Letters of recommendation – help me out!!!

You think we’ve worked well together, but when it comes time to ask for that letter of recommendation, you worry. Couldn’t I have done more? What does she really think of me? What about that time I skipped class, or dealt with contaminated plates for weeks? I know I could have written more papers, but it is time to move on. Whether you are an undergraduate headed to medical school or graduate school, whether you are a Ph.D. student I’ve known for years, chances are, I will write that letter. So will your other professors and teachers. So make it easy for us.

What makes it easy for me is when you give me the material I need at the same time you ask me for the letter. That way, I can do it right away if you hit me at a good time. I love to get things done without ever putting them on my to-do list. But you may catch me at a busy moment, so I will need more time than a day. I bet you get told to give us at least a month. I don’t usually need that long, but here is something that is important to keep in mind. The time starts from when you get us all the information, not from when you asked us if we can write that letter. You see, the time is to give us flexibility as to when we do the letter. We don’t have that if we don’t yet have the material we need.

This presents a problem because you are probably working up to the deadline, and can’t really give us your proposal, or the material you are using for the job until the last minute anyway. This is why some competitions have different deadlines for applicants and reference writers. There is another solution, one that Katelyn Gray, a wonderful former Rice Undergrad used with me recently. Her NSF proposal is not ready yet, but when she asked me for a letter, she told me what she was up to, and gave me a few sentences on the proposal, in particular how it had changed recently. She also told me her cool idea for her broader impacts. So now I had the choice. I could wait for the full proposal, but I could also go ahead with these tidbits, since my letter will necessarily focus on my personal experience of her excellence.

Thus far in 2012 I have written letters for 44 different people. So help me out. Give me your material as soon as you can, in summary form if you are pushing a deadline. Give me your CV or resume. Remind me of how we have interacted with a couple of paragraphs. If you only know me from a class, attach or give me a link or somehow review the projects you did for my class. You see, letters are not about adjectives. They are about stories of what you did, what you discovered, and what I thought about it.

By the way, when I write the letter, I usually send you an email telling you I did it. So if you don’t get a reply from me, it is fine if you remind me. Sometimes the requests for letters are sufficiently cryptic that they go straight to trash!

I hope you are all admitted, funded, hired, and otherwise fulfilled. Just give me a little help with that letter of recommendation!

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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