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Professors on Pedestals – Updated

Is there a place on campus where I can learn how to address/talk to professors? I have been in the US for about six years now, but I am originally from a culture where one is supposed to show respect to people older than you. I therefore still cannot bring myself to address a professor by name (as my other fellow graduate students do), or write an email to them without putting in multiple “Thank you for your time!” and “Sorry to bother you…”.

When I read my own emails that I send out to professors, it’s cringeworthy, since I’m so deferential. It’s worse when the professors I address are just a couple of years older than me. I want to learn to get over this. My friend recently pointed out that calling someone “Prof. X”, and writing so many Thank Yous and Sorrys in email skews the power dynamic a bit too much, and that I should treat professors as colleagues if I want them to treat me as one.

How do I learn this? I hang out with a lot of American friends but somehow this is something I’m unable to learn. —Anonymous

This question was originally published in November 2016. The responses have been slightly updated for accuracy as of January 2019. 

Hi, there. In order to address your question, I reached out to several campus partners. I hope their multiple perspectives and experiences are helpful.

Ziyan Bai is a graduate student assistant with the Graduate School’s Core Programs and Office of Postdoctoral Affairs:

“For the past couple years, I have organized a workshop on “Communicating with Faculty” for international grad students. At the workshop, a panel of three faculty members and four advanced international graduate students from social science, science, engineering, and humanities shared communication tips and strategies including communicating in person or via email. We have a summary of notes from the panel.

I also get this question many times during my one-on-one mentoring with new international grad students. This is not an uncommon situation. The bottom line: find a middle ground that you find comfortable with the degree of reverence you show in the email or talking in-person. Usually international students find it uncomfortable if they try to “get rid of” their home culture in order to fit in. There is no universal standard in communication, so staying connected with home culture and being open to learn new culture at the same time is recommended.”

Note: The “Communicating with Faculty” Workshop is being offered this May. Details will be announced in the Graduate School Digest and on the Graduate School’s events calendar.

Era Schrepfer is the executive director of the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students (FIUTS), which offers a wealth of support and programs for international students at UW:

“We hear this question pretty frequently. I usually suggest visiting the professor during office hours and being totally honest about this with them directly. Just say, ‘I’m from XXX and in my country we are taught from an early age to treat teachers much more formally, so the culture in the classroom here is hard for me to get used to. I want to be successful in your class and for you to feel comfortable. What do you suggest to help me with this?’ Usually, they really don’t mind being treated more formally by international students, but it helps to start off the quarter with a conversation.

Sometimes, it’s easier to feel comfortable with a professor when you know them a little bit on a personal level, and it’s meaningful to the professor as well. So ask them questions about themselves. Have they ever been to your country? How long have they been teaching? Where did they go to school? It’s helpful to find some common ground with them and see them as people just like you. Power distance is one of the most challenging cultural elements! I know a lot of alumni who still struggle with it many years after coming to the US!”

Elloise Kim is the president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, and an international student herself:

“As someone who is from a similar culture, I totally understand why you are hesitant to freely communicate with people like faculty members. In my home culture, a respectful manner for people who are older or hold a higher position is obligatory. Yet, if people here can interpret your attitude not necessarily as carefulness but as cultural clumsiness, you may want to question for whom you insist to keep such manners.

I’d like to suggest to learn American cultural manners in the way you have learned English. In other words, think of it as a foreign language. Its syntax and phonetics would be very different from those of your original language. But, you have to learn and practice it in the way the language is spoken by native speakers. You do not become a totally different person while speaking English – rather, you are speaking another language still being yourself. Likewise, ways of communication need to be learned and adjusted. You can be very polite in a different way!”

Katie Malcolm is an instructional consultant for the Center for Teaching and Learning and specializes in working with international, multilingual and first-generation college teachers and students:

“This is a great question, and one that many grad students have. The resource ‘Communication Strategies for International Graduate Students’ has some specific strategies for students about communicating with advisors.”

Ask the Grad School Guide is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the Guide doesn’t know the answer, the Guide will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The Guide is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →

Getting the Mentoring You Need

Throughout your training, but especially in the postdoc experience, your faculty supervisor plays a significant role with you and your future.  We know there is a full spectrum of what faculty have to offer and how this matches with what you need. From what we have learned, it can take “managing up” and being proactive in your relationship with your faculty advisor to make it work for you. The National Postdoc Association recently posted a blog with exceptional tips for how to get more from the mentoring opportunities you have.  In addition to these points, which we summarize below, we also always recommend developing a mentoring team so you can get a full spectrum of support from many and are not solely dependent on one person alone.

With a few additions from us, here are the top recommendations from the National Postdoc Association blog. See the full blog – available to all UW postdocs through our institutional membership with NPA – for even more tips:

  • Make time to meet regularly with your mentor(s). In many cases, you will need to request and initiate these.  Be prepared for your meetings, send a written summary of progress in advance, and focus your f2f meeting on particular questions or challenges you are confronting currently.  Have specific goals and tasks in mind. Send a follow up email of agreed upon next steps or decisions that get made during the meeting.
  • Be willing to listen and learn. Ask directly for feedback – what is currently going well, and what could be done differently to work more productively or effectively together. Not everyone is skilled at giving feedback, so asking for specific areas where you want to know how you can improve shows strength and the willingness to grow.
  • Be proactive about your needs. Being proactive is much more than just taking the initiative – it’s about using your time during your postdoc experience more effectively. Thinking about what the faculty needs can also help you respect their interests while asserting yours.
  • Be a problem solver. When bringing problems to your mentor, you should have possible solutions in mind to foster the development of your own problem-solving skills. While the mentor can provide ideas and feedback, sometimes no one knows your situation better than you.

As the NPA writer concludes: “No matter what kind of a mentor you have – one who offers little or no help; one who constantly overwhelms you with information; or even a mentor who is an experienced teacher and understands how to work effectively with a postdoc – you will get more out of mentoring if you are proactive in the process.”

Additional Mentoring Resources: 

Originally posted on August 18, 2016.

Talking with Faculty About Diverse Careers

Spring quarter is full for everyone, and we also know that many of you are in different stages of reflecting on your career goals.  You may be thinking about what you want to do upon degree completion, starting an internship, preparing application materials, or deepening your expertise in a job you already have.  Throughout this process, some of you have asked: “How do I initiate a conversation my faculty advisor(s) about my professional goals?”

Do your research.  It can be anxiety-provoking to think about approaching your faculty advisor or mentor about your career interests, especially if those interests diverge from you becoming research faculty at a college or university.  One of the best ways to initiate a conversation with your advisor is to be prepared beforehand.  Here are some tips to help you gather the baseline information you need for that conversation:  Assess your work-related interests, strengths, and values to develop a more holistic awareness of who you are as a professional.  Utilize the UW Career Center’s comprehensive guide on building resumes and cvs, career advice, interviewing, and job searching. Understand how the skills you are developing in graduate school are indeed transferable across fields and industries.  Peruse job postings (and volunteer opportunities) that resonate with your self-assessments, whether they are based in non-profit, industry, or government sectors.  Research professional associations affiliated with the fields you are interested in, and contact their members via their websites or LinkedIn.  Set up informational interviews with individuals from professional associations, or with employees from companies and organizations that you can imagine yourself working at–to grow your networks.

Get in the habit of career planning over time.  The strategies noted above are part of a larger process of intentional career planning.   This is a lot of work, but well worth the effort.  Intentional career planning is necessary, if you want to move forward in both knowing and reaching your professional goals.  Break your goals up into smaller tasks, and work on them for 30 min. to an hour each week. You will move forward one step at a time, rather than trying to tackle it all at once.

Develop and bring materials with you.  When you do talk with your faculty advisor, you can bring a simple one page proposal of the career exploration you are engaged in, including sources you are researching and near-term plans for learning more about different options.

Prepare for different responses.  You may reach out to one faculty advisor or several.  In fact, we encourage you to meet with more than one mentor on your team to widen your potential for support.  Practice role playing scenarios with a trusted colleague or friend, where you engage in a conversation about your career interests.   Ask your friend to mimic the most unsupportive response to the most supportive response.  Utilize these mock responses to gauge what your next steps will be.  For example, maybe you find out your advisor has no interest in talking about diverse career opportunities with you but is still fully supportive of your intellectual and technical growth as it pertains to your discipline only.  Whom else can you identify (within or outside of your mentoring team) that will advocate for your need to explore diverse career paths?

Help your advisor help you.  It is highly likely that your faculty advisor was trained to be a teacher and researcher first and foremost, so they may not have the experience to guide you in exploring diverse career pathways.  Share with them your knowledge of all the professional development resources you are accessing (networking, professional associations, social media, UW Career Centers, etc.).  Forward them information about campus events, such as job fairs, the Core Programs community college careers panel, or workshops sponsored by the Career Center like How to Find a Job Outside of Academia for Humanities and Social Sciences PhDs.  By doing this, you’ll be facilitating a reciprocal learning process about your professional development with your advisor.

All right, we’re totally rooting for you!  Please feel free to follow up with us, and let us know if these strategies worked for you.  And let us know if you have other suggestions.

Jaye Sablan, Kelly Edwards, Ziyan Bai
Core Programs, UW Graduate School

Répondez S’il Vous Plaît

Sometimes it’s really hard to get responses from professors and other professionals other than your adviser about either information you need or data they said they would provide to you. How do you politely keep contacting/bugging others for information/data, and how do you do so in a way that actually gets results? —Anonymous

This is a perennial issue. Sometimes you do really need to be persistent. It can be tricky to walk the fine line between diligence and pestering. Here’s one suggestion: don’t just ask for the information or data, offer something in return. Perhaps what you offer is to send the results of your study or your paper to the professor; or perhaps you offer to present a mini-lecture in one of their classes on your research. Also, be sure to ask if/how the professor would like to be acknowledged. It is also important to say something about a timeline: “I am hoping to incorporate the data you have offered to share for my project within the next two weeks. Does that time frame work for you?”

// Thank you to Rebecca Aanerud, Associate Dean of the Graduate School and Senior Lecturer and Associate Dean of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, this week’s guest guru! //

Ask the Grad School Guru is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guru doesn’t know the answer, the guru will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guru is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →