I’ve never been the kind of person who is comfortable asking for help. This quality is not a great one to have, especially if you go to a school as rigorous as Swarthmore. Knowing when to ask for help is an important skill, and one that will only pay dividends with time. Whether it is a paper for your religion class, a computer science lab, or applying for a summer opportunity, asking your professors for help, advice, or just to point you in the right direction is never a bad idea.
My first experience going to office hours was for Stat 11, an introductory statistics course with a final project at the end. As the prospective computer science major of my group, I was tasked with finding a way to use R, a statistics programming language, to analyze health data taken from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Needless to say, I was completely and utterly lost trying to understand how to reformat the complex looking data using archaic online resources. With nowhere left to go, I found myself walking to my professor’s classroom, during his designated office hours, to ask for help. My preconceived notions of what office hours would be like were incredibly wrong. Rather than simply brush me off with a verbal explanation, my professor sat down with me and showed me the specific commands to type in to format and filter my data, until I understood the programming complexities at play and could replicate the logic for the rest of our project. Thanks to my professor’s genuine desire to help, our project turned out great, and I gained both expertise in using R and the knowledge that office hours are incredibly valuable resources that allow students to ask professors for help directly.
While I still struggle with asking for help sometimes, simply knowing that office hours are an option is definitely a stress reliever. To that end, I’d like to offer some advice as to how to go about maximizing your office hours experience. This will likely differ depending on the department, but hopefully will be applicable in a general sense. If you are going to office hours to ask for help with an assignment, it will make both your and your professor’s life easier if you come to them having already attempted it. Walking in with no demonstrated effort will make it harder for them to understand what specifically you need help with. Having some questions pre-prepared will definitely expedite the process too. On a separate note, if you are going to a professor’s office hours to ask for a letter of recommendation or advice for a career opportunity, it may be wise to email them beforehand to give them a heads up that you aren’t coming with a question about class, so they can suggest an alternative time if needed. Lastly, office hours are not just for asking questions or for advice, they can also be a way to get to know a professor. If you have a professor in mind who has done research in a field you find fascinating, or could serve as a faculty advisor for a club you want to start, or you just want to form a genuine bond with them, office hours are the perfect window through which you can make the connection.