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One of my high school teachers once said that if I ever meet her again, I should identify myself by name because otherwise she will probably not remember me (there are simply too many students every year to remember all of them).

So just curious: do professors remember all their ...

  • Collaborators?
  • Postdocs?
  • PhD students?
  • Masters students?
  • Undergraduate research students?
  • Undergraduate non-research students (i.e. those who took one of their classes)?
  • Summer students?

... years into the future? Or are situations where the person goes "Hi Prof. Smith, I'm one of your ___ from 1985, remember me?", and Prof. Smith looks blank, common?

closed as off-topic by scaaahu, corey979, Dmitry Savostyanov, user3209815, user9646 Nov 8 '18 at 8:17

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    I'm not sure what an answer to this question will look like. Beyond anecdotes, I expect this will vary a lot between individuals. Some professors will make a point of learning everyone's name, and some won't. Some will have a lot of students, regularly teaching classes of several hundreds, and some won't. Some, unfortunately, develop dementia and can have (at least) days when they won't recognize their past PhD students or even family members. – Anyon Nov 8 '18 at 2:39
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    @Anyon: Yeah, this is the only answer. It's not like becoming a professor will automatically improve (or degrade) your ability to remember people, or that people with particularly good or bad memories are forbidden from becoming professors. There could be some slight correlations, but not enough to make any blanket answer to the title question. – Nate Eldredge Nov 8 '18 at 3:30
  • Well if we assume that the "Undergraduate non-research students" group is too individual to say, what about the other groups? – Allure Nov 8 '18 at 4:54
  • In this scenario, do you believe that in 2018, you look exactly the same as in 1985 when you were in high school...? – user9646 Nov 8 '18 at 8:18
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    @Anyon Your comment reads like an answer to me. I mean, as you say, there's probably a lot of room for individual variation, though that observation itself, along with insight into norms, seems like a reasonable response. – Nat Nov 8 '18 at 8:38
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Just like other human beings, academics will tend to remember students who they have had regular one-on-one contact with over a sustained period of time. They are unlikely to remember students who they have met only in group settings (e.g., in lectures, etc.) or only on sporadic occasions. The passage of time will also tend to eradicate memories of particular students, unless they were well-known. And as with all other people, the memory of academics is affected by the length of contact, volume of other contacts with students at around the same time, time since last contact, and the idiosyncracies of memory of each individual.

So just curious: do professors remember all their ...

Collaborators?

Usually, but not always - Collaboration on a research project generally involves sustained contact, though it can also involve remote contact (via email, etc.) with some collaborators that you do not meet face-to-face very often, or at all. Some research projects might involve large teams, and in this case an academic might forget some members of the team. Academics will generally remember most or all of their research collaborators if they work closely in small groups, but might forget some who they did not meet often, or those on large teams.

Postdocs?

Yes - Supervising a postdoc involves regular one-on-one contact over a period of several years. It involves assessment of work, research collaboration, and supervisory feedback. It is a close working relationship that would generally be retained in memory for a substantial period of time.

PhD students?

Yes - As with a postdoc, supervising a postdoc student involves regular one-on-one contact over a period of several years. PhD students require more guidance than postdocs, so the relationship usually involves even more contact. It involves assessment of work, research collaboration, and supervisory feedback. It is a close working relationship that would generally be retained in memory for a substantial period of time.

Undergraduate research students?

Maybe - Undergraduate research projects involve talented undergraduate students (the type you might remember) but they are usually short and simple research projects (which are fairly forgettable). Contact with the student is usually for only one or two semesters. After a period of time you might forget these students.

Undergraduate non-research students (i.e. those who took one of their classes)?

Definitely not - There are hundreds/thousands of them. Some academics teach courses with several hundred undergraduate students each semester, in which case there are thousands of them over a period of years. You might be lucky to remember a few of the students that did particularly well in your courses, or had a lot of contact with you. For the rest of them, you would probably recognise the faces for a year or two afterwards, but eventually even this would fade and you would not recognise them at all.

Summer students?

It depends - This really depends on what exactly is being taught for these summer students. If they are just taking summer classes then there is a similar dynamic to other undergraduate students, although the classes are probably smaller, which aids memory retention. If they are doing research projects over the summer then the dynamic is similar to undergraduate research students.

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I can tell you that I don't remember all of mine, at least not immediately.

Just a few weeks ago, I got a DM from someone who I knew I knew, but I couldn't remember how or from exactly where, there was no photo on their profile, and they had a fairly common name. I thought at first it was someone I had gone on a couple dates with, but it turned out to be a former student--one I had taught in 3 different classes and met with a couple times after he graduated. Fortunately, I hadn't said anything of a sexual nature before realizing who he was (nor after).

Do you remember everyone you've ever met/worked with/studied with? I can't recall all my students from last year, let alone the hundreds from farther in the past. Some, yes--the ones who made some sort of mental or emotional impact on me.

Introducing yourself with a bit of clarifying information (like in your example) would probably prompt recall, or at least allow the professor to pretend like they recognized you.

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Some research professors might have a couple dozen "students" over the course of their career all of which spent considerable time in their lab. Other professors can have 500 students a semester taking their classes. In these cases they will not even necessarily ever know the names of all their students.

As for collaborators, I have a couple of coauthors who I have never even met. If I grab my CV, I could find their names, but I have no idea who they are.

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