Let's face it, recommendations are often hard to come by. Most graduate programs require three letters. Frequently applicants puzzle over the third, final letter. Who to ask? Students who take large lecture classes often feel that teaching assistants know them best. Is it a good idea to ask a TA for a letter? Probably not. Here's why.
It happens pretty frequently. A student who I have had in class once or twice emails or stops by my office to ask for a recommendation letter for graduate school. "I've done research with Dr. So-and-so and have done an internship with Dr. Other but I need three recommendation letters for grad school. Can you help me out?" Most students find that third letter trying. At the same time we know that a recommendation letter that is simply positive without offering details or information beyond that found in the transcript is not helpful to graduate applications. So what do you do? Should you agree to write the third (likely weak) recommendation letter?
Once upon a time applying to graduate school entailed compiling a thick packet of papers and mailing them off to your choice of graduate programs. Today's online applications have streamlined the process and are a huge improvement. The Internet has made applying to graduate school much easier but it has also posed new challenges. For example, common forms of communication such as via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on, let our family and friends keep abreast of our whereabouts but also have the potential to permit outsiders a window into our lives. Do professors and graduate admissions committees review applicants' online profiles? Can you expect to be Googled? What can you do to clean up your digital footprint and put your best face forward to grad admissions committees?
Being an academic is stressful. Heck, stress is a part of life regardless of your choice of career. Take a break today. Take time off from studying, preparing applications, conducting research, teaching, and grading. Enjoy friends and family - and take a moment to recognize all that is good in your life - the pleasures of life. Happy Thanksgiving!
Thanksgiving Break. Over the course of the semester many of us yearn for it. We work hard. Hold on as best we can until we get there. Thanksgiving Break isn't just a break. Or a holiday. It's the beginning of the end. Most of us have a week or two of classes, tops, and then final exams. So much to do in virtually no time. Students often say they're like robots, plugging away. How will you manage?
- Enjoy the holiday.
- Buckle down. Not fun but necessary.
- Accept the workload and engage in some self-care. Grad school is hard. It takes work. Nothing will make that go away. But it will feel easier if you accept the workload and take care of yourself. Simple things like exercise and time off make a big difference in how you handle a heavy work load (or whether you get physically sick from the stress).
- Mange your head. Many students fall into the impostor trap, and doubt their own abilities. Don't doubt your presence in graduate school. No one made a mistake in letting you in. You're not an impostor and you can do this.
A recent post about curriculum vitae, specifically what to leave off of it, yielded the following question from a reader:
...One question I have is what types of professional experience does the academic community care to see with respect to those of us attempting to enter the field of academics from the work place?
What work experiences do graduate admissions committees seek on the part of applicants? This varies by field, but generally speaking most committees do not expect specific work experiences. Many applicants are finishing their baccalaureate degrees and are not yet in the workforce. So "work" experience isn't needed, but committees look for some experience in the discipline. For most programs that means research experience working with a faculty member, under supervision, or as a paid assistant. It may also take the form of applied experiences such as internships, fellowships, and volunteer experiences.
The degree to which applied experiences are valued depends on the discipline. Professional programs in fields such as social work, business, and nursing may place a higher value on applied experience than do doctoral programs that emphasize theory and basic science. One-on-one experiences with faculty such as independent studies and guided readings courses are also useful because they show that a faculty member invested time in you. Of course these experiences are enriching as well - and can give a faculty member something to write about in a recommendation letter.
If you have "real world" work experience, frame it in terms of what skills you have learned and demonstrated and how that translates into your ability to succeed in grad school and your chosen career. Although most graduate programs do not require work experience, some grad programs, particularly MBA programs, prefer more seasoned applicants - those with at least a few years of employed experience under their belts. Regardless, work experience can only enhance your application to any program, especially if you can discuss those qualities that translate into an academic environment, such as critical thinking, leadership, planning skill, and so on.
Is graduate school right for you? Sometimes that's not the right question. Instead ask yourself "Should I go to grad school NOW?" Not all students go straight from undergrad to graduate school. Many take a year or more off. During that year or two you could improve your academic credentials, get great experience, or simply see what your career options are so that you make an educated discussion as to whether graduate school is right for you. Should you go to grad school now or wait a year or two?
A reader asks:
I am about 3 years out of school and am applying to Clinical Psychology PhD programs. I'm not asking any of my old professors because it's been too long and I don't think they can write helpful letters. Instead I'm asking an employer and a colleague. My question is whether I should get a recommendation letter from my therapist. She would be able to speak very favorably of me. What should I do?
A letter from a therapist is not a good idea. It will not help your application. Recommendation letters speak to the student's academic competence. Helpful letters are written by professionals who have worked with you in an academic capacity. They discuss specific experiences and competencies that support an applicant's preparation for the academic and professional tasks entailed in graduate study. The graduate admissions committee will deem a letter from your therapist as inappropriate as it's based on a therapeutic relationship rather than an academic relationship. I can't stress enough the importance of helpful recommendation letters for admission to any graduate program. Clinical psychology, however, is one of the most competitive fields for graduate admissions, so the bar is set higher.
So what do you do? An effective referee can talk about your skills. A letter from your employer and colleague may be appropriate if they detail your capacities for academic work (and include concrete examples as support). You may think that your professors don't remember you (and they might not), but profs are used to hearing from graduates with requests for recommendation letters. Try.
Before you spend time preparing that application, request letters of recommendation, or plunk down a hefty application fee, make sure that each graduate program is right for you.
A reader writes: I hope to attend a grad program in another state and will need to leave my job at some point. How do employers feel about an employee's decision to leave for grad school? Are they annoyed? Should I ask for a letter of recommendation? Related, should I inform an employer of my intentions to return to school when I first accept the job so as to limit the surprise? Would that hurt my chances of getting the job?
There's no one answer as it will depend on the length of employment, the employer's own personality traits, your traits, and your joint experiences. With plenty of notice, most employers are supportive and warm. I worked full time while I attended college and applied to graduate school. I told my employer as I submitted applications. He was quite supportive and I worked until a week or so before I began grad school. However, he was a doctor -- its possible that his own educational experiences colored his views of my educational journey.
I think honesty is always a good idea - especially if you plan to ask for letters from your employer if you've been employed for a while. Should you reveal your intentions to attend grad school when you interview for a position? It very well may cost you the job. In this case, it may make sense not to mention it. Yes, this contrasts with my call for honesty, but the reality is that you need work. Don't lie, but omitting your plans at the moment is acceptable. After all, its entirely possible that you may decide against applying or might wait another year and it is always plausible that you hatched your graduate school plan after being hired. I would not advise seeking a recommendation letter from someone who has just hired you. First they know little about you. Second they may hold negative feelings regarding your plans, possibly damaging your letter.