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Develop Relationships with Faculty and Staff

Purpose: Scholars will learn about the importance of networks and how to develop strong relationships with faculty and staff at UCF.

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Written Content

How to Start Developing Relationships

Tips for Finding and Solidifying Mentorships

  1. Take multiple classes with one professor
  2. Engage in class and ask questions after class.
  3. Visit office hours frequently.
  4. Join their research lab and read their publications.

Invite faculty members out to eat via the Lunch and Learn Program offered by UCF’s Multicultural Academic and Support Services (MASS).

Conversation Starters

  1. Ask faculty about their research and tell them what you find the most interesting.
  2. Talk about the coursework you are taking with them.
  3. Inform them about your graduate school and research ambitions. Ask them about their experience in graduate school.
  4. Talk about current events related to the field.

Note: Always remember to be keep a balance between professionalism and authenticity.

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Audio Content

Developing Relationships with Faculty and Staff

The podcast in this lecture marks the first of a series of podcast episodes on graduate school preparation. We will cover various topics from the importance of networking to the art of transitioning into graduate school. Staff members, alumni and current AAP scholars will provide tips and share their experiences.

In this particular episode, Academic Advancement Programs (AAP) at UCF dives into developing relationships with faculty and staff for graduate school preparation. Our guest, Victor Rodriguez, is a Mechanical Engineering senior at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Colleen Smith, a Grad Prep Advisor, interviews Victor to learn more about how he developed relationships with faculty and staff.
Music “We Made It” by CC 2.5.


Colleen: Hello, and welcome to Grad Prep Talk. From University of Central Florida, this is the first Academic Advancement Programs’ podcast or audio guide series to help you prepare for graduate school. Here, we detail student and the expert strategies for graduate school preparation.

Colleen: My name is Colleen Smith and I’m a graduate school preparation advisor for Academic Advancement Programs or AAP. In this episode, were talking to Victor Rodriguez about developing relationships with faculty and staff.

[Motivational music]

Colleen: Developing relationship with faculty and staff can seem difficult but necessary for students who are hoping to be competitive applicants for graduate school.

 There are a few different relationships that can help serve both you and your faculty or staff in different capacities. The first type of relationship is an instructor. The relationship is usually easiest to start because you’re taking a class the faculty is teaching. The next relationship type is a mentor. Faculty that can serve as a mentor in academic and professional development is the ideal relationship, although not every faculty you meet will be able to serve in this capacity. Another relationship is research. Faculty can serve as principle investigators of a research project and to compete this research project they sometimes need graduate and undergraduate students to help complete the tasks necessary to complete the research project.

No matter which relationship you develop they will all help you reach your academic goals of graduate school. The main goal is to share your aspirations and learn from the faculty and staff relationships.

Now, let’s listen to the interview with Victor, a senior, who just completed his application for masters and PhD programs.

[Motivational music]

Colleen: So, to today we have Victor Rodriguez, a mechanical engineering senior at the University of Central Florida, or UCF. At UCF, Victor is a Peer Mentor at the Office of Undergraduate Research, a Research Assistant for the Nanotechnology Center, and a Ronald E MacNair Scholar. Through a combination of his technical studies and community involvement, he became interested in research that aims to understand how engineering and technology can be understood to help solve society’s biggest problems. He has spent the last two summers conducting research at Stony Brook University and another summer at Washington D.C. So, welcome Victor.

Victor: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.

Colleen: So, tell me what your aim for grad school is before we get started.

Victor: So, my aim for graduate school is to end up with my PhD in Engineering Policy and also in Civil and Environmental Engineering. So, like a joint program. That will most likely be at Carnegie Mellon University.

Colleen: So, what’s your overall career goal?

Victor: So, my overall goal is to be a liaison between government officials and society. Sort of that middle ground on how does science and how does society merge together in order to help, you know, solve some of the world’s biggest problems because I think the divide in how much understanding politicians and decision makers have on science, and I think there’s a big need for STEM majors to come into there and help solve these big issues.

Colleen: I do agree that research in stem disciplines need to have a bigger part in the political scene.

Victor: I truly believe that strongly. I’m actually a member of the AAAS, American Association for the Advancement of Science. They are huge believers in that, that’s actually the largest science society and they are big on science communication and science advocacy.

Colleen: Shout out to those professional development organizations. Alright, tell us a little bit about yourself and your experiences in developing relationships with faculty and staff.

Victor: So, I’m a mechanical engineering senior, on my final semester here at the University of Central Florida. And I am aiming to go to graduate school this fall. So, when I first started college, I started at Valencia college. That’s a two-year university, not a lot of research or any research really going on there. So, there wasn’t really a big reason for me to get involved or develop relationships with faculty. I mean there was, but there wasn’t a huge incentive, at least, at the moment. But once I found out about research and found out about opportunities for graduate school, I started to realize how important it is to develop relationships with faculty members because those are the people you work with and those are the people you depend on in order to help broaden your horizons and introduce you to different things you are not yet aware of. So, I began to get involved with different groups and I’m a big believer that these groups that I’ve been part of have helped me a lot such as McNair and other groups I have been part of along the way, and throughout those experiences I’ve relied on them to assist me in order to help me understand the importance and techniques I should use in order to develop these relationships that have helped me get to where I am today.

Colleen: So why do you think it’s so important to have a relationship with faculty and staff? Or how do you even start a relationship with faculty and staff when you get to a new institution?

V; Well, the biggest reason is, if you want to go to graduate school, its really recommended to begin doing research at the university you’re at, as an undergrad. The reason for that is because you have to figure out whether you like the work you’re doing or not. Some people start to do research on their own, but I believe that working with faculty members, they’ve been part of this for sometimes decades and they have the expertise that you need to gain. By developing those relationships, you can learn things you otherwise wouldn’t have on your own.

Colleen: I have another question for you, are you ready for it?

Victor: Yes, I’m ready.

Colleen: Good. Was it difficult to reach out to faculty in your field when you first transferred to UCF or to any 4-year university?

Victor: So the biggest difficulty is understanding what resources are available to you, since you get used to being at the college you were at. I was very used to being at Valencia and coming to UCF, a huge university, but that also comes with a lot of opportunities. So, I think the biggest thing to get used to is understanding where you fit best. There is a place you fit, because if you want to do something – most likely it’s here and if not you have the resources to start that. But it’s difficult to understand how to go about it at times or what groups to be part of. Also, in that difficulty is time management, the classes tend to become a little bit harder because you have to study more on your own and stuff like that. So, getting acquainted is the hardest part, I would say.

Colleen: Definitely. So then, how did you first approach a faculty? What did you do? What were those steps?

Victor: For me, I am big on networking. I feel like I could network very fluidly, its not a difficulty for me to network with people. Yet I didn’t know how to communicate with faculty members because I hold them to a high standard and its sort of nerve-wrecking to just go up to a faculty member and introduce yourself. So, what I did was, I got involved in the Office of Undergraduate Research, at UCF we call it the OUR. I got involved with them and they introduced me to the Summer Research Academy. Shout out to Aubrey, she actually went to a workshop and I was the only student who showed up at Valencia for that, thankfully I did. She informed me of the Summer research academy, which is a free three-day workshop where you get to learn everything to get involved in research and from there I was able to understand how to properly communicate with professors.

Colleen: Shout out to just taking every opportunity available to you. I mean, you have one-on-one time with a staff member who could get you to where you needed to go. Did you know that when you were walking into that one meeting?

Victor: Not at all, it was actually a funny story. There’s this workshop that I heard about through the grapevine and was actually 20 minutes late, which you should never be that late to a meeting, but I figured: “Hey, it’s a great opportunity, let me go to this meeting.” I showed up and I expect for people to be there and it’s just Aubrey standing at the front almost getting ready to leave. She’s like “oh no, you’re here”. There were actually 4 faculty members there and Aubrey and I was the only student, so I went ahead and sat down. Thankfully, Aubrey was cool about it and she went ahead and did the whole presentation for me. Little did I know what I was getting myself into because I ended up with SAR and started taking advantage of the opportunities the Office of Undergraduate Research had to present. A few years later I’m one of their peer mentors. It’s funny how things work out.

Colleen: It is! You never know what type of impression you’re making on someone. Just by the way for those people who are listening, Aubrey was the coordinator of the Office of Undergraduate Research, she was a key staff member that you connected with at your state college even before you transferred to UCF, right?

Victor: Mhm.

Colleen: How did you prepare for your first faculty meeting? So, we go back a little bit, you were able to research your faculty member that you wanted to meet with because their research was something you were interred in. Here at UCF, you sent an email and then after that you set up a time where you were going to meet and then what happened? How did you prepare for that meeting? What did you do to help yourself through that process?

Victor: The most important thing, going back to the SAR, the Summer Research Academy. There, I was able to learn the techniques you go about in order to communicate with professors and they told me everything I needed to know, and I also followed up by going to the peer mentoring hours. That helped me a lot, going there I was able to ask them the specific questions that I would potentially ask my faculty member. It was sort of like my mock interview of the faculty member that I was able to get the nerves out and understand what I was going to say and what I was not going to say. That helped me a lot. Like I said before, really utilize those resources around you because those are the people you’re going to depend on because they’ve been through it before. The way I prepared was by going to them and because of that I was able to successfully have a few meetings with different faculty members and not feel nervous at all. Again, it was using those resources around me and not just hoping I would get it right on my first try.

Colleen: Right because I always believe planning is very important in when you’re trying to make career gains or graduate school gains and to prepare yourself for what may come next. So, from that initial meeting then how did you begin to build and maintain those relationships?

Victor: I would say I got really lucky. The faculty member I ended up in the lab with, I’m still in that lab to this day. I actually have one of my experiments running right now, and I have my fellow lab mate watching for me.

Colleen: [interjects giggling] I was about to say, do you need to go back?

Victor: [laughingly] No no, it’s all cool because we work together on these things in the lab and sometimes I watch their experiments and sometimes they watch mine. They are literally just watching a number making sure it doesn’t go to high or too low. But back to the story though. I got really lucky and the reason I say that is because the faculty member I got acquainted with it was actually her first semester at the university as well. It was sort of both of out first times at this university and although she had way more experience than me coming from Berkley and Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech, she spent all this time at these universities as a scholar and researcher there. The reason I say I got lucky is because since it was her first time, I kind of got through the learning curve with her, together. As far as developing the relationship, I proved my worth. I say the two best things that you can show any professor is passion, number one, and that just that you are genuinely interested in the topic, and number two is hard work, showing up everyday and proving that you are capable of doing the work that they hand to you. So those are the two things that I did and from that I was able to develop really strong relationship.

Colleen: I wish we could all be so lucky! [laughingly]. No, but I think that what you highlighted of having that perseverance and that hard work, that’s a part of not so much luck, but who you are and how you’ve gotten to where you’ve gotten. Alright, who have you tried or what have you strategized in order to keep building those relationships to build upon the network you currently have to create that larger network for yourself.

Victor: Like I said earlier, networking is one of the things I really bank on and I’m key on doing every chance I get. So, in order to develop relationships, I recognize: “alright so what’s my end goal when I’m finished at UCF?” and that’s to get into grad school. And then I was like “alright what do I need for grad school? What are the tools and resources that I need to allocate at the moment and those included, there’s a lot to it, but part of that was letters of recommendation. Not just getting letters of recommendation but strong letters of recommendation. I recognized “ok I need to start developing relationship with somebody other than my faculty member, it’s a great relationship but I need to branch out. I started taking part in summer research programs and reaching out to professors. Not just letting them wait until they contact me. Ahead of time, before the applications are even due just reaching and saying “Hey my name is Victor, and this is who I am, I’m interested in your topic” sort of doing the same thing I did to get into lab here at UCF. Trying a different approach in that manner, those worked out to my advantage. I think I got a lot of those positions because I went ahead and networked, and it was a face to the name when they saw my application. So, because of that being proactive, being ahead of the curve and making sure that I’m thinking about these things ahead of time before the moment comes, those really worked out to my advantage. And then once I’m in the position just again that I have passion and proving hard work because those two things are really going to make a difference when it comes time to write those letters of recommendation. Other than that, also following up with them from time to time because after three months you have to make sure you maintain those relationships.

Colleen: So, do you have any stories, or advice, or tips for students that might just be starting out. Let’s say, a student who just walked on campus and doesn’t know anyone, doesn’t know the structure, doesn’t know anything. What piece of advice would you give that student? On how to develop those relationships and meet faculty?

Victor: So, what I would say. Have you ever seen that movie Yes Man?

Colleen: [laughingly] Yes

Victor: If not, please watch it. Hilarious. So, watch that movie and if you’ve already seen it you know where I’m going with this. Become a yes man or yes women. Because you need to say “yes” to everything that comes your way. You need to be able to, any opportunity that comes your way, you have to just say, you don’t know what it is, part of it is not only what you do like, what you don’t like. Which is as equally as important because you might have a conception that you like something but it’s not until you get involved in it, you’re like “it’s not what I thought it was going to be”. You need to say yes to a lot of things and once you start, you don’t have to commit to it but just go to the first meeting, go to the first few meetings, you don’t know who you’re going to meet at those events and then that’s the only way you’re going to figure out , how to get involved and where you fit. Like I said, UCF or any university has a lot of opportunities available and you need to figure which opportunities are best fit for you because what’s good for me isn’t what’s good for you or your friend, or so on and so forth. That’s truly the best way to figure out and learn how to get involved.

Colleen: So, I think I’ve gone through most of my questions. Do you think there’s anything we’re leaving out in that process of a student just breaking the ice with a faculty member and then being able to start developing those relationships to hopefully letting it turn into something down the road that can help them in mentorship, learning about their discipline, or even research, as you’ve mentioned.

Victor: Well, what I would say is your time at UCF you’re becoming, you’re working as an apprentice. Pretty much. What you’re doing is that you’re training and you’re also maybe like a mechanic in training or something like that. You’re gathering your tools and you’re collecting this toolbox of information and resources around you. So, I think that you need to utilize that to the best of your ability.

Colleen: Victor, I think that the wisdom and the knowledge that you have by going through this and the capacity for you to give back to your community and leave a legacy and create your legacy for others is astounding to me so, thank you so much.

Victor: Thank you.

[Motivational music]

Colleen: Victor touched on some great points. Learn how to professionally email your faculty, prepare for your meeting, and always follow up. Sometimes following up with past mentors can look different, but the important part is to find a way to keep mentors updated on your progress. Here are the last few pieces of advice when it comes to developing relationships with faculty and staff. 1) To start developing relationships with your instructors be sure to visit office hours and actively participate in positive manner in class. 2) To prepare for a meeting with faculty or staff, look up their curriculum vitae, CV, or resume online, prior to the meeting. Take notes on what you would like to learn from their experience and ask knowledgeable questions abut your field and discipline. 3) If you’re meeting with faculty to learn more about their research be sure to read more about the research lab online or try to read their most recent published research article. This will help you to ask critical questions and discuss the part of the research you understand, and also the part you need more information on. But don’t worry there should always be a part of the research that you don’t fully understand. That’s why they have the PhD. The important part is that you’ve shown interest in their research area and have taken the initiative to learn more.

[Motivational music]

That’s all we have for this episode for Grad Prep Talk. I’m Colleen Smith and you’ll find our next episode in the Prepare Your Finances lesson of Academic Advancement Programs audio guide series in the Grad Prep Zone. Remember, your graduate preparation starts now!

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Suggested Assignment

Assignment #5

Identify Your Network
Purpose: Scholars will research and find potential faculty mentors at U.C.F. For assistance schedule a visit with AAP Peer Advisors.
Time: 20 minutes
Instructions: Identify Your Network

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