I’ve been there. I know that, despite spending weeks confined to the same lecture hall, actually striking up a conversation with your professor can seem daunting. It is often easier to “forget” about office hours, stay silent in class, and scurry out with making eye contact. But remember, your professors aren’t just lecturers, researchers and evaluators – they are people too. Admittedly extremely knowledgeable, articulate, and often charismatic people (who are leaders in their chosen field), but people all the same. So being the highly-motivated and intelligent student you are, have a little faith. You can handle it.
Better yet, you can ace it. Consider this your office hour cheat sheet.
1) Prepare. Make sure you have at least one intelligent question ready to kick off the conversation (but realistically having two or three is probably better). Also familiarize yourself with your professors’ research interests. Not only will this score you extra brownie points but it is virtually guaranteed to get them talking.
2) Timing is everything. Everyone is going to be vying for the lecturer’s attention right before midterms, exams and assignments are due. So try to make contact during the first few weeks of the semester (when stress levels for everyone on campus are usually lower) and see how it goes from there.
3) Bring back-up. Have a friend taking the same course? Perfect! Drag them along with you to office hours. At best, they can save you if the conversation starts to go south. At worst, after the fact, they can reassure you that everything did not go as badly as you think.
4) Start strong. Know how to properly address them. Generally, stick to “professor” unless you know they have a Ph.D., in which case “doctor” is also acceptable. Usually they will be upfront if they are more comfortable with you calling them something else.
5) Smile. You’ll be surprised how much this eases any underlying or overt tension in the room.
6) Be honest. Be upfront about the reason for your visit, but also be polite. You are not the first person and will not be the last to ask for a reference letter or an extension on your paper. That said, don’t be afraid to make purely social calls. Most professors like getting to know their students.
7) When in doubt. Send an email. If you are feeling nervous, this can be a good way to test the waters. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t receive an instantaneous reply, though, as some professors are notoriously hard to nail down in the digital world.