Carolina alumni offer advice on how to talk to professors

Pressley Baird,

Duke University associate professor Bill Mayhew teaches a class in 2014. Photo by Robert Willet for the News & Observer.

How did you learn to talk to your professors — or did you? How can students build relationships with their professors?

Henry Gargan graduated from UNC in 2015. He’s now a reporter for the N&O. Here’s his advice:

It’s unlikely you’ll befriend each of your professors. And if you’re the kind of person who actively seeks out professors’ friendship, you probably don’t need our advice. Just remember they’re just like everyone else, only giant nerds. And that’s why we love them.

Where you’re more likely to stumble is in those instances when you have to talk to an instructor but you’d rather not: Maybe you need an extension on a paper, or you realize halfway through the semester that your chances of passing aren’t so hot.

This interaction is likely to begin with an email, which itself is likely to begin with a Google search for the instructor’s faculty bio: Dr. So-and-so? Professor So-and-so? Mr., Ms. or Mrs. So-and-so? So-and-so’s first name? What if the instructor belongs to that indeterminately authoritative class of being known as graduate students?

In general, more formal is better, to start with. Some instructors helpfully spell out how they’d like to be addressed on syllabus day or in the syllabus itself.

If you’re looking for an excuse to introduce yourself, take some time after class to ask what the instructor prefers. This interaction alone won’t guarantee a long and fruitful academic partnership, but if that’s what you want – or if you’re just hoping to get the benefit of the doubt when grades come in – instructors tend to be more likely to smile upon the fortunes of a student who was thoughtful enough to ask.

Abbie Bennett graduated from UNC in 2012. She’s now a reporter for the N&O. Here’s her advice:

Professors can be intimidating, but ultimately they’re there for their students and want to help. Office hours are probably the easiest way to start, because it’s time set aside when he or she isn’t busy rushing off to a meeting or another class.

Come to office hours for help or with questions, but also use it as a time to bond. How did they get their start in the field? What inspired them to pursue their area of study?

Tell them about your goals. If you have a specific request or thing you want to talk about, you could ask the professor if they have time to grab coffee or extended office hours.

Professors are founts of information and most of them are happy to share it. Just make sure you’re respectful of their time and expertise.


Pressley Baird is the editor of, where this article originally ran.