Dr. Isis has a very interesting post up over at her new place on how and if one should relate personally to one’s students. In reply, Stephanie has posted a beautiful story of her own. And JLK posted some quite excellent comments. Both of these posts made me think a lot, which is probably the only reason you will catch me blogging on a weekend. Being a grad student, weekends are the time when I catch up on all the crazy work that I didn’t manage to get done during the week. Yeah, no life. I know.
How do you relate to your profs? How are you supposed to? When I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed little undergrad on my first day of orientation, there were lots of warm words spoken to the effect of “get to know your professors and get them to know you”. This is not just to give you warm fuzzies inside or get yourself invited over to professorial houses for home-made dinners (a thing I heard of, which, alas, never happened to me). Getting to know your professors can have a profound impact on whether or not you get that precious reference to grad/med school. And it can make the difference between a college (or grad school) experience that was “you know, college”, and one that was intellectually stimulating, challenging, and the kind of college experience that every young geek dreams about when they’re stuck in some sort of “rocks for jocks” in high school.
I went to a small liberal arts school, and so I probably had a lot more luck getting in touch with profs than those at major super size universities might have. Still, the same rules do apply.
In undergrad, I had two favorite profs. One taught Philosophy, and one taught Biology. Both taught both intro classes and advanced classes. The Philosophy prof probably had it a lot easier getting to know students. Philosophy classes were generally capped at under 40 people, and discussion was highly encouraged in class. Still, most of those students were there to fulfill general requirements, and never spoke up unless they had to. They slumped in the back of the class, never spent more time on a paper than absolutely required, and probably gave the poor prof horrible reviews on ratemyprofessor.com because they got bad grades or because they hated his suspenders. But for those who went to his office hours (usually only advanced students were there), he was endlessly gracious, would read over your paper draft while you watched, and engage you in discussion for as long as he could spare. I’m still not entirely sure why I didn’t end up going to grad school in Philosophy, but my continued interest in it is entirely due to him.
The other prof is the reason I went to grad school, and the reason I am where I am now. He was (and is) an Animal Physiology professor, and from the first week in that class, I was hooked. I haunted his office hours, asking questions, emailing more questions, and generally making myself annoying. At first, I thought I’d probably get a few lectures and then a “ask the TA” or “consult the book”. He’s a busy guy. But he never brushed me off. He welcomed me into his office, and we talked for ages, sharing a love of science. I went back several times even when I wasn’t in his class, to share something I’d learned or to ask for advice on grad school. He welcomed me in every time.
When I applied for my first independant funding, I emailed him from grad school to ask him for a recommendation. And he remembered. I got a 4-page letter which is still one of the most truthful things I’ve ever seen anyone write about me. Through my questions in class, our science conversations, and my grades, he knew more about me than I than knew about myself. Did he know the name of my boyfriend? Heck no. Did I even know he was married to another prof in the same department? Nope. Did he know anything about my family, my friends, or my love of coffee? Not a thing. But he knew about my curiosity, my drive (or lack thereof, depending on the subject), and my potential. And I still think that letter of recommendation may have been one of the things that got me my funding.
So one time, I was in the office of my favorite Animal Phys professor. During a pause in the conversaiton, he looked a little uncomfortable. He pulled out a piece of paper, wrote down a name from his computer monitor, handed it to me, and said “look, you’re in the class, um…do you know who this guy is? I got an email asking for a letter of recommendation for med school, and I swear I don’t know anything about him…”
I looked at the name. It was the name of one of my study buddies. We spent hours together every week in the library, and he always sat to my left in class. The two of us populated the center of the front row like the total geeks we are. Study Buddy got better grades than I did by a mile. He was motivated beyond belief. But Study Buddy had never once talked to the prof. He never asked questions in class. Sure, he got good grades, but a name on the test doesn’t make for recognition, especially when profs are supposed to grade blind. Of course I spoke up and put in many good words for my Study Buddy on the subject of his drive, his hard work, his excellent grades, etc (though I left out the parts about his INSANE sense of humor). I hope he got the recommendation.
But here’s the point. Just because you make good grades, doesn’t mean they know who you are. In fact, it almost makes them LESS likely to know who you are. At least with bad grades, you have to haul someone in and talk to them face to face. And not everyone is going to have a friend who’s close to the prof to put in a good word for their recommendation. So there’s more to knowing your prof than warm fuzzies.
How do you get to know your prof? It will be harder at super-size unis, but ask those questions. Raise your hand in class. Email. Make yourself annoying if you have to. Flattery, in many cases, will get you everywhere. This won’t work for all professors. But honestly, in a choice between a big name prof who emerges from his office twice a week to teach brusquely for an hour, or a little-name prof who abounds with energy and always has time for his students, go with the little name. You’ll have more success and you’ll get a better recommendation down the line. And little names become big names some day.
One of the best ways to get a prof to recognize you is to insert yourself into the smaller, more specialized classes. They may not be exactly what you need to graduate, but they are often incredibly interesting and challenging. And it’s a lot easier for a prof to notice you when class size is under 200.
If you really think a big name prof is important, do what you can. If he has grad students, ask them questions and get to know them, they can put in a word for you. Get to know your TAs. As a TA, I’ve been asked several times about students, and I’d like to give them all a positive spin. And when it comes down to the wire and you need to ask for that recommendation, nothing works better than attaching a carefully crafted recommendation letter to the email as an example, along with a copy of your CV, relevant grades, and something on why you’re applying where you’re applying and what you want to do with yourself. A little extra flattery in here is also good.
I know it can be very hard, and it’s never any good being brushed off. But developing a relationship with a professor can make a big difference. For me, it was part of the reason I am where I am now: chronically sleep-deprived, malnourished (seriously, dinner the other night was a handful of Doritos and a cookie), and stressed out and frustrated all the time.🙂 But it’s all for the love of science. Even one prof who knows your name is better than none.
Filed under: Academia