to stay present in a person’s experience. If you have a good conversation with a professor, or you enjoyed their class, or you are just feeling a bit sycophantic, send your professor an email. Sending something short and kind, even something as short as, “Thanks for making the time to chat with me today. I really appreciated your insights” can go a long way toward starting a relationship with a professor. Don’t be afraid to follow up, as long as you aren’t asking for anything specific, most people are happy to receive kind follow up emails. A nice follow up can also help to establish a correspondence which can be useful should you actually need something like a recommendation or advice on where to apply for a job.
These are all pretty straight forward techniques, but don’t be afraid to use them. Professors are paid, often quite generously, to be available to students. So ask for help, ask for guidance, and make yourself known. It will be extremely beneficial down the line and will make the time when you need advice, recommendations, or referrals much easier.
David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT.