Talk the Talk: Initiating Professional Conversations

Office hours are great places to sit and get to know professors! Special thanks to Laura Sarubbi for this photo.

Talk to your professors. College students are frequently given this age-old advice, which seems to exist as a panacea for low grades, a need for recommendation letters, a desire for intelligent conversation, and the like. However, most students will be quick to inform you that talking to professors is easier said than done. Whether held back by fear of inadequacy, intimidation, or just pure laziness, many students shy away from interacting with their educators. Unfortunately, this fear prevents students from obtaining amazing opportunities, especially ones related to conducting research.

As a learning consultant at Princeton’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, I’ve discussed the difficulty of talking to professors with many of my peers. Most express a strong desire to engage their professors in conversation, but are unsure of what to say, or how to say it. While I’m no expert on perfecting the verbalization skills necessary to score a perfect relationship with professors, I have had some experiences where simply putting myself out there has made a world of difference for my Princeton career.

The summer before my freshman year, I did a program on Princeton’s campus called the Freshman Scholar’s Institute (FSI). Here, I took two Princeton courses and grew acclimated to Princeton life. One course was an introductory course to Psychology Statistics, taught by Professor Andrew Conway. Throughout the course, Professor Conway mentioned research he was conducting in his lab, which I found extremely interesting. I had worked in microbiology and neuroscience labs prior to coming to Princeton, and wondered what working in a psychology lab would be like. However, I was terrified of talking to my professor – I didn’t know whether freshman were allowed to work in research labs, and doubted he found me capable of conducting advanced research at an institution as dignified as Princeton. But, after receiving encouragement from my mom, I finally mustered up the courage to tell my professor of my interests. Fortunately, my simple exclamation of “I want to be a psychology major and would love to help out in your lab” landed me a lab assistant job that I’ve held for the past three years! As I look back now, I see that my timidity and self-doubt almost cost me an amazing opportunity.

Whether it’s a need for advice on courses, advising on a career, or even just a casual conversation, professors are typically free and eager to get to know the students they are educating. As successful individuals in their field, professors at Princeton are probably some of the most accomplished people you will ever meet. So go ahead and contact your professors – you never know what a simple email or conversation can do 🙂

Jalisha Braxton, Natural Sciences Correspondent