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Networking with Professors

photo by Ana V. Fleming
Find office numbers for English/CW faculty on this bulletin board outside the mailboxes, 2nd floor English Building.

 If the thought has crossed your mind that you should seek out advice from a faculty member (professor, instructor, TA), then you should probably do so. Talking to students outside of class is part of a faculty member’s job. Whether the topic is grad school, the upcoming paper assignment, or confusing course material, these conversations require some of the same skills you would use in an informational interview or networking situations, so it’s a good way to practice. Here are some suggestions for how to make it happen.

  • Go to their office hours. Faculty are required to hold a certain number of office hours for every class they teach. Those are times when they are available to talk to anyone who shows up. You don’t generally need an appointment. Office hours exist entirely so that professors can have conversations with students, and few students take advantage of them. So really — just go.
  • Office hours > email. Most professors get a lot of email, and answering it takes time away from the things they’d rather be doing (teaching, research, preparing classes). Talking to interested students is (for many) NOT a tedious chore. So you are more likely to establish a friendly connection if you can make contact by coming directly to office hours rather than adding to their email mountain.
  • Not sure when a professor’s office hours are? Find out!
    • If it’s a professor for a class you’re currently taking, look for information about office hours in the syllabus. If you look hard and can’t find it, ask at the next class meeting.
    • Some professors hold office hours by appointment only. If you encounter such a professor then ignore the advice above and go ahead and email them to set up an appointment.
    • If it’s a professor who isn’t teaching a class you’re currently taking, there are several ways to find out when their office hours are.
      • Walk by their office door. Office hours are often posted there. (if you don’t know where their office is, look them up in the U of I directory)
      • If you can’t find office hour information on their office door, then go to the main office for the department they’re in, and ask the clerical staff there. (If you don’t know where the department office is, use the search function on the U of I website — the office location will usually be at the bottom of the webpage for the department)
      • (last resort) Use Course Explorer to find out when they’re teaching, and lie in wait in the hallway when the class gets out — then ask (politely) when they hold office hours. Be prepared to explain your business (briefly) and set up an appointment on the spot if for whatever reason they’d prefer to set up a time to talk outside their office hours.
    • If none of these strategies work or if the professor tells you to email them to set up an appointment, then email is the way to go.
  • Is the faculty member on leave? If he or she is not teaching a class you’re currently taking AND does not appear to be holding office hours at all, they may be on leave, a fact you should acknowledge in your email. The whole point of leave is to give professors time away from their teaching responsibilities — so asking for their advice is something of an intrusion — but if you’ve done enough legwork to know that they’re on leave, you’ve already differentiated yourself from other students.
  • Not sure how to start a conversation in office hours? Use the library website to look up research the professor has published (just type their name into the “easy search”). Spending some time with that material should give you a question or two to ask to break the ice. It probably will be easier than you think, though — many college instructors are nice people who enjoy getting to know their students.