5 Steps To Platonically Date Professors
Going to a student faculty dinner is like a first time read of Harry Potter: exciting, full of promise, and filled with the sinking suspicion that there’s something behind his turban. And, just like Harry Potter, the plot to a faculty dinner is easy to understand. You, the student, pick up your faculty member from the lobby. You walk together to a table in the dining hall. Then you sit in an hour long stupor as he/she describes her favorite pick-up game with Barack Obama.
Student-faculty dinners are unforgettable experiences. Yet our interaction with faculty often ends there. An informal survey I conducted indicated that the average student at Harvard only has 1-2 non-academic meetings with faculty per-year. This leads to a serious question: if students enjoy interacting with faculty, why can’t they do so more often? What are the barriers to real student-faculty connections?
Over the past semester, I gave myself a challenge: have dinner with every faculty member who I thought was interesting. Three months later, I’ve had personal dinners with 10 faculty members, 2 deans, and 2 non-faculty speakers. And though none of them have referenced “dropping dimes” with “Mr. President”, I’ve learned incredible things, argued with brilliant thinkers, and met some of the most genuine people of my life.
Learning how to connect with faculty didn’t come easily. For every faculty member who accepted my invitation to dinner another would reject my offer of lunch, tea, or the occasional hummus platter. Yet as rejections piled up, my shotgun attempts (some more literal than others) transformed into a solid system for establishing relationships and getting that platonic, first date.
Let’s skip the rejections: here are the steps how.
5 Steps To Platonically Date Professors
1. Master the (post-lecture) bump and email
In the book, Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi describes what he calls the “deep bump”. The deep bump involves meeting a person, quickly telling them who you are/what in common you share, and then inviting them to connect later. The key is in creating a brief, but meaningful interaction.
The deep bump is a great way to meet a professor and ask for an outside-class date. My suggestion is to approach your professor 10-15 minutes after his/her class. If it is a lecture, wait in the back for other students to talk to the speaker, then, after everyone has left, approach. Mention something that you found interesting about the lecture/their research and connect it back to an interest you have. After speaking with them for a couple of minutes, recognize their time constraints, and ask them for a dinner in a couple of weeks. They’ll probably give you their email to set-it up later. Send them an email in the next hour giving two to three potential-times for dinner.
Remember, even if you are not in their class, this is a great method to connect with faculty you’re interested in. If they teach a larger lecture, email ahead to ask if you can sit-in for one lecture. (They’ll probably say yes.) Afterwards, introduce yourself and ask for the outside date. Research on campaigns has indicate that face-to-face interactions lead to much higher levels of commitment than online methods (email, twitter, etc.).
2. Ask for advice
Many people don’t ask for advice because they’re scared that it will make them look incompetent. However, recent research from the Harvard Business School’s Allison Brooks shows the opposite is true. When individuals were asked for advice in their specialty area not only did they think the asker was more competent, they also liked that individual more. Asking advice of someone raises their self-confidence, which in turn improves how they think about you.
This is doubly important for meeting professors because you probably actually do want to ask their advice. One great opportunity to ask advice is during the “bump” process of your bump and email. Talk to your target professor about an issue related to their expertise and ask what suggestions they might have. Professors want to help students, especially when it relates to their area of expertise. By asking for their help, you make them more likely to care for your long term success.
3. Set reminders on your email requests
So you’ve asked for advice, taken their email address, sent them an email about getting dinner… now what? How can you make sure that they’ll reply to the email? An easy solution is to place a self-reminder. Most of the times, professors do want to go on the dinner that you asked for. However, like most busy people, they might forget to follow up.
It is your job to make sure the dinner stays at the top of their mind. A seamless way to do this is to use a reminder function on your email. Recent gmail additions like Boomerang and Right Inbox help you place a reminder on every email that you send (So, if they haven’t replied, the email pops back into your inbox.) Once the reminder shows up in two-three days, send a quick email to the professor asking if they could still grab a meal. Professors, like all people, are human. So you both help them and yourself by sending a couple of reminder email.
4. Follow up after the meet-up
The first step after your dinner is to send a quick email thanking them for meeting with you. If during the meal you mentioned something (an article, a project you worked on, etc.) send it along in the email. Showing gratitude is incredible important. Faculty members have family and friends that they are giving up to spend time with you. Recognize this sacrifice, and give your thanks. If convenient, writing a handwritten note thanking them is even better in terms of developing a long-term relationship.
If your faculty member mentioned someone else they like/want you to meet, follow up on that person. In particular, ask for a brief introduction via email. Finally, put a reminder on your calendar to get back in contact with the faculty member in three weeks. It’s important to make contact with them semi-regularly in order to create a long-term relationship.
5. Always Ask. Always Always Always ask.
Recent research from the Stanford Business School shows that we severely overestimate the likelihood people will reject our requests. This is important because one of the largest barriers to connecting is the simple act of asking.
Remember, no professor, no person, no one is ever too busy to eat dinner. Though you may have to plan for a month in advance with some individuals, you should never be intimidated to ask. The worst that happens is that they say no. The best is that they say yes. Either way you develop your mental muscle to do what is uncomfortable.
Ultimately, this post’s title is about how to platonically date a faculty member. But the subject is much deeper than that. Our faculty are an incredible resource of knowledge, experience, and mentorship. Students need mentors over their time in college and faculty members want to help students grow. (For many, it’s the reason they became professors.) Following these steps is not about slickly getting a professor to dinner, it’s about breaking down the barrier between you and a cerebral crush.