Recommendation Letters

Wherever in the world you are applying to a graduate program, whether at the master’s or PhD level, you will likely need letters of recommendation. Here are some tips on how to navigate the process of getting recommendation letters.

Whom should you ask?

You should ask people, usually professors, who are experts in their field and know you well in a classroom or research context. A letter from a research adviser is worth a lot, since it comments on your ability to do the most important thing you will do in graduate school. So, try to build a relationship with every supervisor you have during research experiences. Document what you learned and did during your time in this person’s lab or group, so that you can remind them about this if you are asking for a letter long after your time with them ended.

When should you ask?

You can informally express your interest in pursuing a PhD and ask them if they would be willing to write you a strong (more on this later) letter at the end of your class or research experience with them. Once you are closer to applying, and have made a list of programs you want to apply to, ask them again. Do not leave it  to the last minute, ask at least three months in advance, preferably the summer before you are applying. If they say yes, send them polite but consistent reminders until the letters are submitted. 

How should you ask?

If it is someone you see regularly, you can ask in person and then follow up with details. If it is someone you have to contact via email, remind them of your work together (or the class you took), tell them what kind of PhD you want to do, and then ask them if they would be willing to write you a strong letter of recommendation. Don’t forget the word “strong”! No recommendation letter is better than a lukewarm, or worse, negative letter. If they don’t want to write a strong letter, it’s better to move on to someone else. Getting an enthusiastic, carefully written, sincere letter from a postdoctoral scholar who knows you well and thinks highly of you as a scientist is better than getting a cookie cutter letter from someone more “famous” or “important”. Here’s an example:

Dear Prof. ____,
I hope this email finds you well!
I greatly enjoyed your class _____, especially the final project, which I did on ____. I am applying to PhD programs in physics with the goal of doing research in ______ [mention a subfield if you have one in mind] this year, and I wanted to ask you if you would be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for me based on my performance in your class. I am attaching my CV and my final report for your class.
Best wishes,

If they say yes, thank them and follow up with your CV, transcripts, statement of purpose for the applications (or a draft), a complete list of the programs you are applying to along with the deadlines. Be thorough, make it easy for them to do this!

How should you follow up?

Before they submit the letters: Remind them a month out, and a week out from the deadlines.

After they submit the letters: Thank them!

After you get into graduate school (or even if you don’t): Let them know where you got in, and where you are going. Even if you don’t get in, let them know, because you may be asking them for letters again in a year’s time.