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The 5 Basics of Student-Professor Etiquette

Date:24 September 2019
Prof Dr Asmo (PhD in Photoshop)
Prof Dr Asmo (PhD in Photoshop)

When you start your first year as a university freshman, there are a lot of new things happening. You have to find new friends, explore a new city and adjust to living in a new room. Apart from that, you are also in a new academic environment, together with world-class researchers and teachers. But what is the right way to approach these academic ace’s, that seem to hold more knowledge than half of your high-school teachers combined? Trust me, this is a question that even many older students have not figured out yet. That is why in this blog, I have compiled some of my tips on the right student-professor etiquette so that you don’t end up being that student. 

1. Do not be scared to approach - when it is appropriate. 

Some professors and lecturers might seem quite intimidating at first. But keep in mind that they are also just regular people. Of course, they are academic overachievers and might belong to the best within their discipline, but that shouldn’t make you feel scared of them. So whenever you have a question or another issue, don’t be afraid to approach them after class or drop-by their office. That being said, the right time to contact a lecturer is not when you spot them in the supermarket, a bar or on their way home. When approaching a professor, make sure to always ask whether they have a minute for you so that you can be assured you are not interrupting at a wrong moment. Also, try to think beforehand about what you are going to ask. This way, you don’t end up stuttering or forgetting essential details when you finally have the chance to talk. 

2. Be polite when you email. 

A lot of students struggle with finding the right words when they are writing an email to their professor or lecturer. Yet knowing the proper email etiquette is crucial as this is often the primary method of communicating with academic staff. The first potential blunder lurks right at the beginning of every mail, namely with how you address the recipient. Keep in mind that you are not writing your buddy on WhatsApp, which means you should always start with “Dear..” instead of “Hey”, “Hi” or “Whadduuup”. Next, you should know the right academic title with which to address your lecturer. Of course, you can always play it safe by using “Prof”, but the better method is to check out the staff pages on the university’s website. Here you can not only find the correct title of your lecturer, but it will also help you avoid spelling their name wrong. 

3. Think before you ask. 

There is nothing that professors hate doing more than answering self-explanatory questions that could be solved by just paying a little more attention. I know that you might be thinking to your self now that, “there is no such thing as a dumb question”. But after spending several years in university, I can confidently say that this is not true. A big part of gaining an academic degree is demonstrating specific problem solving and research skills, so make sure to use them before class! Another classic mistake some students make is to ask irrelevant and very personal questions at the very end of a lecture. Sure, there is nothing wrong with discussing these things in private. But is it really necessary to discuss your cousin Jimmy’s Bar Mitzvah the moment everyone wants to leave class? On the other hand, if you at any point, feel like your question could contribute to everyone’s knowledge, do not ever be too shy to ask!  

4. Don’t be pushy.

I know this might sound simple, but many students make the mistake of being too pushy or demanding. For example, students will include the subject title [IMPORTANT]’ or ‘URGENT!!!’ when writing an email. But remember: A lack of planning or emergency on your side does not automatically make it a problem of a lecturer, who often has to take care of hundreds of students. I have heard from some professors that these are the emails they answer last, so you should avoid these subject lines in an email. In case you have an extremely urgent problem, you can always try calling the office number of your lecturer which you can find in the staff directory. However, if you are dealing with a regular problem, you should always wait at least 72 hours for a reply until taking further steps. 

5. Be proactive.

This last point is crucial to keep in mind if you want to make a good impression on your lecturer. Whenever going to class, make sure always to come prepared and with a positive attitude. Nothing is more awkward than the painful silence when your professor asks who has prepared and assignment and no one raises their hand. Even if you only manage to skim through some of the reading beforehand, try to get yourself to do at least a little bit. Not only is class a lot more fun when you are able to participate in discussions, but it will also help you to stand out as an active and engaged student. This could be especially important when needing help or asking for a letter of recommendation sometime later.   

Hopefully, some of these tips will help you to relax a little bit more when approaching your professor in the future. Remember that as long as you stay polite and approach them in the same way you would contact any other person, nothing can go wrong. If you want to read up more on this topic, there are also some interesting articles elaborating on email etiquette as well as general courtesy that are worth checking out Class dismissed and see you next time!  

About the author

Hey there! My name is Asmo and I’m a Finnish/German student exploring life in the Netherlands. Besides being into photography and politics, I am currently doing my Master's degree in European Law. Oh, and I write blogs as well.


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