How (and Why) to Meet With Your Professors
When you go to office hours to meet with your professors, you don’t have to have a specific plan. You can talk about why you are enjoying the class and share information about yourself as a student; you can do some online investigation of the professor’s research interests and ask about that research; you can inquire about out-of-the-classroom experiences that your professor might recommend for a student who’s excited about his or her field.
Think of the meeting as the beginning of a professional relationship. Use these guidelines to help you start that relationship “on the right foot” and to gain confidence as you prepare.
Riché Barnes, Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies
Aim to meet with every one of your professors at least once every semester. Your professor sets office hours because he or she is interested in meeting and talking with you!
Gary Felder, Professor of Physics
Many students are nervous about coming to a professor’s office and overcoming that reluctance is one of the most important steps that they can take toward succeeding at Smith. I also tell my students at the beginning of each semester that if my office hours aren’t convenient for them that’s no reason to not come and see me. E-mail me and I’m always happy to arrange a meeting time with them.
Mary Murphy, Senior Lecturer of Mathematics and Statistics
Unlike high school, where your teachers didn't have private offices or much time when they weren't in class, Smith faculty have both. I want and expect to talk with you outside of class, whether to pursue with you something from the course that sparked your interest or to give you a hint when you’re stuck on a problem. Office hours give me a chance to know each student personally. Seeking out an instructor during office hours isn't a sign of weakness! Nor should you be shy about visiting a faculty member who's not your instructor.
David Newbury, Professor Emeritus of History
When I have first year advisees, I ask them to think back to how much they grew over their high school years — how different they are now from the time they entered high school. Then I challenge them to change as much over the next four years. To be sure, the changes are different: In high school, the changes are physiological and social; in college, the changes are more in intellectual depth and values — the way they see the world, and their place in the world. But while perhaps less physically evident, the changes over the college years are often deeper than those over the high school years.
I do this because many students entering Smith feel "they have arrived" — they’ve been very successful in high school; they are at a prestigious college. I suggest that they be prepared to let go of the person they are now — and of the concepts they hold deeply — and allow themselves to grow in new directions. It’s hard to let go of the person you are when you've been so successful in the past, but being willing to risk that is the only way to grow and develop into the person you can be.
Ambreen Hai, Associate Professor, English Language and Literature
Think of the professor as someone on your side, someone who wants you to do better and is there to help you figure out how to do it. But it’s best not to get confrontational or demanding about a grade. Based on what I have seen in academia, I think that younger women professors and faculty of color get relatively more students who question their authority or expertise, especially regarding grades. I think it’s important to reflect on how often attitudes towards faculty are colored by unconscious prejudices about gender, race, nationality or age.
Before the Meeting
- Adjust your schedule so that you will be able to attend office hours. Professors reserve office hours for the purpose of meeting with you, and they expect that you’ll adjust your schedule in order to attend. If the hours really don’t work for you (e.g., if you have another class or a lab at the same time) then e-mail the professor, proposing a few weekday times that work.
- If you are scheduling the meeting, then use e-mail to provide basic background about what you want to discuss, even including attachments if relevant, such as a draft of an essay, or a course schedule that you want feedback on. Let the professor know in advance if you want to discuss a personal matter or speak to him or her about learning challenges that you are experiencing.
- Don’t wait to ask for help. Check in with your professors at the first signs that things are getting difficult or even if you just have questions about whether or not you are studying/preparing for class correctly. If you are particularly anxious about a course, it is fine to go talk to the professor at the very start of the semester just to let him or her know this is the case. However, it is never too late to ask about getting help!
- If there is a personal, health, or disability-related concern that you need to discuss with your professor, it is useful to meet early in the semester, rather than wait until a problem arises.
- Be concrete, but flexible: If you know what kind of help you need, ask for it, but be open to the professor’s suggestions.
- Prepare by anticipating what you’ll need to have during the meeting.
If you are going to office hours, bring your computer and/or notebooks, and papers and/or exams for the class. If you want the professor to look at or sign something, be sure you have it with you.
If it is a meeting with your advisor, then bring your course catalogue and notes. It’s a good idea to draft schedules with various options already sketched-out.
- Show up on time.
- Be ready to get what you need done in fifteen minutes, especially during registration periods.
- If you have trouble remembering appointments or showing up on time, create a reminder or prompt in your online calendar or ask a friend to remind you.
- If you have trouble speaking quickly, have an outline of what you want to say and focus on the major points. Tell the professor in advance that you may need more time for the meeting, or schedule a follow up meeting.
When You Get to Your Professor’s Office
- Wait outside of the office if another student is inside or if the door is closed. If the door is open, lightly knock and say something like, "I have a 10:00 appointment with you; are you ready for me?" or "I'm early, would you like me to wait?"
- When your professor invites you in, it’s a good idea to remind him or her of your name and class section.
- Call your professor “Professor Smith” or “Professor Jones,” using his or her last name instead of just saying “Professor.” (It’s good to wait to be invited before using his or her first name.)
- If you want to ask a professor to be your advisor, just go for it! You can say something like, “I’m ready to declare my major and I want to know if you would be my advisor.”
- Avoid disputing a grade or asking for it to be changed, but do ask how you can do better, or what you can do next time.
- It’s always nice to thank your professor at the end of an appointment, even if you’ve been told something you don't want to hear like, "I don't give extra credit in this class.”
If You Need to Miss a Scheduled Meeting
- Notify the professor with a SHORT e-mail or voice mail as soon as possible.
- Send a SHORT apology over e-mail or voice mail if you miss it without notifying the professor.
The Wurtele Center for Work & Life developed this guide based on feedback from more than 30 Smith College professors, and in conjunction with:
- Julio Alves, director of the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching & Learning
- Riche’ Barnes, assistant professor of Afro-American Studies
- Laura Rauscher, director of Disability Services
- Kate Queeney, associate professor of chemistry and director of the Liberal Arts Advising program
When you start your first job, you'll be glad you practiced this skill at Smith!
Stacie Hagenbaugh, Director of the Career Development Office, tells you why in this one-minute video.