This week I was reflecting on a wonderful student who happened to showed up super-late the very first day of class this semester. I asked myself, “How much good behavior from this student was needed to offset that one seemingly small mistake?”
The answer to this question isn’t really important. What is important is realizing that people — including your professors — put way too much weight on noteworthy events like showing up late the first day or surfing the Internet during class one time to decide what kind of student you are. A famous personality researcher named Walter Mischel discovered that indeed people weigh too heavily these “prototypical behaviors” that squarely represent the broader class of a given trait when judging others to have certain personality traits. This means that based on just one or two noteworthy events, the professor might label you to be an uncaring student.
But you can use this kind of information to help you make a great impression on your professor (or your friends for that matter). For example, you can be the one student who understands a particularly hard reading and offers an especially insightful comment about it. Or you can be the one student who turns in her midterm paper early.
You knew all this already, didn’t you? After all, you go to the hospital for a sick friend or bring the chicken noodle soup to the sick friend in your dorm…you do these prototypical things, and your friend will never what a caring friend you are.
I received this question from a student right before Christmas:
“Hi Professor Kelly! I have a question. I want to do undergraduate research this summer with a particular professor in the Theology department. I had a class with him in the fall that I really loved, but because it was a lecture course, he only really knows my name and just a little bit about my writing style. I feel a little strange asking him since he hardly knows me (also I know he is very busy and intimidatingly important), and beyond that, I really just don’t even know how to approach him. What can/should I say? How is this conversation supposed to go?”
Dear Anonymous Student,
My advice about getting a professor to agree to take you on as an undergraduate research assistant is similar to my advice to students who want a professor to take them on as a graduate advisee. The key is to express your knowledge of his research when you meet with him. Explain why working with him matches your own research interests so well. Thus, you will need to have read at least a couple of his recent or major papers.
If you can demonstrate your knowledge of his research and how you could fit into his research program, these efforts are likely to increase your chances of his accepting you as a research assistant. This is because professors love students who share their research interests. And they love students who have done their homework.
Don’t be shy about approaching this professor. Your interest will be flattering, and he might be very happy to find someone like you who is willing to work in the summer. Please let us know how your meeting goes!
Sometimes students insult their professors even when they have the best intentions. Last week, a student requested that I supervise her research but wrote “from the psychology website it did not appear as though you are currently doing research here at Notre Dame.” Her comment reminds me a little of when acquaintances I haven’t seen in a while ask, “So are you still teaching?”
I know, these comments are innocent and should be totally fine to say to a professor. But see if you think that after you answer the following question from the Test of Social Intelligence in the Classroom that I developed for my new The Clever Student book.
How is a typical professor’s time divided at a major university?
a. 50-60% teaching, 30-40% research, and 10-20% service.
b. 50-60% research, 30-40% teaching, and 10-20% service.
c. 50-60% service 30-40% teaching, and 10-20% research.
d. 50-60% research, 30-40% service, and 10-20% teaching.
The correct answer is b. That’s why this student’s comment about my not conducting research was problematic. She did not take the time to see what research I am doing (my vita with recent publications is right on the website). Also, she was suggesting that it looks like I’m not doing my job.
If you want understand your professors better, keep in mind that they are primarily there to conduct research.