Guide for Interacting With Faculty


This guide is part of my Advice for Students.

Read This Part First

I've written this guide for the following audiences, which are not mutually exclusive of each other:

  1. Students who are uncertain about how to interact with faculty, or are intimidated by them
  2. Students who take my classes and are new to the expectations of college courses
  3. International students (undergraduate and graduate) who are new to the cultural norms at American universities
  4. Anyone (students and others) interested in the obsessive details and distinctions of academia

This guide is structured as an FAQ (a collection of Frequently Asked Questions). Some of its contents are specific to large universities in the USA, and a few items are specific to my classes. Applicability beyond intended scope may vary.

Don't be intimidated by the length of this document: I've organized the questions into sections to make it easier to navigate. Also, note that I've not written a comprehensive guide to college; these are merely the questions I hear most often or find the most interesting.

All of the questions in this guide are legit: each one represents something that at least one person has asked me or asked my colleagues. Knowledge about college and academia is not evenly distributed, and this document is my modest contribution toward a remedy.

My course syallbi may occasionally contradict this guide. When it happens, the syllabus is the authoritative document.

Finally, if you find this guide useful then please email me (see "Contacting Me" instructions) or let me know on Twitter.

The Guide


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania skyline at night
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania skyline at night. I worked as a postdoc and a lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh from 2011 until 2016.

Interacting with Faculty

How do I address a professor (or any university employee) in person or via email?

Many students struggle with this. Here's a quick guide. I use "M#." below as a catch-all for "Mr.", "Ms.", "Mx.", and other similar titles, and you should replace the '#' as appropriate in actual writing.

Students sometimes forget to use "Prof." or "Dr." when addressing women who are professors and/or doctoral degree holders. Remember that they deserve equal respect. Also, if you're completely uncertain whether "Prof.", "Dr.", "Mr.", "Ms.", or something else is appropriate, it's fine to ask.

If you make a mistake, there's no need to apologize: just remember the right title for next time.

Finally, some employees may invite you to disregard these rules. It's best to wait until you are invited, though.

Personal aside: Faculty sometimes follow these rules when addressing each other, and sometimes they don't. Factors include how well they know each other, relative levels of seniority, and personal style. There are some faculty I knew when I was a college student whom I still feel odd addressing on a first-name basis.

How do I write an email to a professor (or to any university employee)?

First, see the question above on how to address a university employee. Begin your email with "Hello [addressee]," or "Dear [addressee],". Using myself as an example, since "professor" is in my job title and I have a PhD, all of the following are fine ways to start an email to me: "Dear Prof. Wilson," "Dear Dr. Wilson," "Hello Prof. Wilson," or "Hello Dr. Wilson,". Avoid the informal "Hey [addressee],". If you absolutely can't figure out how to address someone, begin with "Hello," and ask toward the end of your email how to address them in the future.

Write the body of your email in complete sentences, with the capitalization and punctuation you would use for formal writing, like an essay. Avoid abbreviations from messaging platforms (e.g., "LOL") and repeated punctuation ("??"). Do not write the subject line or any part of the email body in all-caps.

Close with "Thanks," or "Sincerely," (or something similar), then skip a line or two and write your name.

Proofread what you wrote. Occasional typos are fine, and there's no need to apologize for them, but you should make an effort to find and correct them before sending an email.

These guidelines are the same professional email guidelines you may need for many years to come. For example, they also apply to emails to job recruiters and co-workers.

Someone told me I should get to know the faculty teaching my courses. How do I do that?

Visit them during office hours: if you have nothing else to talk about, mention you've heard that you should get to know the faculty teaching your courses, and explain why you're taking the course or in a program that requires it. That should be worth a few minutes of conversation, which (if you're truly at a loss for words) might be all you need.

If you have questions in class, raise your hand and ask them. If you're particularly interested in what a faculty member does, look out for announcements that they will give talks or will participate in other public events on campus.

What should I do if I need a letter of recommendation from a faculty member?

Let the faculty member know early. A month's notice is generally safe. If you give them less time, they might be unavailable or they may not have enough time to write the best possible letter for you.

Write the faculty member an email, following the guidelines elsewhere in this guide. Explain all of the following items:

Attach a copy of your resume or CV. If you have a personal statement (i.e., an essay about your curricular or professional interests), attach it too. Also, make sure to ask them whether they are willing to write a letter for you; don't assume that they are.

If you're uncertain how a faculty member will feel about writing you a letter, you can write your request in a way to find out. For example, "How comfortable would you be writing a letter of recommendation for me for this opportunity?" is a reasonable question. Some faculty respond to this question by saying they can write a "strong letter" if they are enthusiastic, or by saying they can write a "good letter" if they are merely supportive. If it's merely a good letter, it's up to you to decide: it might or might not be sufficient for the opportunity. Typically, earning a strong letter (or even a moderately good one) requires going above and beyond the course requirements. If you anticipate asking me for a letter, see the other answers in this guide about getting to know faculty and standing out in my class.

If the faculty member must send a letter of recommendation directly via postal mail (a rarity), provide them with a pre-addressed envelope with a stamp on it.

Finally, thank the faculty member when they send the letter, and let them know the outcome of the opportunity you applied for. Updating them serves two purposes: it lets them know what happened (faculty are often curious about this) and it refreshes their memory of you, which will be useful if you need additional letters in the future.

I can't figure out whether someone is a professor, a staff member, a student, etc. How do I ask politely?

Ask "What's your role here?", "What's your role in the department?", "What's your role at the university?", or something similar and suitable for the context.

Personal aside: Even as faculty, I sometimes have to ask questions like those. Students come in all ages, and many faculty do not conform their appearances to faculty stereotypes.

Why didn't a faculty member say hello to me when we passed in the hallway?

They probably didn't recognize you, but don't feel bad about it. It's difficult for a typical faculty member (including me) to recognize all the students in all of their courses, especially when there are many other students around who are not in their courses.

Personal aside: I say hello to students I recognize, partly because it's polite and partly because it seemed odd to me as a student when faculty members averted their eyes and passed by in silence. However, don't let the limitations of my memory stop you from saying hello! I am fine with this form of embarrassment.

Separately, when I was a student, a professor once growled at me when I said hello to them in the hallway. I think it was less about their attitude toward me and more about their acutely strange personality.

I met a professor and I asked them what they teach, but they told me about activities other than teaching. Why?

Teaching could be a minority of their effort, and it's possible they were listing their other duties too. Some professors are exclusively devoted to teaching, but many balance it with research and administrative activities, and some do not teach at all. I include more about this in People You Meet at Universities.

Personal aside: “What’s your subject area?” is a more fitting question to ask. Also, my friend Nathan Schneider wrote a good article about the variety of tasks that tenure-track professors do.

I'm an introvert. How can I interact with faculty?

Being an introvert means different things to different people, but a subset of introverts may find it reassuring to think about interactions with faculty in terms of well-recognized procedures. For example, the visit to office hours is a standard thing for students to do. Faculty expect that most students coming to office hours will bring uncertainty and questions about the course material, their trajectory in the class, or their greater goals. Addressing the uncertainty and the questions is the purpose of the interaction. (You might still feel nervous knowing that, but you can at least know that you're not being strange by seeking out guidance.)

Some introverts (and extroverts too) may suffer from impostor syndrome, which makes them hesitate to interact with faculty. If you search the internet for "how to deal with impostor syndrome" you can find many suggestions. There is no outright solution to impostor syndrome, and you should browse around to find a strategy that helps you.

Also, some introverts may find it reassuring to remember that faculty occupy the same introversion-extroversion spectrum that students do. Even if it appears otherwise, many faculty are introverts and they experienced the same social obstacles you do as a student.

Personal aside: I identify as a mild introvert, although I was more of an introvert during my student years than I am now.

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Sunset over Edinburgh, Scotland
Sunset over Edinburgh, Scotland. I was a visiting researcher at the University of Edinburgh for a year, from mid-2013 until mid-2014.

College Classes

I missed a session of class, or I will need to miss a session of class in the future. What should I do?

First, check the course materials (especially the syllabus) for an attendance policy. If there is none, the advice below applies.

After your absence, check with a classmate about what you missed, including the material covered and any announcements that were made. Professors tend to prefer that you ask your peers instead of asking themselves (professors): if they teach a large course or more than one course, absences are frequent, and it takes time to reply to everyone. Unless attendance is graded or a graded activity happens during class, there's generally no need to explain your absence to the instructor or to give them a heads-up. However, make sure that you observe any deadlines for assignments. Bear in mind that you may need to turn in work early to meet your obligations.

What should I do if I need to leave the classroom early (for example, to use the restroom or to catch a flight)?

If it's unexpected (e.g., the restroom), just step out quietly. Unless an activity specifically requires you to be in the room, there's no need to ask for permission.

If you know that you need to leave class early (e.g., the flight), you may tell the instructor just before class starts. This isn't typically required, but it's a way to reduce the awkwardness.

What are "office hours"?

Office hours are times when students can visit a faculty member's office to talk with them on a walk-in basis. Students can ask for help understanding assignments or course material. Office hours are also a good time to talk with a faculty member about opportunities to participate in research or to learn beyond the scope of a course.

Faculty members often feel that their office hours are underutilized, i.e., that students do not visit them often enough when they are struggling with a course or interested in more than a course can offer. Students ought not to feel guilty, embarrassed, or anxious about visiting during them.

Another course or an extracurricular activity is taking up my time. Can I be excused from an assignment deadline?

Generally no: students are expected to fulfill all of their academic obligations, and extracurricular obligations are lower priorities. However, university policies may carve out specific areas of leeway, which you can bring to a faculty member's attention if necessary. Also note that emergencies, religious holidays, illness, and certain inviolable obligations are not extracurricular activities, and professors may exercise flexibility for these things. (The course syllabus often explains this.)

Why do faculty ban eating food in their classes?

Several reasons: it's noisier than the eater thinks, it's distracting (both to the instructor and to other students), and it's messy. If people are trying to concentrate, it may trigger misophonia.

Why are teaching evaluations important? Do faculty pay attention to them?

Even though course evaluations may seem like an afterthought, faculty members read them, and so do committees that review faculty job performance. Faculty are required to include teaching evaluations in their portfolios for reappointment and tenure.

Personal aside: Some of the most heartwarming feedback I've received about my job has come from teaching evaluations. Some of the most saddening feedback has come from them, too. Review committees for faculty tend to recognize that no instructor can please everyone, although they look for positivity overall.

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Building in Mount Storm Park with sunset in background
Mount Storm Park in Cincinnati, Ohio. I worked as an Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati from 2016 until 2018.

People You Meet at Universities

Many professors have "assistant", "associate", "teaching", "research", etc. in their titles. What do these modifiers mean?

A variety of professorial titles exist. Here are some of the more common ones:

Personal aside: Every professor you meet got their job through a combination of hard work and luck. Tenure-track jobs are especially difficult to get. Also, adjuncts' teaching contributions are often under-appreciated by universities.

How are faculty and staff different? What about administrators?

In general (but not always), faculty are the non-student employees of a university who engage in research or teaching. (The "non-student" qualifier is important because graduate students are sometimes employees who engage in research or teaching, but they are rarely faculty.) The faculty designation includes all employees with titles that contain "professor" in them plus others who have research and/or teaching as part of their jobs. The term "staff" applies to most other employees, but the boundary is sometimes difficult to discern.

The faculty-staff distinction exists for managerial reasons, and it shouldn't affect how you interact with employees of a university.

Sometimes people use a third term, "administration", to refer to university employees who manage faculty or have executive duties: department heads, deans, provosts, and the president or chancellor. Most of those employees were faculty earlier in their careers, and they retain that status even if they no longer perform any teaching or research. Others are staff.

Personal aside: The above answer is one of the acutely US-centric parts of this guide. In countries where the academic terminology is closer to the United Kingdom's, all employees are "staff", and the term "faculty" is used to refer to a university subdivision that we call a "college" in the US. I encountered this when I held visiting positions in Australia, Singapore, and the UK, and I became used to adjusting my vocabulary depending on whom I was speaking with.

What are graduate students? How are they different from college students?

Graduate students (also known as "grad students" or "postgraduate students", confusingly) are students who are pursuing degrees beyond the bachelor's level. These degrees are sometimes called "advanced degrees", and they include master's degrees and PhDs. Graduate students may take a few courses with undergraduates ("college students"), but most of their courses are separate and more advanced. People often speak of graduate students as going to "graduate school". I explain more about graduate school in the Guide for Joining My Lab.

Personal aside: During my first two years of college I was unaware that graduate students existed. I hadn't thought about where or how people earned advanced degrees, and I assumed that the slightly older-looking students I sometimes encountered were just seniors.

What is a postdoc?

A postdoc is a recent PhD graduate who has a fixed-term job, often lasting 1-3 years, in which they perform research and acquire additional skills. Postdoc positions occasionally include teaching duties. Often, a postdoc is trying to improve their professional portfolio to be more competitive for non-temporary jobs.

A common misconception is that postdocs are students. They are not students: being a postdoc does not involve taking classes, earning grades, or making progress toward a degree.

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cairo_tuktuk.jpg
Giza, Egypt. In March 2018 I gave a week-long series of lectures on artificial intelligence ethics at the Future University of Egypt, in nearby Cairo.

Advice Specific to My Classes

What can students in your classes do to stand out (i.e., to exceed expectations)?

Beyond earning good grades (which are a baseline), you can do the following:

However, you should avoid the following:

Can I work with you on research?

Switch to the Guide for Joining My Lab for the answer.

Miscellany

I'm in an academic building and I need to take a phone call. A quiet hallway is a fine place to do it, right?

Probably not. In a hallway with offices, even if all the doors are closed, you will have an unwilling audience of several faculty, staff, and graduate students. You will disrupt their work and, depending on your conversation, show poor judgement of your privacy. In a hallway with classrooms in use, your audience will be even larger. Students sometimes take phone conversations in stairwells, but if the doors to the stairwell are open this is no better: the sound easily carries into adjacent hallways.

If you absolutely must take a call in a hallway, the best strategy is to find an exterior-facing wall or window and stand facing it while you talk on the phone. Resist the urge to pace or wander.

Personal aside: I often hear students on the phone in the hallway interviewing with job recruiters. I know: it's annoying and awkward when they call you at random times. If you explain that you're in a public place and you can't have a private conversation right now, but you can schedule a time with them later, it might produce the desired effect. Demonstrating good judgement should make up for the delay.

What is research?

"Research" is a broad term for the process of creating new knowledge, and it involves different activities in different disciplines. For example, it might mean running scientific experiments, building and testing new things (physically or conceptually), collecting information to synthesize a claim, or creating art.

Someone said I should apply for an REU. What is an REU?

"REU" stands for "Research Experience for Undergraduates". An REU is basically a paid summer internship to work on research with a professor at a university. Participating in an REU is an excellent thing to do if you are considering going to graduate school. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds REUs in many places across the USA, and you can search this directory of REUs on NSF's website.

Occasionally, non-NSF summer research positions for undergraduates are referred to as "REU"s too, but the term remains strongly associated with NSF.

Personal aside: You should definitely apply to REUs if you are thinking about going to graduate school in a STEM field. Because they tend to be competitive, submitting applications to multiple openings is a good idea. However, if you get rejected from all of them, don't feel too bad: I never did an REU, and things turned out fine.

Also, if you'd like to spend the summer in a different part of the country, an REU is a good way to do it. Participants often return with stories of adventures in places they hadn't visited before, which they go on with other students who came to the same REU site from across the country.

I heard a professor is on sabbatical. What does that mean?

A faculty member on sabbatical has been granted a temporary break from teaching and possibly from other duties. They often use the break to try something new to expand their abilities, or to perform a professional activity that they typically don't have the time for. Possibilities include a visiting position at a another university, traveling, acquiring new skills, or writing a book. Some faculty on sabbaticals may be more difficult to meet with or to get in contact with, depending on their activities. Faculty typically receive their first sabbatical just after becoming tenured, and after that they become periodically re-eligible for another one every several years.

I'm going to college at a university, but there are colleges in my university. Also, my friend is going to a college that isn't in a university. What gives?

Confusingly, the word "college" has multiple meanings. It can refer to the undergraduate experience ("going to college"), a subdivision of a university (like Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology), or an entire university (like the College of William and Mary).

Making matters worse, "school" can also refer to certain other subdivisions of a university (like Penn State's School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), an entire university (informally), or the experience of being a student.

What do professors do over the summer?

Often professors are nearly as busy during the summer as they are during the fall and spring semesters. Summer activities include:

All of these things happen during fall and spring semesters, but they happen in greater quantities during the summer. Also, the lack of classes allows professors to be more flexible with their work hours and where they work from, which is why they may appear to be in their offices less often.

Being a professor sounds like fun. Should I consider it as a career path?

Maybe. Many professors (including me) love their jobs, but it's a difficult career path. Fortunately, if you're an undergraduate then you still have lots of time to decide and you'll have to make other decisions first. One relevant decision is whether you would like to go to graduate school, since getting a PhD is a prerequisite for virtually all professorships. (However, note that PhDs in STEM fields have job opportunities in industry and government too, meaning that a PhD is not exclusively for aspiring faculty.) Take a look at my Guide for Joining My Lab for information on graduate school in information science or computer science.

Personal aside: My path to a faculty position was unusually long and difficult. In May 2019 I spoke about it at a graduation ceremony.

What's the purpose of the pictures in this guide?

I added them to break up the text; all of them are mine. I am a photographer in my spare time.

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Snow and students on the front lawn of Old Main at Penn State
Snow falling through spotlights on the Pennsylvania State University campus in State College, Pennslyvania. I became an Assistant Professor at Penn State in Fall 2018.