Office Hours 2.0
As you enter your junior and senior years at Barnard, you’ll probably begin talking about some new things during office hours. In addition to using this time to ask instructors questions about class material or to seek their guidance and feedback on assignments, you are also likely using this time for a host of other reasons: to ask them to advise your independent research project; to determine if you should apply for graduate school and whether they will support your application; to seek their insights about potential career paths and how to navigate post-college life; and to learn about potential resources related to any of these endeavors.
Topics like these may feel daunting all on their own. But you wouldn’t be the first person to say that the idea of approaching instructors during this time can be anxiety-inducing for two other reasons: first, a sense that you are under pressure to resolve your questions very soon; and second, a worry that the response of an instructor you respect will reflect something about you as a person. In light of these concerns, this guide on using office hours during the second part of your college career has multiple purposes:
- To demystify some of the processes and expectations for seeking advice, support, feedback, and mentorship.
- To depressurize an experience that can be rewarding for both you and your instructors.
- To provide definitions of documents you might produce during this time, answer some questions, and suggest some concrete strategies that you can draw from as you prepare to meet with instructors.
One thing you should understand before reading this guide is that its goal is to name some common concerns that the CEP has heard students express and identify strategies and practices that people can use to navigate those concerns. It does not aim to define hard and fast rules that apply to every person and relationship. If you’ve come to know an instructor well enough to seek them as an advisor, letter writer, mentor, or confidante, then you should only draw from this guide what you find most immediately helpful and otherwise treat that relationship like you would any other: as a unique connection that is cultivated through one-on-one conversation.
Consult the subsections below for advice related to seeking an advisor for independent research, requesting letters of recommendation, reconnecting with an instructor (or connecting with one you've never met), and staying in touch after graduation.
How you find an advisor for independent research will vary a great deal depending on your major. For example, if you are working on a senior capstone project, some departments will assign you an advisor while others will assist you in identifying one. Your advisor for a capstone or other independent research project also might be different from your major advisor. One of the first things you should do is familiarize yourself with the policies that govern capstones or independent research in your department. The department administrator or department chair should be able to help you track down this information if you cannot locate it.
If you are in a position where you can request to work with a specific advisor, then there are at least two broad factors to consider: temperament and expertise. By temperament, we’re simply referring to how well you get along with a potential advisor. Did you take a class with this person and found that they broke down material in ways you appreciated, that they offered helpful feedback, and that they generally struck you as approachable and supportive? Because you’ll be choosing to work with this person for an extended period of time, it’s important to feel confident that you’ll vibe with them throughout the highs and lows of your own research process. But just as importantly, think about the range of ways you can draw on a potential advisor’s forms of expertise. Your independent project won’t overlap perfectly with the research of any instructor, but it also doesn’t need to. Consider how a specific person will be able to advise you on methods, disciplines, debates, or historical periods that you’ll need to understand as you work on your project.
But what are you supposed to do with the nervousness you might feel about reaching out in the first place? Virtually everyone who has ever sought support on their own research will have stories about how worried they were about contacting a potential advisor or mentor (case in point: while working on this resource, a member of the CEP staff shared that they still have dreams in which the chair of their dissertation committee no longer approves of their work, and they finished their PhD nearly 10 years ago!). We observe this not to trivialize your anxieties but instead to affirm that it is such a common worry that many potential advisors will have experienced a similar thing and will likely be able to relate the first time you speak. Finally, you also have the benefit of being at Barnard, an institution where many instructors think of working closely with students as one of the most rewarding parts of their job. So draft up those emails or schedule that block of time during their office hours!
In most cases, your instructor will want to hear about your project, what sort of progress you’ve made on it so far, and what kinds of questions you’re hoping to explore as you continue working on it. Whether you are emailing the instructor or meeting them during office hours, prepare very brief responses to each of these points (no more than 2-3 sentences for each) and be prepared to answer any questions they ask. Often instructors will ask follow up questions not to quiz you but to gain a sense of whether they will be the best advisor for your work. If your independent research project is based on work that you completed for a different class, you can offer to share any material you’ve already prepared. To be clear, this should only be an offer on your part, because you don’t want to overwhelm the person with material in your first correspondence. Most instructors are not compensated for advising independent research projects, and you do not want to deter them from engaging with you by appearing to give them additional work.
The answers to these questions will vary from student to student and professor to professor, and will also depend on the type of independent research you are doing (e.g. an independent study for credit as opposed to a capstone or similar project). If you are doing an independent study for which you receive course credit, then the expectations for what you will cover in each meeting and when you will turn in work will be specified in the paperwork that you complete before you start. Make sure you familiarize yourself with the conditions that Barnard requires and that both you and your advisor agree to! But in other cases, like capstones, these conditions may not be clearly spelled out for you in advance. After you’ve identified your advisor, dedicate time in your very first meeting to talking about what they expect during your check-ins, what the expectations of the department are for the frequency of your meetings, and how you tend to work. If you are someone who needs to have brainstorming conversations during your research phase, share that information. Or, if you are someone who finds it best to get feedback on your earliest drafts of writing, then let your advisor know. You may need to find a happy medium between how you like to work and how they believe they can best support you, but open communication early in the process of collaboration is essential—especially in cases where you and your advisor are responsible for defining how you will work together.
If you are doing an independent study for credit, you will need to fill out and sign paperwork that specifies how many hours of face-to-face time you will have with your advisor. But what about cases where these obligations are not so clearly spelled out, as is the case with a capstone advisor, who does this work for free on top of their other responsibilities? The best way to answer this question is to dedicate time to a conversation about logistics—that is, not just what you’ll be working on but how you’ll work together. This will give your advisor an opportunity to specify their own schedule, how they’ve worked with independent researchers in the past, how far in advance they would like to see drafts before they offer feedback, and so on. Perhaps the best way to avoid the feeling that you’re asking for too much from your advisor is to set aside time to discuss your expectations of each other.
This is one of the stickiest challenges you might face, but fortunately it is also one of the least common. The answer to this question will also depend on the type of independent research you are doing.
If you are doing an independent study for course credit and your advisor does not reply to you after you have made every reasonable attempt to contact them, then you should reach out to the chair of the department or program that is sponsoring your study.
But if your advisor is working in a non-formalized role (that is, they are advising your capstone or mentoring your research in a special program), then there are other steps you should take to reestablish contact.
- If you have already sent them multiple emails and a week has passed since you sent your last one, drop by their regularly scheduled office hours. Even if they can’t meet in person right then (perhaps because their time for that week has been booked by other students), your face in their doorway can be an important reminder that they owe you a response.
- You can always set up a consultation with a CEP staff member, who can help you brainstorm context-specific strategies for approaching your advisor.
- If there is another faculty member in the department who you trust, you may see if they can help you reestablish contact before you consult the department chair.
While it may be uncomfortable for some time, we recommend these other steps because we recognize that very few instructors are paid for advising independent research and this work is often performed by junior and non-tenure track faculty, the latter of whom may be teaching at multiple institutions. While you deserve a communicative advisor, it’s important to remember that instructors, like everyone, have complex lives and schedules and that not all advisors have as much job security as their colleagues. If all of these efforts fail, it becomes appropriate to contact the department chair or the person who manages your program to seek new support for your work.
Letters of recommendation
Figuring out the best person to write a letter of recommendation for you can be challenging, but there are a couple rules of thumb that can help.
- Although you may think you need a letter from the most famous or highly ranked professor you know, it’s actually much more important to get letters from those instructors with whom you have the best relationship. The knowledge these people have about your skills and interests far outweigh whatever benefits might come with the prestige of a letter writer who only barely knows you.
- If possible, request a letter from someone who has worked with you in multiple contexts (e.g. more than one class or perhaps a single class and a workplace or special project), because this person will be able to write a letter that observes the variety and evolution of your abilities.
- Request a letter of recommendation from someone who wants to write a good letter on your behalf and will be able to back up their claims about your candidacy. As you figure out who might be able to do that, think back on any instructors in whose class you received good grades, who offered you detailed and strong feedback, or who clearly appreciated your contributions to a class.
Finally, it is always fine—and encouraged!—to identify multiple people who can write letters of recommendation for you.
Be prepared to say something brief about the place where you are submitting your application and why you believe the person you are contacting will be a good writer for you. If there are specific skills that you need your letter writer to speak to, this is a great time to tell them—preferably in writing! You also should know the date by which they will need to complete their letter and how they should submit it (and make sure you ask them early enough—ideally one month in advance—so that they have time to write the letter!). It is also common for your letter writer to ask to see at least your curriculum vitae or resume, your personal statement, and an unofficial transcript. If you do not have those items in hand when you write your first email or schedule your first meeting, let them know when you believe you can share them—and stick to that date! But keep in mind that these supplementary materials do not necessarily have to be perfect final drafts. Being timely is often more important than being perfect, and Barnard has offices and programs (like Beyond Barnard and the Writing Fellows) that can help you prepare application materials.
Let’s say you’ve already shared some of your application materials (like a personal statement and a writing sample) with your letter writer, but you are curious about their feedback on what you’ve prepared or you’re wondering if they can point you in any specific directions for future applications. It is perfectly acceptable to seek the advice of your letter writer on a range of topics! Their ability to offer this advice will depend on their time constraints, workload, and other factors, but it is not an ethical violation to ask if they have feedback on your application materials or on opportunities that would suit your skills, aims, and interests. Offices like Beyond Barnard also offer this type of feedback and support to students, so reach out to them if your recommender does not have time to share their thoughts (and do so sooner rather than later—their office hours fill up fast).
Someone you contact for a letter of recommendation may have a range of reasons why they cannot write it—because they do not have time, because they do not feel they know you well enough, or because they do not feel they can write an impactful letter. It may feel painful at first, but their reasons for not writing a letter may have little to do with you. In cases where a person reveals that they are overwhelmed with other responsibilities, thank them for their consideration and ask if they might be a writer for you in the future. In anticipation of the possibility that the first person you reach out to cannot write a letter, you should heed the advice offered above to identify multiple people as potential recommenders (see “How do I determine the best recommender?”). Try to do this early enough in your application process (at least 2 weeks and ideally a full month in advance) that you are not seeking new letter writers mere days before your materials are due. If you are in a situation where you are asking someone to complete a letter of recommendation in less than two weeks, offer a brief apology when you contact them.
Reconnect or connect for the first time
If you are reaching out to an instructor whose class you took several semesters ago, you may need to remind them of how you first met. It’s particularly helpful to refresh their memory if the class you took was a lecture that this instructor teaches often. This reminder doesn’t need to be a big production. It should be enough to identify what class you took with them, when you took it, and (only if you like) a short comment on any distinctive work you may have completed in it, such as a final paper on which you received strong feedback. You might be surprised to learn how well your instructors remember you!
In some cases, you may seek the advice of an instructor you haven’t met, perhaps because you’ve come across their work on your own or because a friend or other instructor has said you should reach out to them. If someone else has recommended that you have a conversation with this instructor, it never hurts to ask the person you know if they’d be willing to make an introduction. However, if they can’t or if you have learned about the person on your own, then there are a couple things you can keep in mind as you draft an email.
- First, before you get in touch with them, clarify for yourself what exactly you hope to get out of a conversation. Do you hope to consult them about an independent research project? Are they connected to an organization with which you also want to work? The open-ended conversations you might have with your major advisor will be harder to have with a person you are meeting for the first (and maybe only) time, so being clear about what you want—and naming that when you contact them—will make that first meeting more satisfying.
- Second, in your first email make sure to include a comment on what prompted you to contact them.
Ultimately, if you don’t personally know the person, one of the most important things you can do is offer them context for why you are seeking out their advice and expertise (and if you are familiar with their work, then compliments never hurt!).
As mentioned above, there are several important pieces of information you can include in your first message or be prepared to share during your first meeting, such as: a brief reminder about how you first met or note on who recommended you get in touch; some clarity about what exactly you want to get by meeting with this person; and a comment on what prompted you to reach out to this person specifically. If you are hoping to seek this person out as an advisor for an independent research project of some sort, then you should be prepared to share a description of your project and a writing sample (see the subsection titled “Independent research” for more details on this topic).
The advice offered throughout this section applies whether the person you are (re)connecting with works at Barnard or somewhere else. But there are some additional pieces of information you should keep in mind if you are contacting an instructor at another school.
- All instructors are primarily obligated to advise and meet with students at the school where they work. This is not to say that they won’t be interested in you or your project, but you should understand that they may not have as much time to meet and speak with you as you’d like.
- The ability of this person to offer extended advice will be shaped by their own institutional constraints and culture. For example, both a person who works at a school that regularly offers very large lectures and a person who works at a school that emphasizes research over mentorship will be less likely to spend significant amounts of time meeting with you.
This is not to say that you should avoid contacting them—just that you should go in with clear expectations!
There’s a decent chance that a professor you had a good relationship with during your time at Barnard will remember you after you’ve graduated. But whether you’re one year or several years beyond your graduation date, a reminder never hurts: share at least your CV/resume, your year of graduation, and the semester you took a class with them. In addition to refreshing an instructor’s memory about when you met, you may also consider telling them what has stayed with you about their class and/or why you’re getting back in touch (e.g., because you’re considering applying for graduate school and would value their advice). You may also offer to share work that you completed in their class if you feel it was particularly distinctive and you had a good exchange with them about it. Instructors often have many students with whom they currently work and quite a few students who are staying in touch with them after they’ve graduated. Don’t be distressed if it takes them a moment to remember all the details about how you know one another.
While instructors will want to know what you’ve been up to, it isn’t necessary to spend your first outreach describing every last thing you’ve done since graduating. Try to be concise and direct rather than exhaustive when you get back in touch. It's very common to hear instructors talk about how overwhelmed they are by the state of their email inbox, and a long email is likely to get filed away as something to address once they’ve gotten through smaller and more urgent tasks (and those smaller and more urgent tasks are always coming in). A short message reintroducing yourself and asking if they have time to catch up so that you can seek their guidance, support, or advice will be more than enough.
Alongside the concise reintroduction of yourself that you’ve prepared, it always helps to have your resume or CV ready to share. In fact, you should definitely have this document ready to share if you are planning to ask them for a letter of recommendation. Otherwise, you should prepare in all the ways we describe above: by quickly clarifying for yourself what you hope to get from them, reminding them how you met, explaining why you’re getting in touch, and offering to share any materials they might want to see.
The answer to this question will vary depending on your goals and the instructor’s availability. If you are seeking a letter of recommendation, then it will probably be more important for you to share materials than to stay in regular contact. But if you’re looking for more long-term advice as you prepare grad school applications or think about career paths, then you should simply ask the instructor whether you can make an additional follow up meeting and, if so, the best way of requesting their time. As noted elsewhere in this resource, open communication and clarity about your goals are the most important things you can offer.
People typically reach out to their former teachers to request letters of recommendation. But instructors can be great resources for many different reasons—to offer advice on potential career paths, to share insights on the experience of graduate school, to make connections to organizations with which they collaborate, and more. If you’re curious about the range of things that one of your former teachers can share with you, just ask!
Advice at a glance
If you are in a rush, read the takeaways related to each of the four areas we've covered. (But also take some time to read the more thoughtful reflections on these recommendations!)
- Familiarize yourself with any institutional or departmental policies that govern independent research advising
- Before you meet with or email your advisor for the first time, prepare short descriptions of your research project and where you want to go with it
- Talk with your advisor about their expectations and how you like to work
- Collaboration is most rewarding when there is open communication between people
- If you need a liaison between you and your advisor, consult the CEP or talk to another instructor who you trust in the department
- Request letters from instructors who know you well, who have worked with you in multiple classes or contexts (ideally), and who you feel confident want to write you a good letter
- Send requests at least two weeks and ideally one month in advance
- Have standard applications documents ready or nearly ready to share when you ask for a letter (e.g. CV or resume, personal statement)
- If possible, cultivate multiple potential recommenders
- Seek feedback on your materials from instructors, Beyond Barnard, or the Writing Fellows program
- If you are reconnecting, prepare a brief reminder about how and when you met
- If you are connecting for the first time, offer context for why you are interested in contacting them (and compliments don’t hurt)
- If you do not know the instructor already but you share a mutual acquaintance, ask that acquaintance to introduce you
- If the person works outside of Barnard, be aware that different institutional constraints and practices will shape whether and how they interact with you
- Remind them who are by sharing your CV/resume, your date of graduation, and the semester and year you took a class with them
- When you contact them, aim for concision rather than exhaustive detail, and be clear for yourself about what you hope to accomplish
- Former instructors can be letter writers or references, but they also can offer perspectives on graduate school and other career opportunities
Helpful offices and programs
Need help with any of the above? In addition to contacting the CEP, consider consulting these resources.
Beyond Barnard is an office that provides support related to career development, experiential education, graduate and professional school, and fellowships. Beyond Barnard works with students at all levels—from first-years to those who have graduated. Visit their website to schedule an in-person or virtual meeting.
Barnard’s Writing Fellows Program facilitates opportunities for students to get peer feedback on a broad range of documents—from term papers and capstones to CVs, personal statements, and more. Make an appointment with a fellow by visiting their website and set up a consultation that will help you develop your writing voice.
The CEP produced a feedback map that students can consult to learn steps they can take to address and find support related to issues they may face during their time on campus—from concerns with grades or course materials to experiences of discrimination. Consult the feedback map (and a guide for how to use it) here.
A curriculum vitae (regularly referred to as a CV) is a document that presents the history of your academic credentials. Emphasizing educational achievements, it is used for applications to graduate schools, fellowships, and grants. Its length is determined by one’s level of experience (undergraduates will have shorter CVs than professors), but it is typically longer than a resume. Mandatory subsections include your contact information at the head of the document and an Education section, which lists the institution where you are getting your degree, the degree you are receiving, your major, and your expected date of graduation. If relevant, other subsections might include all or some combination of the following: Research Experience; Publications; Presentations; Awards and Honors; Leadership Activities / Service; Skills; and References.
A resume is a document that is tailored to potential non-academic employers and that emphasizes the skills that you can bring to an organization. It is typically a short document—one page for someone currently enrolled in or recently graduated from college—that is designed to give the reader a quick overview of your relevant abilities and experience. Mandatory subsections include your contact information at the head of the document and Work Experience in a prominent position. You should also include a section on Education, but this information will move farther down the page as you gain work experience.
A personal statement is a document you write to introduce yourself as a candidate to a selection committee. These statements can vary in length (check application guidelines to learn what different institutions want). There is no one way to write a personal statement and the kind of narrative you offer should be tailored to the institution or fellowship to which you’re applying. Personal statements are also much more than mere translations of your CV or resume into narrative form. As one former leader of a scholarship foundation puts it, you might think of composing your personal statement in four different but overlapping ways: as a picture that shows a selection committee who are you as a candidate; as an invitation that makes your readers want to learn more about who are you and what you can offer; as an indicator of your priorities that tells readers what you value; and as a story that connects your experiences to the goals or purpose of the place where you are applying. Compelling personal statements can come in many forms and use many strategies, but all of them should include who you are, what you can offer the place or program, what you want to achieve, and why the place and program you are applying to is the right fit.
A writing sample is a document that demonstrates your ability to make and support an original argument, do research, and present that research in a coherent, well-organized way. The length of a writing sample will vary depending on the application guidelines, but the two most common kinds of documents you might provide as a writing sample include: (1) a term paper for which you received a high grade and/or which is relevant to the place or program where you are applying; and (2) a capstone or other independent research paper that demonstrates your ability to carry out a sustained and original argument.