#338: Keeping in touch with professors after graduation.


I have an academia related question for you. I graduated from a small liberal arts college in May 2011. I enjoyed my time there immensely. I was able to form some awesome relationships with my professors and some administrators (most of whom were my bosses for part-time jobs or internship supervisors). I moved to Japan for work about 6 months after I graduated, and I’ve been here ever since. Before I left, I visited my university and said goodbye to my friends and professors (and let them know about my moving/work plans). We all said the familiar refrain: “Let’s keep in touch!”

Question 1: Do professors *really* want to keep in touch? Or do they just say that to make you feel better as you leave the comfort of the college bubble?

Question 2: If they do really want to keep in touch, what are some appropriate, non-awkward ways to do that? 

I’ve thought about emailing small updates, but every time I sit down to write one it feels awkward in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. I feel like I’m imposing on their busy schedules if I ask questions about them/their lives, but I feel self-centered if I only give information about my life. Is there some sort of script that could work in this situation?

Full disclosure: While there are no immediate grad school plans, I do want to go back eventually. So I might be requesting references at some point in the next few years. But I really would want to maintain some sort of contact even if I didn’t have grad school aspirations/need someone to say nice things about me.

Do you (or the Amazing Awkward Army) have any ideas on what is the most appropriate/least awkward thing to do here? 

Thanks for your time!!
B. A. (Bachelors of Awkward)

Dear Bachelor’s of Awkward:

I really like this post from The Awl on how to get and keep a mentor. It applies to any field.

I teach college, and I definitely like to hear what former students are up to. I’m delighted when they get jobs, make great work, marry each other (that one Production 2 class was a hotbed of romantic glances, let me tell you!), and their success in life is my psychic carrot.

But I do not hold “keep in touch!” as an ironclad contract, no more than “friends forever!” was when it was written in a high school yearbook. It’s okay if it’s just a platitude – that’s why platitudes work, because you can take them seriously or ignore them if you want to with no hard feelings. Since the burden of keeping in touch is definitely on the former student,  what matters isn’t the professor’s expectation about whether you’ll keep in touch (we don’t really have one), but your wish to keep in touch and what you do about it.

For you, I recommend postcards. Studying overseas you’re in a prime position right now to send people postcards, right? Beautiful photo of faraway location + a very short space to write a message + no expectation of reciprocity + person gets nice mail that is not a bill or a flyer = thoughtful and not-intrusive. There’s a postcard of L.A. on my fridge from a former student who just started her dream job, and it made my day when it showed up in my mail a week or so ago. Script: “Dear Professor, I am writing from (where you are), where I am (what you are doing). I often think of (thing from our class) as it applies to (what it applies to) and hope you are doing well. Best wishes, _______.

A very occasional email is also great.

So here’s the thing to keep in mind. While I do want to hear from former students, I’m not thinking about them all the time. I wasn’t WAITING to hear from them. Occasional = once or twice a YEAR, unless there is some specific thing they need or some conversation gets started that we’re both very involved in. Some guiding principles:

Keep it VERY short. You don’t have to share all your thoughts or chatter about your life or ask them lots of questions.

Keep it relevant to the subject you have in common. If you really have nothing to say and are trying to think of something to say, there is no need to say anything. If you have areas of common interest, send them a link to an article or a book that you think they might like. Google them before you write – Have they had anything published or screened recently? “Congratulations on your book coming out, I’m looking forward to reading it,” is always a nice message to get, I would think. Better yet, “I read your book/saw your film/article/photo series/poem/short story/paper, congratulations.”  “Thank you,” never goes awry.

You can give personal updates – “I got a job,” or “I reworked that thing I wrote/made in your class and got it published/into a festival/conference” is always a good one. “Here’s how I’m using something I learned in your class” is another. “I recently read something related to our class and thought you might enjoy it – have you seen this?

If you need a favor, ask for it up front.Dear ______, would you be willing to write me a letter of recommendation for graduate school? I really enjoyed your class and would love to get your support as I move into the next stage of my education.” It will help them write a good letter if you jog their memory about what work you did in their class. “My final paper for your class was called “Title” and was about x and y.” It’s also a good idea to update them on recent work and give them a little info on what you’re studying and what you hope to do with it.

Professors expect requests like this. It’s part of our jobs, and we had to awkwardly reach back and ask for letters when we went to grad school. So don’t feel like you have to make months or years of weird small-talk to work up to a request. If I don’t feel like I can write an enthusiastic letter, I just say no directly and suggest the student ask someone who knows them better. I would never write a letter of UN-recommendation. I also have a personal rule that if multiple people are applying for the same scholarship, I will write letters for the first two who ask me.

Don’t worry too much about your grade. If you failed the class, I will probably remember (and wonder why you’re asking me for a reference). If you were a super-standout A student I will probably remember. In between? I won’t remember and won’t think about it all that much. What I will remember is how engaged you were. Did you always come to class? Did you ask good questions? Did you try? Did you improve? Did you ask questions when you didn’t understand something? Did you have interesting paper topics or film ideas? Did you collaborate well with others? Don’t NOT contact someone because you didn’t get an A. Grades really don’t matter once you’re done with school and aren’t a referendum on how the professor feels about you.

How big is your favor, exactly? Can you make it smaller and more specific?

It’s often flattering to be asked to read a former student’s screenplay, but I personally have a blanket “No, sorry” policy about this because I know I will not get to it in any kind of reasonable amount of time and it will go sit in the awkward favor pile gathering dust and guilt particles. However, I will look at bios, synopses, log-lines, trailers, or even cuts of short films – anything where I can look at it in 20 minutes or less and give some immediate response.

Realize that asking your former professors to take a look at work – an article, a paper, your novel, etc. – that you are asking for a pretty big favor and a significant investment of their time, and do not be offended if they say no. Be very specific and targeted about what you are looking for and make sure it’s not just attention or approval. “Read this long thing and give me your thoughts (by which I mean approval)?” will likely get a groan. “Photography teacher, I am submitting a portfolio of 10 images for a grant next month and am trying to narrow it down from these 15 possibilities. Can you give it a quick look and help me?” or “I’m going to program where you went to grad school, are there any courses I should be sure to take or any people I should be certain to meet?” seems pretty reasonable to me.

If you ask them for advice or feedback, take it gracefully. You don’t have to agree with any of it or implement any of it, but you asked for their thoughts and they gave them to you. The correct answer is “Thank you!” and not a detailed explanation of why they are wrong.

Follow up. Say thank you for the initial favor, and say thank you again when you update them on how everything went. “Thank you for writing the recommendation. I got into school and will be starting in x program in the fall!”  Or “Thank you. I didn’t get in this time, so I’ll be improving my application and trying again next year. May I ask you for a letter again?

Watch for reciprocity. Someone who emails you to say thanks for the postcard or the article, or gladly gives you notes on something, someone who responds promptly and expresses that they are glad to hear from you, someone who asks you what you’ve been working on lately, or sends you an article or book or link that they think you might enjoy wants to be in that conversation with you. Over time if you actually share common interests and get along well, it will develop out of a teacher-student place and into a friendship or a good working relationship.

Be social, within reason. Every few years when I go back home, I call up my high school English teacher and take him out to lunch. It’s always delightful to catch up with him, and the lunch is a way to say thank you for times he read us Shakespeare plays while doing ALL THE VOICES and wrote insidious and great exams like  “Describe how Hamlet is directly or indirectly responsible for every death that happens in the play. You have one hour.” (Seriously, that was the whole thing). So dropping by office hours for a few minutes or emailing a former prof to lunch or coffee or for a beer is not a crazy thing, as long as you’re respectful of their time and let them gracefully say no.

Don’t be a pest. If reciprocity is not happening, just like in any other relationship, take the hint and let it drop. Sometimes keeping in touch will get you that one recommendation letter that you need that one time and good memories of a class where you learned stuff. That’s a really good outcome, so don’t worry if you don’t create lifelong friendships with all of your teachers. No, really, don’t worry. We big awkward nerds like you, we are busy as #$%@!,  and we wish you the best even if we never really bonded.

48 thoughts on “#338: Keeping in touch with professors after graduation.

  1. All the Captain’s advice is good. Just a few additional comments:

    (1) Professors want to hear how their professing influenced their students’ lives. So if something happened in your life that was affected by what you learned, explaining that is always appreciated.

    (2) Not so much for undergraduate students, but for grad students and post-docs, the academic reputation of a professor depends in substantial part on their future career successes. In fact, academic CVs have an entire section in which a professor enumerates in details the current professional position and status of her grad students and post-doctoral trainees. So updates on this kind of information are greatly appreciated.

      1. Not just a USA thing. (It’s definitely the same here in Australian academia, and it seems to be the same for my colleagues in continental Europe, the UK, and Southeast Asia. I do not have as much contact with universities in Africa or South America, but I imagine it would be about the same there.)

      2. I’ve seen it on UK CVs, but mostly at senior professorial level and not always then. It’s a reassuring section to see, as is a “former members” page on the lab website, because even its existence shows that the Prof. cares about this aspect of the job. (Always get a few informal “upward references” on potential supervisors/PIs. Srsly.)

        And I join the chorus of “I like to hear updates from former students!” If I remember a student at all – and I remember the keen ones, whether or not their marks were stellar – I like to know what they’re up to, particularly if they’re staying in the field.

      3. A former grad school advisor of mine encouraged me to switch advisors in part because he realized (correctly) that I wasn’t going to become a super famous researcher who would enhance his CV. There were plenty of other good reasons for the switch (like changes in my topic focus), but he made it clear that he expected his students to get famous in order to enhance his own prestige.

    1. I’ve never seen this, and I’m a PhD (from an elite institution) child of two academics (albeit only one at a graduate institution).

      1. That really surprises me. I’m also a PhD and child of two academics (English and Economics), and I’ve been hearing about it since I was 6.

    2. Yep. I recently had to explain to a young friend that she should have been suspicious of her (raving maniac) lab head when she realized that he didn’t have any relationship at all with former students/employees. Normal, well adjusted people have developed good relationships with some of the young people they have run across as part of their functions. That’s one of the perks of the job, meeting bright young people! Likewise, someone who isn’t at least superficially in touch with their thesis advisor for the rest of their life may have some antisocial thing going on (well, unless they’re a raving maniac of course).

  2. Spot on. I have especially loved it when former students have sent me items that relate to what we did in class — “Hey, there’s a great interview with Author X in The Atlantic, have you read it?” or “I just read the sequel to Book Y, and I loved it,” that kind of thing. It really warms the icy shards of my heart to know not only that students liked me, personally, but also that they are still using what they learned in my class.

  3. Perfect advice. The one thing I’d add is that we teacher types can also become friends, although it helps if we’re somewhere in the same age and interest range outside of the subject matter you took our class for. It can get depressing to have a new raft of ever-young strangers come in every year, and disappear again. Continuing contact is lovely, especially when we get to see you grow and develop in your career. Every year there are a few students I’d like to get to know as friends, once all that business of grading is done. If you’re in the same town as your alma mater, why not ask ye olde (or not so old) professor to come out for beers?

    1. Yeah, one thing to be prepared for is that your relationship with any former teacher changes dramatically upon graduation. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but, at some level, you’re equals now.

      It’s awesome in a lot of ways, but it is likely going to be stunning the first time you run into it.

  4. This is pretty much perfect. I love hearing from former students about how what we did in class has affected their life. My favorite alum correspondent occasionally emails me links to articles or books he has run across that reminded him of things we did in class. And I’m happy to offer advice and help (in response to modest, well-defined requests!). But lots of small talk or contact for the sake of contact is not as appealing.

    One thing that’s not in the Captain’s post is Facebook and other social networking sites. My personal policy is that I won’t accept friend requests from anyone who is currently a student at my university, and once someone graduates I’ll be selective — basically, “would I be interested in socializing with this person if I had met them in some other context.” But other professors surely have very different approaches. So I don’t think friending a prof on FB is an automatic no-no, but you also shouldn’t interpret either accepting or declining your request as meaning anything in particular.

    1. Truth! That’s also my personal rule: “Are you done being graded by me forever?” + “Would we be friendly if I knew you from somewhere else without any sense of obligation?”

      Also, a lot of schools have rules about this, so don’t be offended if they don’t accept your request.

    2. Yeah, the Facebook thing varies widely even within institutions (and as the Captain said, between institutions in terms of school rules). I accept friend requests from both past *and* current students, whether or not we were closely collegial–and I immediately place them in a group that sees almost nothing and hide them from my feed except for “Most Important” updates. This makes it easy for us to share fieldwork pictures and research-related tidbits, for me to help them network with colleagues when they are doing research with me, and for them to find and participate in the department group page. I share subject-related links both on my own wall and on the department page. So Facebook is part of my work network, and I keep that network pretty much totally separate from the social side of the site. Works for me, doesn’t for some others. (I also do not have anything more scandalous than some old pictures of me with friends holding drinks, and links demonstrating political opinions, should the privacy settings fail; YMMV.)

      I also think everything else the Captain said is awesome, as usual. I receive requests for advice about grad school choices and other career directions basically every year, and I’m happy to respond to those at length; and fully agreed that letter requests are part of the job and happen even with long-graduated students. (Hell, *I* requested a letter from my undergrad advisor when I applied for my adult job 6 years later, because he knew me so well and it was my only reference from the same kind of school environment as the job I was applying for.) I love to get life direction/career updates, and the “this story made me think of our class!” or “thank you for helping me, look where I am now!” kind of feedback can make my week, if not longer.

      1. Oh, I should add that I also still occasionally (like every couple years) contact that undergrad advisor–to ask him for feedback on teaching ideas for classes we both teach. So the career/mentorship advising relationship can continue being awesome well into your career.

    3. I did not attempt to Facebook any professors until after I graduated. I think being a current student and Facebook friends would be awkward.

      But now that I have graduated I email four former professors a couple times a year, and I am facebook friends with two of them.

  5. If your professor is on Facebook, and you’re willing to let them see what you post, sending a friend request isn’t a bad idea. My personal policy is to never to initiate the friending of students, only to friend back if they ask me first–because I don’t want them to feel like they *have* to friend me back. If I don’t want to friend a student back, it’s easier in a power-differential sense for me to say no than for them to.

    Hope that makes sense. I enjoy hearing back from former students, and Facebook is the usual way for me to get those updates.

  6. I teach undergraduate playwriting and screenwriting, and I can tell you I most certainly mean it when I ask students to keep in touch. And that Captain A gives great advice, very much in line with my expectations of further contact. I love hearing from former students about any writing-related activities, or new jobs in the field, or further education. Also love getting and answering questions about writing (though like the Captain, I bluntly turn down requests to read lengthy work). Basically, anything I hear that indicates my former students still write, are pursuing a career in writing, or even just that they enjoyed the class is very welcome and fills me with the warm fuzzies…it’s my best reward as a teacher. As for recommendations, I don’t hold it against anyone who requests a rec after a long period of no contact…that happens all the time. If I do write a rec, it makes me really happy when the student lets me know if they got into the program or not. And personal updates are fine, too, if we connected that way during school. Something brief and friendly like “How are your kids?” or “I’m still playing the flute and joined an ensemble” works perfectly well for me.

    Good luck with your work and future studies, LW, and please let your profs know what you’re up to.

  7. I’m currently in graduate school, and I remember how awkward it was having to ask for recommendations when I applied to programs. Because I felt as if I was imposing a huge burden on some of the people I was asking (especially my college mentor, who I didn’t keep in very good touch with), I made sure to ask everyone several months ahead of time, and when they agreed, I sent them my CV, the list of programs I was applying to, and the deadlines and websites for those programs. After all of the deadlines had passed, even though I hadn’t finished hearing back from every program, I sent each person a thank you letter, and I also got them small gifts. I updated all of them as I began to hear back about interview invitations, as well as program acceptances, and I also updated them all on my final decision.

    As a teacher, I love hearing from and bumping into former students. I do sometimes write recommendations, although as a teaching fellow (and not as a full-fledged faculty member), I sometimes have to decline if I’m not an appropriate reference. What bothers me is when students ask for favors and then do not thank me!

    1. This makes me think of when I was applying to grad school three years ago and gives me a question of my own…I had my undergraduate thesis adviser write me a letter of recommendation and I don’t know that I ever sent him a thank you for it after the fact or let him know where I ended up (yes, I know, I’m a bad person.). So my question now is: is it too late? Would it be totally, absurdly stupid for me to write him a note and thank him/let him know what I’m up to? I don’t have any ulterior motive for doing it or anything that I want from him, I just feel crappy that I never did that.

      1. Send a thank you card. “I’m embarrassed that I waited so long, but your kindness meant a lot to me and I appreciate it greatly. I hope you are well.”

        Err on the side of kindness.

        1. Thank-you cards are the best. I used to feel really embarrassed dealing with professors after I’d just squeaked through their classes, handing things in late and missing class. (Unmedicated depression/anxiety? What’s that? You don’t say!) Then I started sending thank-you cards after the class was over–“I really enjoyed the class and appreciate the patience and care you showed for me”–and stopped feeling like I needed to whip around a corner the next time I saw one of those profs coming down the hallway.

          1. That is the best use of thank you cards ever, and I only wish that I had thought of it when I was still getting my two bachelor’s degrees. Which took me waaaay too long due to unmedicated depression and panic attacks. I performed a large number of agoraphobic disappearing acts mid-semester, which I sometimes recovered from and sometimes just stayed away and failed the hell out of my classes. Will keep this in mind for my continuing education classes if things go south, although so far so good. *Knocks on wood*

          2. If it helps, I promise your professors don’t take this personally or sit around judging their students as good or bad people. Navigating the several students per class who are dealing with personal crises and/or mental health issues is a routine part of the job (it really is that many. It happens every term, in almost every class of every size; and the rest of the class is usually totally unaware). And we work with so many students every term, and are faced with so many new ones every year, that there is no way to keep a catalog in your head of All The Bad Students so you can glare at them in the halls. If I see you, I’ll smile and say hello and then get on with my day, because it’s just not a big deal after the fact.

            Though for what it’s worth, it’s a pretty irresponsible instructor who sees you disappear mid-semester and doesn’t follow up with the student deans to make sure you’re alive and getting help.

          3. None of mine ever checked up on me, that I know of. But I did find out after the fact that my freshman year advisor who had seemed entirely useless and who I had met with like twice because he was in the wrong department and had no idea what to do with me, fought like hell to keep me in school at a meeting I didn’t even know existed.

    2. I was also totally also a gift-giver to advisors and really important mentors. Now that I’m on the other side, this is really unusual and *always* completely unexpected, but positively delightful. Even a thank you card is nice but not something I’ve come to expect–I’m not insulted when a student forgets to thank me. But I do really want to hear what happened if I wrote you a letter, even if it’s bad news. Even a late follow-up is fine; I just care about what happens.

    3. Getting a written note or post-card from a student after a class is over is great. I keep them in a file titled “I don’t suck” and pull one out when I’m having a rough day.

      You handled asking for recommendation letters perfectly — several months lead time, current CV, etc. For any students out there thinking about asking for letters of recommendation, do it that way. I always thought of asking for letters as a huge imposition, and now that I’m on the other side of the desk, it feels very different. Writing such letters is part of my job. I’ve done it enough times to have some rough templates (not Mad-Libs fill-in-the-blank letters, just templates) that I can adapt to most situations. It still takes time and effort, but it’s not burdensome.

  8. When I got my first position in a field related to my undergrad degree, I actually did write letters to the three Profs who were my mentors (I was a double major, so 2 advisers plus one prof I’d had multiple courses with who was a mentor).

    I simply wrote them what my position was & where, what I’d be doing in it. I then thanked them for their mentoring (eg) “I want to thank you for (things you taught me / guidance / suggestions) because those (skills / experiences) prepared me for (current responsibilities). I then closed with a sentiment to the effect of “I am excited to be in (new postion) and feel prepared for my future career; your skills as a (mentor / professor educator) have played their part in getting me here.” Best regards …..

    I didn’t expect any reply, and didn’t get one from any of them. But years later, I did need to contact one person professionally, and found that A) I was remembered B) fondly and C) this was followed by productive professional relationship. Another person wound up being considered for a tenured position (difft uni), and gave me as a former student who would provide feedback, so I was contacted by the Dept and asked if I would send in an evaluation – I did, it was favorable, and they were hired, and I got a very nice thank you in my turn.

    So, write away, it’s a nice thing to do, and it can have positive effects later on. At the very least, it marks you as a person with good manners.

    1. Yeah, sometimes even a follow-up letter feels a bit like a conversation-closer, so it’s good not to take it personally if your professor doesn’t respond. It doesn’t mean it meant nothing or that they will forget you.

  9. I agree with the advice, but let me add something: once you are no longer a student at my school, I tend to forget you existed, unless you made an especially good or bad impression. The thing is, there are always new students coming at me. I only have so much time and energy, and the bulk of it belongs to current students. Contact with former students should be non-intrusive and to the point. I have no problem with writing references. I don’t want to hear about your cat’s dental problems.

    1. On the other hand, you have my mother, who is a professor at a liberal arts college and loves hearing from former students. At least the ones she liked. She’ll tell me what they’re up to years after graduation, get together with them if they are in her town or she is in theirs, etc. Not like this is something her life centers around, but she certainly enjoys it and takes satisfaction in knowing that the people she thought were interesting as undergrads are doing interesting things with their lives.

  10. I can’t say that I had a mentor in any of the professors or teaching staff in the course of my education past high school, including my academic advisors. I didn’t know how to ask for help (or even that help might be a good idea). I pretty much muddled along doing my own thing and checking occasionally with the advisor. Nor did I really cultivate any of them as a professional/academic resource after I graduated, including my graduate advisor (even though we live in the same city, and until recently shared an institutional affiliation). I don’t recall needing any recommendations to apply to graduate school. If I had been interested in academia, I suppose my graduate advisor might have taken more of an interest in my future plans, and I would have been more interested in fostering an ongoing connection. But considering that I still haven’t published my research 6 years after graduation, I think he generally didn’t have many expectations anyway.

    That isn’t to say that I didn’t have ongoing contact after I graduated. If I was visiting the area and had time to go to campus, I would drop by to say hello to 2 or 3 faculty. give them an update etc, though it’s been a LONG time since I did that. Mostly in my 20s when I wandered around the country a lot. Some of those could have turned into friendships. One professor did invite me on a whitewater expedition between my freshman and sophomore years, which sounded like a fantastic holiday, but that was my summer from hell when I was taking an intensive organic chemistry class and desperately trying to find work to cover my living expenses over the summer and trying to be a responsible adult. So I said no, but back then, I didn’t know how to Use My Words, so there was never another invitation. Sigh.

    Anyway, I mostly lack the social graces, so it’s taken me a long time to figure out thank-you cards, thank-you gifts, reasonable efforts to stay connected and interested, etc. It goes with not knowing how to ask for help in the first place.

  11. From my experience proffessors are usually happy to hear from anyone who is interested/curious about what they have to say. I have totally dropped back in to chat about a further topic related to their subject-plus-coffee, and I know I would be welcome to do it again.

    When I leave my own students at the end of a term I make them an open offer to get in touch if I can continue to mentor them further in the field. Interestingly, those who take me up on it are often the ones who have already formed some kind of able-to-talk-to-me relationship while still studying.

  12. I have a really nice story about this: when I got my PhD scholarship accepted I wrote to an old Lit. teacher of mine from my high school who had been the awesomeness, just telling her where I was and how much I had loved her classes and what a great female role model she had been for me: smart, passionate, witty, a fair bit weird. The day she opened it was the last day she worked as a teacher! It was sweet, definitely for me, and for both of us I think.

  13. Just wanted to say thank you so much for responding, Captain, and thank you everyone in the comments too! It’s nice to hear from all sides of academia… I’ll definitely use these suggestions:)

  14. thanks for answering this very useful question. it kinda makes me realize though, that apparently i now have issues from kinda other end of contact spectrum. see, i had ‘kept in touch’ with a former professor/advisor, he wrote me grad school recommendations, i got into a program in the same city he had now moved to teach in (this was only a year or two after i’d graduated undergrad) so we met up a few times for what i assumed we casual/friendly activities (meal, movie, etc) and we shared interests/had things to talk about in the field and in general, there still seemed to be a bit of a nice mentor vibe there…..and then it turned out his interest was rather more…sexual then i thought, and with my saying no skills not being so great…suffice to say figuring out proper boundaries for this kind of relationship seems even more overwhelming/tricky…but yeah, this def does help, and really appreciate you answering this from a professor’s perspective…

    1. Ugh, CAPITAL G GROSS. Sorry you had to deal with that.

      One of the reasons I DESPISE the prominent-mansplainer-about-feminism that rhymes with “Yugo Slicer” (Like Voldemort if you say his name, he and his angry followers appear) is that it’s totally not normal to sleep with your students. It’s gross and predatory. It was always gross and predatory. You don’t have to bang a bunch of your students and then have some gross faux awakening about it to know that it’s gross and wrong.

      1. Yeah, Em and Lo just made me mad with a flip remark about don’t schtup your professor, it’s so cliche. Um, excuse me, I think that’s YOUR PROFESSOR SHOULD NOT SCHTUP YOU AND SHOULD GET FIRED FOR EVEN TRYING. Cass’s situation was at least after graduation, but if it was around the time of grad school recommendations, etc. — well, still highly problematic.

  15. When i asked professors for letters of recommendation, I always sent my CV along with a bullet list of “things to know,” which included highlights of my background and experience, future goals, and why I think whatever I’m applying for will be good for my career plans—anything that I wanted to be sure they knew. They may remember you but they may not remember everything about you and know all the amazing things you’ve been doing lately. Many times (if the prof let me see the letter, which some do and some don’t) the items on my list were mentioned specifically.

    To the letter-writers out there—>Most letters are similar, this person is a hard-worker, this person is motivated, etc…but the all-time best thing that a prof ever put in a recommendation letter was at the very end, he wrote that I am a pleasure to be around. If you know a student’s personality and can tell they would just be a nice person to work with aside from all the good-student qualities, please add that in somewhere!

    1. Yes, the “here’s why I’m applying for this thing I want you to recommend me for, and here’s how I’m qualified for it” can be a very good idea. For my first post-college full-time job I asked one of my professors to be a reference for me. The job was completely outside his field, but he knew me and could talk about whether I worked conscientiously, etc., so I wrote him a letter explaining why I wanted the job and how I met the qualifications, so he’d have some context. (Side note: some time later, I had the opportunity to write *him* a letter of recommendation, when he was up for promotion to full professor. The head of the department emailed a number of alumni who had taken classes from this professor and asked if we would give appraisals of his teaching and advising. I was really glad I got to do that.)

  16. I wish beyond words that my students kept in touch. Sometimes I form such great bonds with my more active students. Then they disappear and I never know what happened to them. The silence makes me feel as though I lost something special.

  17. When I say “keep in touch” to a student, I actually mean it – this is because I’m secretly horrible and I only say it to the students I genuinely want to hear from. The rest, I congratulate and wish them the best, then smile and close my door gently as I herd them out of my office. An email once a year is usually plenty for me.

    The worst email I’ve ever gotten from a former student opened with, “Hi Prof. Semicolon, I bet you never wanted to hear about this topic again, but I just read an article about X,” where X was the theme of a very poorly written paper the student had turned in. He wanted me to know that he had applied for a job working on X at the same company as the author of the article, and everything about the email was clearly intended to be a jab at me and the grade he’d received in my class. Rather than let it go, I wrote him back and said, “I saw that article, too, and can think of no one better suited for that job than you.” Let him try to figure out what I meant by that.

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