How to Talk to Professors

Now that I’ve started graduate school, I’ve had to go and talk with lots of professors.  Discussing class topics, planning presentations, setting up rotations, asking for letters of recommendation, getting advice on projects, etc., I decided that it’s time to share my thoughts on how to go about it, and what mistakes many people make.  So, without any further ado, let me present: How to Talk to Professors!

Before the meeting:

Get a notebook.  Even if you have an amazing memory, get a notebook.  And a pencil or pen.  Bring it with you.  Take notes in it.  It will keep you on track, help you remember anything interesting the professor mentions that you may want to look at later – and to the professor, it makes you look as though you really care about what they say.  Win/win.

Figure out what you’re after.  Why are you even bothering to talk to this professor?  This should be pretty obvious, but make sure that you’re aware of what you’re after.  If you want a letter of recommendation, this should be your primary goal.  Want a rotation slot?  That’s your goal.  Write this at the top of your notebook so you won’t forget, should you be distracted or the topic veer off topic.

Read up on the professor.  This depends a bit on the professor, but the best way to seem smart and knowledgeable is to be prepared.  (Also, the best way to seem undesirable is to go in with no background, should your goal be to bomb the meeting.)  And I mean more than knowing the professor’s name!

  • Website bio.  Everyone has a website with a bio on it these days.  Find it by Googling your professor’s name and give it a quick read.  Chances are good that it hasn’t been updated since 2010, but check it out nonetheless.
  • Their last 3-5 significant works.  Most professors write research papers, which are then published.  If they’re in biological sciences, put their name into NCBI’s database and see what comes up.  If they’re in a different discipline, you may need to find a different database.
    • Note: do not read the entire paper!  Do it if you’ve got time, but usually you don’t need to bother.  Read the abstract, introduction, and conclusions/discussion.  That usually gives you enough to follow along in their talking without having to memorize too much.
  • The syllabus.  Meeting with the professor for a class?  First, make sure your answer isn’t in the syllabus.  If you show up and ask about something clearly stated in the syllabus, the professor will irrationally hate you for the rest of the class. 
Location, location, location.  Do you know where your professor’s office is?  Are you sure?  Better double-check (good thing you found their website already!).  Figure out how to get there, and plan an extra 5-10 minutes to account for getting lost in the labyrinthine halls of these massive buildings.  Who decided that a Space Invader was the best floor plan layout anyway??
Was that a left or right at the antenna?

At the meeting:

Check yourself before you wreck yourself.  In terms of fashion, I mean.  Take a quick look down at what you’re wearing.  Does your shirt have a beer logo on it?  Is that clever saying on your hat offensive to women, minorities, gerbils, and anyone who knows the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’?  If so, take it off or cover it up.  You don’t need to be wearing a suit and tie, but make sure you look presentable.  Button-up or polo shirt, no food stains, and comb your hair.
Don’t talk, listen.  I’ve found that, at most of my meetings with professors, I tend to do between 25-40% of the talking.  That’s right: I’m never talking even half the time.  People in general like to talk about things they know about, and the professor knows more about his topic than you.  Shut up and let him talk.  He feels good that you’re listening to what he has to say, and you’ll get to not have to worry about saying something really stupid.
Body language.  We’ve all seen that quote that says that 90% of communication is nonverbal.  Well, show it, you slacker.  Sit up, keep your eyes on the professor, write down little bits of what he says so that you can go back to it later, and give him/her an encouraging nod whenever he or she pauses.  Keep a smile on your face.
  • Don’t fidget.  I’m making a separate note here: if you’re nervous, lace your fingers together and twiddle your thumbs inside this little finger-igloo.  Even better, do it under the table.  This way, the professor can’t see that you’re nervous.  
Don’t fall asleep at the meeting.  Drink caffeine if necessary.

Rephrase.  Is the professor staring at you, waiting for you to say something?  Do you have no idea what answer he or she wants?  Instead of fumbling with lots of pauses and ums, simply say something like:
“Let me just make sure that this is clear: you’re saying that if a pig has a wingspan greater than three times its body length, it should be able to generate sufficient upward thrust to at least leave the ground?”
Obviously, don’t say that.  But take the last point the professor was stating, rephrase it slightly, and pose it as a question.  If you’re wrong, the professor will assume that he or she didn’t make the point clear enough and will repeat it.  If you’re right, the professor will usually leap off of where you ended with that upward lilt, continuing on towards the point he or she was trying to get you to guess previously.  
The professor runs the conversation; you steer.  This is a lesson I had to learn through experience.  If you’re sitting there doing the listening, the professor will be talking, and will be running the conversation.  But don’t forget, you’re there for a reason!  That reason should be written at the top of your notebook.  Glance down if you’ve forgotten it.  So just add a comment here or there, but keep on steering the conversation back towards your goal.  
  • Want a rotation slot?  Mention your current rotation and how it’s going, or ask about current lab research the professor is doing.
  • Want a letter of recommendation?  Mention the scholarship/job opportunity/fellowship and comment on how you’ve been working really hard on the application and/or essays.
  • Want a grade changed?  Well, good luck with that, but mention how you’ve been doing a lot of studying for their class, or how you felt that the recent test was very specific.
DO NOT disagree with the professor.  Or if you do, be extremely wary.  No one likes being told that they’re wrong.  And if you say that they are, they will almost always dig in their heels against you.  Research on cognitive dissonance say that, even if the professor is in the wrong, they won’t want to change their mind – they certainly don’t want to be corrected!  If the professor is really, obviously, definitely wrong, pose your correction as a suggestion or question to give them a better avenue to correct themselves and save face.
At the end of the conversation, if you don’t have your answer, ASK.  It is incredibly frustrating to walk away from a meeting with a professor without an answer.  If you go in to get a letter of recommendation, don’t leave until you’ve asked for one!  Better for them to say no so that you can move on, than for them to not answer and leave you stuck in the lurch.  If they’re wrapping up and you don’t have an answer, say something like:
“Professor Boltzmann, thank you for taking the time to talk to me.  I really liked hearing about your work, and I would greatly enjoy the opportunity to help contribute by rotating through your laboratory this fall.  Would there be an available spot for me?”
Easy as that.  You’ve got your answer.
After the meeting:

Follow up.  Promptly.  Did the professor request anything from you, such as a CV, resume, essays to read, test to review, etc.?  If so, send it to him as soon as you get to your computer.  Don’t delay.  If there are any materials they need, such as a link to click for submitting a letter of recommendation, make sure to send that to them as well.  Even if they don’t need any other materials…
Thank them.  Even if they said no.  All it takes is a quick one-line email that says, “Dear Professor Boltzmann, thank you for taking the time to meet with me today – I enjoyed hearing about your research.  Sincerely, me.”  Little details like thank-you emails can be the difference between a professor tackling your request right away, or tossing it on the bottom of their to-do pile.  It can also serve as a reminder about what you asked for, should it have slipped their mind already (which does happen).
Don’t write a thank you in crayon though.  Even if your handwriting’s this good.
Send reminders/thank you messages before the deadline.  Not after.  If there are five days until the letter of recommendation is due and the professor still hasn’t uploaded it, send them a quick email thanking them for agreeing to write their letter.  This will both remind them of the upcoming deadline, and make them feel guilty for not doing it yet.  
Reward yourself, and then jump back in.  Congratulations, you talked to another human being without hyperventilating too badly, passing out, or throwing up on them!  Give yourself a brownie as a reward.  Now, eat that brownie quickly, because now you need to move on to the next professor.  Start prepping for your next meeting!
Disclaimer: if any of these tips backfires on you, well, you probably did it wrong.  I take no responsibility.

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