Students often forget that their department or major has secretaries and that these secretaries are paid to help them. Many fellow students I know dash right past the front desk in the Psychology building to hunt down a professor they have had when they have a general departmental question and forget the smiling men and women who are sitting there ready to give an answer. I’m not saying it’s bad to talk to a professor when you have a question that could just as easily be answered by a secretary, in fact building a personal relationship with a faculty member helps a lot and may be a topic I will write on later, but professors are busy. Unless he or she is your academic advisor, you should consider just going to talk to your department’s secretaries, and here’s why:
1. If you were going to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant known locally for its great Mexican food for the first time, you would do well to spot someone who looks like a regular and ask them what they think the best dish on the menu is. Secretaries are these regulars and when you first arrive at a new school as a freshman or a transfer, you’re the newbie who doesn’t know what to order. Secretaries exist to help you figure these things out and they have their finger on the pulse of your department. They know the class schedule like the back of their hand and they probably know the class schedule for the upcoming semester before you do (and possibly even before some of the professors do). If you have questions about the mechanics of finishing your major on time, certainly talk to your academic advisor but check with the secretaries too. There may be a class offered in the upcoming semester or over the summer that you don’t know about yet.
2. Secretaries are people persons—at least normally, exceptions do exist and that’s too bad—unlike some of your professors or, god forbid, your academic advisor. Remember, professors are paid first and foremost to teach classes and do research and some may have spent too long reading broken-spine editions of Kierkegaard, peering through microscopes, or roughing it in Papua New Guinea cataloguing new language groups to remember how to speak one-on-one with a student. They are experts in their given field but sometimes can also get lost in them. Secretaries are used to organizing things and presenting them to inquisitive first-years. They have their feet on the ground. Go to them first.
3. Professors can be notoriously hard to catch in their officers or when they have free time. Often times you need to first set up an appointment to meet with them anyways. Secretaries, on the other hand, are always around. Professors might only show up on campus to teach a night class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but secretaries are usually always around nine-to-five, Monday through Friday. In fact, I’ve noticed that secretaries are one of the only groups that maintain normal business hours. The surest and easiest way to get a question answered in person is to go talk to a secretary. No appointment necessary.
4. Secretaries have candy. I’m not joking with this one, but you may not see my point yet so keep reading. I’ve noticed that most secretaries have a bowl of mint candy or chocolate kisses on their desks and combine that with the smiles they usually wear and the general air of approachability they exude and I have to ask: why wouldn’t you want to go talk to a secretary if you have a question? Professors can be scary sometimes, especially if they’re one of those overly bookish types that I mentioned earlier or if you are flunking out of one of their classes. Maybe you just feel like you have a dumb question. Secretaries are nice people (again, usually) so go up to their desk, grab yourself a mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and ask away. No question is too dumb. Maybe you don’t get your question answered, but hey, free candy.
5. If you take advantage of talking to your department’s secretaries whenever you can, even just to say “hi” now and then, you could begin to feel like a regular (if we continue with the hole-in-the-wall restaurant metaphor). This is a bit easier at a smaller school or in a smaller major when they are going to have an easier time remembering your name, but the advantages might be greater if you go to a larger school or are in a larger major. All of a sudden you become a familiar face around your department’s office. Don’t become a loiterer, but be a regular. Professors and deans—who often will have their offices in the same vicinity as the secretaries—will bump into you more and you can remind them who you are and what classes you had with them as you pass by. With any luck you could end up exchanging greetings with them when you see each other. This semi-personal contact is good, and feeling like a natural part of your department is even better—especially at a big school. This keeps you from getting lost in the crowd, which is very helpful for getting on the top of waiting lists for classes, finding out about internships or research assistant positions as soon as possible, or getting letters of reference from professors who actually know you as more than just a name on a class roster.