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I'm a graduate student (PhD, first year) in physics, and there have been a few times where I just can't figure out something regarding the material/subject of the class. Normally I just tell myself that since I'm a graduate student, I better be able to figure it out myself without the help of the professor, or any other "higher-ups" in my department for that matter. This usually leads to success, but not without a fair amount of work. Sometimes the end of my problem seems to recede faster than I make progress, and I usually have other stuff to do, so I get really tempted to just ask the professor, specifically by going to their office hours.

My question is, is going to office hours in a graduate course seen as a bad or "inferior" in US grad schools? I'm obviously not talking about spamming the professor with impulsive and ill-conceived questions.

EDIT: Some people in the comments are saying "Well you're a graduate student, and there are office hours, so obviously you can and should make use of them." Life isn't as simply black-and-white as that. The focus of my question is on the unspoken, possibly subliminal, perception of going to office hours as a graduate student which, by its very nature, is not explicitly stated in "official" text (e.g. syllabi, student conduct guidelines, etc.). Such latent social phenomena are present in every situation and culture. Stated explicitly or not, general academic culture expects graduate students to become independent researchers. I was wondering whether this underlying expectation affected the perception of going to office hours as a graduate student, which by definition is a partial dependence on the professor. This topic is nuanced by the various ways in which one could "go to office hours" (e.g. fully prepared, unprepared, in-between, etc.) and by the variation in perceptions of those various ways. Therefore I think it's nontrivial and worth asking about.

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    As a second year master's student in math, I wish I would have gone to office hours more like in undergrad. I'm still trying to get over myself to ask seemingly simple questions. – Sean Roberson Sep 27 '17 at 20:48
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    It is frowned upon not to go to office hours if you need to because you are expected to take your studies seriously, and office hours are provided to you as a resource to be used for exactly that end. – Kevin Sep 27 '17 at 22:08
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    If your graduate-level class has office hours, then of course you are meant to attend them! If you are attending an undergrad-level class as a grad student, then maybe you should be more hesitant to make use of office hours; just make sure you aren't taking time away from others. – darij grinberg Sep 28 '17 at 0:06
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    It is certainly OK for graduate students to ask questions in office hours. I'm required to hold regular office in any semester when I'm teaching, even if my all my students in that semester are graduate students. That requirement would make no sense if office hours were somehow off limits for grad students. – Andreas Blass Sep 28 '17 at 1:08
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    go to office hours. not going because of pride or wanting to keep up appearances isn't very wise. – scordova88 Sep 28 '17 at 1:15

11 Answers 11

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Grad students who come to office hours with good questions that show serious engagement with the material (e.g. attempts to solve the problem themself) are generally seen as mature, hard-working students.

It is also a good way to get to know faculty in your department, which can be useful e.g. if you are looking for a research assistantship, or recommendation letters, etc.

Personally, when I teach, I like when students come to office hours with good questions - it helps me see how students are understanding the lesson, where common points of friction are, and thereby improves the quality of my instruction. It also helps them do better in the course, which is of course a goal we have in common. But, I enjoy teaching and engaging with students. Some faculty in my department don't like teaching, and don't like office hours - but even those faculty members don't look down on students who make (good) use of them.

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    I think it also would not be in anyone's best interest that someone who is trying to research something novel and original is roadblocked by something trivial. Consider the parallel in the workplace: a senior member of a development team might forget some parameters to a function call and ask someone else. Even Jon Skeet has asked 48 questions on Stack Overflow! – corsiKa Sep 27 '17 at 22:59
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    Of course, that's GOOD questions and serious engagement. Graduate students who come to office hours to get walked through every step will quickly lose help. There's a balance between trying to unnecessary stubbornness and unnecessary helplessness that students must walk to be successful :-) – JeopardyTempest Sep 28 '17 at 10:35
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    @JeopardyTempest Apply the "StackExchange" test for asking questions: check the answer isn't already available through a quick Google/library/literature search; make (and be able to show) your own attempt at answering the question; stick to questions that "can be answered". – TripeHound Sep 28 '17 at 12:52
  • @corsiKa : sometimes asking questions may not be for the purpose of learning something new. – mathreadler Oct 1 '17 at 8:18
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One common mistake grad students make is not asking for help when they need it, either from professors or advisors, out of a misguided belief that they're supposed to demonstrate independence or ability by not taking advantage of the resources available.

No, it is not frowned on to go to office hours. If a professor goes out of their way to make a resource - like office hours - available to you, you should assume that it's intended to actually be available.

  • Not asking for help can be quite a mistaken idea of "independence". Namely, if "asking for help" is really backed up by a student's effort and ambition to improve themselves, then it rather speaks in favor of their maturity. – Ambicion Sep 30 '17 at 16:49
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My experience and answer only covers UK academia; the situation in the US might be different (or not).

In the UK, graduate students are paying fees to University and also often contribute to research. I would be unpleasantly surprised to see a colleague who would frown upon such student seeking guidance and support. But to be honest I never yet seen anyone who would frown upon a student coming to office hours.

What is expected of graduate students, though, is an ability to become independent learners and researchers through the course of their studies. So I would expect such students, in particular, to demonstrate a significant attempt to solve the problem, including (but not limited to) a list of literature they attempted to search/study to solve the problem. I would not frown on a student who came to my office hours completely unprepared, but I would perhaps send them back to the library to attempt to find an answer to their question first.

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No. While of course "lazy" questions (e.g., indicating not having paid attention at all in class, and/or not having read the indicated readings at all) are not good... asking for advice in how to solve problems is entirely reasonable, if only for methodological help.

The notion that everyone is as-soon-as-possible supposed to be "independent" is a bit misguided, I think, if taken at face value by naive novices. Namely, to fail to benefit by the hard-won expertise of one's advisor or mentor is just ridiculous. It is not the case that everyone has to make the same foolish mistakes over and over. True, it's good to try oneself, but even if one does "solve a problem", that solution may be awfully sub-optimal, and it is important to hear "the optimized solution".

Further, as mentioned in other answers and comments, office-hour discussions can be more open-ended and wider in scope than class-time, and one can learn a lot...

So, no, I don't see any need for any sort of stoic Spartan-ism, like the person who had stolen a fox, hidden it under his cloak, and allowed the fox to chew at his vital organs rather than make a sound. "Cool", but not productive.

Also, the claim that "everything's on the internet" is sort-of true, but not reliably in a good way. That is, as with many dynamics, the easy-but-suboptimal (or wrong) pseudo-facts/solutions tend to be widely available, while the less-attractive-but-correct ideas often get swamped by all that noise. So "go google it" is often not a good methodology for subtle technical things.

And in the literal physical books, normally there are no detailed discussions ("solutions") of problems. In extreme cases, such as Atiyah-MacDonald's "Commutative Algebra", not only are there no solutions, but the problems are mostly significant theorems in their own right. Where is one to find the prototypes for such things???

Again, I see no reason for everyone to have to recapitulate all the dead-ends that eventually led to discovery of effective ideas. It is a waste of time and energy.

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    I don't mean to be rude, but a good chunk of this answer reads less like an answer to the OP's question and more like a (frustrated) rant. – tonysdg Sep 28 '17 at 0:48
  • @tonysdg, As you like, but part of the point is, as is often the case, a dispute with implicit hypotheses in the question, especially about implicit hypotheses about the larger context, and so on. Why "rant"? I'm only upset that people torment themselves over non-issues... – paul garrett Sep 28 '17 at 1:55
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    I sympathize (and agree) with you -- I'm pointing it out mainly because (IMO) it hurt the readability of an otherwise excellent answer. – tonysdg Sep 28 '17 at 2:03
  • Your paragraph about the "everything's on the internet" problem can be generalized to every single field of human activity, not just "technical problems." Well said! – outis nihil Sep 29 '17 at 14:44
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The answer is like others indicated NOOO!

When I was a PhD student I was in my advisor's office daily. We were collaborating closely on a couple of papers. I found my advisor by going to his office hours, and eventually my questions started to push on the boundary of what is in the literature. At that point a thesis started to form, and we started collaborating heavily on a paper that addressed my question.

As a PhD student your job is to get up to speed as quickly as possible on the state of the art of your field. Once you get there, you start asking good questions about the world that nobody knows the answer to. Once that starts happening, you have a dissertation waiting to happen. The only way to find a question that nobody has the answer to, is to ask lots of questions. Until nobody around you knows the answer. And once nobody around you knows the answer you start to look at papers to see if people you don't know, know the answer. And if they don't know the answer, you propose to find the answer yourself.

That is the essence of science! Go to office hours and ask dumb questions. Ask them until people give you blank stares. Ask them until your professors say, I don't know. A good PhD student should push their professors to think just as hard as they push their PhD student.

Remember that the culmination of the PhD is when you defend your dissertation. The goal at this point is to be able to stand in front of a group of people that have PhDs and say, "I know how to ask good questions in this field and independently answer those questions. I am a researcher of the same quality as you folks are, and I am now your peer, and no longer a student.

TL;DR

Go to office hours and ask questions until it hurts!

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On the contrary. Students who never come to office hours, who never ask questions in class, may sometimes be regarded as if they understand the material less than students who ask questions and are engaged in the class. Coming to office hours to learn better is considered a plus, not a minus, so is asking intelligent questions in class. Don't you think also professors go to other professors to ask questions about subjects they are learning?

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Depending on the dynamics of your department, I could see a couple of reasons why going to office hours -- but not seeking help more generally -- might be frowned upon (or at least seen as a bit odd).

Are office hours primarily for undergrads?

At institutions/in departments with a high undergraduate teaching load, "office hours" are often scheduled primarily with an eye to reserving that time to help undergraduate students. If you use that time, you might be depriving the undergraduates (who would typically have less easy access to the professor than a grad student, in my experience) of time they need to seek help. Of course, often times no one shows up and so if it isn't a busy time I can see no harm. (I've often had meetings with professors during their office hours with the understanding that if an undergraduate shows up, I'd bow out and head to the lounge or my office and the professor would retrieve me to finish the meeting once the student left.)

Does your department favor more informal interaction, as between colleagues?

Another possible reason it could be seen as odd is that it might seem overly formal. While there is still a teacher-student dynamic among professors and grad students, it's more collegial than the dynamic between professors and undergrad students. Ideally, an advanced undergrad student is more or less a (junior) colleague of the professor. It would seem odd if a junior professor took themselves to be restricted to meeting with a senior professor during their office hours. There could be a similar dynamic in play here.

From my own experience, whatever it's worth, neither my grad student peers nor I ever made a special point to meet during office hours. Depending on the professor's disposition and how often they were in the office, for a quick meeting (say, less than 15 mins) it would be common to simply drop by, knock, and ask if they were free to chat for a bit. If they aren't, then you could also use that interaction to schedule a meeting. If the professor in question doesn't appreciate drop-ins, isn't in the office much, or the meeting would be on the longer side then a quick email to schedule a meeting would be the usual practice. If they said "I have office hours [whenever], why don't you drop by then?", then that's when you meet.

Are you depriving the professor of necessary preparation?

Finally, depending on the nature of your question, the professor might need to prep a bit for the meeting in a way they wouldn't for a typical undergraduate office hours meeting. If you drop by during their office hours without advanced notice, they might not be prepared, resulting in a meeting that's less than fully productive. That's not ideal for you, since you don't get the best help, and it might cause them to feel slightly "ambushed" and slightly down about their lack of readiness. If a follow up meeting is needed, there might also be concerns (though very mild in all reasonable cases) that the initial office hours meeting was bordering on a "waste of time".

Another Voice in the Chorus

But, ignoring the specific issue of "office hours" and considering the more general question of whether it's frowned upon for a graduate student to seek help, I can only add my voice to the chorus of "No"s. (Obvious exceptions being the ones you note: bad to go in without modest preparation and clear purpose, and also bad to use these meetings as a crutch that prevents you from developing more self-sufficiency.)

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While I agree with the "No" answers in principle, in practice I've noticed quite a few teachers / teaching assistants unfortunately frown upon anyone coming to their office hours. Especially in course without many undergraduates, some people assume that their office hours would simply go unused and they can continue whatever business they're pursuing as long as they're in their office. In rare cases I've encountered people who actually have the temerity to not be in their office during office hours (!)

So if OP, or anyone else, seems to be met with a frown, the reason could just be the surprise of actually having to carry out one's office hour duties.

PS - There was this one guy in particular who situated his office in a building on the far side of campus from where he gave his recitation, in this building where you had to take a spiral route to get to the top floor since some doors were closed during late afternoon hours when his reception hours were held. And of course, his office was at the end of the spiral. He had quite the look of surprise on his face when I opened the door to his office! ... that was my first-semester freshman year Calculus course, back in the day.

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I'll add a caveat to some fine answers. It's fine to go to office hours as a graduate student. It's less fine to go to office hours without having adequately prepared. Work hard, give yourself every opportunity to solve your own issues, and then go to office hours ready to tell the prof exactly what you're having issues with, and how you tried to figure out.

If something is really time pressing, you might skip this step, but it doesn't necessarily look great, and doing it all the time will certainly not help your image.

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I'll take a twist and talk not about office hours, but asking questions.

Sure, you could figure everything (or at least: a lot) on your own. It also takes time. In my opinion, even for a fresh PhD student, it takes too much time. So go and ask a question if you have someone to ask. Not necessarily a professor, a fellow PhD student or a PostDoc might also know the answer. If you are asking someone higher-up and would like to leave a good impression, invest into a search for a question.

So, rather than "how to do A?" ask "I would like to do A, but dunno how. I've looked into X, Y, and Z and they all seem not to fit. Could you help me out?".

The background is that most people in PhD and beyond, including your faculty, typically have seen things somewhat akin to your problem and might have an idea worth looking at. Conversely, esp. with peers, you might know something that might help other people.

At the end, harnessing knowledge of other people and collaborating with them on a range of topics would be more productive than trying to squeeze out a single answer while sitting in the ivory tower and meditating on the problem.

tl;dr: Talking to people does not hurt!

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No, it is not frowned on. If anything, grad students who are afraid to engage are frowned. Just plow ahead and get what you need to learn the material. After all, that is what matters in the end. And people will respect more those who are not so worried about how they look.

protected by Alexandros Jan 28 '18 at 19:11

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