Why You Need to Get to Know a Professor

A recent New York Times article on developing the skills necessary to succeed in college advised students to approach at least one professor after class. Doing so, the author argued, would empower students to cross the invisible barrier that often exists between professors and undergraduates. Having been on both sides of this equation, I can attest to how hard for students to cross this line; it can feel as awkward as someone out on a date.  That said, I could not agree more with students becoming comfortable with approaching professors. I would take this a step further, though, and recommend that students get to know at least one college professor– personally. Here’s why.
Going to college is a lot like visiting a foreign country in that the best way to experience a new place is to learn from the ‘locals’ where to go and what to do.  Many new to college see upperclassmen as locals, consulting them about everything from what classes to take to where to live to what to major in. But professors are the real locals, and as such have amassed a boatload of experience and knowledge about college as well as how to help students get the most out of it.
This kind of knowledge is rarely imparted in a Chemistry 101 class crammed with a hundred students.  Instead, it gets shared in face-to-face interactions. Unfortunately, in many college classrooms and lecture halls professors are often neither expected nor able to get to know their students personally.  Students and professors alike pay a steep price for the institutional and professional distancing, as it prevents them from forming the kind of relationships necessary to truly appreciate, trust and engage each other in finding answers for questions that while not on the syllabus are the most pressing and important for students.
Getting to know a professor means they will get to know you, and in doing so the more invested they will become in helping you figure out how to realize your dreams and aspirations.
Getting to know a faculty member connects students with a university insider who can help them navigate increasingly fragmented and expanding universities.  Given the explosion of college majors and the rising number of students entering college without declaring a major and/or changing majors, having someone who can inform students’ decisions can save them from floundering in the wrong classes, majors or programs.
When it comes to getting the most of college, getting to know a professor can mean the difference between not only getting a degree and getting an education. In my next post I will share two more reasons –as invaluable as they are overlooked– why students need to know, and be known by, at least one professor.
Because faculty are much more likely to mentor, lifeguard and advocate for students they know personally.  Research supports what I have experienced as a professor: developing a personal relationship with a faculty member can profoundly impact student’s college experience and life after college.  Here’s how.
Mentoring makes all the difference in college.  Faculty, as the permanent residents of universities, can pass a great deal of advice and knowledge about programs, majors and classes on to students.  Students change their minds- and majors- during college, and professors can help students find their footing and a compelling way forward.  Along with the more practical advice, professors can support students by helping them understand that what they are going through- change and growth- is a normal and expected part of college.
Professors are more likely to look out for students they know personally, effectively acting as informal lifeguards that can step in when students might be getting in over their heads.  Professors that know students are more likely to notice when something is not right, and step in before a student’s problem or situation snowballs out of control.
I also advocate for these students as they apply for internships, positions, scholarships and jobs.  Having written and read hundreds of letters of recommendation, I can attest to the fact that the best letters always convince the reader that the recommender knows the candidate as both a student and a person.

CombStudent problems snowball quickly in college,  spent endless- and enjoyable- hours helping students I have come to know choose classes, majors and for that matter career paths.  I also advocate for these students as they apply for internships, positions, scholarships and jobs.  Having written and read hundreds of letters of recommendation, I can attest to the fact that the best letters always convince the reader that the recommender knows the candidate as both a student and a person.
Students can never have enough lifeguards in college, by which I mean people who know them well enough to sense when they are in over their heads academically or personally.
Unfortunately, the first two kinds of learning often conspire against students and faculty forming the kind of personal relationships that facilitate this kind of learning.  This can mean the difference between getting a degree and an education.  For while a degree may change your resume or the type of job you get, an education changes how you understand and live your life.
Students are often afraid of faculty because of the power that professors have over them in terms of grades.