Forge Connections Early with Graduate School Professors

Reaching out to graduate school professors before orientation can pay off for students later.

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Pursuing an independent study is a good way get to know a professor better and could lead to being asked to co-author a research paper.

Many students choose a graduate school based mainly on the quality and reputation of the program's faculty.

That is largely because the amount and level of contact between graduate students and their professors is usually far greater than it is at the undergraduate level.

During my years as a dean of students, I met with several students who were interested in working more closely with faculty. In many instances, I provided feedback on how to go about connecting with faculty members.

As you prepare to start your graduate program, there are ways to establish and maintain good communication with faculty during your graduate student experience.

[Set priorities early for a successful transition to grad school.]

1. Reach out before orientation: While professors are generally less inclined to communicate with prospective students or applicants, they do have an interest in their incoming students. It is appropriate to reach out to a faculty member ahead of the academic term who you have followed prior to enrollment, especially if you plan on taking one or more classes with this individual.

One thing I'd suggest students try is sending a letter through the mail, as opposed to sending an email or calling. Faculty members are not always in their offices during breaks in the academic calendar, and they will likely take note of a personal letter.

Your note should include a formal greeting that lets the professor know you are enrolling soon. You should also provide a description of any of the professor's research or writing that you have followed. Request to schedule an in-person meeting for when you arrive on campus, and attach your resume.

Once you have arrived on campus, go to the professor's office and introduce yourself. You can also find out if he or she will be coming to any of the orientation activities, and make your introduction that way.

 2. Take advantage of faculty office hours: Don't go every time the door is open, but stop by a few times during the term to demonstrate your interest. Doing so provides an opportunity to further investigate what is being discussed in the classroom, a new article, book or recently published research.

[Make your relocation to graduate school a smooth process.]

3. Be ready to discuss academic concerns: Professors are supportive of students who acknowledge they are struggling, and who are proactively taking steps to improve performance.

I took an accounting class during my final semester as a doctoral student. It was an elective course, and my first exposure to the field.

I had concerns about my ability to keep up with the course work, as there were many high-level accountants in the class, and much of the material was way over my head. So I went to speak with the professor.

I told him I was relatively new to this academic field and asked if I could attend the other section of the class, which he taught on the weekend. He said yes. Along with joining a study group, this helped me to keep up, learn the material and earn an A for the course.

If you have already had contact with your professor, it won't look as though you are only showing up because you're in trouble.

[Get a head start with career planning in graduate school.]

4. Consider doing an independent study or research assistantship: These are excellent ways to get to know a professor better.

An independent study allows you to expand your knowledge of and expertise in a particular academic discipline. It may be that you could be asked to co-author a paper with the professor as part of the study you undertake.

Research assistantships can be offered to incoming students, but they are more often awarded to continuing students, once the professors have formed relationships with students. Doing a research assistantship can entail being paid, almost guarantees the publication of some sort of research paper and promises recognition and credibility for you as a rising scholar.

It also solidifies your relationship with the professor, which will be very beneficial should you pursue doctoral studies or as you continue to develop your research skills.