Wednesday, January 10, 2018

So you want me to write you a grad school reference letter, eh?

So you've made the big decision to apply to grad school, you know which programs you're interested in, and now you'd like to ask me for a reference letter... Great! This post is for you. Here are some things to consider:

1) First, congrats! Once you've made that decision to go to grad school it can take a load off the uncertainty of your immediate future. If you're still humming and hawing about whether it's the right decision, then my advice would be to hold off on asking for a reference letter for now. Here's an article from Maclean's that may help in the decision-making process:

2) Don't feel bad about asking for reference letters. We live in a culture where for some reason asking others for favours or even for help is frowned upon, and where we feel like inconveniencing someone else is a mortal sin. But keep in mind the following: a) Part of a faculty member's job includes writing reference letters for students. It comes with the territory of being a professor, and we know those times of the year when all the grad reference letter requests are likely to come into our inboxes; b) No faculty member would be where they are without also having asked for many reference letters. In other words, we've been there, and we know (or we should know) that other professors have taken time to help us, and now it's time to pay it forward; and c) letters of recommendation are a core component of the personal academic review process. It doesn't end at grad school applications. You need reference letters for funding, job and promotion applications - so you may as well get used to asking!

3) Third, (and yes this somewhat contradicts point two above...) keep in mind that it does take some time and effort for faculty members to write (good) reference letters for students. Even if we have already written a letter for you previously, it takes time to update all the requisite information, fill out the reference form requests, and stay on top of other people's deadlines. I mention this point NOT to make you feel bad for asking for a letter (see point two above - don't feel bad), but rather to make sure that you are taking all the steps to make sure this will be as easy a process as possible for your referee (the last thing you need is referees feeling like they are doing more work). One way to make this easy for me is to give me as much notice as possible (see point five below).

4) Ask yourself whether I am the right (read "best") person to serve as a referee for your grad school application. This can always be a bit tricky because there are a number of factors to consider, such as the rank of the referee, the extent to which they know you personally, their ability to attest to your academic skills and ability (which is different than the preceding point), among other factors. Here's a good post by Dave Mumby (of Concordia University) about this very question. I'm not offended if you think I'm not the best reference for your given scenario, or if I'm only appropriate for one of your applications but not the others, etc. (I only need to know about the ones for which you want me to serve as a referee).

5) Please try to give me as much advanced warning as possible. In an ideal world we've talked face to face about the idea at some point (during which I've expressed a willingness to write a reference letter for you), and then you'll give me a good 3-6 months 'heads up' after deciding on which programs you've decided to apply to, and then again you contact me between 1-3 months before the application is due with the information and documents I mention below in point 6. Now... that's an ideal scenario, and I recognize that's not always possible. If, for some reason, you're contacting me for the first time within 4 weeks of the reference letter deadline, then I would hope that your request would contain all of the completed information below so this is as easy as possible for me...

6) Here's what I need from you (preferably all in or attached to one well-organized email):
  • A quick reminder of how we know each other (which course did you take with me and when; how'd you do in the course; remind me if we've talked about your grad school applications in the past, etc.);
  • A formatted table with all the information relating to the programs you are applying to, when the references are due, and details on how the letters need to be submitted (see template below);
  • Your CV as an attachment - the version you're going to use for grad school applications if they require it.
  • A draft of (at least one of) your Statement of Purpose (here's a hefty blog post with tips for writing an excellent grad statement). If you are applying to study basically the same thing at different schools, then one version of the statement should be sufficient. If you are applying to very different programs, then I'll need to see statements for both programs.
  • Optional: An indication of whether you plan to apply for graduate funding, and if so what funds and when? I hope to write another post about this some day. In the meantime, here are links about OGS and SSHRC at the Master's level.
  • Optional: You can also include a list of up to 5 bulleted 'talking points' if there are things that you would specifically want me to emphasize in my letter. These should all feature in your statement of purpose...
Sample Table

Host School & Department
Degree Conferred (Abb)
Application due date (and reference letter due date if different)
Submission instructions for reference letter
Any other notes or information I should know?
University of Ottawa; Institute of Environment
Master’s in Environmental Sustainability (MSc)
January 31st, 2018
You will receive an email from the University with a link.
See attached list of ‘talking points’

6) Finally, please use my academic email address and title (available here) when inputing my details into the referee form, and please don't list me as a referee unless I've expressly agreed to do it! IF I have agreed, then you can rest assured that I've noted the deadlines down in my calendar... that said, it doesn't hurt (and no offence will be taken) to send me a "friendly reminder" some 3-4 days before the deadline that the letter is imminently due!


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