“What do you do if you’re too nervous?” This question was asked on Saturday in response to my charge to build relationships with professors during the GEM GRAD Lab at Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY. I hear this question often, and regularly work with students so that they will become more comfortable with talking with members of the faculty. People may wonder why students are nervous when it comes to talking with professors. Most students appropriately look to professors as authority figures. However, the fear comes when students need to approach professors for reasons related to an eventual decision, e.g., a grade, letter of recommendation, request to conduct research. The professor may hold in her/his hands that option to say, “No,” which can cause the student to be paralyzed by fear of the expected outcome. Many times, the outcome is better than students expect, and then at the end of a meeting, the student exhales a sigh of relief that can be heard throughout the walls of the hallway. Sometimes, the answer really is “no,” but the key is make sure that a “no” is not a last resort. You have two choices. You can either see if there is a way to turn that “no” into a “yes” (either now or later), or you can accept the “no” and move on to another plan. Note that in some cases, a “no” may not be a “no” forever, it may be a “not yet,” or a “maybe later.” Find out if there are parameters for an eventual “yes.” Perhaps there are milestones that much be reached prior to “getting to yes.”
Have more than one plan
I believe in having several plans and several pathways. I learned this from my father, who taught us that we needed to have several things that we could do to survive. The message was, “if one thing doesn’t work out, you move to something else, and if that doesn’t work out, you move again.” A key to resilience in this process is to map out the possibilities of the “yes” and the “no” in advance. You’ll find that when you have these other options, the “no” is a softer blow, and the transition is smoother than feeling as if you’ve fallen from a high perch onto a hard floor (See #3 here: https://renettatull.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/new-day-new-opportunities-letting-resilience-win-over-rejection/ for thoughts on Plan A, B, C …). I give my students the advice in the link above when they come to see me during office hours. I always ask them for the alternative plans. In many cases, we find that there are ways to re-visit their Plan A, with a time delay accompanied by gaining some additional experience that makes Plan A more feasible. In this case, Plans B and C may include some other activities that will build experience and competencies that can lead back to Plan A at a later date. If Plan A isn’t revisited, it can be removed from the list and Plan B can move into Plan A’s spot.
Students often forget that professors are human beings; they are not super human. They have busy lives, but they do the same things that you do. They eat and sleep, experience joy and pain, know the frustration of disappointment, and feel the elation of success. Professors’ careers are based on combinations of research, teaching, and service, so they balance several tasks, both at the office and at home. When you’re planning to approach them, remember that they are people, not deities. Here are some tips to consider:
- Practice what you are going to say with other faculty or staff who serve as your mentors. This may include your program directors, assistant deans, etc. Do not solely practice with other students, as students don’t yet have enough experience or insight to give you the kind of feedback that would come from a faculty member. Other students (undergraduates, graduate students) have some knowledge that may help you, but do not become reliant on their input alone. Use the practice with them to supplement the sessions that you’ll have with your faculty mentors.
- Research the professor’s background. Learn about their work, the research that she/he does, the papers that come out of the lab, and the other classes that are taught. Develop a sense of the whole person. This will help you to better frame your request. If you know that the professor has a busy semester teaching 2 large classes, chairing a conference, writing two grant proposals, reviewing journal articles, writing a book chapter, and preparing three students for dissertation defenses, you might need to ask that professor if she can mentor you on a research project next semester.
- Check your ask. Sometimes students ask for things that aren’t possible. You need to make sure that the thing that you’re requesting is within the realm of possibility. For example, a professor generally cannot change a grade after it is posted unless there is a clerical error. The professor cannot give a student opportunities to earn extra credit after the course ends and the grades are turned in. A request to conduct research with a professor after midterms is very difficult because the lab culture and practices have already been established with the group for that semester. (Making a request in October for a placement in February is more appropriate.) A professor may not be able to give you a strong letter of recommendation if you only give them a few days to do it. They have many responsibilities that are often added to their calendars weeks and even months in advance. They may be doing work in October based on requests that were added to their calendars during the summer. Similarly, requests that are made in October may be for December, and next year.
- Make your first visit during office hours. Most faculty have office hours for their students, and they often either post them on the door or list them on their websites. Administrative Assistants in the departments also have lists of office hours for faculty. As a courtesy to students in the class, you can move to the back of the line if one has formed outside of the professor’s door, or you can let the professor know that you will defer to an enrolled student in the course should one arrive at the door. You can introduce yourself during the office hour and ask the professor if you can make an appointment with them to discuss graduate opportunities further. She/he may invite you to stay and talk at that moment, so be prepared for either case.
- Solidify the relationship. If you have a strong relationship with your professors, then it will be easier for them to agree to assist you, even if there are challenges with timing. If your professors know you well, then it is easy for them to recommend you for opportunities and new experiences without needing to work hard to figure out what they should say. As an example, if professors know you well, and are asked to provide a recommendation for a job, they can talk to the hiring manager with ease on your behalf.
Saturday marked the end of my GEM GRAD Lab tour for this season. I’m now in Montana sharing and learning from colleagues and students in the Native American community, and over the next few weeks I’ll work alongside other groups to broaden participation in STEM. During the GEM GRAD Lab tour, I always ask the students about the people in their lives who can be called “mentor.” I ask how many of them can identify 3-5 professors whom they can call today to request a recommendation. When only a few hands are raised, I ask them to work on solidifying their academic relationships. If you need to strengthen your relationships with faculty, please consider the tips above, and start the conversations now. If you are one of my students and will see me at an event on campus, or at a conference, I’ll be happy to talk with you further. I will be at the Modern Math Workshop at SACNAS, the SREB Institute for Teaching and Mentoring, and ABRCMS, so please come and see me! Best wishes as you develop those strong relationships with mentors who will likely follow you throughout your careers!