Tips: Asking for Letters of Recommendation in Science

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Asking for letters of rec is much easier said than done.  Whether you’re submitting a grant or applying for a new job, asking for letters of rec is something we have to do all the time in science. Even so,  the process seems to cause an unnecessarily large amount of stress amongst students as they prepare to ask for letters.  So here are a few pointers that might make the process a little less painful. 

Ask early

The #1 most important rule about requesting letters is to give the writers sufficient time to complete it.  Never save this till the last minute.  This is important for two main reasons.  First, PIs are busy people, with a lot on their plate.  They don’t want to feel rushed, so giving them time to work on the letter is a must.  Second, oftentimes letter writers need a couple reminders about the due dates.  If you give the writer enough time, you can space out your reminder emails a little more, and you won’t seem as annoying, when you pester them to get the letter done.  

Provide some context for why you selected them as a writer

Remind them of why it makes sense that they would write a letter for you.  For example, mention the project you collaborated on, highlighting the specific technique they assisted with  or how you loved their class they taught.  It adds a personal touch, it reminds them of your connection (which helps with the writing) and helps to justify writing a LOR.   

Provide some information about yourself

You don’t always have a close relationship with your letter writers.  For example, you may need to ask the chair of your department for a letter, despite having spoken to them only a handful of times.  In these cases, its helpful to provide a brief blurb (can be a few bullet points) about yourself so that the writer gets a better sense of who you are as a person and a scientist.  Some things you might consider including are a project description, career goals, recent publications, awards, conference talks, and a little bit about yourself.  

Pester in moderation

PIs forget about letter deadlines, they’re human beings.  Don’t be afraid to send them several reminders.  That being said, some wait to write the letter until closer to the deadline.  They have written tons of letters and know what they are doing.  But a helpful reminder as the deadline approaches is normal and they are completely used to it.

Send a thank you and an update.

Too few people do this.  Usually the writer submits a letter and doesn’t hear from you again.  This is bad form.  Write up a little thank you email either after you submit the application or when a decision is made about the application.  If your application is successful, its also nice to let them know about it and that their letter made a difference.  

Hopefully these tips will take some stress out of requesting letters, and make your letter writers much happier.  Good luck!

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