This guide is part of my Advice for Students.
I've written this guide for the following audiences, which are not mutually exclusive of each other:
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.
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 or non-binary people who deserve those titles. Remember that they have earned the 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.
Also, "Professor [given name]" is the preferred form of address for professors in some countries. International students occasionally address me as "Professor Shomir", which is acceptable, but I prefer "Professor Wilson".
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 future emails.
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.
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.
Let the faculty member know early. Three weeks' 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 to ask them if they're willing to write the letter, following the guidelines elsewhere in this guide. Explain why the opportunity is important for you, and attach a copy of your CV. If you have a personal statement (i.e., an essay about your curricular or professional interests), attach it too.
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), be prepared to provide them with a pre-addressed envelope with a stamp on it.
Finally, thank the faculty member if they agree to write a letter for you, and let them know the outcome of the opportunity you applied for. Your update 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 sometimes send this page to students if I agree to write them reference letters. Remember that the more information you can send a faculty member about you and your interest in the opportunity, the better they can support you in their letter.
Personal aside: If the opportunity is very competitive and you're very excited about it, my Thoughts on Failure might be appropriate to read. As a student I applied for many competitive opportunities. I had few successes, but often the applications were valuable for me: the essays helped me organize my thoughts about my interests and my future career.
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.
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.
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 better question to ask. Also, my friend Nathan Schneider wrote a good article about the variety of tasks that tenure-track professors do.
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.Back to Top
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Several reasons: it's noisier than the eater thinks, it's distracting (both to the instructor and to other students), and it's messy. In a quiet room, it may trigger misophonia.
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.Back to Top
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.
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 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. Meanwhile, the UK terminology sometimes uses "college" the same way as the US terminology, and other times it refers to either a residential grouping of faculty and students or a vocational school. I encountered these differences 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.
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.
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.Back to Top
Beyond earning good grades (which are a baseline), you can do the following:
However, you should avoid the following:
Switch to the Guide for Joining My Lab for the answer.
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.
"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.
"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, it's OK: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. I describe it in Thoughts on Failure, and I spoke about it at a graduation ceremony.
I added them to break up the text; all of them are mine. I am a photographer in my spare time.Back to Top