Carpe Diem: Asking for Letters of Recommendation

It is that time of the year when NIH summer interns are returning to their home institutions and the application season for graduate and professional school and academic/post doc positions are right around the corner. It is also time to request letters of recommendation (LOR) to document your NIH training experiences.   The PIs or program directors are the perfect candidates to offer their written appraisal of your work and development that they have observed and recommend you for further opportunities.

Who do I ask?  Ask someone who knows you very well!   Many fellows are lured by the appeal of having a well-known scientist write a recommendation. While this can be advantageous, it is equally important to ask someone who is exceptionally familiar with your work and who can clearly speak to your strengths for the opportunity.  Usually, you will usually need at least three LORs to support your application. Be sure to check if there are specifications about the types of letters you will need for each opportunity that you consider.  Here a few examples of potential reference writers that scientists often use:

  • Principal Investigators (PI)s and Supervisors
  • Summer research experience mentors and program directors regarding your research skills
  • Preceptors (those who you have shadowed) and who can speak to your direct patient contact (health professions)
  • Dissertation/thesis/academic advisers at your home school
  • Observers of your teaching abilities
  • Industry or non-bench managers
  • References who have observed leadership and teamwork abilities
  • Faculty member who taught a hard science course

Will I be bothering them? They are busy.  They expect you to ! Most recommenders have a process and set time aside to write letters because this is how they launch the next generation of leaders.  Request your letter now. In a few months or years, they may forget exactly what you did but won’t forget you personally.   They can always update the letter later.

How to ask?  Ask personally!  Reach out by requesting a meeting by telephone or email.  Use a professional tone and address them using their title.  It is to your advantage to ask for an in-person meeting so that you can explain your long-term career plans and next-steps (post doc, graduate school, employment etc.). You can also have a thoughtful conversation about your competitive edge during the application process. This is also your opportunity to candidly ask for a positive recommendation. This will ensure that they don’t have any reservations about your candidacy. While an awkward conversation to have, it is in your best interest to ensure that you are getting the best endorsement possible. If it is not in your favor, thank them and ask another writer.

When do I ask? Ask now…Ask early! Even though you may not use the letter right away, it can be helpful to ask while your work is still fresh in their minds. You can store letters in a recommendation file service for later use through your college and university.  You can also set up an account with a reputable on-line file service where you can store a variety of references for later use.

What should I send to my reference writer?  Help them write your letter! Provide your letter writer with everything they need to complete the letter.  This can include your updated CV/resume, where, how, and to whom to send the letter, deadline date, and any specific information to include (i.e.: comments about your clinical work, research, etc.).  Some organizations will send an email or regular mail directly to your reference with specific details for completion.  This is typical with centralized application systems for graduate and professional school and fellowships. For industry jobs and some fellowships, you will only need to send contact information for references including how you know the person. Be sure to inform your reference about this because they will not have to write a letter but still prepare for a verbal reference.

Help! Why was I asked to write the letter?   Awkward!  A common reply to many reference requests, this request saves the writer time.   Look at this as your opportunity for you to refresh the writer’s memory about your accomplishments.  You will also have an idea of what he or she will write in your letter. Try creating several bullet points highlighting the areas you wish to have highlighted.  The recommender will then transpose these comments into a letter.

How should I thank my reference writer?  Send a thank you note.  In your letter, be sure to acknowledge your appreciation to your reference in writing via email or regular mail.  Also inform them if you were successful or if you need to request additional letters.

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One Response to Carpe Diem: Asking for Letters of Recommendation

  1. Ben Porter says:

    Great advice! I shared this article with our graduate students.

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