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I'm studying for a postgraduate degree and my courses with a certain professor will start in some time. I have been meaning to speak to him since a very long time but I'm scared to go over to his office. I want to develop off-class relations as well for multiple purposes - opportunity to have good relations with a well-established professor, have access to his way of thinking by speaking to him and last but not the least, I do want a recommendation letter from him as well in a few months. I have no idea how to approach him, introduce myself or begin talking about a topic for a conversation.

More importantly, I don't want to sound like I'm posturing or faking interest. So, how do I begin?

  • It is unclear whether you have worked in the past with this professor, say as a student in class. What relationship do you already have? – Buffy Sep 29 '18 at 17:55
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    @Buffy He is the head of my department. I haven't worked with him before. He will be starting his lectures in a few days. – user585380 Sep 29 '18 at 18:06
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    More importantly, I don’t want to sound like I’m posturing or faking interest. Well, you kind of do sound exactly like you’re intending to fake interest. Are you just asking for advice on how to do it effectively? Because I’m not getting the impression you have any actual interest in the professor or his work or an actual question you’d like to ask him. Perhaps you should clarify that. Speaking as a professor, it’s a huge turn-off when you get a feeling a student wants to talk to you just for networking or to “warm you up” for a future letter of recommendation request. – Dan Romik Sep 29 '18 at 19:24
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    So how do I begin? — Start by pretending that the professor is an actual real live human being, and not a soul-sucking vampire who has the power to destroy you with a single glance. I suggest opening with "Hello, professor, my name is user585380. Do you have a few minutes to talk?" – JeffE Sep 29 '18 at 19:55
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    I sympathize with your shyness, but it comes down to the fact that you don’t have an actual question you want to ask. If you did, your “genuine interest” would be obvious. Just wanting to have a conversation with an intelligent person, let alone your other expressed (and off-putting) motivations of wanting a letter of recommendation and wanting to “develop off-class relations” with a professor, are all problematic reasons to approach someone. So, I am afraid your concern about him reacting poorly is somewhat justified. The solution is to wait until you have a legitimate question. Good luck! – Dan Romik Sep 29 '18 at 20:45
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This is coming from someone who worked and still works with the most intimidating professor in our lab. This professor was my teacher when I was a bachelor student and he was also my supervisor project for my Master degree (And that's when I developed my fear). Now he is one of my co-supervisors for my PhD. I never approached him until this year (5 years to overcome my fear). So all this just to tell you that "I know :)".

The year I approached him, I discovered the following information (and the mistakes I made):

  • The professor was just professional: strict when it comes to deadlines and assignments, meetings were heavy and only work-oriented (a lot of information, a lot of tasks to do). This was stressful to a lot of students.
  • The professor is seriously passionate, so he takes everything to the next level. You really should arrive to class punctually, no small talks, stay focused. You break the rules, you leave.
  • I kept hearing past stories, or bad experiences, from other students and let those experiences affect our professor-student relationship.
  • And mostly, I missed many opportunities by not taking the first step in the past.
  • I made the mistake of mixing "How he does his job" with "Who he is".

So here is the only answer I have to your question: Just do it, I am sure that this intimidation is just in your head. I even noticed that I can easily start these off-class relations with other professors, but never with him. So here is something I would do:

  • I will schedule a meeting by sending an email (my professor was the Head Of our Lab, he is always busy). I will say that I need a recommendation letter for example.
  • During the meeting, introduce yourself and why you need the recommendation letter and try to start a conversation from there. Tell him your future plans, and ask for his opinion. He is your professor after all, his job is to guide you :).
  • During class, be active and always be interested. You can not earn his respect if he does not see how passionate you are.
  • Always take the first step. And if doesn't go your way, it's okay. As Buffy said, take it easy, you have a lot of time and "several opportunities to reinforce any interest"

Good luck.

  • This resonates a lot. We mostly fear what we don't know. – Buffy Sep 29 '18 at 20:14
  • Exactly, it's amazing how small things that we don't pay attention to can have a big impact in our lives. I literally approached my professor last week, I was amazed at how easy this was compared to how hard I always imagined it will be. Les Brown always says "Fear is the most subtle and destructive of all human diseases. Fear kills dreams and hope" and I now understand why he would say that. – U. User Sep 29 '18 at 20:31
  • That is some concrete advice - and I completely relate to the quote about "fear". I will follow through on your advice. – user585380 Oct 1 '18 at 14:42
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You might wait a bit until the course has started and you have a legitimate question. You can then introduce yourself and a word or two about your background. If this course is of particular interest to you, you can mention that. Perhaps a conversation will develop or not. You can simply end with the statement that you are looking forward to learning from him in the future.

Keep it natural and short. You will have several opportunities to reinforce any interest.

I'm assuming that "intimidating" means something like "renowned" not "has a reputation as a harsh person". If he is particularly rushed, as some are, keep it especially short.

  • By intimidating, I mean - he can be a little harsh and judgemental, although, his general reputation is that he is also quite welcoming and likes when students come to him for a conversation or so. – user585380 Sep 29 '18 at 18:30
  • @user585380, a bit riskier, then. Make sure you have a good question. Maybe something beyond the course. – Buffy Sep 29 '18 at 18:44
  • Thank you, Buffy. I will make sure I have legitimate questions - those which can probably develop into a conversation. – user585380 Oct 1 '18 at 14:43
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It is always easier to talk about things rather than shooting the breeze. The more difficult the professor, the more concrete you want the things to be. You could:

  1. Wait until class has started and have a legitimate question (as Buffy mentioned above).
  2. Read some of his/her research. Figure what they're interested in. Talk to his/her grad students and ask them what they do. Find something they are really interested in. This is riskier since you might be truly ignorant about it, but asking a smart question about something the professor is truly interested in (i.e., not just the class) can score you major kudos.

I had one such (world-renowned) prof who taught one of my classes. I thought he might be interesting as an advisor. My dutch courage was to drink an entire pot of coffee before going in to talk to him about problems he brought up in class which I thought interesting. (Note he was both a smoker and coffee drinker so he appreciated zippy conversations). We spoke about topics in class (on Riemann Surfaces) and it was clear that because he brought them up, he was interested in most of them. At the same time he was known as not taking many students at all, and being both quick and gruff.

We did not ultimately pair up, but he seemed genuinely entertained by our encounter (smiling and sitting sideways in his chair) and we spoke for at least an hour about topics related to his class and areas for futher research.

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