Office hours can be extremely intimidating for most students. For a lot of first gen students the strategy we use in class and in general is to be quiet, figure it out on our own and not make a fuss. Sometimes this attitude can be helpful. Often times because we figure we’re on our own, we learn as much about the system as we can so that we won’t be caught off guard. But when it comes to relationships with professors staying quiet is not helpful! I’ve been on both sides of this equation, both as an undergrad trying to talk to my professors and worrying that they were all secretly judging me, and as a professor, wondering why more students don’t come to talk. Here are some tips and ideas around office hours that might help you with the process.
- It’s awkward for you, but it’s not for them. If you’re coming to office hours you probably feel pressure or fear that you have to have something smart to say, or that you will be quizzed, judged or picked apart. But to be honest, most of the time, that just isn’t the case. The reality is that for most of us we’re just impressed you showed up in the first place! You might be intimidated by coming into a professor’s private lair, but don’t let that stop you from coming to talk to your professor! Part of our job is to make ourselves available to you to talk about the class, about your plans, about grad school or about the university, take advantage of that! You don’t have to have a master plan or a specific question to come talk to us, you can just come in to introduce yourself, or talk about your plans. Since you are most likely a junior or senior at this point, your future plans are a big deal! If they include grad school then that’s all you need to start a conversation. Ask them where they went to grad school, what their experiences were like, would they do anything differently. You don’t have to try to sound smart or impressive, just come in and be willing to talk, chances are we’ll be willing to talk back.
- You don’t have to have had a class with a professor in order to go talk to them! The requirement for possible inclusion of a professor as a letter writer or a mentor is that they have office hours, and that you feel like you could talk to them without throwing up. If those two things are true then GO TALK TO THEM! All things being equal it might be easier to talk with someone whose class you’ve taken in the past, or who you’ve spoken to before. But it’s not a requirement! Even if someone did amazingly in one of our classes, they were still one student out of anywhere from 50 to 200 students we had that semester. In other words, we likely won’t remember what grade you got in our class, let alone hold it against you. So be brave, be bold, and go talk to your professors!
- Letters of recommendation are a process, not a one time request! Keep that in mind when you come to see a professor. We need time to talk with you, find out what your goals are, what jobs you’re interested in, what experiences you’ve had. We can’t do that with a five minute conversation two weeks before a letter is due! Start going to office hours early in the semester! Start a conversation about your plans and ask for their input. Then come back every two weeks or so to follow up on your progress in the application process. Make them a part of the process and your letter will be a whole lot better! Not because you’ve tricked them into thinking you’re a good person, but because they’ve gotten to know you and about your life, they’ll have more to write about and more evidence for what an awesome student you’re going to be!
- Office hours and letters of rec may feel like a transaction but they’re not. For us they are just part of the job. One big hangup I had as an undergrad was that I was always worried that my professors were looking at me with a critical eye and thinking to themselves, “You’re just here for a letter of recommendation, I feel so used!” Well, being on the other side now I can say the reality is that writing letters is a part of our job, one that we full expect and often look forward to! First of all, if you’re coming in to talk about future plans then you are already standing out in a good way. And if you’re thinking ahead enough that you are coming to talk to one of us a couple of months before you are going to need a letter, we will only think good things. Second, we were all once graduate students ourselves, and part of that process is being mentored by someone senior to us, with more experience. No one gets a grad degree on their own, so all of us as professors had a ton of help. But that help is not free, it comes with the expectation that we will do the same for our students when we become professors. In other words, by coming to us and asking for help you are giving us a chance to give back the help and kindness that was given to us.
- Help us help you. The more information we have about what you want to do next, what roadblocks there may be, what’s happening outside of school, the more we can help you plan a course that can deal with those issues. By bringing your professor in on your decision making about grad school, or about what degree you want to pursue, or what career field, you’ll not only get god insight from someone with experience, you’re giving us a lot of background about you that we can use to write your letter of recommendation. The more personal details that we can put into your letter, the more powerful it will be, but to do that we need to know about you! You can help that process by visiting often, keeping us in the loop and giving us as much information as you can.
- There is always someone else. The vast majority of professors that I have known over the years have been more than happy and willing to help students with all of the things I discussed above. BUT, if you run into someone who, for whatever reason, you don’t click with, or isn’t as supportive as you need them to be, you can always move on to another person. You are not tied to a person for life just because you visited them a couple of times in office hours. You can always just stop going! Ninety nine times out of one hundred we are going to be so busy that we might not notice that you haven’t come in for your twice a month chat. And you can spend that time talking with someone else who is willing to help.