Help fix my problem: I haven’t talked with any professors yet!

Title: Help fix my problem: I haven’t talked with any professors yet!

By: Kirsten Fertuck, Ph.D., Associate Teaching Professor and Director, Biochemistry Program 

Probably the best advice that I have received professionally is “Nobody knows who you are”. I had applied for a job and was doing ‘good, solid work’ that required excellent people skills, but didn’t yet know departmental members who could actually say that I had these necessary skills. I received this feedback, didn’t get the job, and it was clearly time to think about how important it was to make these ‘personal connections’.

This turns out to be fairly relevant to the situation of a number of undergrads who see themselves as future health professionals. You of course don’t take it literally (just as I wasn’t supposed to), but it’s pretty good advice! “Nobody (who might be willing to recommend you) necessarily knows your capabilities as well as you hope, and is able to distinguish you as well as you would like from other rows on their spreadsheet.” Add the human dimension to your work! Don’t assume that everyone is automatically noticing the great work that a spreadsheet says that you’re doing. Sometimes it might not be enough.

There are advantages of going to a large school! I went to one, and you do too. For example, being affiliated with world-class research hospitals in an urban environment was definitely formative for me. But could you sometimes feel like you’ve been swallowed up? Sure. So it’s good to spend some time thinking about areas where you have control.

I think it’s good to test some wording out loud. Whisper it to yourself, and see how it sounds. Let’s start with a few options that are a little on the negative that you could try out: When I graduate, I might look back and say…

  • ‘At a large school it can be hard to get to know professors and I wasn’t sure what to do about this.’
  • ‘I used to think that it didn’t matter if I consistently came to class late, though now I’m starting to think that it was distracting to the professor and to those around me, and that it also put me in a less attentive frame of mind’
  • ‘It turns out that I’m not as good at multitasking as I thought I was; some of the things that I missed in class that ‘weren’t going to be on the exam’ may have been broadly the most important of all – is that why some other students are finding it much easier to connect with these professors and I have so little to talk to them about?’
  • ‘If I contacted my professor(s), it tended to be to express how upset I was. I’m not sure if I ever got to fully convey myself as someone who values the learning process and who plans to keep learning and incorporating feedback far into the future.’
  • ‘I regret some of the things that I said to my professors; I was angry and upset about my grades at the time, but I’m starting to realize that I might see them again if I go to grad school here… or we might even be colleagues together later in the future!’

Now here are a few that are a bit more positive: When I graduate, I think I’ll be able to look back and say…

  • ‘It may have been hard at first to participate in class, but I started to realize that school is a safe space to work on many different types of public speaking.’
  • ‘I started to realize that most professors really, really need students to participate in class periodically, and that it was okay for me to fill that role sometimes!’
  • ‘If I needed to contact a professor about a grade, I tried to in some way express how much I value the learning process in addition to the grade.’
  • ‘Sharing a laugh with a professor helped me to realize that they are humans too!’
  • ‘Being on a club executive board and working with a faculty advisor allowed me to get to know a professor in a whole new way!’
  • ‘I hope to be invited back as an alumni guest. I learned so much and would love to share my journey with current students!’
  • ‘I made strong connections with professors, staff, and peers here. I feel that if I need to reach out because I need a letter of recommendation or similar, I will be able to do so with confidence because I did my best work, both according to a spreadsheet and with my presence during classroom tasks/activities. If I needed help, I took advantage of the resources that were available.’

So you don’t know how to chat with your professor before/after class or during office hours? Let’s end with some tips! Obviously people fall on an entire complicated continuum, but to keep it simple, here’s a handy 2×2 matrix that you can use, depending on whether you already think your professor is more/less approachable and whether you think that you’d rather talk about more/less academic topics. Which one of the following describes your situation best?

Something that you could say (right before class? right after class? during office hours?)

Help! Hard to confirm if my professor is even human! I’m not exactly expecting a lot of chit chat…Professor seems ‘normal’ enough. What would I really SAY 1:1 though…?
I feel more comfortable if we stick closely to discussing the course – after all, it’s how we’ve been relating so far…One strategy to try: warm up with a question about the syllabus/requirements, and then ask a follow-up question about how successful students in the course often approach studying. (Continuation: can you connect coverage to an earlier course, or later coverage in the course to earlier? This shows good thinking…)One strategy to try: ask what other courses they teach, whether there is a later advanced elective that they recommend, try to think of work experience that you have (co-op etc.) that relates to the course that you can chat about, etc. (Continuation: consider talking to them about the topic of their advanced degree and/or how they chose to do it. Professors generally are willing to spend quite awhile giving advice to an attentive recipient)

I have more sides to me than just this class!! It would be weird if a professor thought that I only existed while I was in this seat in this class…


One strategy to try: sounds like you should go for ‘general chat’ mode. (‘Is this class far from your office?’ ‘Is it difficult fitting in this class schedule with [meal]?’ ‘Is this one of the better classrooms that you have been assigned for this class?’ ‘Do you need help with that?’ ‘Did you have a chance to watch [event] this weekend?’)


One strategy to try: ‘general chat’ mode works fine here, but you might be up for a good conversation. You probably have two options here – the wide world of safe conversation topics out there (Art! Music! Sporting events! Gadgetry! etc.!) or Life Advice (‘I noticed that you have X in your background, and was hoping that you wouldn’t mind talking about Y…’)

And don’t forget, a class has several key ingredients, and two of them are an instructor and the students. How do you feel about being a key ingredient? You already are one, but do you think that you can do more in that role?

Stay alert, keep the ‘people will know your proficiencies’ goal in mind, and I’m sure that the opportunities will fall in to place!