Last week, a student came into my office for some academic advising. She is in the last year of her B.A. program, and getting ready to deal with grad-school applications. She had a few straightforward questions, and at one point, I asked if she knew who would be providing letters of recommendation for her. She replied that her Honor’s thesis supervisor had already agreed to write one, and that there were a few other professors she could ask.
It turns out that she had taken some advice I gave her a couple of years back and had been volunteering her time to help some of her professors with their research. This is something I often advise students to do. They get valuable experience, and importantly, they make themselves known to people who can provide useful mentoring, and a letter of recommendation for graduate school and scholarship applications.
But, the more this student told me about her “volunteer research experience”, the more I realized that she had failed to understand at least one essential point, and as a result, probably also failed to set up any good letters recommendation from her “efforts.”
Her mistake? She actually repeated it each time she was given one of these opportunities from a professor. She would never commit enough time over a sufficiently long period to make herself useful to any of those professors, and it never really occurred to her that a professor might be expecting something in return for helping her out and giving her a chance. If none of them felt like they gained from having her around, they are not likely to write an effective letter of recommendation. One of more of those individuals would probably agree to write a letter if she came to them and explained that she had no one else to ask. So, she would almost certainly end up with ineffective letters if she persisted with those professors. The worse thing about it is that those were the people she had been hoping to impress when she originally showed interest in their work.
Volunteering as an assistant to someone’s research may fail to produce a helpful letter of recommendation for other reasons, too. One particular situation can occur when for some reason or another a professor feels that he or she is too important to spend time with undergraduate research volunteers, so instead of providing any useful guidance or feedback to the student, the professor hands these students off to their graduate students to deal with. Typically, the volunteer will end up working for the graduate student, often on those tasks or duties that the grad student doesn’t like to do (such as data entry or other clerical-like work).
After several months, the professor doesn’t even know him or her, other than to recognize his or her name and face. Again, this professor may be unable to provide an effective letter of recommendation, but that does not mean that they will not agree to write a letter for the student. Many letters of recommendation are ineffective, even though they only say positive things about the student. For more information on obtaining good letters of recommendation, check out this article in wrote for MyGraduateSchool.com
The point is simple, and it should also be kind of obvious: It’s not enough to volunteer! You also have to make yourself useful and memorable in positive ways, in the process. A good letter of recommendation is only possible if the professor you are trying to help actually learns good things about you through your interactions. It’s just as easy – in fact, easier – to set up a lousy letter of recommendation from a professor whom you volunteer to help.