education blog

Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Who Are the Best Sources?

It is now November, and if you are facing graduate-school applications deadlines anytime between mid-December and early February, it’s time to get serious about arranging for your letters of recommendation. As with the other components of a grad-school application, there are many pitfalls that must be avoided, and my goal with today’s post is to help you avoid some of them. The focus here will be on one key question: Who should be asked to provide a letter of recommendation?

College or university professors who know the student well are nearly always the most appropriate sources for letters of recommendation to support a graduate-school application. If an application requires three letters of recommendation, then it is usually best if all three letters are from professors. There are exceptions in some fields, however, and all applicants should make sure they know what is normal in their field of study. For example, someone applying to a master’s program in counseling psychology or social work should have a letter from someone who has supervised his or her volunteer work in some type of support or helping capacity. Also, some programs have special expectations when it comes to the sources for letters of recommendation, so it’s important to carefully read all instructions. For example, some clinical psychology programs ask for at least one letter from a source like that which I just described, but many do not; if they don’t specify, then all of the letters should come from professors.

The source of a letter (i.e., the “referee”) can influence it’s effectiveness in at least two ways: First, referees are expected to indicate in their letters the capacity in which they have known the student, and they should be able to demonstrate that they know the student well enough, and in an appropriate capacity, that would enable them to evaluate him or her on several relevant dimensions. A professor who taught a student in a junior-level course would be expected to have little insight into his or her true potential, whereas a professor for a senior-level course, who gave the student a very good grade for substantial written work, or for oral presentations, might be a better judge. If the student is in an Honors program with a thesis requirement, the thesis supervisor or the director of the Honors program should be in the best position to provide a comprehensive evaluation

A mistake many people make is to assume they need letters from someone who can testify that they are very smart and capable of very good academic performance. Transcripts and standardized test scores already serve that purpose, and letters of recommendation need to evaluate the applicant on dimensions that are actually more relevant to success in graduate school than a person’s scholarly abilities.

Another factor that can influence the effectiveness of a letter of recommendation is the credibility of the referee, which is related to several different factors. As already mentioned, your referees will probably be asked to indicate how long they have known you. If they have only known you for a few months, some people will assume that they probably don’t know you very well. The referee’s credibility is also related to how much academic experience he or she has; that is, how long this person has been around, and therefore, how much experience he or she has at assessing the potential of students for success in grad school. All else being equal, professors with several years of experience are generally viewed as being more highly referees. Compared to a junior faculty member who has been a professor for only a year or two, senior faculty members will have more experience writing letters of recommendation, and therefore, they may do a better job of it (although there is no guarantee of this).

Be careful not to assume too much about someone’s relevant experience from the amount of gray hair they possess. Age alone is not a reliable a predictor of how much relevant experience a potential referee has at evaluating potential graduate students and writing letters of recommendation.

It’s possible to make reasonable inferences, however, from considering a professor’s academic rank, because this is influenced, at least in part, by how long someone has been employed at a particular institution. Some colleges and universities hire part-time faculty to teach undergraduate courses on a temporary contractual basis; they may, or may not, be given the rank of adjunct professor. Regardless of how experienced (or old) a teacher for one of your introductory-level courses appears, it’s important to keep in mind that your letters for grad school should be written by people who have experience at supervising their own graduate students, and who are, therefore, more likely to know what should be in it. Full-time professors who teach and conduct research are the most likely to have the right types of experience.

Newly-hired, full-time faculty members usually have the rank of assistant professor. After a few years, most are promoted to associate professor; this promotion may be accompanied by granting of tenure. Promotion to (full) professor usually comes after several more years of strong research, teaching, and service. One can assume that an associate professor or full professor has a significant amount of experience at writing letters of recommendation for grad-school applicants.

The academic rank of a referee, while important, is still secondary to what that person has to say about you. Accordingly, the professor who knows you best will usually be your most important referee, even if that person is a junior faculty member or even a part-time instructor. One exception to this is if you are applying to a research-oriented graduate program — university and college teachers who are not active researchers are not be the best referees for evaluating your research potential.

There are obviously many important things to consider when deciding whom to ask for a letter of recommendation, beyond just a potential referee’s credibility. You have to ask people who know the right things about you! Here are some of the dimensions on which you should expect to be evaluated:

ability to work with others
ability to work alone
communication skills (both oral and written)
creativity
dedication and persistence
independence
industriousness
initiative
intellectual ability
integrity
judgment
leadership
maturity
organizational skills
originality
teaching potential
social skills

Now that you know what kinds of things are discussed in a letter of recommendation for graduate school, do you feel confident that you can get the letters of recommendation you need? Anyone out there have a question about selecting potential referees?

Attending a Research Conference? Don’t Waste This Golden Opportunity

Students aiming for a career in research or in academia learn early on that success depends not only on getting academic credentials but also on the quantity and quality of their contributions to knowledge. We all have a sense of what is meant by the phrase, “Publish or perish,” when used to explain an important motivating factor for most university professors. Graduate students and academically ambitious undergraduates understand this message is for them, too. Just as any scholar or researcher needs an impressive CV to successfully compete for the best jobs, so do students who want to get into a top-rated Ph.D. program or land a good postdoctoral research position. Arguably, the most important parts of the CV are those that convey a person’s contributions to knowledge, as indicated by authorship or co-authorship on the dissemination of research findings or other scholarly work. Importantly, this doesn’t just mean publishing papers in journals, writing book chapters, monographs, or the like.

The most accessible way for students to get recognition for their contributions is with a conference presentation. Graduate students present their research findings at academic or research conferences, and some may even attend and present their work at two or three different conferences, each year. Undergraduate students may have similar opportunities if they are sufficiently involved in helping professors with their research. Even if one is not the presenting author and is only a co-author on a paper or poster being presented at conference, it is another entry in the CV. This may be a big deal for a graduate student trying to get recognized as an up-and-coming new scholar or researcher, or for an undergraduate who plans to advance to graduate school or apply for a graduate scholarship. In any case, however, the greatest benefits lie in actually attending and participating at the conference.

Research conferences can be international, national, or regional. Regardless of geographical scope, however, they should all be treated as equally excellent opportunities to get to know people with similar interests and to grow a network of friends, acquaintances, and peers beyond one’s own college or university. The conference environment also enables one to gain insight into some of the ‘less-obvious’ aspects of how things work in the academic world — various norms, conventions, as well as some of the social and political dimensions. There is no better way for students at all levels of training (undergrad, graduate student, postdoc) to get an inside look at some of the systems in which they must compete to advance toward their career goals.

Simply attending a conference is not enough to guarantee that one will get all the benefits, however. Students have to make it happen, by taking initiative and going beyond the obvious things one tends to do at these events. I will discuss, below, a few things I believe students should do when at a conference, and some things they should avoid doing. Except where otherwise indicated, the advice is aimed primarily at graduate students and undergrads.

Focus on meeting new academic peers

One of the main reasons why students attend conferences is to learn about other research in their field, and to bring their own work to the attention of others. The obvious ways to accomplish these objectives are to attend symposia and peruse the posters, and either give a talk, or chat with people who come by to see your poster. It is obviously very important that students present their work, and that they engage with listeners or poster visitors who want to ask questions. A big mistake many students make at conferences, however, is to only do these obvious things.

Not only does participating in a research conference enable students to bring their work to the attention of others, it also provides a great opportunity to bring themselves to the attention of others, and to stand apart from the crowd of other students. Of course, most students already understand this and many will make some attempt to take advantage of the opportunity, usually by trying to introduce themselves to certain people. For example, undergrads might want to meet potential graduate supervisors, or grad students might want to meet potential postdoctoral supervisors or employers. In general, most students who are serious about research want to meet more experienced researchers whose work or reputations they admire. Many students try to do this at conferences, but it can be exceedingly difficult to accomplish. I think most of them are going about it all wrong.

Two common, but often ineffective, approaches to meeting experts in the field is to track them down at the conference, either between paper sessions (ie., talks) or at a poster session. The hope is that this person will have a few minutes to talk. This approach works sometimes, but it doesn’t usually, simply because there tends to be many other people also wanting to talk with the same person, several of whom have the advantage of already knowing him or her. As a result, the person always seems to be already engaged in a conversation with one or more people, and there just aren’t any good openings for the student. Despite the frustrating situation, some students continue to hang around and waste more time stalking the person and waiting for an opening.

The second approach — hoping to meet a particular person at a poster session, is not much better. Although it is rather easy to meet someone if they happen to visit your poster, they are not likely to remember you for more than a few minutes after they leave and move on to another poster. So, yes, you met that person you wanted to meet, and hopefully they said some nice things about your work. But, you have not done anything yet to really promote yourself nor have you necessarily gained anything from the encounter.

In general, it is usually more fruitful for students to spend time at conferences trying to meet other students, than to waste time trying to get a few moments with some elusive expert. An exception might be if one wishes to meet with a potential graduate or postdoctoral supervisor, but a meeting time for that should be arranged by email before the conference. Regardless, if you want to meet a particular faculty member and that person seems difficult to approach, or you can’t find them in a convenient situation in which to get their attention and have a few words, then here’s a better idea: Find out who their students are and meet them. It’s easy to determine who they are, because they are likely be co-authors with their supervisors on something being presented at the conference. Students are easy to meet if they are presenting a poster. All it requires is looking them up in the program to find out when and where they will be presenting. Talking with these students may reveal more than you would get from talking with their supervisor! The students might be able to help you decide whether this person is a good supervisor. (Note: If you’re a Ph.D. student who wants to explore the possibility of a post-doctoral position with this person, then you need to approach them directly). The students might even be willing to introduce you. You just never know how your efforts to meet this person might benefit from having first met their students. For example, it’s not unusual for a professor to take his or her students out for dinner at a conference, and you might be invited to tag along. I personally recall a few occasions when this happened to me when I was a grad student, and I was able to have dinner with some ‘big names’ in my field of study. There is no doubt that those encounters made it easier for them to remember me than would have been the case if we simply had a brief chat between sessions at the conference.

Meeting students from different universities, talking about research, and relating experiences as a grad student or research trainee, can also reveal how so much of what a person experiences in grad school depends on the mentoring they get from their graduate supervisor. Have a conversation with a student you just met over lunch or coffee, and it’s highly likely that at some point in the discussion there will be an exchange of stories or experiences that involve the students’ supervisors. Some of it may be gossip, but one can still get some insight from certain people’s character from listening to the stories their students tell about them.

Sharing a room doesn’t mean ‘joined at the hip’

It is common that two or more students from the same academic department, or from the same laboratory, will travel together or share hotel accommodations while attending a conference. It reduces costs and ensures that everyone has at least a bit of familiar company, both at the conference location and away from it. It can be a lot of fun to go out for lunch, dinner, shopping, or sight-seeing with people who you normally only see at school. Unfortunately, the more time a student spends doing these kinds of things with someone they already know, the fewer opportunities he or she will have to spend ‘quality time’ with someone new.

Attending a conference provides students with a golden opportunity meet people they wouldn’t be able to if they weren’t at the conference. There is only so much time to take advantage of the opportunity, however. Accordingly, when attending a conference, students should make every effort to leave the comfort-zone provided by the familiar people from their home institution. It may help to keep in mind that we see those people for the other 51 weeks of the year, and they will still be there to socialize with after the conference is over and everyone is back home.

Don’t plan to go out for lunch or dinner with your pals from home — not even for one of those meals, if you can help it (except maybe on the day you arrive, before you have had any chance to meet anyone else). Instead of eating meals or doing things away from the conference site with people you already know, pretend that you came to the conference alone and that you have to find people there with whom to do such things.

If it’s not your first time at this conference, then keep in mind that you also need to spend some time with acquaintances you have met on previous occasions. These relationships will only be helpful in the long run if they are maintained and renewed from time to time. The best way to balance the need to meet new people versus reconnect with existing acquaintances from other institutions is to go for lunch, dinner, a few drinks, or whatever, with the people you already know from previous conferences, but be sure to also bring along someone else whom you have just met.

What’s out there for undergrads?

Many universities hold their own conference each year to celebrate the research accomplishments of their undergraduate students. There are also many regional conferences dedicated to undergraduate research throughout the U.S. and Canada. These kinds of undergraduate conferences can provide some useful experience, and they may provide a few students with the kinds of opportunities to meet people that I have been discussing up to this point. They are often a place for students to present their Honors thesis project. I definitely recommend that undergrads take advantage of any opportunities they have to present their work at an undergraduate research conference. But, those who are looking to make an academic or career for themselves should be participating in the more comprehensive research conferences, where they can meet experts in their field of study (and the students of those experts, of course).

In most major disciplines, there are some conferences that recur on a regular basis (usually annually), as well as occasional one-off symposia. Most graduate students become informed early on about which academic conferences should concern them, and undergraduates can simply learn from the local grad students about what conferences they have gone to or planning to attend. If you are an undergrad who wants to know about the most relevant conferences in your field of interest, ask a few grad students or a professor in your academic department. Follow up by visiting the website for the relevant conferences. You will find all the information you need about conference dates and location, registration fees, and associated events and schedules. There is usually a page for the ‘Call for Submissions‘, where details are provided about how to submit an abstract, the deadline for doing so, as well as information about the required format for posters and talks.

I occasionally meet undergraduate students who want to know more about research conferences. Many become enthusiastic about going to one, but that enthusiasm is often replaced by disappointment when we consider the costs, which typically involves travelling to a different city or country, hotel accommodations for a few days, conference registration fees, as well as other costs. Students may be able to apply for a travel award from their school to help cover the costs of attending a conference, or a professor’s research grant may pay some or all of the costs. Normally, only students who will be presenting something at the conference will be eligible for such support. This generally means that nearly all student attendees at a research conference have some affiliation with a faculty member’s research program. In fact, I have met hundreds of undergrad students at research conferences during my career, but I can’t remember meeting any who were there simply out of curiosity or eagerness to learn about the most current research. Everyone has a connection to some of the research. As discussed previously on this blog, the best ways for undergrads to get involved is to volunteer some time to help a professor with his or her research, or to do an undergraduate research project (e.g., an Honors thesis).

Getting Into Grad School Without Top Grades: One Student’s Amazing Story

My last post was aimed at explaining how grades come in to play in the selection process, and the main message was: You don’t need to have the top grades to get into grad school, because that’s not what the decision-makers care most about. To help prove my point, I have reproduced, below, an email message I received a few years ago from someone who had been an undergraduate in Psychology at Concordia University, which is where I am a faculty member. I did not know the student while he was at Concordia, and I still have not met him in person, although we have had some email correspondence in recent months.

You will no doubt notice that he makes a few kind remarks about a book I wrote, but I want to assure you that the reason I am showing his entire unexpurgated message is for the sake of authenticity, and because he says a few other things that are more important, and which I want to say a few more words about, afterward.

———–

Dear Dr Mumby,

As of May I have not been a student at Concordia but I keep getting e-mails about your grad info-sessions. Although I never attended your grad info-sessions I DID read your book and the e-mails have egged me on to contact you. I did not have particularly fantastic marks. Keeping this in mind, I followed all of your instruction and managed to get accepted into a Marital and Family Therapy (MFT) degree at Alliant (previously California School of Professional Psychology; birthplace of MFT and has had Carl Rogers among its faculty). I was packed and ready to go to California when I got a notice that I had been accepted into a masters in Criminology program at Cambridge UK. So here I am, a student who did not even make the academic cut-off for application, sitting in Cambridge (ranked second in the world, surpassed only by Harvard, third is Oxford); I am on the faculty/student liaison board for my course and am also the captain of my rowing crew (very big competitive sport here). My supervisor is very happy with my hard work and the faculty is amazing. Our library supposedly has the largest criminological collection in the world. I am confident that following the procedures in your book helped me get where I am today and I encourage you to read this letter, or part of it, at your lecture (although I would appreciate remaining anonymous). This just goes to show that marks are not everything to everyone and I caused myself large amounts of undue stress over them. Thank you,

P.S. I did get some lab experience in my undergrad and finished with my PSYC400.

D.

———–

This happy story is only a single anecdote, but it is highly useful because it refutes a couple of misconceptions I notice being frequently expressed by undergraduate Psychology students (and even by many academic advisors who don’t know better):

1. Many students place tremendous stress on themselves because they believe that they must attain top grades in almost every class in order to get into a good graduate school. Near the end of his message, this student admits that, in retrospect, he experienced much unnecessary stress over his grades. It is pretty obvious that this fellow was accepted at Cambridge, and at the professional psychology program in California, for reasons other than his undergraduate grades. It’s not in his email, but I can tell you that his GPA at graduation was slightly below the level required to be in our Honors program (3.30). As he indicates, it was also below the “academic cut-off” for application to Cambridge. That did not stop him from applying, and it did not stop him from getting in. Do you think he got in because of his GPA? Obviously, he got in because of other factors, which made up for the relative shortcoming in his GPA. I have emphasized this point many times during the past 2 years of writing this blog: There is so much more to preparing for graduate school and putting together a successful application than just getting good grades in your undergraduate program.

2. Students often tell me they need to be in the Honors program because they plan to go to graduate school after the baccalaureate. Although the Honors Psychology program in my department is intended to facilitate students’ preparation for graduate school, it is by no means necessary that a student be in that program in order to get into grad school. The student in this story was not in the Honors program.

3. Finally, he mentions in the postscript that he got some lab experience while an undergraduate. He refers to PSYC 400, which is a 6-credit course in which students do a research project under the supervision of a faculty member and write a thesis to report the findings. It is equivalent to the 6-credit project and thesis undertaken by students in our Honors program (ie., the Honors thesis). Importantly, however, the PSYC 400 thesis is an option for students who aren’t in the Honors program. The student in this story obtained ample undergraduate research experience, mostly by virtue of completing an undergraduate research thesis. It did not matter that it was not the Honors thesis, per se.

So, how did things work out for this person? Things have worked out very well for him, indeed. He is now a practicing marital and family therapist  in Montreal,Quebec.

If grad school is in your plans, be sure to check out my other articles. I realize that students face a huge information gap that makes it difficult to know what’s really involved, and that’s why I strive to provide the best information and advice about preparing for, and applying successfully to, graduate school.

I have been a professor for the past 20 years. I have been an undergraduate academic advisor, I have served on graduate admissions committees, supervised several graduate students and dozens of undergraduate students, and over the years I have had countless discussions about graduate admissions with Graduate Program Directors and other faculty members, in a wide range of disciplines and domains (sciences, social sciences, fine arts, humanities), and at universities in the U.S. and Canada. I have the perspective of a real insider into what students need to do to stand apart from the crowd, and how to avoid the mistakes that prevent most grad-school applicants from getting in.

You can spend a lot of time collecting bits of advice from all over Internet about dealing with different components of an application, or various steps in the process, but most of it is very basic information that everyone can get (thus, no one gets an advantage from knowing about it), and most of it is just recycled on different websites so that someone can sell advertising space.

My main objective with the blog is to provide the most accurate and actionable information and advice, all in one location. For more information on my consulting services, visit this link or fill out the pre-consulting form using the following password: consult2017#mgs