Dr. Kane, can you write a recommendation letter for me?
Recent Biology Department PhD graduates Gulce Kurtay, Preeti John, and River Dixon
Dr. Kane writes lots of letters for students, it's one of the best parts of the job! It's also 100% part of the job, so don't be afraid to ask for them (it's probably expected). Here are some tips on getting strong letters:
STEP 1: Before letters are needed
Cultivate strong relationships. Familiarize yourself with the kinds of things your letter writers will write about in a letter. Here is a helpful guide for letter writers for medical school applications, but the qualities they are looking for are important for other career choices as well. How can you build relationships with professors and other professionals to enable them to write strong letters for you? If you're not sure, ask! A good way for us to provide a strong letter is by working with you more in depth than what usually occurs in classes. If you do get an opportunity like this, such as working in a research lab, be aware of how you can show them who you are and what you are capable of. For example, it's one thing if they can say that you showed up on time and did all the things on the list and learned a new technique as a result, but it's another if they can discuss an example of how your involvement in one particular case resulted in outcomes that would not have been possible otherwise. In other words, we want to be able to talk about you and what you got out of the experience, as well as how it was beneficial to us (and potentially a future employer).
Know what you're applying for and what they require. Have some target schools or jobs lined up. Know their deadlines and know what materials they are asking for. If you're not sure, there is usually a contact listed on the ad and you should reach out and ask them. Some places require you to supply materials or addresses to letter writers, others ask you to submit information into an online form that will email your letter writers automatically, some positions only request contact information and not full letters, other places want a phone number and will call instead of asking for a letter. However, you can bet that in almost all cases, the entity you are applying to wants the information straight from your reference to ensure confidentiality. If they ask for a letter to be delivered by the person requesting it, it should be contained in a signed and sealed envelope. It is a red flag if a student requests the letter to be sent to them (the student) without ensuring confidentiality, and may make a letter writer uncomfortable enough to say no. Additionally, if the potential employer knows the student handled the letter before it was submitted, they may be hesitant to accept it.
STEP 2: Starting applications
Start your application early. You should do this before contacting letter writers so you can provide your application materials for their reference. Since you should also give letter writers at least 2 weeks before the deadline (it doesn't take this long to write a letter, but it can take this long to find time to write the letter), this means you may want to start your applications at least a month before the deadline so you can make progress before asking for letters. This will also provide time to ask your mentors (potentially your letter writer) for feedback on your materials. They've probably written, seen, or relied on these types of materials before and can tell you what they look for and point you to common mistakes, if present. You should also ask one or more people to proofread your materials to ensure there are no spelling and grammar mistakes or other errors that can make an application appear sloppy.
Consider waiving your right to see the letter. As tempting as it is to NOT check this box, letter writers may be wary and write a vague letter. Or the people reading your letters may think you have something to hide. While this shouldn't be the case, it often is. If you do think it's important that you see the letter, you can always ask. A good mentor should be honest with you about your strengths and weaknesses and should not be afraid to share the letter or their thoughts in the letter. But know that some people are uncomfortable with this, in general, and may say no. Respect that decision. For more information, see this Twitter thread by Dr. Terry McGlynn.
STEP 3: Asking for a letter
Give your letter writer ample information. You've done the things above, but how do you ask for a letter? What should you include? Your letter writers may have worked with a lot of students and need their memory to be refreshed. You also want to give them information about the thing you need the letter for. Here are some tips of what to include:
Your identifying information. What is your full name (have there been changes) and ID number ? What pronouns should I should use? Any other information I should know about how to identify you?
A permanent email address / contact information. Once you graduate you may lose access to your email account.
A summary of our interactions and relevant information. Were you in one of my classes, which one and which semesters? Did you work in the research lab, what project(s) did you work on? Did we interact in some other way (workshop, fieldwork, etc.)? Were there particular skills or concepts that you learned that you think are applicable to the job you are applying for? Is there anything you wish to remind me about our interactions outside of class that would be relevant for me to discuss for your application?
A summary of your goals. What do you hope to do long term for your career?
A summary of the position you are applying for. What is the job/program/scholarship? Provide a website with relevant information.
Things you want me to discuss. What makes me particularly well qualified to write a letter for you? What things can I discuss, or do you want me to discuss, that other letter writers can't? Are there any challenges that you have overcome that I could speak to? Would you like me to NOT mention something (I may not be able to guarantee this)?
Provide a deadline. When is the letter due?
Tell me how it will be submitted. Provide any relevant details such as contact info or a link. If I should be on the lookout for an email from an automated system, please let me know.
Supporting documents. Send me your CV and any other information that may be helpful for composing a letter (personal statement, other application materials, etc.).
STEP 4: After the ask
Follow up. I will acknowledge that I have received it and let you know whether I can or can't complete it by the deadline. If you have emailed me and haven't heard back, please check in with me! Your request may have gone to spam, or may have been at the same time as advising and got buried in emails. Continue to follow up as the deadline approaches. Once my letter is submitted, you should either receive an automated email or I will email to confirm submission.
Update your letter writers. Did you get the position or job? Let me know! I want to celebrate with you! I may be trying to keep tabs on where students go when they graduate so I can give suggestions to current students. I may also want to brag about you a little on social media or our website. After all, your success is a win for us as well, as your mentors!