Asking university faculty for letters of reference can be an intimidating task. Yet, anyone applying to graduate school or seeking employment will need letters of reference. But, how does one approach faculty for this important role? And, how does one know which faculty are likely to be most helpful?
In answering this question, I will not address the question of how to participate in class and make a nice impression on faculty or how to get to know faculty. These are important questions and I encourage you to review the columns on those important topics.
If you are asking this question in advance, congratulations. You are off to a good start.
Many students wait until they have completed their final exams prior to seeking a reference. After they turn in their final papers, they heave a sigh of relief and set about seeking out faculty prior to heading home for a relaxing holiday break. Contrary to popular belief, however, faculty, too, celebrate the holidays. And, remember the (even you can’t believe that you are applying to so many) 20 schools to which you are applying – each wanting you to complete unique forms! Add to that the fact that you are not alone – many of your classmates are following suit.
In an effort to avoid devoting my winter vacation to this sort of undertaking, I have an official policy, which I attempt to articulate at the beginning of every term. I ask that students request references by Thanksgiving. Of course, when last minute things come up, I try to be helpful. But, like many faculty, I do not have any secretarial support for this sort of undertaking, so I appreciate advance notice.
It is important to me to be an effective advocate for my students. I encourage them to take advantage of opportunities for pre-professional development. To support them in their efforts, I try to write thoughtful letters of recommendation. Often, I end-up devoting several hours to constructing a careful, hopefully helpful, reference. In asking faculty for references, I would encourage you to allow your faculty about six weeks notice, or more, whenever possible.
Remember, in asking for a reference, particularly where you don’t know the faculty person well, this is an opportunity to remake your first impression. You want to show, by how you handle this situation, that you are a highly responsible, mature, professional person. Every year in my summer course, Research internship in Clinical Psychology, I am asked for advice regarding this issue. Also, because I am frequently sought out to provide references, it is my customary practice in agreeing to write references, particularly those with whom I have had little contact, to ask for a packet of materials. When requesting a reference, consider providing most of these things to any faculty person who you approach. They are:
I must say that I get a bad taste in my mouth when students leave these tasks to me. Often I don’t discover it until they are already gone for break….going the extra mile will leave the faculty person with a good feeling, precisely the sort of feeling that you want them to have when they sit down to write about you!
On a somewhat related note, students sometimes attempt to give me gifts when asking for a reference. It is my practice to refuse ALL and any gifts from students. I feel that accepting any gifts could be compromising. Although others may disagree with me on this, I would recommend that you do not give gifts to faculty (I confess, though I know that the intention is to convey gratitude, I feel a bit bribed.) However, what I do appreciate, particularly if the student has worked for me (say, as a Teaching Assistant) is a job well done or a student who goes above and beyond the call of duty on a task.
Now for the issue of who to ask. There are three important considerations here. First, you should pick someone who knows you well. Second, choose someone with stature in the field. Third, select someone who will write a very nice letter for you. Note that you should ask faculty, not employers from an unrelated job (such as waitressing) or family friends.
This means that you should begin to get to know faculty during your freshman year. Start early, because this can be challenging especially in a large university.
In an ideal world, you would like references from faculty who are well known in the field which you would like to enter. However, there are trade-offs. These faculty may be so busy with graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, that they do not have time for you. In contrast, a new faculty person may be very willing to get to know you and to enfranchise you as a full-fledged member of their research team. If you have to make this choice, I feel that it is better for you to work with a junior person closely than with a senior person at a great distance.
This entails two considerations. First, is the faculty person sophisticated about reference writing? Second, will they give YOU personally a good reference? Regarding the first, not all faculty know how to write a good reference, particularly if they are required to do so outside of the confines of their field. For example, not every biology professor knows how to write a good reference for a medical school. So, if you have a number of potential faculty who you could ask, then you may want to assess this dimension. The best way to do this is to talk it over confidentially with faculty who know you and who are committed to your future success. For example, in this case, you might seek out guidance from the pre-med advisor or from your faculty advisor. Alternatively, you might, in your letter requesting the reference, describe the kinds of things for which medical schools are looking.
Now, for the more delicate issue of will they write YOU a good letter. Faculty vary in their practices. My view is, “if I don’t have anything nice to say, I won’t say anything at all”. That is, if I feel that I do not know a student well or if I would prefer not to write for them, I tell them so. However, some faculty do not have this policy. Although you run the risk of offending some faculty, I advise you to ask faculty, “do you feel you can write me a good letter of reference”. Many students are quite apprehensive about seeking references from faculty. Take heart, however, many faculty view this as a part of their job. Assuming that you’ve worked hard in class, been a good community citizen and given plenty of notice many faculty will be pleased to collaborate in your success!
Lynn Friedman, Ph.D. (c) 2015
This material is copyrighted. However, Psychology Departments, Psi Chi Chapters, Psychology Clubs and University and College Career Centers may republish this column, free-of-charge, as long the column is reprinted in its entirety and without alteration. Also, along with this column, copyright information and the following byline must be attached: Dr. Lynn Friedman is a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst and executive coach in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She is on the associate faculty at Johns Hopkins University. Web site: www.drlynnfriedman.com. She can be reached at: (301) 656-9650.