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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

How Office Hours Can Help Your Career

Whether you’re adjusting to college life as a freshman or just months away from graduation, reaching out to your professors can be a little intimidating. But having good relationships with those professors can be invaluable throughout your academic and professional career—and it’s worth investing the time to build those connections.

Professors can provide a lot more than academic support. Beyond providing assistance for coursework and advising you on choosing classes, they can open the doors to internships and give you guidance in planning for your post-college career. “My communications professor I’m a lot closer with because I talked to him about the whole transition into freshman year,” says Sarah Madonia, a sophomore at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “He’s more like a mentor rather than a professor.”

It may be in their job description to educate and help students, but it’s up to you to take initiative and connect with your professors. Here are some tips for getting in touch:

1. Contact your professors early in the term

If you don’t communicate with them early, chances are you won’t establish a connection. Katherine Behr, a senior at Miami University, and Madonia agree that reaching out early is best. “If I didn’t get in contact with one of my professors in the first or second week, I pretty much didn’t talk to them for the rest of the semester,” Madonia says. “The professors that I got in contact with at the start of the semester were the ones I stayed in contact with.”

2. Start with email

Meeting with your professors right away can be daunting, so get in touch with them initially via email. Send an email asking for advice about courses or for help with a topic that came up in class, advises Jim O’Brien, director of career services at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. That will help a professor remember you.

3. Go to office hours with a classmate

If facing your professor alone intimidates you, sign up for an appointment with a friend from class. Visiting together will make you both feel more comfortable. But with or without a peer, it’s essential to meet with your professors. “Professors have hundreds of kids each semester, and if you don’t take the time to get to know them, you’re just another name on a paper that they have to grade,” says Behr.

4. Keep in touch

Even after the semester is over, maintain the connections you’ve built. As you approach graduation, professors may be able to assist you with job searching, writing letters of recommendation, and introducing you to industry contacts. Behr recalls how one of her economics professors introduced her to former students who majored in the same area she did, who could offer her insight into her academic career choices and post-college options. 

After graduation, you can start a conversation by sending an email to an old professor relating how what you learned in class helped you in a particular job experience, suggests O’Brien. “They’re interested in what happens to the people that they work with, the students that they’ve had in class,” he says. “They like to know what’s happening with people.”

Many professors get hundreds of new students each term, and building a relationship with each student is difficult. But, O’Brien says, just as students want to connect with their professors, professors usually want to help and get to know their students. Madonia emphasizes the importance of putting things in perspective. “You just have to remember that [professors are] people, too, and that they’re not as scary as they may seem,” she says. “The benefits definitely outweigh the initial fears of talking to them.”

It’s normal to be nervous about reaching out to your professors, but the relationships you could form with them are priceless. Don’t let fizzled attempts or slow-to-develop relationships discourage you—relationships take time to build, and you won’t stay in touch with every professor you have in college. But even having a few professors you can turn to will be invaluable to you as you start off in the professional world.

Photo courtesy of Mike Seyfang.