Dealing with Difficult Professor Personalities


Let’s face it how it is… There are some wonderful professors out there that truly want to share some of their (very valuable) knowledge with us students; the ones who love their jobs and consider teaching/lecturing as a noble profession and are therefore devoted to impart knowledge to students in an understandable, precise – often even interesting – way. Every one of us knows of these great professors whose top priority are students; the ones that never hesitate to implement some of their existing real-life experiences into lectures, in order to illustrate the contents from a practitioner perspective in a non-theoretical way, which often can be tremendously helpful to understand complex facts of the case.

Nevertheless, the professors that really want to help their students and inspire them to discover the academic depts seem to be a small minority on most colleges and universities, unfortunately.

The opposite of these wonderful professors are those that make you question their skills as a professor – not on a specialist level – but on a social level (social skills) and in terms of being able to impart knowledge. I’m talking about the professors that make studying a living hell, those that are difficult to deal with and the ones that vent their own problems on the students. So, how to behave when you are confronted with difficult professor personalities and how to deal with them, besides the very common approaches focused students apply from the first day on.

Dealing with Unpleasant Professor Personalities

The following shows you some unpleasant professor personalities that you will most likely encounter during your studies and individual advice on how to deal with each of these personalities. Please have in mind that these are just generalizations – some professors might show characteristics of several personality types or vary completely from the ones that are named in the following. Nevertheless, it is important to mark, that not every professor that teaches, for instance math, will show the same characteristics as named below, he might have completely different characteristics than the “general stereotype”.

The Theoretician

The theoretician is not a very uncommon phenomenon on colleges and universities and this type of character can be found especially in natural sciences (e.g. physics) and formal sciences (e.g. math and statistics). This professor personality can be distinguished by the fact that he has spend most of his life studying, researching, publishing results in peer-reviewed journals and/or experimenting – besides teaching and grading. But – and this is the point where they often differ from others – they’ve never been working in private enterprises or any other industries, besides their universities and sciences. The theoretician knows how the world works – in theory, but that is often not the real-life everyone else is living in. I’ve noticed – especially for this type of professors – an enormous lack of empathy for their students and a lack of social skills in general – not because they are evil, but because they simply don’t understand it.


How to deal with a difficult professor?

How to deal with? Do not expect a merciful change of mind when you talk with your professor about the problems that you and/or your fellow students experience; do not even expect that your professor might understand your problems. His lack of empathy decreases his comprehension that not every student understands the “easy and logic things” he is talking about – especially not when these are difficult theories he had been studying and analyzing for years. I’ve seen – in really worse cases – this type of professor making nasty remarks rather than addressing the issue of a student, simply because he didn’t record from his own point of view that there are obscurities or difficulties in what he was lecturing. The theoretician is most likely expecting a lot from his students – often way too much, so you’d better be prepared darn good for the exams. Nevertheless, his intentions are not necessarily bad; he has just a high standard. When approaching this professor personality make sure you have a specific and very well thought out argument that substantiates your claims in a scientific aspect.

The Youngster

The youngster is not necessarily a difficult professor personality in general, but you are likely to encounter young professors during your studies, which is why this type is also included in this list. The youngster can be easily identified, simply because of his young age that might often be close to the age of his students.

How to deal with? Not so long ago, the youngster was a student himself, so his level of empathy for the affairs of the students is – in general – high. Approaching this type of professor can be very effective and will pay-out very well, especially as the younger professors are inexperienced and endorse any feedback they can get from their students. Especially when this type of professor demands way too much you should clearly communicate this to your prof, as they might often not even realize this. Nevertheless, despite their young age these professors want to be seen as professionals and be treated with the respect older professors are treated with as well, so make sure to talk in a respectful and friendly way, without losing formality. Don’t consider young professors as fellow students – they’re definitely not. Be professional and treat them like any older professor with due respect.

The Servant

The servant can be described as the precise opposite of “the youngster” – very experienced but unambitious, lazy and bored. This type of professor is past his best times (in case he had them) and has started to exploit the tenure – he literally serves his time until retirement, even if that takes several years. Suspicious signs are highly outdated course materials and the professor’s unwillingness to connect with his students, regularly update his course materials and to adapt his teaching style from time to time.

How to deal with? The servant shies away from any kinds of extra-work, has a stubborn point of view and is highly inflexible, so do not try to question his ideology or the teaching methods he applies, as he won’t change these anyways. Nevertheless, he often has a very high rank in your university and has gained decades of expertise in his area – after all, he was being tenured for a very good reason – which is why you don’t want to mess with this type of professor by any means. Try to accept the fact that he solely relies on his decade-old teaching styles, professional publications and lesson plans, as these have worked for him over all the years (at least he thinks that). Luckily, the intentions of the servant are in many cases not bad at all, so when you approach this type of professor personality, make sure you don’t make it look like any extra work for him. Nevertheless, have in mind that this type of professor has gained a lot of knowledge over the years – especially about students – so you’d better think twice, to address this professor with minor problems, as he might have heared them for decades.

The Brainiac

The brainiac is highly comparable to the theoretician, besides being much smarter and having actual social skills. You’d definitely recognize the brainiac when listening to one of his lectures – as you might not understand a single word he is talking about. Something that the brainiac and the theoretician have in common is their misbelief on how much the students really understand of their lectures, and what remains unclear for them. The brainiac often assumes that by giving you a specific formula/definition/theory his students will grasp the whole content of the material, which is often not the case.

How to deal with? The brainiac is a type of professor that most likely will go too much into detail and often provides you explanations or definitions about topics that are not even necessary for you to know. Search for someone on your faculty that can tell you what you really need to know in order to pass. Other students from higher semesters might have had the very same problems as you have, so they are often able to provide you an understandable “translation” or summary of the lectures. Keep an eye open for tutorials on the subject either by TA’s or in supplementary texts in your library.

The Hater

The hater does what the name implies – he hates teaching and disgusts his position as a professor. The reasons for this can be complex, but can in many cases be attributed to their negative mindsets (“I hate the whole world”) or the fact that these professors would rather spend their valuable time doing something else, for example researching. Unfortunately, the students are often the ones who suffer the most from such a negative-minded professor, as their negative mindsets are often reflected by their inadequate teaching methods and/or harsh behavior.

How to deal with? When approaching this very difficult professor personality be prepared to receive a harsh answer, evasiveness or no reply at all. Don’t expect him to empathize with you and your fellow students, as students (and lecturing in general) might be the source for his bad mood. In case you have really severe problems that the professor does not respond to, you’d consider addressing the dean. But choose this step wisely (!) and try to handle the situation really careful – you shouldn’t address the dean for minor problems that could be easily dealt with, e.g. addressing the dean “just” because of the negative behavior of your prof or when you have a problem in an insignificant class. Nevertheless, if your professor shows a truly abusive behavior you’d support your claims by getting fellow students involved in meetings with the dean or the department head. One person that demands an investigation might be overheard, but if a high percentage of your fellow students demand an investigation into abusive behavior the college President cannot ignore you.

I hope I’ve covered the most common professor and teacher personalities in this article, at least these were the ones I’ve encountered during my time in school and college. Nevertheless, you might have to deal with completely different personalities that show other characteristic and demand a completely different approach. Knowledge of the human nature, negotiation skills and only reasonable requests will help you to find a solution for your problem.

These were five typical professor personalities and how to deal with each of them accordingly. In the following you will find some more tips on how to deal with a difficult professor in general.

Dealing with difficult professors

#1 Never tease a wolf

Just try to remember a situation when you were being criticized for your work or one of your projects in a very harsh and direct way. Just think about something you were really dedicated to and had invested plenty of time. How did it feel to be criticized by someone who spoke – what he considered to be – the truth about what you had created? I guess it didn’t feel too good being criticized like this, especially when you considered it as an unjustified criticism.

Something very similar happens when you (as a student) start criticizing and blaming your professor for – what he considers to be – your problems, even if he is the root cause of your problem. Doing so will just insult the honor of your professor and might even cause them to appease the criticism as unjustified and ignore it completely. Never forget that most professors consider themselves – with all their outstanding credentials and expert knowledge – to be on top of the social ladder in your lecture hall, above their students, assistants, postdoctoral associates and fellows.

If you really want to affect something and find a possible solution for your problem you’d swallow your anger about his inadequate teaching style and focus on how to get what you really want – your problem solved. That is what I consider to be the best way to address such a conversation, especially when you’ve ever experienced how stubborn a teacher/prof can become regarding your affairs after having slightly insulted his ego.

#2 Avoid arguing

This point is very similar to #1, especially in terms of the social ladder and where the professor considers his position on it. When a professor has forged an opinion he will most likely stick to it and the attempts to argue with your professor about his decision might turn out to be affectless and eventually downgrade his opinion about you, depending on how persistent you are.

#3 Consult teaching assistants

When I started studying I found myself in a lecture of a terrible professor whose lacking teaching skills were only surpassed by his ignorant opinion about students. Besides his non-existent teaching skills I had little to no prior knowledge about the subject he was lecturing about, so I had to find a way to gather more knowledge about the subject. Fortunately, a friend of mine was in a higher semester and provided me with material about the basic knowledge that was necessary to grasp the full content of the lecture and important summaries of what the professor (tried to) teach.

Many colleges and universities also have graduate teaching assistants (GTA’s) or teaching assistants (TA’s) that you can consult when you need further help or clarification on the lecturing material. It depends on the college you attend and the TA, but many of them offer discussion sections or synopses that comprise and outline the most important aspects of the whole subject of one semester, so consulting the TA’s could be tremendously helpful, as they often cover the material in an understandable way. In some cases the TA’s also offer separate courses that recap the most important points of the lecture and provide exercises that help the further understanding of the material.

#4 Office hours

The worst thing you can do is to approach a professor right before or after his lecture, especially when you have a demanding problem. You’d always make use of the office hours of your professor or schedule an appointment with them, when you have a bigger problem. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t be afraid of scheduling such an appointment, as most professors will take time for you and your concerns and are more likely helpful when you contact them one-on-one, rather than in a stressed situation (before lecturing, etc.).

My thanks go out to those teachers and professors, for whom the student as a human being is top priority, who impart knowledge actively and with great commitment.

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    • That’s your interpretation.

      This article is written gender-neutral – to the best of my ability – so that it applies to all professors no matter if they are male or female. But, every once in a while I cannot refer to “professor” (which is gender-neutral, and mostly used throughout the article) or lecturer (again, gender-neutral!) anymore so I will have to choose either “he”, “she”, “it” or even write “he/she” and for the sake of simplicity I’ve chosen “he”, instead of all the flip-flopping.

  1. That was helpful to say the least, thanks. Professors can be really really difficult at times. Somehow I think it is a profession that attracts people that are already pretty nasty.

  2. who says he has to make the article gender neutral, you big liberal pus sy? “he” is a good default for describing traditionally large male groups so deal with it and fu c k off

  3. What do you do if a professor is abusing his position and inflicting classroom policies that interfere with students’ ability to learn? I’ve heard (from other professors) that I should talk to the department chair, but he *is* the department chair. Help!

    • Hi, it seems to me that there are many people who abuse their position. As you are confronted with a very special situation, that the person in question is also the department chair you will have to be very cautious.

      Sometimes the easiest thing is to simply play by their rules. That is of course only possible if what they are doing is not very abusive.

      I already mentioned to be very cautious in your actions, because it could happen that whatever you do could backfire upon you and your class. Meaning that reporting this professor to a higher authority for instance the president of the University might not change his behavior. In some instances nothing much will happen from this. Instead, the students will experience the revenge of this rogue professor.

      Ask yourself the question is what the professor does so abusive to such an extent that a higher authority has to take his position of power? Because if it is not then it will be problematic reporting this professor.

      On the other hand, you could also keep your eyes open on other things related to this professor that get him into trouble. For instance plagiarizing in his papers etc.

  4. I had an argument with a uni professor over an unfair mark. I was completely sure about the quality of my work. I asked for an external examiner to be involved. The professor tried to avoid it. He told me that we will “discuss” this matter soon. I addressed the issue to the course leader. I got no answer. Both of them tried to cover up the issue. No external examiner was involved. The next term, th eprofessor accused me of plagiarism. I got a 0 mark. I felt totally dissapointed. For months, I was suffering from panic attacks. Now, I am trying to leave this karsh experience to the past, but still I can’t. I want to pursue my studies, but having a 0 mark in my transcript will be totally difficult. I feel that my career and whole life is ruined.

    • It’s a shame. Unfortunately, some people abuse their power. You have two options. The first option is to continue fighting. You see where the argument over an unfair mark has let you. The second option is to fight back the smart way. This can only be done by being absolutely perfect and making no mistakes. It means that you fight back by being incredibly prepared for the exams etc. Especially when you’re confronted with professors who are on an ego or power trip, it might be better to avoid fights. You always have to keep in mind that they are in a much stronger position than you are. And as you can see, they might even go so far as to cover each other.

      So stop telling yourself that your careers destroyed etc. Tackle your issues and fight back the smart way.

      Choose your battles wisely and when you go to war make sure that you win the battle. This means that you need to have all the proof. Also, you may want to read The Art of War for these kind of situations.

  5. I’m pretty sure I know a professor who is a cross between the Theoretician, Servant, and Hater. He has very little real world experience and is antisocial. Indeed, he expresses a distinct disdain for anyone who isn’t going into academia. His teaching methods are outdated to say the least and he loves to remind people how close he is to retiring. He is one of the heads of the department so he can get away with almost anything including not showing up to class for week and openly discussing how much he hates his students. Not only that, but he brags about immunity to scrutiny. I’ve talked to people who have known him for decades and, believe it or not, they say he wasn’t always like this.

    • It’s really sad to hear this. Another example of how too much power can terribly corrupt and individual. I hope you’ll pass his exams quickly so that you’ll never see this individual again.

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