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How to ask for a reference letter

Straightforward advice for job candidates in search of a professorial recommendation

by Adam Chapnick

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It is one of the most critical steps in a graduate student’s path to permanent academic employment, yet ironically it’s also one of the most mysterious. Asking a professor for a letter, or more likely many letters, of reference can be stressful, and rarely are students instructed on proper etiquette. Fortunately, the process doesn’t have to be intimidating.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of professors understand that writing letters of reference is part of their job. Even better, most take pride in being able to help their students succeed in their academic careers and understand that students might not know how to best approach them. Some even go so far as to post instructions for students seeking letters on their websites. But if yours doesn’t, here are some helpful tips on how to get the references you need.

Who to choose and when to approach them

Not every professor will make the best referee, and some are better for certain applications than others. Although there is little specific research on this issue, anecdotal evidence from academics who have experience on selection committees suggests that you should choose referees based on three criteria (in order of importance):

  • How well did I do in the professor’s course(s) / how well did I perform as a TA or RA?
  • How well does the professor know me and/or my work and how up-to-date is that knowledge?
  • Will the professor’s reputation carry weight with the selection committee?

Since professors are asked to rank their students’ past and future abilities in any letter of reference, it makes little sense to solicit a recommendation from someone who cannot say that your work stands out. Convincing letters also give the reader a sense that the professor knows the student well. More recent knowledge is therefore more credible. Finally, a professor who is well known to a committee is particularly credible. Aim to create a list of potential referees five to six weeks before the letter is due and make sure that your list includes at least one or two more names than you need (in case professors are less impressed than you are with your record or simply are not available to write).

The moment you’ve decided who to approach, find out whether any of those professors have reference letter policies. If they do, follow their directions. If not, approach your professors in the way that you are accustomed to dealing with them. If a potential referee has always been slow to respond to e-mail, then make an appointment to speak in person. If you know that a professor prefers to work from home, a well-written e-mail is appropriate.

What to say and what to give them

In your initial approach, make sure that each professor

  • knows who you are;
  • understands that you are seeking a strong reference;
  • knows why you would like a letter from them specifically;
  • understands that you face a deadline.

Full disclosure up front should prevent a reluctant yes. And when it comes to letters of reference, an unenthusiastic recommendation can be worse than no letter at all.

Be prepared to provide any referee with a package of information about you immediately.

It should include:

  • an unofficial copy of your academic history (transcripts) along with an explanation of any aberrations (low grades, missing years, etc.);
  • an updated resumé or CV;
  • a draft of any statement of interest or research proposal that will be included in your application;
  • any forms that the referee will be asked to fill out.
  • Fill in all of your personal information, along with as much of the professor’s as possible, in advance;
  • an additional sheet with your personal contact details;
  • a covering letter that reiterates who you are, the program or position that interests you and why, when the letter is due, what the professor should do with it once it’s finished (will you pick it up? Should it be mailed to you in a supplied, stamped, self-addressed envelope? Should it be mailed directly to the institution at the address you have included on an address label?), and any additional instructions.

Ask your referees if they would also like:

  • a writing sample and/or copy of the professor’s comments on your work;
  • you to mail the letters and therefore cover the postage (don’t stamp your own envelopes because most professors will want to put the letters in a departmental one);
  • a reminder note or phone call a week before the letter is due.

Thank you etiquette

Always let your professor know whether the application has been successful. If you anticipate asking for additional letters, send yearly updates about your progress. No further signs of appreciation are necessary but, if you insist, a kind, detailed e-mail that your referee can include in his or her teaching dossier, is a good idea.

Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an assistant professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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Comments on this Article

I am applying for a PhD scholarship, and I am required to submit two Reference letters from two Professor. When they ask for Professor, does it qualify for Retired Professor (they do not have a seal), Assistant Professor and Associate Professor ? I am confused weather to go any or look for the person holding the position PROFESSOR. Please give suggestions.

Posted by Noel Naga, Oct 21, 2014 2:11 PM

Hi
I did 3 years postdoc a renowned institute of USA. But, I got pregnant after marriage. When mentor knows he starts giving so much stress and I left the lab. I am job less more than 15months. I attended more than 40 postdoctoral interviews and most are positive. But whenever they are getting my postdoc mentor's reference letter they are not willing to hire me. My PhD mentor is tired after writing so many positive letters.My PhD is from Other country.So when I am interviewing here in use for job they wants a letter from my postdoc mentor in USA. I requested him several time for a decent letter but he does not care. What I will do. A person /a PI is so strong and powerful in USA,who can destroy A person's whole career and make him/her struggle economically. Please suggest me how I can save myself fro this situation and have a postdoc job in usa.If I remove his name nobody is asking for job. I published 2 papers from his lab in reputed journal and more paper will come near future.
I really need a job.

Posted by sg, Jul 5, 2014 10:21 PM

Hi, I found this page interesting while I'm looking for help. I finish and passe matric years ago and couldn't decide or make a decision. Now I'm ready to apply for undergraduate but it is late. Cause all the university that I check have one entake. And I want to ake for a second semestre admission if possible. I google some professors bloc but don't know how to email them for help. Could you please help?
Thank you.

Posted by kate, Apr 4, 2014 2:17 AM

My canadian references make a good and long list. For their first five letters they wrote for me in the past five years, they were so enthusiastic,as they thought I'll get hired promptly based on what they wintnessed while working with me. But then, the tone of their email messages became compassionate and depressive:I have taught for about 14 years in many educational levels,topics and provinces. I do not have degrees obtained in Canada, but have a great canadian work experience,from Maths, French,Sciences,History and Geography for grades 7 to 11 in Francophone schools, trades courses for construction, to senior electrical engineering courses in Lethbridge,Calgary,Edmonton,Richmond,Vancouver,Ottawa,Montreal. My applications are currently discarded because priority is given to Education graduates. Would someone accept me for a Ph.D.programme so I can reintegrate in the job market?

Posted by Carmen CIUBOTARIU, Mar 26, 2014 9:19 AM

I couldn't agree more, I started documenting work history and recommendations a few months ago and It really saves my time to gather around important detail, such as "how well does the professor know me and/or my work and how up-to-date is that knowledge." The key to any reference letter is that it is relevant and comes from someone that knows your abilities.

Posted by Jilly Monroe, Feb 26, 2014 6:00 AM

Hello,
I have asked my Professor to give me a reference, well 3 references actually. as he was my supervisor either in my undergraduate and master. However, he questioned me that 'was it fine to give 3 references to 3 different institutions from the same Professor'. will it impact to my Professor's position (will he be blacklisted?) Well, I am applying three different scholarships for my PhD. As he is the one who knows my academic and research progress very well, I put him as my referee in applying 3 different scholarships (different scholarships, countries and universities as well). I need your suggestions thank you so much

Best Regards

Lufi

Posted by Lufi Kartika Sari, Aug 27, 2013 8:09 AM

It is often really time-consuming for professors to put together reference letters for students, especially when they may not actually know or remember them well. I found it helpful to suggest this tool - it's free and really saves a lot of time: http://www.reference-letter.com/

Posted by Juliette, Aug 20, 2013 1:00 PM

please make it part of a professors duty to write references for students .if they dont remember them (which they should) they should look at their academic records..(and give references based on that.

Posted by zita mendes, Aug 16, 2013 11:35 AM

Hi Nat,

Different fields, departments, and countries have different cultures and, a a result, I don't think that I can give you a clear answer without knowing a lot more about your situation. Based on what you have written, however, I would suggest that you ask this very question (who should write the letter) of the research associate. If the research associate is supportive, s/he should be honest enough to tell you whether (1) s/he should be writing the letter, (2) whether the director should be writing the letter, or (3) whether the research associate should be drafting the letter but then have the research director sign it.

Best of luck with your application,
Adam Chapnick

Posted by Adam Chapnick, Aug 14, 2013 10:01 AM

Hello! This is a very useful site. I've been working as a research assistant for almost a year. My contract is coming to an end and I sadly won't be renewed. I'm planning to apply to a master's program by end of the year and I was thinking from whom I should be asking a reference from. Although our research office has a director, I work more closely with his research associate, who also has a doctorate. Will this carry much weight? Thanks!

Posted by Nat O., Aug 12, 2013 6:41 PM

Hi Antoniya,

Your supervisor's interest in the job that you plan to pursue is legitimate. Vague, all-purpose reference letters rarely make a good impression on prospective employers because they say nothing about whether you are well-suited to the particular job on offer (moreover, leters that you are able to see in advance, which the letter that you are asking for might be, are compromised because they are no longer considered to be confidential). The best approach in this case, I think, is to confirm that your supervisor will be willing to write you a letter upon request, and to find out how much time he (in this case) will need to turn such a letter around. Then, once you have actually applied for a job and that potential employer has asked for more than just the name and contact information of your referees, you can make a proper approach to your supervisor and secure a letter that will be tailored to the specific position. Such a letter will be significantly more helpful to you in the long run.

Best of luck with your search,
Adam Chapnick

Posted by Adam Chapnick, Jul 11, 2013 10:12 AM

Hi, I have asked my professor from my undergraduate program if he could write me a recommendation. He has been my supervisor for 2 semesters in a row and he knows me pretty well. I need the letter so I can facilitate my job search for a student job. He replied that he wants to know what kind of form I need and I do not know what to reply as I am not looking for anything specific and I do not really know what he should include. Could you please advise me on this issue? Thanks in advance.

Posted by Antoniya, Jul 10, 2013 2:56 AM

Dear Marie,

It is absolutely ok to ask your referees to resubmit. Moreover, it would be worthwhile to update them on what you've been doing in the past year in case they'd like to revise. Since the letters were almost certainly stored electronically, I think that you are much more worried than you have to be about inconveniencing anyone. So by all means, if you have not already, approach those same referees right away (unless, of course, the professional opportunity to which you referred has resulted in a potentially stronger referee).

Best of luck,
Adam Chapnick

Posted by Adam Chapnick, Jul 3, 2013 9:40 AM

Dear Sabrina,

I am sorry that I did not see your note earlier, but I shall answer it nonetheless in case your concerns are shared by other readers. If a potential referee does not live in the same country as you, I suggest that, unless that referee has made clear a preference for Skype or some other form of communication, you email him or her (him in your case) to establish contact. After a preliminary email, you can explain your situation and perhaps arrange to either speak via Skype or some sort of similar technology and/or send the potential referee samples of your work. As per obtaining a reference letter from your boss in a family business, my suggestion would be that if the letter were to come from a family member, it would not be very helpful. Whether a letter from an employer more generally will help an application depends very much on the particular program to which you are applying. Programs are typically quite clear about what types of letters they will accept. And if you are not sure, it is best to contact the program administrator directly. Finally, an academic reference from another, unrelated graduate program is likely a very good one, so long as it is a strong letter that is complemented by another letter (from your second or third referee) that speaks more directly to your relevant subject-matter background.

Best of luck,
Adam Chapnick

Posted by Adam Chapnick, Jul 3, 2013 9:37 AM

Hello,

I requested letters if recommendation from three professors, all of whom graciously submitted them to my universities of choice. However, after a job loss, financial hardship, and then later a great professional opportunity I decided to postpone applying for graduate school until the fall of next year. U fortunately the universities have told me that my letters will have to be resubmitted with my new application. Is it ok to ask my recommenders to resend the letters to all of the universities? I think it is probably going to be an inconvenience for them, but I'd really like to be able to use the recommendations.

Very concerned,
Marie

Posted by Marie, Jun 1, 2013 3:35 AM

Dear Mr. Chapnick,

I want to get reference for MSc. Business Management Application to be made by end of April. I am very worried about whether I will get one.

I graduated in July,2012 (Bsc International Business). I was pretty much regular in class, however never had much of any communication with any of my professor. I want to approach my lecturer for dissertation paper (not my supervisor) as I think he will be kind enough to help me, assuming cause I went to him once when I could not select my Topic for paper and he helped me, while advising to seek help from supervisor is imp.
He also lives in a different country than I do, so meeting in person is not possible. I AM SURE HE DOESN'T REMEMBER ME.
So could you please advise how should I contact him?

Also I work for my family business, so is it possible to get one reference from a senior employee here?

I am also enrolled in a masters program in development studies, NOT RELATED TO BUSINESS at all. I am trying to communicate better this time with my professors, so I am hopeful to get one reference here. But is it wise to get reference from here , as this program is completely irrelevant. Will it put bad impression ? I enrolled in this program cause i really like the subject, but however my career has nothing to do with it.

Thank you very much for your post and help :)

Posted by Sabrina, Mar 31, 2013 4:49 PM

Dear Liljulie,

The letter should absolutely be typed, and if it is not as common in Italy to ask for these things, then it seems to me that it would in fact be better to ask for a single, generic, letter than to ask that the professor be on call for the indefinite future. I would approach the professor in the way that I have suggested in my article - if they are used to email, use email. If they are used to the phone, use the phone, etc. I do not know enough about the Italian system to say much more, but I would suggest that the worst thing that can happen is that the individual can say no, leaving you no worse off than you are now, so it is certainly worth a try.

Good luck,
Adam Chapnick

Posted by Adam Chapnick, Feb 7, 2013 2:56 AM

Dear Mr./Ms. Grant,

Your situation is a difficult one, and I'm very sorry for your and your professor's family's loss. Before answering your question, I suggest that you quickly approach the chair of your department and expain the situation. Ideally, the chair will look at your file carefully and, for all intents and purposes, take over as referee for your deceased professor. Chairs should be reasonably familiar with the senior graduate students (and if the chair is not the right person in this case, perhaps it is the chair of graduate studies or some equivalent), and it would be reasonable for such individuals to write for you in the future. As for a generic letter, they are certainly better than no letter at all, but they are less than ideal since they can't speak to your 'fit' with a particular institution. If you were to receive a letter like this, I would hope that it would begin with an explanation that the writer was no longer writing references, but felt so strongly about your performance that s/he was making a quasi-exception and providing a standing reference to recognize your work. All of this is to say, however, that it would be worth your while to cultivate an additional referee who can write when asked, as opposed to far in advance.

Adam Chapnick

Posted by Adam Chapnick, Feb 7, 2013 2:50 AM

I just finished my PhD coursework. One dearly beloved prof who gave me an A+ died at a young age earlier this year. Another prof who also gave me an A+ is retiring this year and getting elderly. I'm not currently applying for jobs, but since my work excelled in this professor's course, I would like to get a reference letter from him for my portfolio. Is it done to ask for a letter when there is no specific purpose?

Posted by P. Grant, Feb 6, 2013 10:13 AM

Hi, I found this interesting page while I was looking for information about asking a professor for a reference letter. I'll explain my situation: I graduated (in Italy, I'm Italian) some months ago and next month I'm going to move to Ireland. I'll be looking for a job and have no previous professional experience so I was told that a reference letter from a professor might make it easier for me to find a job and make up for the lack of professional experience. I want to ask this to the teacher with whom I wrote my dissertation, not only because he's a good teacher but because he's the only one who knows me and could say something "personal" about me since all other teachers only saw me during their exams.
I don't think he could write something about me that is not good because I got the best mark in his exam and I graduated with the best mark thanks to the dissertation I wrote with him as supervisor. My problem is that here in Italy it's not very common to ask for reference to a teacher and therefore I'm a bit embarrassed because he might not be used to such a request. Moreover, I would need a "standard" reference letter that I could attach to my CV in the application to several jobs, not a specific letter for one and only one specific application if you know what I mean.. Would this be a problem? Do you have any suggestion on how I should ask him? Or -considering this story- it's all totally normal and he will accept to write this letter for me?
Also- does it have to be handwritten or could it be typed? Thanks for your help! :)

Posted by liljulie, Jan 25, 2013 7:39 AM

This is very good advice. I would make one further point about timing. Requests for a letter should allow the professor ten working days to get it written and submitted. It doesn't take more than a couple of hours to do one, but those hours have to be found within a schedule that includes class preparations, class times, office hours, committee work and research commitments. The last of these may have their own deadlines and sometimes involve being out of town for a conference or professional meeting.

Posted by Robert O'Kell, Sep 5, 2012 1:18 PM

Really nice article. I do agree with everyone. What about if you ask your supervisor and you get response "Sure I can write a reference for you but do not expect good one".

Posted by Jkaur, Mar 28, 2012 3:31 PM

How do I make sure my referees are writing good words for me specially when the employrers are asking letters directly from the referees.

Posted by Khan, Mar 26, 2012 8:39 PM

Hi Ryan,
Your question is difficult to answer in part because you are in a tough situation, and in part because I don't have enough information. For example, when you say that your supervisor would like you to 'stay with him,' do you mean from MSC to PhD, from PhD to postdoc, or something else? In other words, is your dilemma not being able to apply to your school of choice for a PhD, not being able to enter the job market, or something else? This could matter because the importance of a supervisor as a referee can vary depending on what you'd like to do next.

Based on what you have said, I think that you will eventually have to have a conversation with your supervisor about where both you and he see your career going so that you are both clear. If you do not feel that you are in a position to do so yet, I encourage you to ask another professor with whom you have a good relationship to make a delicate inquiry on your behalf before you have the real conversation. This could all be a problem of a lack of communication, or it could be something more serious. It's important to identify the problem before you decide on a way ahead.
The one thing that I would not do at this point is solicit alternative letters of recommendation without speaking with your supervisor. Your efforts would inevitably become known to your supervisor who would likely feel that you had gone behind his back. This, I would suggest, is an absolute last resort, and I don't think that you're anywhere near that point yet, based on what you've written. -Adam

Posted by Adam Chapnick, Feb 3, 2012 10:19 AM

I feel that my advisor want me to stay with him, therefore I am hesitate asking him to write a reference letter or even add him to my reference list. How to solve this problem? and if I ask other professors, wouldn't be a question mark about "why my advisor is not included).

Thank you

R.T

Posted by Ryan, Feb 1, 2012 11:57 PM

There should also be a requirement to address interpersonal skills, professionalism, and common courtesy. These everyday behaviors are lacking at some universities among students and faculty. Bad behavior in the workplace or other universities reflects badly on past professors and institutions.

Posted by Regan, Jan 12, 2012 11:01 PM

One comment was about letters that attest to your teaching abilities. The simple answer (hard to do after the fact) is to invite professors/peers into your class to observe your teaching and provide you with some insights into how your are doing (see the article in the current issue of Univ Affairs on the importance of peer review of teaching). That will mean that there are people available to comment on your teaching ability when it comes time to applying for lecturer positions. I would also encourage you to go to your institution's teaching centre for a peer consultation as well!

Posted by Brad Wuetherick, Nov 16, 2011 2:52 PM

I wouldn't take "Ret's" advice, kids. "If you passed their class, behave (more like get the nerves up) like they owe it to you as part of their frigg'n job." We don't owe it to you to write you a reference letter, and it isn't part of our frigging job. Our frigging job is teaching the class you took.

"It’s a pointless exercise that the receiving faculty you’re applying to knows is canned and disingenuous, anyway." Nope--not for graduate admissions, anyway. I've been on a graduate admissions committee for 8 years, and have chaired it for two. We take references very, very seriously.

"Your prior university, and everyone who works for it, has an incentive to see as many students as possible go on to postgraduate work." Again, nope. If we write references for a student whose work is awful, how much credence do you think my references will get in the future?

Follow the advice in the article. It's good advice. And give professors an easy out--not just "can you write me a strong reference?" but "do you have time to write me a reference?" or "do you feel you know my work well enough to write me a reference?" Many professors don't like hurting students' feelings by saying no; if you ask them one of these ways, they can say no without hurting your feelings and you'll avoid a lukewarm reference. You want referees who will be enthusiastic, not lukewarm. If you can't find any professors who are happy to write you an enthusiastic reference letter, that's telling you something: *none* of them think you deserve one. And that's probably not their fault.

Posted by Neo Hal, Oct 24, 2011 3:01 PM

I needed a reference letter from my Ph D Supervisor, as a 'Must Letter' to apply for a job (a must requirement). But I failed to get the letter. I don't know why I got 'No' from my Supervisor, even I was not really very bad in grades. I had a good number of significant publications co-authored with my Supervisor. Finally, the institution where I wanted to apply, declined to accept my application. Any good idea to get a letter from my Supervisor for a future job, is most welcome....

Posted by Muhammad Shafiq, Oct 23, 2011 12:32 PM

what do you do if you honestly think none of your professors are capable of writing a proper/official reference letter? n i mean NONE =/

Posted by Maham, Oct 10, 2011 10:15 AM

I have just graduated with an M.Sc. degree in Mathematics. I am going to apply for a position as lecture. How am I going to obtain a reference letter regarding my teaching abilities?!!!! When I ask people for letters, they simply say: "I can't write a letter, since I haven't seen you teaching!"

I gave several presentations during my educations, but that is not enough to get good reference letters.

This reference letter thing is a really annoying requirement for recent graduates like me that are going to start a teaching career.

Posted by Mario, Jul 18, 2011 12:26 AM

As a lecturer who has written many, many references for students, I consider the biggest irritant to be those students who do not reply with a simple "Thank You" after I have emailed them to tell them that the reference letter I spent two hours developing and writing has been sent.

Posted by VincentF, May 28, 2011 10:30 AM

As another part-time professor (or perhaps I should say, full-time non-tenured professor), I echo the sentiments expressed above.

If you are a student (undergrad or postgrad) looking for a letter of reference, the temptation to look toward your part-time prof or non-tenured lecturer can be tempting. There is often an assumption that he or she will be more sympathetic to your plight than a tenured professor, who has forgotten what it is like to look for work and struggle. There might be some truth to that (I'll let you experiment with that notion on your own).

However, it is important to remember:

a) Non-tenured profs get paid less than tenured profs (generally) and often receive dozens of requests for letters at the end of a term.

b) A "strong" letter takes at least 1 hour, sometimes two or more hours, to write.

c) Non-tenured faculty often teach twice the amount of courses and tutorials as tenured faculty (for less money).

Bearing this in mind, here is some advice:

1. Choose your instructor wisely. If you didn't do well in the instructors course, gradewise, ask yourself if there is another reason that they SHOULD write a strong recommendation for you. Perhaps, they know you well from several courses and truly believe that you are capable of performing at a higher level.

2. Do not waste their time with comments like: "Gee, Professor, the recommendation is due in three days and no one else would write it for me," or "Gee, Professor, I know I suck, but you are cool."

The WORST: "Gee, Professor, it only takes you 30 minutes to write something up, can't you do it for me."

If the professor says yes to one of these requests, there is a pretty decent possibility that he or she will say yes, BUT, will write you a USELESS, or worse, DAMAGING letter. I personally say "no," unless I honestly feel that the student deserves a good letter.

2. Professors often consider these requests rude or insulting. IF you MUST request a letter under one of these circumstance, be honest with your potential referee...

that being said...

3. Always phrase your requests with "Can you write a STRONG letter on my behalf." That will often give them the opportunity to decline if they really don't want to.

4. If you just need a perfunctory letter (that is, you know you don't deserve one, but just need it to fill out an application...

do one of the following

a. DON'T APPLY, wait until you improve your academic reputation.

b. Choose your referee carefully (see above "Choose Your Instructor Wisely").

Grad Student still taking courses or writing...?

Remember that your instructors and supervisors are your future referees. Although sometimes you "must" take a particular course, or "must" have a certain person on your committee, there is usually a choice.

advice:

1. As senior graduate students and recent graduates about their experiences. There are many professors who simply cannot write a letter of recommendation. Sad but true. There are also some professors who write useless letters. Useless letters include those in which the professor talks about him or herself and not about YOU and YOUR research. Other examples of useless letters include those that include underlying sarcasm, bitterness, and resentment (also common, sad, but true). Experienced graduate students can tell you who is supportive and who is not

Posted by Another Part-time Professor, May 7, 2011 8:56 PM

It's an idiotic conceit of the academia cult. If you're not in that town anymore and it's been a few years or more, too, there's little chance they'll remember you and there's no chance you can meet them face to face. My advice? If you passed their class, behave (more like get the nerves up) like they owe it to you as part of their frigg'n job. You paid good money for that education. You passed the class (or better). You need some letters. It’s a pointless exercise that the receiving faculty you’re applying to knows is canned and disingenuous, anyway. Just ask them. Don’t sweat it. Your prior university, and everyone who works for it, has an incentive to see as many students as possible go on to postgraduate work.

Posted by Ret, Mar 26, 2011 10:16 PM

I agree with SS. I really don't understand why we need reference letters as part of our application package. I think reference letters could be optional part of application that could increase our chances, but not as a requirement. I always find getting recommendation letters the most difficult part of the application. Specially when you change location (for example from Asia to North America) or if they were your teacher long before, you have almost no chance of getting enough letters.

Posted by Mario, Nov 29, 2010 11:49 AM

I am a postdoc fellow and I have realized that one need to have 3 ref. letters, I have one from my grad supervisor and another from postdoc supervisor. 3rd one is almost impossible to get. People who have taught me, either dont remember me or dont want to remember for some reasons unknown to me. Other people says since they do not see any link, its not worth even if they write a letter for me. Our collaborators think that they have very minimal interaction by email only, so they dont really should be writing one. I have friends in professorial position but their letter will not be counted as there is no link. So, basically after 25 devoted year of education, my future is the hostage of ref. lett. and You can earn more as laborer or a taxi driver? I wish I could have taken a better decision after my highschool and should have done something else rather than science.......I'll never ask my kids to study science and go for higher education....

Posted by SS, Nov 21, 2010 8:06 PM

For Pam who complained that Professors wouldn't open her e-cards:

Among the older, employed people with whom you wish to be a colleague, it is commonly felt that email is what you send when you care enough to send the very LEAST!

So, if your message even got past their spam-blocker software, the lack of response that you experienced likely matches exactly how they felt receiving your request. If you care so little for your career, why should they?

Understand this now and your entire career is likely to take a higher trajectory.

Among all the Professors that I know, I am the MOST connected to my students by email, text, cell phone, facebook, etc. And, even though it is only my third semester of teaching, I have already written many, many letters for students.

However, ALL of the requests have been made by face-to-face communication. I have never yet been asked by email, letter, text, or phone call.

So, to get the letters you need, try actually talking to your Professors.

Good luck!

P.S. I disagree with the conclusion in the article that an email thank you is sufficient. I keep a folder with the physical cards that my students have mailed me (yes, snail mail!) and it definitely cements them in my mind as people who will go far in their endeavors and with whom I definitely *want* to stay in touch. At the minimum, they may be people whom I will contact for selected students that need a job, internship, or other assistance.

Posted by Math and Engineering Prof, Nov 20, 2010 2:24 PM

thanks for the tips

Posted by ANAND DEEP, Oct 6, 2010 11:09 AM

A very useful article, especially the inference that you should not ask for a reference unless the professor is prepared to rank you highly which may mean more than getting an A in the course. I had a student ask me for a reference which I provided but with the suggestion that the student select other professors of higher stature than me (I was just a sessional lecturer)that the article suggests also.

Posted by Adam, Sep 14, 2010 4:53 AM

Pam makes a lot of sense. Most students, if they are worthy of the positions they seek, will understand the above steps as common sense. Of course, this article is very helpful for those who have no idea where to start. Currently I am a grad student and can not get a reference letter for a position I seek. I was lucky enough to get them for grad school. I waited for months and months from a particular professor. I tired from the excuses. I had this person 4 times and was shocked at the level of irresponsibility. I ended up asking someone much later and both parties ended up handing them at the same time. The majority of letters people receive look like they took 5 minutes. Now I am enrolled in one of America's best schools and cannot a job reference. I think the best thing to do is get involved in a volunteer experience early on in life. Giving back to the community is important. I did not know look for, or know I would receive anything in return. NPOs are more reliable than professors. Just because you get an A and schmooze does not mean you will get a reference. Honestly I think professors have so many issues, such as paying loans, grading work and getting old. They see you and think why should I make it easy for you, since no one made it easy for them.

Posted by Quinn, Jun 4, 2010 3:28 PM

As someone who hires many students who use professors as references, I'd really like it if more professors would say no to potential referees. I am frustrated when I ask about a job candidate and the referee can't answer any specific questions. Professors often insist along the lines "I'm sure they'd be great at whatever job, since I gave them an A." Please, if all you know about the student is you gave them an A and they turned in assignments on time, do the person a favour and say no.

Posted by Rachelle, Mar 13, 2010 9:25 PM

As a part-time professor I can tell you I am continuously flooded with requests for letters. It is hard to say no but sometimes I have to, especially to students who never really contributed to class (expressed some insight-not just talked for the sake of getting noticed-believe me we can see the difference, no matter what your business school teacher might say). Also, unless you got an A or better, its really not a good idea to ask for a letter from that professor - don't forget they are probably writing letter for three other people in the same class that did get an A. The only exception to this, you got to really know the professor on a more intimate level and they could see you really are smart and dedicated, but maybe didn't make an A for some reason.

Posted by Part time professor, Jan 8, 2010 9:38 AM

My experiences are particularly painful and not unique. Regularly, I send e-cards to my course instructors/professors. Professors don't open greeting cards from current students with high GPA. Unfortuately, its the norm. Professors from three different academic organizations throughout my academic career did not opened my e-cards. It took me months of emails to get letters of references for grad school from an affilated academic organization in which I was currently attending. A reference letter for employment or even a job referral is becoming impossible. I can't help thinking of these two concepts: 1) non profit organization; (2)provincial and federal law governing universities and colleges.

Professors must help their students. I believe compulsory requirements should be established in their collective agreement.

Posted by Pam, Dec 25, 2009 5:17 PM

What this article neglects to mention is the case in which a prof refuses to write a letter because ten other people want letters from that same person for the same job. Some profs will only write 2 or 3 letters and turn down other requests, leaving the applicant short.

With the labour pool already bloated yet depts continuously admitting record numbers of grad students, this is becoming a serious problem in some universities. it will only get worse. Graduates, the longer they go without finding that TT job, will have a harder and harder time even getting the letters to support their application.

Posted by Dr. Doinglittle, Dec 22, 2009 1:09 PM

Useful stuff!

Posted by manjeet, Dec 18, 2009 12:10 AM

Tks for the great tips!!!

Posted by Bravie, Jun 12, 2009 11:08 AM

Yes, this is very useful for graduate students and also for other kinds of students.

Posted by Rod Zhan, Apr 21, 2009 12:43 AM

Thank you for this useful article. I shared it with our undergraduate and grad students.

Posted by Pat Kalyniak, Mar 16, 2009 10:33 AM

Very useful! Thank you.

Posted by Ron Melchers, Mar 14, 2009 11:38 AM


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