Category Archives: Letters of Recommendation

How to Ask a Professor for a Letter of Recommendation

In previous posts I discussed point number one of graduate school recommendation letters:

NEVER ASK A TA TO WRITE ONE OF YOUR LETTERS!

To review the point of those posts:  Your letters should come from tenure-line faculty.  That means, someone whose title is either a) Assistant Professor, b) Associate Professor, or c) Professor.  Any additional words attached to those titles, such as “Adjunct,” “Visiting,” “Research,” etc. should almost always remove them from your list of letter writers.  The reason?  Graduate programs want to see the recommendations of experts who have completed the full arc of an academic career, from graduate school through permanent professional employment.  Those who have not generally have less experience on which to base their judgment of student potential.

Of course in a pinch, a Visiting, or Adjunct faculty can serve, and may well write you a wonderful letter.  Just be aware they are not in the very top tier of letter writer status, and try to limit such writers to one slot out of three.

In this post, I want to give you a script for asking for that letter of recommendation.

Preliminary Step one:  Do well in the professor’s class.  Visit her/his office hours.  Make sure she/he knows you as an individual.

Preliminary Step two:  Let the professor know in advance that you have graduate school plans and aspirations.  Make the professor part of your “team” of supporters.  Get her/him invested in your success.

Step one:  When the application stage comes schedule an appointment with the professor at least one month, and preferably two months, before the first deadline.

Step two:  Bring with you a copy of any work you did for the professor, as long as it is good.  A term paper that got an A grade is ideal.  Be prepared to remind the professor which class you were in, which term, and any distinguishing features of your performance in the class

Step three:  Explain in concise and well organized terms your concrete plans for graduate school applications, including the schools to which you want to apply, which programs and why, and your ideas for thesis/dissertation topics.  Do not ramble.  Do not digress.  Do not self-deprecate.

Step four:  Ask the professor if she/he would be willing to write a letter for you.

Step five:  If she/he expresses any reservation of any kind, politely thank her/him for her/his time, and leave.  Find another letter writer.  NEVER try to persuade someone to write for you.

Step six:  If she/he responds enthusiastically, lay out the general timeline, ask for advice on how to proceed and strengthen your application, and for any suggestions as to good programs and funding sources.

Step seven:  After leaving, follow up with an email.  The email should:

a)  thank the professor for their willingness to write for you

b) include a copy of your personal essay/statement of purpose

c) include an excel spreadsheet that clearly lists, for each of the 5 or more programs to which you are applying (and yes, you should apply to at least 5):

c1. The program

c2. The deadline

c3. The contact person

c4. The means of submitting the letter

Special Note:  You do NOT need to provide stamped envelopes for your letter writers!  It is a professor’s job to write these letters and the university pays all postage for letters of recommendation.

Step eight:  Repeat the above with two other faculty members, for a total of three letter writers.  If possible, make sure your letter writers come from relevant fields.  IE, if you are applying to do a Ph.D. in Japan anthropology, have at least one letter from an Anthropology faculty, and one from a Japan studies faculty.

However, it is also OK to change fields!  If you wish to go to graduate school in a new field that you did not study in your undergraduate days, that is FINE.  Then just ask your letter writers to focus on your general aptitude and potential for advanced work.

Step nine: enthusiastically accept comments and criticisms of your essay/statement of purpose from your letter writers if they have any.  Be willing to revise your essay.  Take your ego out of it and be grateful for constructive criticism.  You may submit a new essay all the way up to the application deadline.

Step ten:  Let your letter writers know the outcomes.  And thank them again.

Do all this and your letter writers will stay excited and invested in your success.   And their letters will reflect that.


What’s the Difference Between an Assistant, Associate and Full Professor? And Why Should You Care?

Do you know the difference between assistant, associate and full professors?    And most importantly, do you know why it matters to YOU when you are looking for people to write your letters of recommendation for graduate school?

An assistant professor is a faculty member who does not yet have tenure.  This probationary period lasts for 6 years in most cases.

An associate professor is a faculty member who has received tenure.

A full professor is a faculty member who has received tenure and who has produced a significant body of work post-tenure to qualify to be promoted to the highest faculty status.

All three of these kinds of professors are legitimate, full-time faculty members who can serve as your advisors and write your letters of recommendation.

While full professors have the most status to bring to their letters, an assistant or associate professor who knows your work intimately and enthusiastically supports you may well write a more effective letter.  The key is that the best letter will be specific, detailed, substantial in length, and warmly focused on you and your talents and potential.  A letter that is short, vague, and general, even if written by a high status professor, will ultimately carry less weight.

If you have a full professor writing you that lengthy, detailed, specific, and warm letter, then you’re golden!


Why You Must Never Ask Your TA for Letters of Recommendation (Part Two)

In an earlier post I explained the reasons that you must never ask your TA for letters of recommendation.  All of your letters must come from faculty, preferably full-time faculty in your major department or one closely affiliated.

Now I’ll discuss some tips for accomplishing this.

If you don’t know the professor well, then get to know her. Go to her office hours.  Discuss your graduate school aspirations with her.  Ask her for guidance.  Remind her gently who you are and what grade you are getting/got.  Bring in a paper that you wrote for her course.

And make sure, when choosing your courses for next term, that you enroll in courses that are taught by faculty members and not by TAs.  It is OK to call the department to ask.  You may also simply search the name of the instructor on your university website people/department directory to see if they turn up listed as faculty or as student.

As you get into upper division classes, make it a central goal to work with professors. If you have dreams of graduate school, you must gather around you at least two and preferably three faculty members, ie, actual professors employed by your institution, who will write you strong letters of recommendation.

And, what you are seeking are professor who are full-time faculty members of the school.  While “visiting”/”adjunct” professors will do in a pinch, they are not as good (for the same reasons listed above) as regular, permanent, full-time faculty from your college or university, and preferably from your major.

You want the professor to enthusiastically agree to write the letter.  Any hesitation or reluctance….move on to someone else.

And, do NOT expect to see the letter, or to in any way tell the professor what to write.  This is a trust exercise.  And, professors know the stakes.

In sum: do not be intimidated!  It is part of a professor’s job to meet with undergraduates AND to write them letters.  YOU ARE ENTITLED to ask faculty members to write recommendations. And as long as the professor is genuinely supportive of you, the professor has an obligation to fulfill this professional responsibility.

Good luck!


Why You Must Never Ask Your TA for Recommendation Letters for Graduate School (Part One)

In my work advising undergraduate students to prepare for and apply to graduate school, one of the most common problems I encounter is the student’s lack of appropriate people to write their letters of recommendation.  All too often the student will come in with a list of names, and all of those names will be the TAs who are teaching their classes. 

As you’re probably aware if  you’re reading this, a TA (or here at Oregon a GTF) is a graduate student who is getting their graduate school funded by working in the classroom, leading discussion sections, assisting the professor, and/or grading.  As such, TAs may be only a year or two out of their own undergraduate days.

It is true that you may know your TA better than you know the distant and perhaps slightly forbidding professor in charge of your course.

Nevertheless, you must never ask the TA to write your letter of recommendation.

This is true even if the TA has enthusiastically supported your graduate school aspirations and dreams, and has offered to write one for you.  This is true even if your TA is brilliant and working in the very field you hope to enter.

Submit an application that includes a recommendation letter from a TA, and you immediately downgrade your application’s chances of success.

TAs cannot write letters of recommendation for graduate school, because they are not actually professors.  This is NOT just because professors and graduate programs are elitist and status-obsessed.   Rather, it is because TAs have not finished their Ph.D.s, and they do not have the professional experience to be able to judge an undergraduate’s potential for success in graduate school and in the academic profession.

There are countless small and large hurdles to overcome on the path to a graduate degree.  The TA is familiar with some of them, such as the GRE, the application essay, coursework, working in the lab, and maybe even fieldwork and starting work on the dissertation.  As such, the TA may be a great informal advisor.

But the TA will not yet have experience in defending the dissertation, teaching hundreds of students, working closely with undergraduate and graduate students in an advising capacity, working as a colleague, and building a professional reputation.   Yet these are the ultimate skills of a successful academic career.

Professors, by virtue of the fact that they are professors, have experience in all of these areas.  And they are in a position to judge a student’s potential in all of these areas.

Therefore, in sum, you must never ask a TA to write a letter of recommendation for you for graduate school.  You must always go to the professor in charge of the course.

In Part II, I will discuss how to make sure you are enrolling in courses taught by faculty (and not TAs), and how to approach your professors for letters.


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