Requesting letters of recommendation

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Emma Tosch

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Nov 11, 2020, 2:53:27 PM11/11/20
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As you collate the list of universities you'd like to apply to, and identify recruiting faculty, the next step in your application process will be to ask for strong letters of recommendation. In this message, we will cover:

1. Timing (or: why you should not wait another day to ask)
2. Whom you should ask
3. How to phrase your request (to faculty)
4. What to expect in response
5. Following up

1.Timing
You may be wondering if you should finish your statements first. While in an ideal world, you'd already have your application packet perfected when you ask, this is not how things work in the real world!

As of today, you have three weeks until the first round of deadlines (Dec. 1). Faculty typically ask for 2-3 weeks notice for letters, so the time to ask is now. In fact, you should all be sending out your letter requests today. I recommend setting aside an hour or so to just get it done: turn on a timer, come up with your list, craft your email, and when that timer goes off, hit send!

2. Whom you should ask
Not all letters are read equally. When faculty read PhD applications, we want to know: will this person be able to complete the program? Therefore, letters should address your ability to complete the research and coursework requirements of the program you are applying to. The content of the letter is weighed by the trust the readers have in the letter writer's knowledge of the PhD-earning process.  A letter from a famous researcher, with whom you've collaborated, who can speak to your research potential ranks very high on the desirability scale, while a former boss from a different field will carry little weight. However, there are a lot of scenarios in between. There are no hard-and-fast guidelines, which I realize can be quite nerve-wracking! Therefore, I will provide some scenarios below that influence how I think of letters.

The first thing I want you to do, right now, is to stop at the end of the end of the list that follows, and take about ten minutes to brainstorm a list of people you could ask for letters. These include:
  • Research internship/REU mentors (faculty or graduate student)
  • Professors who taught courses you took that are relevant to your desired research area
  • Professors who know you well, who taught courses unrelated to your desired research area
  • Lab instructors, lecturers, teaching assistants (TAs), graduate student mentors, and other non-tenure track folks who know academia
  • Faculty or researchers you may have met at conferences, talks, or on social media, with whom you have interacted regarding research (preferably before a month ago!)
  • People above you in the org chart at your job who know you AND work with people who have PhDs
  • People anywhere in your org chart at your job who know you AND have PhDs
  • People you know (who are not a conflict of interest) who have a PhD in your desired research area (or a close one)
  • People who can speak to your ability to engage in creative problem-solving, and your grit
  • People who have asked you to speak on panels, podcasts, etc.
Applications typically ask for three letters of recommendation, so triangulating is important, since the vast majority of applicants do not fall into the "ideal student who has worked with several famous researchers" category (note that even folks with PhDs who get faculty jobs may not have this!). You should not feel shy about asking people you have only known for a few months. This is a learning experience, and it involves taking risks. You will make mistakes, and some people may (intentionally or not) make you feel bad for asking. Do not feel shame; this is just one more data point in learning the norms of academia.

Finally, you have the list you have. There is no more time to build new relationships, so at this point, it's about doing the best with where you are. Just keep in mind that you are probably better off than you think!

3. How to phrase your request (to faculty)
Don't worry about what people think of you; manage what people think of you. This starts by asking your potential letter-writers for a strong letter of recommendation. It may feel uncomfortable, but this is what you need to do.

As faculty, we are frequently asked to write letters. At some point if you get a lot of these requests, you essentially develop a form letter. Many programs require letters that are really more references than recommendations. PhD application letters, however, truly are recommendations and are fairly high stakes for faculty writing them: our reputation has currency here, so if it is to have value, we must protect it. Generally we do not write bad letters. Instead, a "bad" PhD application letter is a non-informative one. It does not reflect poorly on students per se, but is functionally neutral.

When you do reach out to letter writers,  you will likely need to provide them with some information, including:

1. Who you are/how they know you
2. What you want from them (i.e., PhD program you are applying to, area, strong letter)
3. A brief summary of what the program is/the areas you think you are interested in.

Be gracious, not timid. The people you will be asking for letters are going to want to help you, but are likely very busy. Graciousness can go a long way, but we also appreciate assertiveness! Balancing the two can take practice, and any misunderstandings can be worked out with further communication. Have faith in yourselves!

4. What to expect in response
The truth is, you will probably have one --- and maybe have two --- neutral letters. Part of the reason why you need to start asking faculty now is to suss out whether those at the top of your list will be able to provide the letters you need. If a faculty member says they cannot provide you with a strong letter, they will probably still leave the door open to a neutral letter. I recommend: (1) thanking them for their time, and (2) telling them that you are investigating other possible letter writers, and will get back to them about whether you need theirs. They will not be upset with you if you rescind their request! Also note that, if they decline, it doesn't mean they don't like you! It just means that they feel they cannot do you justice.

Your letter writers may ask you for your application materials. You can say that you are still working on them, and will get them a draft soon. However, having a 1-2 sentence summary of your statement will be highly beneficial -- even just using the introductions you gave on Discord in the #chit-chat channel should be enough!

Some letter writers may ask you for a draft letter. This is a very culturally- and discipline-specific practice. Some people hate it, others love it. It's important to know that this is not because they are lazy, or don't really know you --- it is about understanding and contextualizing what you want from them, especially for faculty who may be from a different field, or may not have written these kinds of letters for a long time. Do your best, and focus on getting the summary information into the letter. The rest is up to them.

Some people may be rude, discouraging, or mean in response. While it is possible that there was something in your message that offended them, we are in a global pandemic, political violence is on the rise, and there are very real humanitarian crises undermining our collective sense of safety --- getting upset about an email request for a letter probably says more about their stress levels than it does about you. If you are up for it, you can reflect to see if there is anything to be learned for your next interaction, but don't dwell on this.

5. Following up
Note that, even with three weeks of notice, faculty may not submit your letters on time. This doesn't mean they are lazy or don't care --- it means that there are simply other things going on. The best way to address this is via prevention: check in with your letter writers weekly. Send them a nice note thanking them and reminding them of the deadline. Busy people will actually thank you for this!

You can also hedge against missing letters by asking an extra letter-writer to be your backup. Always be up front and honest with your letter writers about your intentions: it takes time to write good letters, and no one wants to find out they were second choice wen they thought they were your first!


Good luck everyone!
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