“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” – Albert Einstein
My day job is process safety engineer, but I also teach two evening courses as an adjunct professor. In that role, I was asked by a student group to speak on “How to get good grades and how to get on a professor’s good side.”
They seemed like good questions. So, as a professor and as an employer who is committed to hiring engineers straight out of school, here’s what I came up with.
Good grades matter. At a time when grade inflation is a real thing, a GPA less than 3.0 on a 4.0 scale is simply unimpressive. As a student, if that’s how you’re doing, you better have something else going for you.
So how do you get good grades? It really comes down to this: Do the work.
When there is homework, do it and turn it in. When there are projects, start on them early and turn them in on time. In courses with homework and projects, missing assignments can make the difference of a letter grade. As for exams, allow enough time to prepare and then take the exam when you are well-rested. I know this is boring and unexciting advice, but there are generally no tricks to good grades.
While there are generally no tricks, I do have some tips. The most important tip is to make sure that you understand what your deliverable is. When you were younger, teachers often provided rubrics which spelled out precisely what your priorities were and how you would be graded. In life, there are no rubrics—you have to figure it out. Learning what you are supposed to deliver is incredibly important to being successful. Learning how to figure out what you are supposed to deliver is even more important.
Getting on a Professor’s Good Side
It never hurts to be on your professor’s good side. In a perfect world, it shouldn’t matter whether a professor or anyone else with authority over you likes you or not. If you follow the rules and do the work, the results should be the same whether your professor likes you, dislikes you, or is completely indifferent to you. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. So, it’s always better to be on a professor’s good side.
Even in an imperfect world, if you and your work are perfect, it won’t matter whether you are on your professor’s good side. Since you aren’t perfect, however, it’s better to have a professor biased in your favor—just a little more willing to cut you break when you need it. It may not help, but it can’t hurt.
How do you get on a professor’s good side? First and foremost—do the work. Even if you do it wrong, just about anyone appreciates a sincere effort. Doing the work right is always best but doing it wrong is better than not doing it at all. When you can’t do the work, don’t make excuses. Own your failures.
Secondly, don’t suck up. Rather, if you are going to suck up, do it with subtlety and finesse. No one wants to feel manipulated. If your efforts to suck up are blatant and obvious, it is just insulting.
Thirdly, show an interest. Show up for class. You don’t have to sit in the front row, but don’t sit in the back row. Turn your cell phone off and don’t use your computer as a diversion. Instead, pay attention. Volunteer the answers to questions. When called on, offer an answer. Even when you are uncertain, answer clearly and confidently. If you’re wrong, you won’t be less wrong if you are hesitant and halting in your answer but being hesitant and halting will definitely give the impression that you are unprepared.
Finally, learn more about your professor’s interests. Just because a professor is teaching a particular course doesn’t mean that the subject is a passion of the professor. It may simply be a course that they were assigned to teach. What a professor pursues outside of the classroom is far more telling. What articles have they published recently? What papers have they presented and at what conferences? Do they write a blog? Simply knowing about these activities will be helpful. Actually reading them will be astonishing.
The broad and noble purpose of education is to develop intellectual, social, and cultural abilities so that students can become better citizens and contribute to society. A much narrower view is that education, particularly in a field like engineering, is vocational training. In that view, the purpose of education is to prepare students to enter the workforce.
When you chose engineering instead of art history as a major, your parents were probably relieved. It gave them confidence that you were preparing yourself for a good, well-paying job. It wasn’t because they thought that engineering school would develop your intellectual, social, and cultural ability in ways that would make you a better citizen. As a result, there are two things you should realize.
First, you should be a better citizen and you should contribute to society. Do not pass up opportunities to develop in this regard, in school and beyond.
Second, colleges of engineering are vo-tech schools. When you graduate, you need to know how to do the job of being an engineer. Since you don’t know in advance where your career is going to take you, learn everything you can about how to do the job for which you are preparing.
Once you graduate and find that great job you’ve been planning on, there are three things I would like to suggest.
Master the box. Our society makes a fetish of “Thinking outside the box.” We are so consumed with innovation and looking at things a new way that we sometimes forget that there is value in how things have been done and looked at. That is not to say that innovation and new ways of looking at things are bad; it is to say that you should take time to understand why things are the way they are before rushing to change them. Before you worry about thinking outside the box, make sure you have first mastered the box.
Think outside yourself. There is a strong temptation to approach the world—work, play, relationships, civil society—in terms of what you need and what you want from it. Instead, step back and look to see what the world wants and needs from you. If you can lose yourself in meeting the wants and needs of the world around you, you’ll be happier and the world will be a better place.
Be patient. As a student, you did without and yet, somehow, you were still happy. When you graduate, your income is going to increase dramatically, and you are going to be tempted to indulge years of pent up demand. Don’t. Continue to live like a student and bank the difference. Then, when you get your first promotion, don’t change your lifestyle to anything more than you could have afforded when you first got out of school. Always have your lifestyle lag your income, not lead it.
Likewise, don’t worry about your next promotion. Focus your energies on learning to do the job you have as well as you are able. If you always have your eye on the next job, you won’t do the job you have well.
This is the point where I’m supposed to tell you that your hard work will pay off in the end. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Working hard at the wrong things rarely pays off. Worse, you probably know a total slacker who still seems to skate through, effortlessly plucking success from the tree of life. However, all other things being equal, I’d put my money on the success of those who work hard rather than those that don’t.
Have a great year.