|Building Relationships With Professors: A Roadmap to Obtaining Strong Letters of Recommendation
|Amber M. Anthenien, Portland State University (OR)
If you are preparing to apply to graduate school, you may have noticed how important it is to make connections with faculty. This is a process best started at the beginning of your college career, but if you are preparing at the start your senior year, all is not lost. This article aims to provide students with a road map for establishing contact with faculty. It will provide an overview of the "nuts and bolts” behind formal correspondence and meeting preparation.
Most graduate applications require at least three letters of recommendation. It is important these are strong letters from professionals who can speak to your abilities as a student. These should include abilities such as research experience, public speaking, writing, critical thinking, community involvement, volunteer work, enthusiasm for psychology, and dedication to studies. Ideally, students should ask for letters at least six weeks prior to the deadline; however, around four months is ideal.
Do Your Research
The process of discovering professors can take months, but you want to form a relationship before you need to ask for letters, which is generally the end of summer or early fall, depending on your application deadlines. It is often useful to investigate the faculty websites, usually found in the psychology departments’ webpage of their respective institutions, in order to read about their recent work. Is there a specific person’s whose work catches your eye? It is often helpful to copy and paste their information into a Word document so you can easily store what you find for future reflection. Adjunct faculty can also be a great source for letters of recommendation or professional advice.
Once you have found faculty members you are interested in pursuing as mentors, search their literature to discover what their specialties are to provide topics for discussion during prospective meetings. On most professors’ websites, a link will be provided to a list of publications or their curriculum vitae, also known as an academic resume, which usually contains a list of recent works. Search for the most relevant and recent articles. Limit your search to their last five to ten publications, or those pertaining to your interests.
Use PsycINFO, Google Scholar, or any other professional search engine to obtain copies of their most recent articles. Take special note of articles in which they appear as first author. Pay attention to the theories they use, particular populations they focus upon, ways they approach a certain topic, or methodologies that distinguish their work. Highlight, take notes, or summarize sentences that will jog your memory of the article. Make a list of items that you find interesting or might be related to your future work. Is there anything you would like to research more? Think of questions as well as references to work you find interesting. Use the list below to outline an e-mail to your prospective mentor and for discussion topics during future meetings.
Make a List
Make a list of items you would like to discuss during the meeting. If you are forming a new relationship, it is not necessary to state that you are interested in obtaining a letter of recommendation. Focus on demonstrating your research or professional goals and sincere interest in their work. Your list should include:
- The purpose of your contact. What is your goal for the meeting? Are you trying to learn more about an area of study they are researching?
- The reason they are the best source of the information you are seeking. Are they working in a field which interests you for graduate school? Did they teach a class you attended and enjoyed?
- Specific questions or comments regarding their research or field of study. This is where the notes from your research are useful. Write down anything that interested you and why.
It is important to have your list completed before you make contact. While some professors may take weeks to respond, some will write you back in the same hour! You want to be prepared if they suggest setting up a meeting in the near future, and having this list will ensure you will be prepared.
One great way to establish contact, and some consider it the easiest, is to show up during the faculty member’s office hours. These can usually be found on their department’s webpage or posted in the main lobby of the department. However, this is not always possible and sometimes it is best to ask for a formal meeting via e-mail. Write a draft of your e-mail in a Word document in order to ensure there are no spelling errors, and use the spell check function. This will also provide you with a draft for future contact with faculty.
- Start with "Dear,” because "Hi” and "Hey” are too informal. This is a great standard for all professional e-mails and letters.
- Address professor by Dr. Last Name in an e-mail. Do not deviate unless they ask you to or give you permission to use another name.
- Identify yourself. Start with the basics; are you a student at their institution, or were you a student in one of their classes? Include anything that will jog their memory of you or put you into context.
- Purpose of your inquiry. Are you trying to set up a meeting to discuss their research in order to explore a possible interest of yours? This is a good place to add a few pieces of the information you discovered during your review of their research.
- Add a closing statement. "Sincerely,” "Thank You,” "Best Wishes,” and "Warmest Regards” are all great closing statements. Skip one line and add your first and last name.
- Spell check again. Even if you wrote your draft in Word, it is very tempting to make changes at the last minute. It is good practice to always use your spell check before sending an e-mail.
Remember, you should customize the e-mail to the purpose of your inquiry. If you are asking for a letter, attempting to set up a meeting, or updating them regarding previously discussed items, tell them. Something as simple as, "Would you be available for a meeting to discuss topics we discussed during Tuesday’s lecture?” is perfect. Keep it simple and concise!
For the Meeting
- Dress professionally. There is no need to wear a three-piece suit (unless you would like to), but avoid jeans with holes, tank tops, or other clothing that may be considered inappropriate. Remember to think of yourself as a professional and fellow colleague.
- Bring your list. Although it is easy to think all those great ideas are going to come streaming out of your mouth (and most will), there will be moments when the discussion of a topic has come to an end, and trying to remember one of those great ideas on the spot can be difficult. If you consider yourself a shy person, this is the perfect way to initiate the conversation and keep it going if you start to feel awkward. Demonstrate that you have put in the extra effort to keep the meeting focused.
- Show up early to the appointment. This not only prevents uncontrollable events from ruining the meeting, but will give you time to go over your notes. Plan to arrive 10 to 15 minutes early, and spend at least 5 minutes refreshing yourself on the topics you want to discuss.
- Smile. Most professors are accustomed to students being nervous during these meetings. Follow your list, and feel free to skip items that don’t seem as important in the moment.
- Bring a pen. This will allow you to check off questions you have already asked to keep the meeting focused, and take notes on responses the professor has for you.
- Take notes on what the professor tells you during the meeting. It can be very difficult to remember the name of an author they mention or a tip for grad school after the meeting has ended. Don’t be afraid to pause the meeting to write something down. Professors expect you to take notes in such meetings because it shows you value their time and opinion.
- Thank them for their time. Let them know you will be in touch to keep them updated regarding any progress on the topics discussed during the meeting.
Asking for a Letter of Recommendation
When you feel you have built a relationship with a professor and are prepared to ask your mentor for a letter, specifically ask if she or he can provide a "strong” letter. Specify whether that professor may have a unique perspective on your writing abilities, research interests, public speaking skills, etc. Ideally, your letters will provide an overview of your abilities. Three letters describing what a great writer you are will not be as useful for your prospective mentors as letters describing three different aspects of your abilities. Try to obtain letters that provide an array of information for graduate school admission committees.
When you are ready to meet with your professor regarding a letter of recommendation, bring a packet of information with you. A manila envelope or paper folder will do just fine. This should include everything the professor will need to write you a strong letter.
- Transcripts: Print an unofficial copy of your transcript, and highlight your overall GPA and classes you have taken with that professor, including the grade you received.
- Writing Sample: Bring a short paper you have written as a writing sample. Keep this around five pages, double-spaced. Make sure to edit the paper properly, and ask for feedback from other students or professors before using it as your writing sample.
- Statement of research interests: Include a short paper (one to one and a half pages, double-spaced) which outlines your research interests, and how the schools you are applying to match these interests.
- Copy of GRE scores: Photocopy the official score report sent from ETS.
- List of schools you are applying to: Include a list of schools, their deadlines, and the respective professors to which you are applying, if applicable.
- Addressed envelopes: Include an addressed envelope for each school you are applying to that requires a paper copy of recommendation letters. Make sure the envelopes are already addressed and stamped; give the professor as little work as possible.
It is important to keep the relationship warm by maintaining contact with the professors who wrote your letters or recommendation. This can be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months after the meeting, depending upon how the initial conversation went, whether you agreed to set up another appointment, and the progress on any topics discussed. Update them regarding any successes resulting from their advice, and suggest setting up another meeting to discuss any new questions you might have generated after the appointment. This new meeting can be set immediately or suggested for the next academic term. When that time rolls around, create a new list of topics for discussion, and repeat the process. It is also important to meet with or e-mail the professor at least once every 4 to 6 months to keep the relationship fresh.
The professors who write your letters for graduate school can also serve as a faculty supervisor for research experience, a source of information regarding new research assistantships, or a provider of graduate school advice that only a person who has been in the position of advising graduate students would have. Continuing this process of meetings and follow-ups will allow you to build relationships with faculty during your undergraduate studies and to maintain those relationships through graduate school and later become collaborators and/or colleagues in your future field of employment.
Amber M. Anthenien. As a peer-adviser for the psychology department at Portland State University (OR), I am constantly passing on graduate school advice to students seeking to take the next step in their education. I began asking students if they would like to compose e-mails to professors during the advising meeting so I could assist in the letter writing process. I quickly noticed that students were making many of the mistakes I had once made: typos, greeting professors with "Hey,” and disorganized writing. This article intends to guide students through the etiquette expected during the establishment of contact, meetings with faculty, and maintenance of professional relationships which can yield strong letters of recommendation.
I thank Dr. Debi Brannan for her helpful advice during my graduate school pursuit. I also thank Nicole Atkins, Ryan Abbot, and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful reviews and comments. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Amber Anthenien, 11865 SW Tualatin Rd. Apt. 30, Portland, OR, 97062. Email:
Copyright 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 4) by Psi Chi, the
International Honor Society in Psychology
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