Warm fuzzies and getting to know your profs

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.

19 Responses

  1. Oh, dear. At least tell me it was an oatmeal raisin cookie. Is the food problem time, money or portability (something you can eat in the lab)? We can fix all three if you’re not outrageously fussy about what you eat.
    And thank you for the kind words.

  2. Good grief. Thanks for so clearly illustrating how wholly dysfunctional the recommendation system is in the USA. Study Buddy is a brilliant student yet cannot get anywhere without stalking/sucking up to the prof. Since when was pester power more important than good grades?
    Mind you it seems even more bizarre that a prof won’t even know how good their students are – are you really saying that?

  3. Great post, Scicurious. I continue the conversation here.

  4. James: That’s not really what I was after. Ideally, “stalking/sucking up” is not the goal (though I did see that happen). The fact is, as profs get bigger and badder, they often lose sight of undergrads. But there are always some who WON’T lose sight of them, and it’s those that you need to contact.
    And consider: A prof grades his test blind, so he doesn’t know who took each test. He then enters the grades, and hands the tests back. How many opportunities are there for him to think glowing thoughts about the people in his class who did well on the test, esp if the class has more than 50 students in it? There IS more to a student/teacher relationship than good grades. A robot can get good grades. A prof sees probably well over 200 students per day, and that’s in a SMALL college, in a larger one, he may be lecturing to over 1000.
    So I would say, it’s not that the recommendation system is wholly dysfunctional, it’s that classes are often way too large, and the learning system (particularly in lower level classes) is often reduced to facts that are spewed back on a test. This is not conducive to a good student/teacher relationship. And I definitely think there should be a better way. But most people I know had a good relationship with at least one prof in college (I only named my two best, but there were way more than that). Study Buddy was rare in that he just didn’t talk to his profs.

  5. James, I think Scicurious has it correct. When you apply for graduate study your grades speak for themselves. The purpose of a recommendation is to speak to your professionalism and potential to succeed in a graduate program/career. Unfortunately, it is terribly difficult to speak to a student’s potential when you don’t know who they are. I would argue that this is no different than asking for a recommendation in the workplace or any other environment.

  6. And sorry, Stephanie, it was a chocolate chip cookie. 😦 I’m not usually this bad at all! I was just stuck in the lab for 13 hours and that was what was in our clean room.

  7. The best way to get the attention of faculty in a research-based university is to become an undergraduate researcher in a faculty member’s laboratory. Applicants to graduate programs in the sciences at top research universities are uncompetitive–no matter how good their grades–if they have not engaged in research as undergrads.

  8. Scicurious, you only confirm my fears with your reply. My point is not to do with how hard it is to get a good recommendation or not, but more fundamentally a criticism of the fact that the recommendation (apparently) has a more than nugatory importance. In the UK, references are generally used basically as a check that the person isn’t a total fraud, and often not even taken up until the decision has already been taken. The interview provides an opportunity to check that the applicant has some basic social skills. The prof shouldn’t have to “think glowing thoughts” or even know the student if the student is getting good grades and not causing trouble. They should, however, be able to check up the student’s grades to confirm that the student didn’t make them up.
    Honestly, a greater recipe for discrimination and exclusion would be hard to think up – and the evidence is out there that plenty of such discrimination takes place, unless my memory deceives me.

  9. James: Would you rather base the acceptance of students into grad schools purely upon their grades and test scores? My department actually tried that once, and got some real bad apples. Anyone can get good grades. Good grades have nothing to do with curiosity or even with intelligence. When you base your acceptance on things like research (as physioprof points out), and whether or not this person was interested enough in the material to pursue it purposefully with the professor and get the professor to know them, you end up with students who are more driven and clearly interested in the field. You end up with better scientists, and the grad school ends up with a bigger name.
    However, in some ways your criticism is very warranted. I have often seen grad students get good postdocs based entirely on the names they knew or the names they worked for, and regardless of whether or not they were in fact good scientists (though most of them were). Yes, there is discrimination in science. It’s based a lot on who you know as opposed to what you know. And that old boys network is a problem. It certainly makes me frustrated when someone gets glowingly introduced because they were lucky enough to wash dishes for BigWig in undergrad, and I get a “oh yeah, there’s Sci”, because there was no BigWig at my undergrad. And some of us come to our fields later than others (I was totally going to be an English professor or something), and thus never pursued opportunities to be a researcher in a lab when we were in diapers.
    So yes, there are problems in the system, you are very right. But until we change the system, we have to play along, and we have to get those references.

  10. ‘S okay, Scicurious. You just had me worried with the talk of malnutrition. As long as it isn’t an everyday thing, we can let it slide. 😉

  11. Hey, wait, Stephanie! Were you going to send Sci delicious healthy food?! I’m SO MALNOURISHED!! It’s DREADFUL! My iron levels are so low I crawl to work in the mornings! Really!
    Actually, that particular 48 hour period saw my dinner as doritos and a cookie, breakfast the next morning as tostitos and M&Ms, and a bagel for lunch. Not a good record. It was a LONG time in the lab.

  12. sci commented earlier…
    I have often seen grad students get good postdocs based entirely on the names they knew or the names they worked for, and regardless of whether or not they were in fact good scientists (though most of them were). Yes, there is discrimination in science …
    There is discrimination in every field, in every workplace, in every human endeavor. Regulate, proscribe, set rules, penalize, reward … there will always be discrimination.
    The ‘job’ of anyone facing discrimination is to overcome those intentional and unknown barriers that hold them back. Not to complain about how unfair it all is. Sometimes you can break down barriers and systems from the top down. Sometimes you do it from the bottom up.
    Anyway . . ..

  13. Actually, I was going to suggest you do your own recipe contest for lab-friendly, budget-friendly nutritious food. My personal solution for feeding starving students has always been big batches of freezable soup. It doesn’t ship well, I’m afraid.

  14. The size of your department makes a HUGE difference in the ability of the professors to get to know you. Guaranteed, most undergrad physics majors know their professors. After all, there are only four of them… In my department, we each see our students in several classes, and our classes average probably 15-20, so we get to know them pretty well. My biggest challenge is writing good recommendation letters for mediocre students. “Although he did not attend class regularly and anchored the bottom of the curve on all the exams, we were impressed with his senses of humor…”

  15. Anyone can get good grades.
    How? Cheating? When I was a student (admittedly some time ago now) the only people who got first class degrees were both clever and at least moderately hard-working (we didn’t have officially graded tests during the degree course, although there were informal tests).
    Good grades have nothing to do with curiosity or even with intelligence
    So what are they for?
    If the tests you take really are wholly inadequate at discriminating between capable and incapable students, the answer is to improve the tests. I’m amazed that you actually think a prof will be a better and fairer judge of a student’s potential based on the possibility of some limited social contact even when (in the case presented above) they don’t even know what the student’s grades are! We KNOW that (white male middle class) profs will write better letters for students whose “faces fit”.

  16. James: sad to say, the higher levels of academia are not clean of cheaters. If only more of them got caught.
    And I don’t disagree that tests which involve spitting back information are not adequate for real learning. It is merely the most convenient way to get students to store information for more and higher tests, such as the MCAT. But, in the situation as it stands right now, a prof is a better judge of who a person is and how driven they are about science than a bubble-sheet. And getting to know a prof is part of showing how driven you are, along with getting the good grades.
    Also, good grades can make for a good student. But do they make for a good researcher? That takes lab experience, and lab experience takes professor contact.
    It is true that there is discrimination, I’m not denying that. It is the responsibility of profs to recommend people on their merit and not on whether their faces fit. Unfortunately, professors are human. I’m just offering advice on how to work the system we have.

  17. Two-HUNDRED students per lecture!?! On the SMALL side!?
    Ultra-tiny CSUs For The Win!

  18. James, you are comparing two different systems. You seem to be in the UK, where students are tracked early, and there is much less variation in the student population. There are some institutions in the US that are state or land-grant colleges. These have to let everyone in with the cash, almost regardless of ability. In a class of 500, or even 100, which I’ve seen even at small colleges what are you going to do?
    “Person X did very well in my class, but he never interacted with me, never came to office hours, and I don’t recognise him by sight.” Geez, that’s a ringing reccomendation.
    I interview for medical school and I ignore grades and essays totally. The secretary filters out those who don’t make the cut. I want to see if the applicant is pleasant, mature, and affable. None of these attributes show up on their grades.

  19. Thanks for the shout-out, Scicurious. If anyone is interested in my personal experience (possibly with a little whining included), I just posted my story over at my blog.

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