Surviving Graduate School: How to Deal with Your Professors

Dr. William Says:

  • Don’t overlook the basics. Pay attention to what name your professor asks to be called by. If he introduces himself as Dr., then by all means call him Dr. If she asks to be called by her first name, then it is okay to take her up on that.
  • Professors desire students to be engaged in class. It draws other students into discussions and adds a great deal to the effectiveness of teaching.
  • Professors enjoy hearing how students integrate what they are learning into their lives. It does not mean you have to agree with your professor. Just grappling with issues raised brings about a new level of understanding.
  • Professors like to be kept in the loop about your progress. If you are at a phase when you are out of classes and writing on your own, don’t go for long periods of time without contacting your professors.
  • Professors don’t mind questions, especially regarding your writing, direction, and problem spots. The worst thing you can do is spend lots of time on your best educated guess when you could have asked a question and saved yourself lots of time.


Dr. Gordon Says:

If you’re having problems in class, the most important thing to do is acknowledge the fact and seek help.

Bottling up problems does you no good, and does nothing to resolve them. It’s quite likely that if you are having difficulties, others are too. There are a number of strategies you can use.

First, talk to the professor one on one, and try to get him or her to explain things more clearly. Do this gently and tactfully, but make sure you get across that there is a problem.

You may wish to consider a follow-up a few weeks later, to acknowledge that things have improved or to indicate that the problems persist.

It may also be helpful to talk to other students to try to find out if they are also having problems. If they are, you may be able to form a group to help each other work through the problems.

If this does not work, you can try student services.

Many colleges and universities have tutoring services, and even if yours does not, they will be able to offer help, and suggest practical things you can do to help resolve the difficulties.

Another option is to talk to departmental administrators or other professors, who may also be able to suggest ways forward. Whether doing this resolves the difficulty or not, the department will then be aware that there is a problem.

The ultimate step is to go to the dean or another senior official, but this step should not be taken lightly, and should be regarded as a last resort, as it may have far-reaching consequences. Once again, it needs to be done tactfully.

Above all, be respectful and constructive at every stage. Getting angry is likely to be counterproductive.

Many universities ask students to fill out a survey at the end of the course so that the department and the professor receive feedback on how well the course went. If your problem is not resolved, you may wish to indicate this and explain why. This may lead to improvements, which may be helpful to future students.


Dr. Dan Says:

Maintain a certain amount of distance.

No matter how much a professor sees a grad student as a fellow seeker-after-the-truth, the reality is that the terminal degree and the publications do make a difference that they don’t easily let go of.

In grad school, I worked with a professor who would play basketball with us every Friday (he was good, too) and allowed us to call him “Jake.” However, he still gave grades and supervised independent studies, and I could tell that, while he enjoyed the exercise and the bonhomie, he enjoyed the role of mentor just as much.

That’s the simple advice, of course. The “Jakes” of the department are easy. How does one deal with the prof whose academic credentials suggest that s/he can crush cars with brain power alone or the bitter prof who seeks every opportunity to take out grievances on others?

  • Be sure to know exactly what you want. When you approach them with a project or are looking for advice, have as much settled, decided or known as possible. Have the list of books ready. In short, this will keep personality from entering your relationship as much as possible. Professors’ time is valuable and they’ll appreciate if you respect this.
  • Likewise, keep appointments. If you can’t make it to a meeting, give plenty of notice. And if you skip a meeting, don’t make the mistake of being someplace where you can be seen without a good alibi.
  • And, for heaven’s sake, if you use electronic communication of any kind, be professional! Use a salutation (“Hey” doesn’t count; use “Dr.” or “Professor”) and a signature.

Okay, but, what if the professor wants to hijack the work, creating a kind of proxy of his/her own interests? There’s no easy way around this one.

I’d recommend appealing to the integrity of your work: your research/thesis appears to need your particular approach and anything else would fundamentally change your project into something that it’s not.

–by the Staff of Edit911, Inc. & Baldwin Book Publishing


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