Six statements professors wish they could say to students, but never do


Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series about what people think but never say to those who really need to hear what’s on their mind. In Part 1, I wrote a companion article on “Seven things students wish they could say to their professors, but never do.” This was published in the October 23 issue. Here I write on what students need to hear about matters most professor think about but are never at ease to say—except to each other—and, after all, what good is that if you’re a student?

I doubt that every professor you meet would make all the points I do here, but I’m very confident that I speak for more than a few of the great professors who have served as mentors to me in my life as a student, as well as those colleagues I’ve gotten to work with in all the great schools I’ve taught at. I hope students take the implicit advice I offer here in the friendly spirit it is offered.


[1] If you want to stand out from the rest of the class and really impress the prof, it’s actually pretty straightforward what you need to do.

Here’s how most professors determine if you’re a flash in the pan or the real deal: you consistently handle the obvious, simple things with ease and grace. These include showing up to each class session on time, sitting near the front, striving to make contributions to the class discussion on a regular basis, asking thoughtful questions, paying attention, and carrying through with the assignments made.

If a student masters this constellation of activities with a good attitude and a mature style, the prof knows that that person is headed for professional success—even if their test scores are not necessarily stellar all the time. Getting ahead in any professional calling, is really mastering the ordinary stuff first, before anyone expects you to be a superstar; we’re talking about style and character here, not flamboyance.

Also, there nothing you can actually say to affect my impressions on this directly; the reality is that most professors I know are pretty good at detecting the Eddie Haskells of academia; so if you try to butter up the prof, he or she will likely conclude you to be a devious character, if by your over-blown behavior they think you take them for being easy to fool!

[2] I don’t really worry a lot about whether you like me or not-it’s nice when that happens, but it’s not really essential to what I’m about as a professor.

I enjoy my relationships with students a great deal, but it’s really just a bonus if you and I ever become fast-friends in the end. My real “calling” from a professional perspective is whether I prepare my students for what’s ahead in their careers and personal affairs: what they need to know, to understand, and then be able to execute with some degree of competence.

Don’t get me wrong, I vastly prefer that you liked me and so we could enjoy our professional relationship all the more; this attitude on my part is true, whether it seems to you that way all the time or not. But my first order of business is trying to get you to like and play the professional role you’ve decided to pursue and to see how my course or mentoring will help you do exactly that.

[3] Frankly, I’m surprised you aren’t more interested in getting acquainted with me-if only for your own benefit.

Here’s the way I see it: the relationship deal between you and me looks very different to me from your point of view. Face it, you’re going to want your professors to write you letters of recommendation; you’re going to ask him or her to be telephone references to people who are thinking of hiring you; you may run into a jam down the road—even in this semester—and need to call on an understanding professor who will bend the rules to accommodate a late paper, a missed class, a low, unrepresentative exam score.

Furthermore, I’m familiar with books as well as people who you might like—and for the purposes of your career, ought—to be introduced to. At the very minimum, you need to get more proficient and comfortable with networking—and I’m a good person to acquire that experience with. None of these things will happen if you and I are fundamentally strangers. I can still help you get a good education, but not much in the way of the other stuff.

As I said before, I like to have friendships with the students, but in a sense I don’t have near as much to gain from those professional relationships as you do; indeed, I’m mystified by how you approach this decision. Think about it for a minute: I’ve personally hired—and fired—more people than there are students in our course together; in my professional career I’ve authorized staff and managers to be paid more money in aggregate than you’ll make in your entire lifetime. Yet, it’s always surprising to me that students will pay dearly to go to college and then strive to get as little out of that expensive experience as they possibly can.

[4] I wish I could assign you a higher grade than circumstances sometimes allow.

My observations of the successful people I’ve known point to a consistency of effort, freedom from duplicity, willingness to work diligently, good-naturedness, a consistent gracefulness in the handling of all kinds of circumstances, as well as how respectfully one treats others in the social scheme of things; those kinds of behaviors are the ones which set winners apart from the also-rans and the losers.

Unfortunately, the grading system in college is set up to reward mostly output, not process. Whenever I see a student who is not necessarily a contender to rank in the top tiers of the class in terms of the tangible, quantitative measures of graded course assignments, but in whom I nonetheless see a quality of character over time, I know that that student deserves a more favorable mark for what really counts in the bigger scheme of things.

Unfortunately, by the way I’m expected to set up my course requirements, there’s only so much I can bring to bear as a “judgment call” about matters like this—but don’t be fooled into thinking me as blind to these judgments, to be a mere score-keeper or referee. Instead, I have a pretty good idea who’s going to thrive and excel down the road and who’s not.

Think of the grading problem this way: There is a very high probability that absolutely no one will, in your entire life, ever ask you—much less even care—what you got for a grade in my course, or any other professor’s for that matter. They’ll only care if you passed the class, graduated from a good school, and were awarded the degree you claim to. It’s hard for many students to understand, but believe me, the system of higher education is rigged to have you think exactly the opposite.

[5] There’s a lot of personal, professional, and career-related advice I’d love to share with you-and which you’d gain from hearing-but typically you don’t do your part to help me do that.

For starters, some students avoid speaking to or even eye-contacting the professor they’re paying a king’s ransom to help them! Most students never stop to chat after class, many students never come by during office hours to talk; indeed, there are a lot of students who don’t take me up on my standing offer to pay for lunch to then talk about careers, networking, and the like.

When students do engage with me as their professor, they seem to shy away from asking me enough, or even the “right” questions which, in effect, would give me permission to be completely honest with and helpful to them as they prepare for a professional life. Students who are serious about being successful in the workplace frequently need to ask for feedback on style, manners, demeanor, leadership qualities, dress, work practices, speaking abilities, networking…you get the idea.

If you think about it for a minute, it’s challenging and actually pretty useless to expect a professor to give valuable advice to an almost complete stranger. It’s seems to me really odd, but a lot of students seem to go out of their way to avoid dealing with their professors.

[6] You really need to think more strategically when it comes to understanding what it takes to be successful in your chosen career; I promise you, it won’t depend on the grade you get in my course.

More than a few of my young student acquaintances are real drama queens and kings when it comes to needing to get a top grade in my course; they would have me believe that the grade I assign to them is a huge deal-maker—or deal-breaker—in terms of their long term professional success. Be serious: to think like that is really playing small-ball.

Although I consider my course to be potentially pretty nifty in advancing a student down a particular career path, let’s face it, in the scheme of things it’s just one course among a lot of others; frankly, it’s not likely to be as pivotal as some students make it out to be when we talk about how important the grade I assign to you really is.

Take my own experience in college and even beyond: I’ve earned three graduate degrees—all from selective, two at highly ranked programs in outstanding universities. However, if I were to tell you the truth, I didn’t always hit the top of the grading curve in all the courses I took. A few times I even had to visit with my profs—in their offices—to make sure I was going to meet all the requirements just to get a passing grade!

Nonetheless, I never let a challenging course—and, specifically, a less-than-perfect grade—deter me from enrolling in the next semester’s slate of courses, or applying to the next program I was interested in; nor did I let myself ever think that a less than awesome grade in a few hard-for-me courses would define my personal or professional success.

Today I have a very rewarding career and a terrific life. I’m paid serious money by other people to do what some would call “work,” but which as a professor I find to be a very gratifying endeavor to be a part of every day I go to my office. Believe me when I tell you that no one has ever asked me what grade I got in even one course, in college or in grad school. So it will be for you as well, I am certain.

Believe me, your success in the career choices you make involves a lot more important stuff than the grade you get in my class or that of any other professor. Instead, I promise you with complete confidence, that if you are a sincere student and study diligently, the Grade Gods will treat you with exactly the same generosity they have treated me.

Yes, you ought to carry out the course expectations to the best of your abilities, of course; but, if the truth were told, you should really worry about something else, not about your grade in my course.


Professor Murray can be contacted at

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Copyright, Keith B. Murray, 2014


[See Part 1 in the October 23 issue: “Seven statements students wish they could say to professors, but never do.”]