“…I was hoping that you would be available to act as an advisor to my senior thesis project. Let me know, and I look forward to hearing from you!” I sighed and sat back in my chair, having just read the email aloud for the 10th time to check for typos.
Although my senior year of college wouldn’t start for three more weeks, I had already begun the nerve-wracking process of finding an advisor to oversee my senior thesis project at New York University. This project, which was essential to graduate, would require a professor within our field of interest to submit consistent feedback on an entire year’s worth of research, drafts, and presentations—to put it simply, I was asking for quite a lot. I held my breath and finally hit send, awaiting a response.
Situations like this are relatively common in college. As students aspire to graduate, study abroad, and apply for internships, many face a dreaded application requirement: professor recommendations and feedback. In this situation, many students will ask themselves: how do I get a rave review from a professor? The reality, however, is that this process must start long before application season. In fact, one of the most undervalued and crucial aspects of college is building and maintaining relationships with professors and advisors.
How can a student build a professional relationship with a professor? There are a variety of ways.
1. Take courses by professors you find interesting
A significant first step to building meaningful relationships with college professors—especially when they teach your field of interest—is to take one of their courses. The professors who teach your classes will likely be the first and most consistent relationships you build in college with faculty. Use this to your advantage!
While most students will select courses based on a requirement or interest in the subject, make sure you research the professor prior to signing up. Going on the school website to learn about the professor’s areas of interest, faculty positions, and background will give you a better idea if their professional pursuits align with your goals in college. If a professor is researching a field or topic you find interesting, be sure to take their course and establish a relationship with them in an academic setting.
Building a good impression will take time and persistence through routinely attending class, participating thoughtfully, and submitting assignments. By thinking ahead and intentionally taking courses taught by professors who share your interests, it will be easier in the long run to build a professional relationship with someone who can mentor or recommend you in your next endeavor.
Going back to my senior thesis project example: I had already taken two courses taught by the professor I asked to supervise me. In those courses, I frequently participated in class and attended on time. As a result, she already knew that I was an engaged and ambitious student who shared her research interests.
2. Attend office hours
Another excellent strategy for building relationships with professors and advisors is to attend office hours. Students often have two misconceptions regarding office hours: first, that office hours are exclusively for questions on the course. In fact, professors hold office hours to speak with students on any topic of their choosing. Office hours provide an excellent opportunity to deepen the professional relationship between students and professors since the time is unstructured. Students can ask more personalized questions to professors based on their specific interests. So, be sure to prepare some questions about the professor’s research, topics of interest, or academic background before attending.
The second misconception regarding office hours is that students can only participate in their current professor’s office hours. This isn’t true! Most guest presenters, faculty members, and advisors will also make office hour appointments with any student affiliated with the university. So, if you are interested in a professor’s current research or if you want to learn more about what they do, simply email them and ask to meet during their office hours.
3. Check-in on past professors
Perhaps the most critical part of building relationships with professors is continuing them after initial contact. Many students will move on to the next semester without contacting former professors; this is a mistake! After taking a professor’s course or watching them present, be sure to reach out after the class is over. This will indicate that you’re interested in a long-term relationship beyond the initial course and lend more authenticity to your “ask” when eventually, you may need an advisor or professor recommendation for an internship. Gestures as simple as sending an email or dropping by their office hours to chat for a few minutes are enough to maintain the professional relationship.
When building relationships with faculty, the overarching goal is to find a few professors— maybe even just one — who will mentor or assist you when you need help. Even if that professor cannot help you directly, chances are they are connected with someone who can. Asking a mentor to introduce you to other colleagues or institutions is an invaluable step when looking for jobs, internships, or recommendations from faculty. And since you’ve already taken the time to take their course, attend office hours routinely, and ask about their research, your professor is far more likely to invest in your professional endeavors. Once you’ve built one or two strong relationships with professors over a few months or even years, it will become easier to network among faculty and establish even more professional connections.
In the end, building and maintaining relationships with professors is about consistency and interest. By demonstrating a consistent interest in the professor’s research, courses, and input, students set themselves up for professional success as they enter academia and the workforce.
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