You may shuffle into class in your sweats, flip-flops, and graphic T but college is not always as casual as you think. That is, I am stunned at how naïve students can be in their dealings with professors and administrators. We all have horror stories of really inappropriate communication ranging from rude and demanding to virtually nonexistent. The cost of unprofessional behavior can be high; we sometimes mock silly students (behind their backs), we won’t respect you, and most importantly we may not help you.
Good news! It’s not that hard. You can up your game with a few tips. It will be worth it.
Cast out fear
Advisors and administrators tirelessly preach the gospel of student involvement. We want good students to be involved in the university, which includes taking the smaller seminar courses, gaining research experience in the labs, and registering for course credit for internships. We know that these “high touch” opportunities make all the difference for your college experience—and beyond. The #1 credential to support your getting a job after graduating (after the degree…OK, the #2 credential) is an internship. The most important qualification for admission to graduate school is research experience that comes with a letter of recommendation, which can’t happen if you don’t know any faculty. (Important caveat; many MA programs prefer human service experience.) However, there is a huge fog of fear smothering many students, especially newer students (e.g., Frosh, Soph). Students nervously tell us that they don’t know how to approach faculty. You really need to get over it. Force yourself to be vocal, but polite. Direct. Assertive. Clear. Whether by email, over the phone, or in person. First step: go meet your faculty advisor! Even if you have nothing to say. They’ll get bored in 5 minutes and end up rattling off a ton of helpful advice. The point; you must reach out to someone and make it a pleasant experience when you do. How do you make it pleasant?
Know your audience
Know whom you are addressing and how to communicate with them. This is critical. A helpful metaphor is in order; a professor is somewhere in between your real estate agent and your physician. If you have a real estate agent, you have their cell number and you expect them to respond quickly—even on Sunday (hey, that’s when house hunting happens!). A real estate agent comes into your house. You might talk for a long time. If you have a physician, you have no idea how to contact them by mail, email, or telephone without calling the office and going through layers of separation set up to protect them from being buried in communications. This is because your physician might have 3000 patients. They simply can’t give out their email or phone number to 3000 people who need something from them. You will have to make an appointment and show up early to wait. You better bring your wallet. Once you see your physician, conversations are short and to the point. They only have 15-20 minutes to spare, and they’re already behind.
Your relationship to University professors is somewhere between these extremes. We have 900 psychology majors. Some professors teach hundreds of students. We also have demanding research programs, which is something like being the CEO of a small company that produces science. More on that some other day. But for now, keep in mind that you cannot be as “familiar” with a professor as you can be with a sales person. They don’t work for you. What does this mean?
- Make an appointment. They are not waiting around in their office to talk to you. Don’t show up unannounced—even during office hours.
- Telephone if you want to. But they are not waiting around in their office to answer the phone. Call anyway, but if you don’t reach them, don’t be dismayed.
- Be patient with email. They may not answer email within 24 hours. They get 275 emails every day and have 1800 unread emails. They may not answer email, ever. It is not personal. If you want a response, email politely and don’t get frantic if they haven’t gotten back to you in 24 hours. Give them about 72 hours then try again.
- Identify yourself in attachments. When you email; put your NAME on the attachments you send. Don’t send “Homework.doc” or “Resume.pdf” or “Final thesis.doc.” They got 10 of those yesterday and yours will get lost.
- Dress up for in-person meetings. This is a bit optional, but the clever student knows that “the clothes make the man.” If you want to make a good impression that says “pay attention to me—I’m a winner!” then you replace the flip-flops with shoes and the sweats with…something. Professors are people too, and your “social stimulus value” matters. You would never go to a job interview looking like a slutty clown on Halloween. Your professor can sometimes literally give you a job (in the lab) or other valuable opportunities. It’ll be worth it.
How close are you?
Some professors have administrative duties that require them to interact with you. I am the undergraduate coordinator, so I have to sign all the forms relevant to that role like study abroad forms and course equivalency forms. Some professors teach your class, so they should be willing to communicate with you outside of class. Students are very reluctant to talk to the instructor outside of class, but that is silly. Some professors are your academic advisor, and they wish you would come back every semester until you graduate, in order to give them an update on your progress. Some professors are the director of the research lab in which you work, so they may spend considerable time training you or hanging out at lab meetings. This is one of the best ways to get more personalized attention. Then there are the professors who work at the university but have no connection to you at all. Responding to your emails is a lower priority, but they’ll do their best.
College is already expensive enough, but the value is diminished by alienating your faculty with unprofessional communication. There is a lot of variability in the amount and quality of attention that students get from professors. By definition, a professor has “made it.” They finished college, finished graduate school, and got a job in a very competitive market. They know a thing or two about success. They are eager to share this with you—they really are. My favorite accomplishments as a member of the faculty are those of my students who went on to do great things. Obviously I’m not going to devote myself to the whiny entitled complainers who are angry that I didn’t jump to meet their demands. Rather, the students who show respect by being professional quickly get my attention.