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I know that they are "just as human as we are", but I feel somewhat uncomfortable to talk nonchalantly with the top-notch math researchers and professors in my department because of their social position, their extremely superior knowledge and talent, and also because of their age.

Still, I feel that it is like a waste to have such interesting mind-expanding people around and not to interact properly and talk about maths when I meet them in the department (outside the lecture hall).

So my question is: according to your experience, what is the best (where best means: most polite, appropriate, acceptable, but also profitable) way to interact and make the most of the presence of such awesome professors? Can I discuss "lower" [mathematical and non-mathematical] subjects with them even though their actual (research) interests lie in much more abstruse topics?

Any suggestion (even in the form of a comment) is really appreciated.

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    Talk to them as adults. Don't waste their time. – Enthusiastic Engineer Nov 2 '14 at 16:33
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    @EnthusiasticStudent Indeed: I know that it is a risk. That is why I'm asking what would be acceptable. – user23758 Nov 2 '14 at 16:35
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    The answer is obvious, if you have a scientific issue to talk to them and relates to them; then you can ask them to talk about. If they are your advisers or teachers, you can talk to them about your progress. The students and professors relationship in academia is somehow a standard way in almost anywhere. I can not imagine what special would be beneficial to mention in answer to your question. – Enthusiastic Engineer Nov 2 '14 at 16:39
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    Also related: this comment by @JeffE - "what is the best way to talk to a professor?" Answer: "Directly, exactly as if they were human." – ff524 Nov 3 '14 at 6:59
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    Get drunk with them, preferably at a conference in an exotic location. – gerrit Nov 3 '14 at 16:39
23

From a student's point of view, here is how I tackle the situation. You can break it down by the circumstances in which you meet, and thus guesstimate how much time the professor has for you.

Asking "may I talk to / email you later about...?" can be useful if it's not the right time and place for a useful discussion.

DTK's answer has good points about how you should approach a conversation.

Of course there will be some variations depending on the culture and environment of your department, and how well you know the prof you're talking to.

Hallway / elevator encounters

If they look busy or rushed, perhaps best save it till later. Otherwise, keep questions very brief, concisely answerable, and related to something you know they're interested in (i.e. their own research field).

Discussions at semi-social occasions, such as at a gathering after a seminar, or breaks at a conference

Here, the professor probably has no immediate obligations or things urgently pressing on his or her mind (or else they'd have disappeared by now). This is a better opportunity to ask broader or more complicated questions, or if they work in a related field you could ask for an opinion on a problem you've been thinking about.

Social occasions such as at lunchtime, conference dinner, etc.

As above, but they may even prefer to talk about something other than their own field of expertise -- sports, politics, an interesting paper from a completely unrelated discipline that you read whilst procrastinating, etc. If you don't know the professor very well, you might want to wait for him or her to initiate steering the conversation in that direction.

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    I must agree. Not matter the field, most people like a break from their job. If you run into a faculty member outside of the university setting, unless they have invited you to talk about their field, keep conversation to a shared interest that allows them to unwind, and not feel you are dragging them back to their classroom. – DTK Nov 2 '14 at 21:53
  • I have to admit, while these are great, they really should be applied to everyone. Fellow students, famous and non-famous professors, anyone really. – corsiKa Nov 3 '14 at 19:39
  • @corsiKa Indeed. Really, I'm just elaborating on the "treat them like a normal adult, but don't waste their time" one-liner. – Moriarty Nov 3 '14 at 20:37
14

Find out their other interests (often on book-jackets they authored or on their profile page on the department webpage), engage them in those.

Be respectful of their time. Ask "I heard you are active in topic. Do you have a few minutes to discuss?". If they say no, drop it. If they offer another time, follow their lead.

Do not be obsequious or servile; speak respectfully, but as an adult to an adult. Do not act as a peer, until invited to do so.

Respect the individual and the rank. Keep the values and priorities of the professor in mind. If invited to address the professor by name, do so. If not, address the professor as "Doctor such-and-so" or "Professor such-and-so".

Lastly, always be polite, be kind and listen.

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    "Professor Doctor"? I know it's common in Europe to write Prof. Dr., but is it ever said out loud? I think that would very easily qualify as sounding servile. Also I think age can be relevant; younger staff are generally quick to be informal in their interactions. – Moriarty Nov 2 '14 at 21:30
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    "Professor Doctor" is not used in English. – David Richerby Nov 2 '14 at 22:43
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    @Moriarty "Sir Jones" is always wrong. Professor Surname, Sir Firstname, Professor Sir Firstname Lastname. – David Richerby Nov 2 '14 at 22:44
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    Just to add to the "Professor Doctor" discussion. As far is I know in conversations it is not a European thing, but a German thing, although I believe there it is more common to use "Herr Professor" or "Herr Doctor" (please someone correct me if I'm wrong) -- Certainly in the Netherlands "Professor Doctor" is never ever used in conversations. And in writing actually also only in formal documents/letters. – Michiel Nov 3 '14 at 7:20
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    Afaik, this depends on the field and maybe the university. I work in computer science at a young (<50 years) university with a focus on STEM fields. I don't know a single person in the department who insists even on "Dr Name", let alone "Prof Name". We use "Herr/Frau Name" (i.e. Mr(s)) for professors and administrative staff, and first names the rest. That said, if a professor did insist you'd adjust. – Raphael Nov 3 '14 at 7:50
12

While I am not a "famous professor" I am famous in my field, enough that people routinely want their picture taken with me at conferences. At the same time I get a little starstruck by folks more famous than I am (for example having dinner with the single person who invented the language I'm now considered an expert in, or having him plop himself down next to me while I'm watching a session at a conference.) So I can see both sides of this particular dynamic.

My suggestion to you is this: you have an access to this person that outsiders do not. If you have a Nobel-winner in the same building as you, who lines up for coffee with you or is sitting next to you at a meeting, you can talk about anything nontechnical at all. You can admire an item of clothing (what a cool tie! I love that ring!) or similar accessory (oh, you got the new phone/band/watch - is it good?) or comment on the weather, or how much you're looking forward to the presentation by the visitor, or just about anything other than the professor's research. I can't do that. How incredibly creepy would it be for me to email a Nobel-winner complimenting them on a tie or ring or watch worn in a press release picture?

They are indeed "just as human as we are" and because of that, your first interactions with them should be on that basis. Talk to them about the same things you would talk to anyone about. Don't burst out with a technical question you've been dying to ask. Just relax and be someone who while not a peer, has that inside access. Interacting properly with these people will include technical stuff - I can't so much as go to lunch without talking about technical stuff - but it will also include normal human stuff like "did you watch that game last night" or "were you stuck in that giant traffic jam yesterday" and the like.

I don't mind when people I've never met want to start conversations with me by asking my technical opinion, or sharing theirs. I love what I do. But if you want to form a true connection with your famous colleague, do it by emphasizing the colleague part first and letting the technical conversations arise a little more naturally. While I was thrilled to have Stroustrup tell me I should definitely write the "C++ as a first language" course for Pluralsight (I hesitated, because it's hard, but he encouraged me to do it and he was right, it's a great course in the end) it was actually slightly more fun to discuss the importance of caffeine to programmers and the sadly-neglected role of chocolate in that :-).

6

To enhance on some of the other answers here: I, like many other scientists, used to have a very limited tolerance or appreciation for small-talk. My feeling was essentially: why waste time talking about boring things like weather or sports when we could be talking about SCIENCE!

Something that helped me overcome this, however, was realizing small-talk actually has a high indirect value as a signaling strategy. Small-talk allows you to actively signal to another person that you have recognized them as a human being, rather than as a resource to be exploited. It also gives a number of opportunities for the other person to signal to you whether they are currently interested in a serious conversation or whether they are feeling too busy / burned out / cranky, etc to have one. Small-talk thus lets you discretely negotiate reasonable bounds for an interaction.

Not starting by engaging in small-talk, however, is a good way to set off many people's crazy-filters, since many highly problematic people are not capable of engaging in small-talk.

4

I would say treat them as a fellow human being. Just that they are famous in there fields doesn't mean that they are 'handled with care, and need special procedures to communicate with them'.

Try not assume too much, and just be yourself. Be genuine about it, because any human being knows when it's all fake and pre-constructed.. :)

That would be my advice in a nutshell.

3

I took a class with a Nobel Prize-winning economist. He was pretty laid back. Usually the older these people are, the more open they are to talking.

My tips.

Be prepared for lectures - do the required reading and assigned work.

Ask them about things that they'd have an interest in talking about. For instance, the economist who taught my class was married to a woman from a country I had lived in for a while. I asked him how he liked that country. We talked for 30 minutes, and he gave me his personal e-mail.

Think of interesting things you have done and talk to them about those things. Travel, how you applied coursework to another subject, your career plans - pretty much anything interesting. Catch them in office hours - they're usually more laid back.

3

I used to be an Academic Advisor at a university. The others here are correct in both these are people just like you and me, and, they are busy people, so you don't want to "waste" their time.

However, professors LOVE, and I do mean LOVE (at least the good ones) students who are interested in the coursework. One of the primary complaints I heard from the ones I knew was that students didn't respond/interact enough during class, nor did they show any genuine interest in the material. If you're a particular professor's current student.

As a college student, this is the one time in your life when you'll have seemingly unlimited access to such minds. I was always, and still am as a graduate student, blown away at the knowledge and skill some professors have. Take advantage of this now. You never know where it may lead you in the future.

These professors were also undergraduate students at some point in their life. They too may have struggled with some concepts you are struggling with, if you're seeking assistance. While working as an Advisor, I was their peer. I was on a first name basis with them, and had great conversations. I remember one professor tell me that he struggled with a particular concept as an undergraduate. Rather than give up, he worked hard to not only gain an understanding of that concept, but went on to master that concept. If you ask questions about math lower than their PhD level expertise, you may strike a cord with them. If they see that you're interested in something, whether struggling or not, they may offer insight into how better to understand or learn the topic. Or, since they may have a deeper understanding of the topic, they can offer an understanding that you didn't know possible.

Again, don't be shy. You may even ask a particular professor if they have office hours during which to discuss a particular topic. If the professor has student or graduate assistants helping them, ask an assistant how best to meet with the professor.

Again, take advantage of these opportunities while they exist.

Good luck!!

1

Most aspects have been alredy dealt with, I'll just add this one: Take care to watch for signs that tell you whether the Professor does not mind talking to you or whether he just answers in order to be polite.

Most famous (in their field) academics I have talked to are extremely social animals, some aren't, and some would like to be but never find the time. So most know how to terminate an unwanted (or untimely) conversation, although few will want to look arrogant, so it's good to exercise a little more care than usual to gauge how your dialogue partner likes the conversation; not necessarily because missing the queue might make someone important angry but because it helps them to not feel bad for telling an interested student off.

I.e.: Don't feel guilty if you miss a clue -- they're used to students only understanding half of what they say :)

1

As some of the answers suggested, those profs are humans, too. How they react to some lowly academics, such as students, differs. All really depends on his personality. Don't be offended if he ignores you. In all cases, don't be pushy. Let me share my two stories.

Story #1: A famous prof shows up for the conference at my school. He knows a lot of faculty members reasonably well. He's highly respected in his field and has strong, controversial opinions. My advisor asked me not to approach this famous prof during the conference under any circumstances. Surprisingly, he approached me during lunch and started to engage some small talks. His wife is in the same ethnic background as I do and he's interested in a second opinion on the food from that area of the world. At the same time, I felt the uncomfortable gaze from my advisor...

Story #2: A person (let's call him "A") would like to visit my advisor during his business trip. My advisor refused to meet "A", but "A" insisted to drop by. I don't know the relationship between "A" and my advisor. My advisor stayed home on that day. To make "A" satisfied, my advisor asked his students to engage in useless small talks if he drops by. "A" did drop by and I turned him away to my best abilities. My advisor called my lab extension later in the afternoon making sure that "A" was gone before he drove to campus.

  • 1
    Those two stories tell a lot about the (questionable and childish) behaviour of your advisor, not about approaching most of the professors. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 4 '14 at 18:44
  • I should note that the advisors in #1 and #2 are two different people. – user8661 Nov 4 '14 at 19:22

protected by Alexandros Apr 22 '18 at 19:20

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