Are you a student who has ever felt like or been told that you’re not that professor’s student? Join the club.
Each type of university has its own set of problems regarding access to faculty or faculty engagement with students. Large, commuter schools just have too many students, so professors have a hard time connecting with you if you don’t put in the effort. They might have three or four courses of 30 students. Just learning your name is a struggle (I know, I’ve had to do it). In these types of circumstances, you can hardly blame faculty for finding it hard to connect with you. It’s not on purpose.
More problematic are instances where faculty have doctoral students to mentor, which makes your “status” important to consider. If you’re a BA or MA student, professors with doctoral advisees might not have or want to make time for you outside of class. And if you’re a doctoral student interacting with a faculty member who isn’t your advisor or on your committee, you might find yourself in the same boat as BA and MA students. Professors often make arbitrary rules and demarcations for who is “their” student and who is not “their” student. That’s right: you might not be their student, even if you’re in their class! Ah, you’ve fallen into a trap. Since you say, “You’re my professor,” you expect your professor to say, “You’re my student.” But no. In their mind, they may have relegated you into the “not my student” category because you’re not one of their doctoral advisees.
What are some reasons for not being considered a professor’s student (even though you technically are) or being ignored by a professor?
Busyness. The most obvious answer is that professors are busy. Aside from having their own personal lives, they are busy with their own work. Junior professors are concerned with publishing material, building their portfolios, and networking. Senior faculty are usually tasked with running the department, dealing with committees, and liaising with the university admin. Oh, and, of course, they teach.
Obligation. Yes, faculty ought to have an obligation to all of their students (i.e., their advisees as well as students in their courses), but we all know that’s not the case. Typically, when professors do have time to focus on their students, they are most concerned with “their” students (meaning their advisees). You might think of these advisees as an extension and representation of the professor. When the advisee does well, it reflects well on the professor. The reverse is true too, so it’s no surprise that faculty feel obliged to help their advisees first.
Favoritism. There is an inherent level of admiration students have for faculty because of a professor’s work, their talents in the classroom, or their gravitas and name in the field. Whatever the reason is, though, students tend to want to interact with “celebrity” faculty, and some professors use their academic celebrity to cultivate a group of minions (that’s not a dig… I’m a minion myself). Think of it as a mini cult of personality without the nuclear weapons or national secrets. While there isn’t anything wrong with students preferring certain faculty members, faculty preferring certain students comes off as favoritism (because it is). As faculty cultivate their select group of students, others who are part of the “out group” will find it far more difficult to navigate department politics or even make progress in their academic career. You will find that the “favorites” often get access to more desirable teaching assignments, conference organizing, and grants or fellowships. It’s not that they get chosen because of their connection to a professor; rather, since they are close to faculty, they might get firsthand knowledge of opportunities coming down the pipeline before anyone else does. That, obviously, gives students a leg up in their preparations.
What can you do about it?
Parts of undergrad and graduate school can frequently feel like high school, and the cliques that form between faculty and students may very well leave you feeling like “you can’t sit with us.” But remember, someone thought something positive about you when you were accepted, so hang on to that nugget of hope, keep your sanity, and maybe, just maybe, you too will be a minion one day (kidding). If you’re not part of the “in group,” don’t try to force it. Being an overt sycophant won’t help your case. Of course, we all seek recognition from people we admire, but if you’re finding it difficult to ingratiate yourself with a certain group, you’ll best be served by setting your ambitions elsewhere (like on your work and finishing your degree!). And you might seek out students in the same situation because I can assure you that you’re not alone.