As a sophomore planning on declaring in neuroscience, I’ve been wondering a lot about the types of research projects neuroscience majors do for their independent work and senior thesis. To get a better feel for these projects, I’ve been reaching out to neuroscience faculty, sometimes via cold emails – a task made easier with the help of this post. However, I recently wanted to reach out to one of my current neuroscience professors in particular, both to hear more about his undergraduates’ research projects and to develop a better relationship with him.
Building positive relationships with your professors is important and rewarding. It’s easy to regard getting to know professors as a purely professional opportunity: that is, for the purposes of soliciting a recommendation or finding a lab position. However, this process is rewarding in other equally important ways: for example, I enjoy when professors explain the trajectory of their own careers, since it has helped me clarify my own academic and extracurricular interests. Often times my meetings with professors have developed into personally meaningful friendships that I hope will extend beyond my time at Princeton.
Although most of us would agree its important to build relationships with professors, it can be more difficult to know how to accomplish that. How do you approach a professor? Where and when do you meet? And what do you actually say to them? All of these questions ran through my head as I wondered how I would go about meeting the neuroscience professor I mentioned above. Meeting professors can be nerve-wracking – that’s why I’ve put together the eight tips I used that streamlined the process.
Figure out how you’re asking: Are you emailing your professor, asking in person, going to their office hours, scheduling on their WASE calendar, or attending a departmental coffee chat? In any case, I’ve had the most success asking in person – we all know how difficult it can be to get ahold of professors via email. Additionally, in large lectures, professors likely won’t be able to tie a face to your name – in this case, it’s nearly always better to introduce yourself in real life before asking to meet.
Know your availability: It’s important to know when you’re free. Have multiple times spread out across the current and next couple of weeks to make it as convenient as possible for your professor: remember that their calendars are often completely booked for long stretches of time, so plan accordingly. Be ready to list your availability when you approach your professor, or have it laid out in your email.
Ask concisely: Be sure to briefly describe why you’d like to meet with your professor when you ask them: are you trying to learn more about their lab? Are you asking for a recommendation? Do you simply want to get to know them better? Keep in mind that none of these reasons are mutually exclusive.
Be prepared to describe yourself: It’s practically guaranteed that your professor will ask you about you during these chats. Although you should be prepared to describe your academic interests, your professor might also ask about what you do on campus outside of classes. Thus, it’s a good idea to have a specific activity, club, or hobby you’ve picked ahead of time to talk about so that you don’t get caught off guard. It’s also probably more confusing than helpful to list off a variety of acronyms your professor might not be familiar with or name drop multiple activities: they’re trying to get to know you and what you’re interested in, so consider exploring one or two activities you really care about. Try not to be a living version of your resume.
Know what they do: Before meeting your professor, spend a couple minutes reading their profiles online or looking at their academic interests. Doing so will give you an idea of what they study and how your interests relate to theirs.
Prep a Question: Reading about your professor online should spur a question or two. In your googling you might’ve realized they study an incredibly niche topic: how did they end up in this field? Or maybe you noticed that their research interests overlap with another faculty member you’re familiar with: do they collaborate with one another? And perhaps you noticed your professor is a member of a niche program on campus like the Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP), a group for low-income and first-gen students: what was their motivation for joining? But if no questions jump out at you, you can always ask about your professor’s current research interests.
Be Yourself: Above all else, don’t forget to be yourself. These tips are supposed to enable you to express yourself to the best of your ability, not stress you out or constrict you to certain methods of engaging with professors. Remember that professors are people, too – getting coffee with them doesn’t have to feel like a job interview.
Follow Up: Finally, after meeting with your professor, be sure to send a follow up email thanking your professor for taking the time to meet with you.
These tips helped me have a positive experience meeting my professor, and I hope they can do the same for you. No matter your class year or your major, don’t be afraid to reach out to meet a professor for any reason – the experience is often rewarding in unexpected ways.
–Kamron Soldozy, Natural Sciences Correspondent