Over the summer, one of my Veritas Prep clients from last year asked me if I had any advice for him before school started. Offering advice is what I do for a living, so it’s a safe bet that I did, but he probably knew that before he asked. This 3-part blog series grew out of that initial off-the-cuff email response and is designed for anyone in any stage of business school, whether you’re still researching schools, walking onto campus for the first time, or have graduation in the near future. Your two years will fly by, and you want to make sure you graduate without saying “If only I had ….”
Part Three – Tear Down that Glass Wall!
If you went to a large undergraduate school, the concept of getting to know a professor might sound pretty unrealistic. She might have been just a speck in the front of an enormous lecture hall, or graduate TAs might have been your primary instructors. If you attended a smaller school, the faculty might have seemed more approachable, but the age and experience gaps could still be a little intimidating. Either way, you might have felt as if an invisible glass wall stood between the class and The Mysterious Professor.
In business school you’ll find the interaction can be different. It’s not uncommon to have a professor whose age makes them closer to a peer, and because professors encourage students to bring real-world experiences into the classroom, sometimes the teacher/student roles are reversed. Although the faculty still garners well-deserved respect from their students, the barrier between “us” and “them” is much less rigid than it was in undergrad.
Don’t misunderstand – professors are still authority figures and based on that alone, they can seem inaccessible. They’ll issue your grade at the end of the course, and the mere prospect of a cold call from them can induce fear into even the most over-confident investment banker. Some are downright famous. And oh yeah, they can be scary smart. (Imagine my cohort’s surprise when, on the first day of our first semester operations class, our professor called on us by name! It turns out he had memorized all of our faces and names, using the pre-Facebook version of Facebook.)
But don’t be intimidated – breaking through the wall has many benefits. At the risk of stating the obvious, you could learn something. That course you’re taking represents a mere sliver of what she knows about the subject. You can also bridge the gap between academics and career development. Many professors maintain outside consulting relationships with companies and can actually be quite good sources of career advice and even job leads. (And speaking of job leads, sometimes they need second-year students as TA’s.) Some professors even act as angel investors, so if you’re entrepreneurially minded, you might land some good advice at minimum or an investor at most.
Some schools make it easy to do this. Wharton offers a popular Take A Professor To Lunch program. My team did this several times, and it was well worth it. We loved that our buttoned-up accounting professor, known for wearing suits, panty hose and heels on class days, showed up for lunch in jeans and flip flops. Professors! They’re just like us! Darden is famous for “First Coffees” – a dedicated time after the first class of the day when students, faculty, and visitors all gather.
If there’s no organized program at your school, you’ll have to put forth some effort, but that doesn’t mean it’s hard. Even the most famous professors still have office hours; professors at Darden even have an open door policy. If you’re in their class, go visit. Bring questions about something discussed in a lecture. If you aren’t in the professor’s class but have a shared career or research interest, reach out to request a brief meeting. Now, not every single professor will welcome this level of contact, and that’s fine. If you encounter indifference, don’t sweat it and don’t take it personally. Just move on.
Professors are busy folks – among teaching MBAs (and maybe undergrads and PhDs, too), outside consulting, and of course their research and writing, time is at a premium – so be respectful. Don’t hog the ENTIRE office hour. Do your research – at minimum, read their bio on the school’s website, look over a few of their publications, or leaf through their latest book. Bring some specific questions that prove you’re exactly the sort of curious, well-prepared student who’s worth their time. Be cautious, though, about connecting with your professors on social media – to maintain boundaries, some discourage Facebook or LinkedIn invites while you’re still a student.
If you’re still in the application process, listen up. These very professors will have a profound influence on you, so do your due diligence. When you visit campus, observe the interactions between faculty and students. Ask students how accessible their professors are outside of class. If your school visit offers an opportunity to meet the faculty, take advantage of it. Ask about the protocol for reaching out to professors during the admissions process. Schools sometimes discourage this, but if you have a specific area of interest, the admissions office might be willing to facilitate an introduction.
Making a relatively small effort to tear down the wall between the front of the room and the back of the room can pay big dividends. You’ll at least end up just that much smarter; you might end up with a mentor, an investor or even a lifelong friend!
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Rachel is a Veritas Prep Head Consultant for The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, and Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. Her specialties include consulting, older and part-time applicants, and international candidates.