letters of recommendation

Guest Post: 6 Reasons Why Summer Research Experience Will Give You More Than Just Research Experience

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This guest blog was written by Sophie Duranceau, a graduate from Concordia University (B.A. Psychology, Honours).  Sophie worked diligently on grad-school applications, and  received multiple acceptance letters from excellent Clinical Psychology programs! 

I know about many of the things that Sophie did to prepare for grad school, and I watched her deal with the application process. I don’t want to make this sound too much like I’m writing a letter of recommendation here, so let me just say that I have seldom before met a student who worked so carefully and methodically on every important step. Its no wonder her applications were so successful!

 Sophie did a lot of things right, from choosing the appropriate graduate programs and potential supervisors (given her career goals), to preparing a persuasive personal statement, to contacting potential supervisors before applying. Sophie began some of the most important steps long before she started dealing with the application process — namely, getting involved in the research being conducted by some of her professors, and enabling them to learn about her strong personal qualities and abilities. Here, she shares some excellent advice about getting that much needed experience.

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Let’s face it, as undergraduate students, we are often faced with the challenges of finding time to; do research, work for a living, keep up with our classes (and get straight As), volunteer, AND live a ‘’balanced lifestyle’’.  I can already hear some of you say ‘’that is simply not possible, there are not enough hours in a day’’! Folks, I was an undergraduate student in Psychology less than a year ago and I promise you that it can be done. I can certainly offer you some advice based on my own experiences juggling undergraduate studies and getting into graduate school. Lesson number one, the secret to succeeding is careful planning. Now that you know this, I’m going to give you my second advice; if you want to go to graduate school, there is no way of getting around research experience. Dr. Mumby has repeated it multiple times on this blog and in his book: research experience will provide you with assets that, ultimately, will make the difference as to whether or not you will get admitted into a graduate program. For the purpose of optimal planning, I would strongly advise you to not only work on research during the school year but to also plan at least one summer around getting research experience. Why? Here is a list of 6 reasons why summer research experience will be beneficial to you, above and beyond the fact that you will be doing research.

1- You will get to spend a lot of time with graduate students. The school year is busy for everyone, even more so for graduate students. As a result, they may not be as available to answer your questions, teach you new skills or get you involved on their projects. The summer is very different though. There is usually at least one graduate student in each research laboratory that is collecting data for his/her thesis. Being there while it is happening is a great way to learn what designing an experiment and making it happen is all about. Spending time with graduate students will also allow you to better assess whether or not graduate school is really what you want to do.

2- The professor you will be working for is more likely to have time to actually get to know you personally. Dr. Mumby has mentioned this before but it cannot be emphasized enough. A big reason why getting research experience is so crucial is because it’s the best way to get strong reference letters. Professors, like graduate students, are very busy during the school year. As a result, they may not have many opportunities to see you at work in a laboratory setting and get to know you. During the summer, things are not as rushed and professors typically have more time to physically work in the laboratory and check on their students. This is a great time to show them what you can do! Not convinced yet? A hoard of undergraduate students typically makes itself available to professors every September. That same hoard typically disappears in May, when the school year is over. If you are one of the few ones who decide to stay, you are setting yourself apart from the crowd just by being there.

3- This brings me to my third reason; summer is a great time to do some networking with your professors. Networking does not come naturally to most of us but here’s the great news, it requires very little effort during the summer. Your presence will speak for itself. Believe it or not, professors talk to each other. If you come into school regularly enough and interact with professors down the hall, you will quickly go from being the student who sits in the back row to Student W in Dr. X’s lab who is working on Project Y and hopes to go to graduate school to do Z. This will become very handy when you need reference letters. Your presence in the school will also allow you to more casually ask professors that have gotten to know you if they would be willing to write you a strong reference letter during the fall. Chances are, at that point, they will. Another way this can be beneficial is if you plan on taking a year off to do research-related work after your undergraduate studies. Professors that you have not worked with in the past might be more likely to hire you as a year-long research coordinator if they feel like they already know you and your supervisor can attest that you are a good worker.

4- Summer is typically the time when graduate students (at least MA students) defend their thesis. Thesis defenses are usually open to other students and professors. Working on research during the summer will allow you to find out when these things are happening and to attend! This is a great way of getting to know what you would be expected to do in graduate school and, again, to set yourself apart from the crowd. Professors that see you there will take it as a sign that you are serious about what you want to do.

5- If you are planning on starting your Honours Thesis with Dr. X in the fall, working in Dr. X’s laboratory during the summer will provide you with a head start. You will have the opportunity to get acquainted with the literature in your field, you might learn how to run a specific task during the summer which will make it easy to collect your data in the fall, it will be easy to meet with your supervisor to discuss a project (before he/she becomes too busy), etc.

6- Last, but not the least, authorships! If you are reading this you are probably still an undergraduate student and publications are far from your mind. That is completely normal but here’s the thing; one morning you will wake up, you won’t know how it happened, and publications will have become one of the first things on your mind. Even if that day hasn’t come yet, it doesn’t mean you can’t start getting ready for it! Research laboratories are typically buzzing with projects that you could get involved in during the summer. It could be a professor wanting to try out a new task or a graduate student who needs help with an experiment. If you provide them with some significant help above and beyond more typical tasks such as data entry, there’s a good possibility that they will acknowledge your work by putting your name on a poster for example. An authorship on a poster is not a pre-requisite to get into graduate school but it is a nice extra to have on your CV that will, again, set you apart from the crowd.

If you have read this far I must be convincing you that summer research is a good idea after all. If you are like most undergraduate students and typically work during the summer months, your next question probably is; how can I get such research experience and fulfill my financial needs at the same time? There is no miracle answer to this question but I can provide you with a few ideas in my this post about how to get summer research experience while keeping a roof over your head.

Most letters of recommendation are never read! 

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A strategy I sometimes use to get students’ attention during a lecture, so they are ready to learn a key concept, is to surprise them with something unexpected and provocative, just before I explain the ‘big picture’ key concept. The goal is to arouse their intuition and allow them to prepare for some important analytical thinking. An “eyebrow-raiser” can help get a point across in such a way that helps it sink in.

I do the same thing when I’m speaking to a group of students about preparing for graduate-school applications. One of my favorites comes up when discussing how letters of recommendation are used in the evaluation of grad-school applicants. I like to point out that these letters are often the most influential part of a successful application. No controversy there. But, then, I tell them that most letters of recommendation are never actually read!

I have to admit to getting a bit of pleasure out of those four or five seconds of stunned silence from a crowd of avidly attentive and fixated people. They stare, with perplexed expressions, waiting for me to explain what I really meant to say. But, instead of clarifying or correcting my comment, I repeat it: “Seriously, most letters, or at least a large proportion of them, are never read by anyone, other than being proofread by the letter writers before they seal them in an envelope.”

I might play a bit more by saying something like, “Oh, the envelopes with the letters in them are all opened — that’s necessary to confirm that the required documents are inside. But, it would take too long to read all the letters, and the people deciding who gets in might not even find it helpful to do so.”

This is usually when the low-level murmur among the audience picks up, and I notice some of the puzzled looks are changing to expressions of annoyance. The time has now arrived to make my point — and everyone is ready and paying full attention.

Exactly what I proceed to talk about may be different on separate occasions, because there are a number of reasons why most letters are never actually read. I will usually go on to explain how the process of selecting applicants actually works, and how not all applications get the same amount of attention, partly because different people may be responsible for evaluating different applications to the same program. Alternatively, I could describe the student evaluation form that the person writing a letter of recommendation is normally required to fill out and submit along with the letter. Understanding how this evaluation form is used in the selection process can go a long way to explaining why many of the letters attached to them are never read.

Here are some other provocative statements I use to garner attention and interest when talking to students about grad-school applications:

“Decisions about who gets in have nothing to do with who deserves it the most.”

“Helping a professor with his or her research is the best way to set up an effective letter of recommendation. This strategy backfires, more often than not.”

“Many students are accepted into a graduate program before they even apply.”

“I’m dedicated to helping students prepare for graduate school, and to helping them get into the right program. But, I won’t encourage my own children to go to graduate school after college.”

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Letters of Recommendation for Grad School: Beware the Bad Letter-Writer

Back in the mid-1990s, I was collecting material for the first edition of a book on applying successfully to graduate school, and I interviewed several Graduate Program Directors and other university faculty members in a wide range of disciplines. The people I met were all insiders to the graduate-admissions process — graduate-school faculty members — the only true insiders. I have continued discussing grad school with other faculty colleagues, ever since. One topic that always comes up is the common shortcomings of grad-school applications that tend to lead to those applications being rejected. Turns out, there are a lot of common shortcomings, and students still make the same mistakes when applying to graduate school that I made, back in the mid-1980s! I was successful in my bid to get into grad school, but in retrospect, I was lucky in many respects, and it could have easily turned out differently.

Today’s blog post is about just one of the fatal flaws that can afflict an application to graduate school, but this is a particularly harsh one for students whose applications end up being rejected only because of this particular weakness. It’s a harsh one, I think, because this flaw is not the product of anything the applicant actually does, or fails to do. Instead, when this particular problem shows up, it’s more accurate to describe the applicant as an unfortunate victim.

Unintentionally screwed

I was a bit surprised the first time I heard about this problem from another graduate faculty member. But, I was a brand new assistant professor at the time (1994). Since then, I have heard it repeated by many others, and I have also seen it firsthand countless times over the years. The problem has to do with letters of recommendation, which, all too often, end up being of very low quality. Importantly, when I say “low quality” here, I’m not referring to the caliber of the applicants. Instead, I’m referring to the utterly awful job some referees do of writing recommendation letters!

There are good letter writers and there are bad letter writers. I’m not referring here to people who write good or bad things about a student. The fact is that some professors simply do not know how to write an effective letter of recommendation, even when they have only the most glowing regard for a student. And then there are the professors who don’t care enough to spend the necessary time writing a really effective letter for a strong student — professors who actually know how to write a good letter, but usually don’t.

Ineffective letters are usually short, one or two paragraphs, and describe the student’s qualities in vague or general terms. These can kill an application. Good letters should provide informative anecdotes or some other revealing evidence to back up the positive claims that they make about the student. Many professors do not put in the required effort to work those things into their letters. Some just fail to use good judgment, by including irrelevant, or sometimes, even inappropriate comments. A statement like, “This student rocks!” is going to have a bad effect, no matter what else is in the letter.

The effectiveness of a letter of recommendation depends on much more than simply how many good things the referees say about the student, or how well they back up their claims. It also matters how relevant the accolades are to the concerns of the potential graduate supervisor or admissions committee. The evaluation forms provided by some graduate programs request that referees comment on specific qualities of the students. For example, they might be especially interested in the students’ writing skills, commitment to a career in a particular field, and industriousness, to mention only a few. All too often, however, the referee ignores the instructions, or only partially follows them, and instead they just write what they believe is most important to include, which may be of significantly lesser importance to the people for whom the letter is intended.

I realize that the majority of students who are thinking of applying to grad school do not have an abundance of great options when it comes to professors to ask for a letter of recommendation. But, some do have more options for suitable referees than the number of required letters. So, those students have to decide whom to ask for one (Note: Do not assume it will be okay to submit more than the requested number of letters).

The main message here is worth repeating: Someone with high regard for a student can still write an ineffective letter of recommendation, one that does little to enhance the quality of the student’s graduate-school application (or scholarship, or job application). Professors who are bad at writing letters of recommendation do not come with signs or markings to distinguish them from those who are good at it. The only reliable indicator of a professor’s proficiency with letter-writing that is potentially visible to students is the track-record of advancement, or scholarships or fellowships, enjoyed by the professor’s former students. If a professor’s former students — undergrad, grad, or postdoc — tend to be successful, this is probably at least partly because the professor writes effective letters of recommendation.

Improving the odds

Although it’s not possible to completely eliminate the risk of having your grad-school application torpedoed by a poor letter of recommendation, there are several things you can do to make it less likely:

1. Make it easy for the referee.

Professors are busy people, and it takes time and effort to compile truthful, relevant and positive statements about a student, along with anecdotes or other evidence to support the claims. It can take even more time to compose it so it is truly convincing. Ease the burden on your referees by furnishing them with material they can use to prepare your letter. Provide them with as much relevant information about yourself as possible. Having the foresight to provide these materials might also add to your referee’s impression of your good judgment and consideration. Keep in mind that your referees will probably be busy writing for other students around the same time as yours. The easier you make their task of writing your letter, the more likely they are to spend the time and effort needed to make it a good one.

2. Give your referees the time they need to prepare a good letter.

Solicit your letters of recommendation a few weeks in advance of when you will be need them. Students often underestimate the amount of time that goes into writing an effective letter of recommendation. If someone takes only ten or twenty minutes to write a letter of recommendation for you, then it is not likely to be much of a letter; it might say only good things about you, but it probably will be ineffective. Don’t expect your letter to be anywhere near the top of your professor’s list of priorities. Your letters may be extremely important to you, but they probably won’t make it onto your professor’s top-10 list of things to deal with. Asking for a letter weeks in advance of an application deadline is no guarantee that your referees won’t still leave the task of writing them until the last minute and end up rushing anyway. It may, however, increase the likelihood that they will spend more time on your letters.

3. Solicit your letters in an appropriate manner

Your interpersonal and social skills may be described in the letter, and the impressions that you make when soliciting the letter may contribute to the referee’s attitudes about you. As we have already discussed, proper timing is important and it can be perceived as rude or inconsiderate when a request for a letter of recommendation comes too close to the deadline by which it is needed. Please read my previous post on how to properly request a letter of recommendation.

4. Don’t implicitly request a mediocre letter.

This tip couldn’t be expressed more clearly and succinctly than it is in the following quote I get from Dr. Matt Might, a computer science professor at University of Utah [He has a great website where he shares advice and insight on a range of topics relevant to science students at all levels of training (undergrad, graduate, postdoctoral)].

“When you ask for a letter of recommendation from a professor, don’t ask them if they can write a letter of recommendation. Of course they’ll say, “yes,” to that. Ask a professor if they can write a strong letter of recommendation. This provides them a way to say “no,” and saves you the embarrassment of a crappy recommendation letter.”

Dr. Might also has a lot of other good tips on how to get into grad school.

5. Show proper gratitude

Do not forget to express your gratitude for the time and effort your referees are going to spend trying to help you. Remember, a good referee who really wishes to help you will probably spend a considerable amount of time writing an effective letter of recommendation. When I write a letter for a very strong candidate, it usually takes me a few hours. This is a few hours of my time that I could have spent on something else. Your professors are probably busier people than they appear to be. You will owe them a great debt for this favor, whether or not their letters end up helping you get into graduate school.