How to Approach a Professor for Help

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As a student there are likely many times in which you have thought about seeking assistance from one of your professors and/or teaching assistants, yet have failed to do so for a variety of reasons (fear being seen as "stupid"; have not been to class in a while; do not know what to expect or are uncomfortable talking with someone of a different race, gender, or age). You may even come from a cultural background that discourages interactions with authority figures. Whatever the reason, you are not alone. You can learn how to approach a professor for help.

Step 1: Identifying Reasons for Seeking Help

  • There are endless reasons for why you may need to talk with a professor. Listed below are just a few:
  • You performed poorly on a quiz, exam, or other class assignment.
  • You are unclear about an assignment, exam/reading schedule, policy on attendance, etc.
  • You want to turn in an assignment late or take a test at a different time.
  • You are unsure about your current major.
  • You have missed class due to sickness.
  • You are considering graduate school in the professor′s area of expertise and want to ask the professor for a letter of recommendation.
  • Your teaching assistant has not been regularly maintaining his/her stated office hours and you need assistance from your professor.

Step 2: Determining When to Meet

  • Once you have identified the specific reason(s) you need or want to speak with your professor, determine how quickly to do so.
  • If you need to speak to him/her as soon as possible, then a phone call, email (if a professor checks it frequently), or face-to-face contact in his/her office may be warranted.
  • Be sure to ask if this is a good time to approach the professor for your specific need. Also, keep in mind that a professor is typically less receptive to answering questions immediately before an exam is being distributed.
  • One approach might be, "Professor Heart, I need to talk with you about  xyz  as soon as possible. When can I do that?" Try to meet during the professor′s office hours listed in his syllabus.

Step 3: Organizing Your Talk with Your Professor

  • Arrive prepared with your list of why you need to approach your professor for help. Any anxiety you may experience can be lessened if you are organized beforehand.
  • Have all of your questions listed on paper beforehand. This will greatly minimize any chance of forgetting to ask a particular question of importance to you.
  • Have paper and pen available. It is best to record all information provided from your professor rather than rely later on your memory.
  • If you have a question about class material it is strongly advised to have your text, class notes and syllabus with you (in case you need to refer to such).

Step 4: Talking with Your Professor

  • Know your professor′s last name and use it with his/her appropriate title. Do not assume an informal greeting unless the professor has specifically stated that a more casual greeting is preferred.
  • Be sure to arrive on time and be mindful of possible (and likely) time constraints.
  • Don′t hesitate in asking to meet again if you did not receive all the information you needed. For example, "Professor Heart, I really appreciate you spending some time talking with me about graduate school as it will help me make some decisions. I would like to meet with you again to follow-up with some related areas. When can we arrange to do that?"

Taken from the University of Florida