Building Connections with Faculty

Strong relationships between students and faculty members can open the door for exciting opportunities. While it may seem intimidating reaching out to professors and building these connections can be meaningful for your college experience. Remember that professors are an incredibly valuable resource.  By building relationships with professors through office hours and other interactions during and outside of class, students gain opportunities to benefit from their expertise. 

Contrary to popular student belief, professors are more than just lecturers. Professors are professionals, intellectuals, researchers, analysts, artists, musicians, writers, parents, and more. These people who dedicate their lives to educating the next generation are some of the greatest resources of your entire lives. More importantly, they are here to help you. They want to pass on their knowledge to you, and they want you to succeed. Take advantage of this special opportunity and make connections with your professors that will benefit you for years to come. Also, you may not have been explicitly told this, but you are expected to cultivate relationships with faculty. We recommend that you try to develop relationships with at least 3-5 faculty members around campus as they will be a team of trusted advisors you can think of as your own personal “constellation of mentors.”  This team of advisors can help you succeed at UC Irvine and beyond.

Why are these relationships important?

There are a number of reasons why you should foster strong connections with your professors. Here are the top four reasons why you should get to know your professors:

1. Improved performance in courses

Have you ever felt too intimidated to ask a question in class? It’s a lot easier to speak up when you feel comfortable with the professor and have a personal rapport with them. When you cultivate a strong relationship with your professor, you’ll be more likely to ask for help or contribute in class because you feel empowered and less intimidated. When a professor knows you well, they will be better able to assist you and tailor their explanations to your interests and provide more specific individualized feedback. Talking with the professor during office hours can enable you to get one-on-one support that is also tailored to your strengths and areas of improvement ultimately leading to better performance in class and a much more enjoyable experience! 

Most students think that office hours are only there for students who are struggling. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Office hours are a natural mechanism to get to know a professor and get them to know you. Group office hours with 2-3 classmates can also be a good vehicle to create a group rapport, especially if all of you share interests or are part of the same study group. No matter how you do it, you should always seek out opportunities to attend office hours even if you don’t have questions directly on the course material. You can bring up discussion points on the field in general or get broader career or graduate/professional school preparation advice. There is really no downside to going to office hours and connecting with faculty members outside of class. Put in the effort and it will be well worth it!

2. Letters of recommendation

Letters of recommendation aren’t just for your college applications. Depending on your goals, you’re most likely going to need a letter of recommendation for at least an internship, job, medical school, or graduate school. The more your professor knows about your interests, abilities and ambitions as a student, the better a recommendation they can provide. Make the effort to drop into office hours, speak up in class and partake in departmental activities like colloquia and local conferences to get more face time with the professors you want to get to know better.

When asked “How many professors do you know well enough to ask for a letter of recommendation in support of an application for a job, or graduate, medical or professional school?” 47% of undergraduate Dunlop School majors at UC Irvine reported knowing 0 professors. Only 12% of students reported knowing 3 or more professors!

Remember that the best letters are one that are chock full of information about your interests, abilities, and unique skills and background experiences. Professors will not be able to write those exceptionally strong letters unless you give them the ammunition to do so. Many of them will also decline to write letters for students they do not know well. Asking a professor to write you a letter simply because you received an A in their course does not work and will only result in a lukewarm and short recommendation that is devoid of substance and can actually do more harm than good. The more detailed and personal a letter is about your interests and abilities, the more likely it is to make a strong impression on its readers. Professors who have the most extensive, personal knowledge of you and your work are the preferred people for you to ask for a letter.

3. Lifelong Mentorship

Studies have shown time and time again that good mentoring is essential for career success. In fact it has proved so beneficial, that 71% of Fortune 500 companies offer mentoring programs to their employees! But mentoring does need to wait until you’re in a job. Mentoring begins in college with your professors. In addition to getting help with course material and getting letters of recommendation, getting to know a professor and resonating with them based on shared experiences or interests can guarantee you a mentor for life! And the best part is that professors love this aspect of their jobs! They love inspiring students and seeing them succeed in their future endeavors. 

Being your mentor means much more than just writing a letter. It means that this professor will be there for you when you transition to a new job, when you need advice on how to negotiate or how to better build your skills or training for a new career. They will be there to provide a supportive foundation for you when you need it. Professors all remember those wonderful letters they receive from students after they get accepted to the graduate or medical program of their dreams or build their dream career. The sense of joy and pride that professors feel when they see their former students succeed cannot be overstated. Nothing could be more rewarding than a mentoring relationship (both for mentor and mentee) that allows you to keep in touch after graduation and share your wins, your struggles, your growth, your stories of resilience and persistence, and your ultimate success in your chosen path.

4. Networking and Opportunities

Professors are not only experts in their specific areas of research,  but are also respected professionals in their field, and can share a wealth of knowledge about both with you. Don’t just settle for learning biology in the classroom when you can also pick up valuable tips about joining a cancer research lab or how to better prepare for a career in bioinformatics. Conversations with professors can open your eyes to exciting opportunities and career paths, as well as the steps to help you get there. Professors are also aware of all sorts of additional opportunities for students, including internships, research experiences, conferences, scholarships, and more; students who get to know their professors well make it more likely that a professor suggests an opportunity within their network and be willing to write a supporting letter of recommendation. Additionally, professors often have the ability to nominate students for awards and membership in prestigious organizations. By building a professional relationship with a professor, you are more likely to be remembered when this opportunity arises. At a minimum, professors can connect you personally with colleagues in their networks who may have research, internship, clinical, volunteering, or other opportunities available. 

How to cultivate relationships with faculty

Below are some tips to help you cultivate relationships with faculty. Click on the plus sign to learn more about each tip.

Demonstrate courtesy and respect

Arrive to class on time, treat your classmates and your professor with courtesy and respect. Be alert and engaged during class. Always use positive and respectful language. Do not interrupt the professor or your classmates if they are speaking or answering questions. Professors enjoy interactions with students who show genuine interest in the subject matter and those who are respectful, punctual, and engaged. Remember also that professors want to be helpful and support their students as much as possible, but they are often juggling the teaching of many students, as well as their own research and other professional responsibilities.  So first, respect their time.  If you make an appointment, show up, and be on time.  Second, be polite and respectful, even if you are feeling angry or frustrated.  If you need additional help, or if you have a question about a grade, approach your professor in a courteous and considerate manner, and—even if you don’t get what you want—you’re likely to get a much more favorable response, and have a better working relationship with them throughout the term. 

Be attentive and participate actively in class

Do your best to sit in and or near the front of the classroom. This may seem like a small point, but it’s an important one. You want your professor to know who you are.  Sitting in or near the front will make you more visible, and help your professor to get to know you early in the quarter.  It also sends a message that you are engaged with what is happening in class, which is something that all professors like to see. Importantly, however, only sit in the front if you are ready to engage. If you are distracted or sleepy, it will become much more obvious to the professor if you’re at the front of the class! In many classes participation is required, and is formally built-in to the course grade.  But even if that is not the case, actively participating in class discussions can still help you to get a better grade.  By participating, you demonstrate your understanding of the course content, which will help your professors to get to know you better, and show him or her that you are engaged with what is happening in class. That said, make sure you do not monopolize discussions or hijack valuable class time to share irrelevant personal anecdotes or stories just to be heard. 

Ask questions when you don’t understand the material

Many students often feel afraid to do this, because they assume that everyone else in the class understands things better than they do. This is rarely the case. Odds are high that if you ask the question, some other student in class will be breathing a sigh of relief, because they didn’t understand it either, but may have been too afraid to ask for clarification. Asking questions also lets the professor know that you are paying attention, and that you are working hard to understand the material.

Regularly attend office hours

This is your chance for one-on-one time with your professor.  It’s your chance to get detailed clarification of concepts you don’t understand, and also to continue building a rapport with them.  It’s also a good time to discuss issues such as accommodations, or other issues that may be germane to course content, but not necessarily part of the class. The tragedy of office hours is that most students underutilize them until it’s midterm or final time. Making sure office hours are part of your regular routine and visiting your professor regularly during that time and not just when you feel underprepared for the exam will go a long way to build that rapport.

Be proactive if you run into problems during the semester

Most faculty want to be supportive, but if you wait until the end of the term, or until you’ve already missed too many classes, assignments, or exams, there may well be little or nothing that he or she can do to help you.  Also, missing exams without communicating with them ahead of time can make your motives look questionable.  So if you have an extended illness or other personal circumstance, communicate with your professors regularly as the situation is unfolding.  That way, if some kind of accommodation does become necessary, the professor will already be familiar with your situation, and may be better able to help you.

Request letters of recommendation early

When it comes time to ask for a letter of recommendation, meet with and ask your professor at least one month (preferably two) in advance of when the letter is due. During the meeting, make sure you ask the professor what they need to write you a strong letter of recommendation. Assume that at a minimum they will want to see your unofficial transcript, your resume, your personal statements (for graduate or professional school), and any other materials. It also helps to prepare a short document describing your interactions (class you took, attendance at office hours, exchanges after class, etc.). Professors have to write a significant number of letters every year and making this easy on them will go a long way. Always ask if they are willing to write you a letter and always make sure you give them the option to decline to write a letter if they don’t think it will be strong enough or if they don’t have the time. If a professor appears reluctant to write you a letter, do not insist on it. This is also a major reason why you should cultivate relationships with 3-5 faculty members at a minimum. Check out the Guidance on Requesting Recommendation Letters here.

Respectful Communication with Faculty

Reaching out to a professor over email is often necessary to request meetings, letters of recommendation, or inquire about a lab research opportunity. Using the appropriate respectful tone and format goes a long way. Here are some tips to consider in your communications:

1. Never use generic form email to write faculty. Ensure that every email you write is personalized and not generic. Generic emails asking about lab research opportunities will rarely be answered. Also, never email multiple faculty simultaneously and hope to get one of them to respond. This only communicates the message that the email sender is too lazy or too negligent to personalize individual emails.

2. Use an informative subject line that specifically introduces your interests and requests. Do not use demanding language like “urgent request” or “immediate response needed.

3. Begin your email with the proper salutation and address your professor with their proper title. Remember that Mr. and Ms., while ok in high school, are not appropriate when you’re addressing college professors with doctoral degrees. The correct salutation is either Dr. or Professor. It’s best to do the research on the faculty pages or read the signature in their emails to ensure that you’re using the proper title.

4. Introduce yourself and remind them about any past interactions or connections. If you are not already connected, you can establish a connection by mentioning what you found compelling about their research or a talk they may have delivered and how it fits with your own personal interests and goals.

5. When requesting a meeting, provide your availability but emphasize that you are willing to be flexible and will meet with them at their convenience, not yours.

6. Conclude the email with a respectful salutation such as “sincerely”, or “looking forward,” or “thank you” etc. and include the name that you would like the professor to call you in person, especially if it is different from the name in your email address.  

7. Allow a grace period of at least a week to get a response before you send a reminder. Professors receive hundreds of emails each day and it takes some time to clear the backlog of emails. If you need something more urgently regarding class, consider reaching out to the teaching assistant. 

8. Establish the opportunity for a follow-up appointment during your meeting. For example, you can ask the professor if they are willing to meet again or discuss questions over email. Outline next steps before the end of the meeting. 

9. Send a thank you email to follow-up within 24 hours of the meeting. Thank the professor for taking the time to meet with you, summarize what was discussed and any action items for the next meeting. 

10. Remember that just like any relationship, faculty-student relationships need to be nurtured over time. Connect with your professor regularly even after the conclusion of the course to continue to cultivate this bond and establish a long-term mentoring rapport.