Applying for the PhD - Securing Letters of Recommendation

Applying for the PhD - Blog 4

Welcome back to the next blog in the Applying for the Ph.D. series! Today, we're talking about letters of recommendation. LOR's are so important because they provide the BEST insight into what kind of addition you will be to the Ph.D. program. Test scores, grades, and publications are all great but Ph.D. programs are also hoping to cultivate a program culture. They're looking for someone who can get along with others and has proven that they are a valuable contribution to the team.

This is where LOR come in. Your LOR should speak to your experiences and previous significant contributions. They should give insight into what it's like to work with you and how you might conduct yourself in a lab or classroom environment. It's so important to choose LOR writers who have seen you in situations similar to those you will encounter in graduate school so that your Ph.D. program gets the information they want.

Here are some general tips/steps to getting the best LOR!

Start thinking about your LOR early!

A great LOR comes from someone you have a relationship with and that takes time. You don't want to wait until you're actually applying to start thinking about who you will ask for your letter from. Decide who you will ask and then begin building a relationship with them. Work hard with and for them and demonstrate that you can be reliable, dedicated, innovative, etc. Take time to get to know them and let them get to know you.

Be mindful of who you choose to ask.

You want most, if not all of your LOR writers to have PhDs themselves. Since they've already gone through the process and are aware of the requirements, they will be best equipped to speak to whether you are suited for graduate-level work. Most graduate programs are most interested in research so you want to find one or two people who can speak to your research experience, ideas, and work-style. From there, a third recommender might be someone you've worked with for clinical or related volunteer work, TA'ed for, or taken extensive classes with.

Ask for LOR early.

Your professors have busy schedules and chances are they're being asked to write A LOT of LOR. Be considerate of their time and workload by asking them for a LOR early in the application process. This gives them time to plan their schedule in order to write the best letter possible. I would recommend asking them about a month and a half to two months in advance, then you can check in with them again two to three weeks before the application is due to remind them of the deadline and ask them to let you know if they have any questions about how to submit.

Ask for LOR in person and provide background info.

Obviously during COVID asking in person isn't super important, but as we start to return to in-person meetings, it's important to meet with them and ask them directly. You also want to help them by providing them with background information about you. As I said, they're writing multiple LOR and it would help them to have a "cheat sheet" to guide them as they write yours. Type up a summary of your relationship which might include:

  • What programs you're applying to, their deadlines, and instructions for submitting the LOR

  • Your GPA and GRE scores

  • How many years you've worked in their lab

  • What projects in their lab that you've worked on

  • Any leadership roles you've taken within their lab

  • What skills or certifications you have

  • Any classes you've taken with them (and the grade)

  • Any classes you've TA'ed for them

  • Any clinical work they've overseen

Be appreciative of their support

It can seem like once they submit your letter this process is over... it's not! Remember, these people have taken time to really think over and write you a strong letter of recommendation. They care what happens! Be sure to thank them immediately after they submit your letters and again when you have a progress update. Send a formal thank you letter detailing where you interviewed and where you decided to commit. Some professors will also ask for a token from your new school to add to a collection (I know professors who ask for baseball caps or shot glasses from whatever school you commit to), make sure to take time to get this for them. They've helped you to accomplish something great! Always be grateful for that.

Who wrote my LORs?
1) Dr. Tracy Riggins - I worked with Dr. Riggins for 4-5 years. Initially, I served as an undergraduate research assistant in her lab where I worked as a senior assistant overseeing coding projects, editing brain data, and conducting behavioral assessments. After graduation, I was promoted to a full-time research assistant and served as a lab manager overseeing 15-20 undergraduate students. I also helped to start an NIH/NSF funded research study, conducted home visits and MRI testing, and conducted private research under her direction.
2) Dr. Clara Hill - I worked for two years in Dr. Hills clinic, the Maryland Psychotherapy Clinic and Research Lab. She served as the mentor for my undergraduate research thesis which was presented at two national conferences and eventually published. I also served on three specialized coding teams in addition to my standard lab work.
3) Dr. Karen O'Brien - Dr. Obrien oversaw my volunteer experience in domestic violence shelters. I volunteered for one year at My Sister's Place Domestic Violence Shelter where I was promoted to be a Team Leader overseeing psychotherapy groups. I later volunteered for six months at Homeless Children's Playtime Project under Dr. Obrien. In addition, I took three classes with Dr. Obrien.

If you're preparing to ask someone to write you a letter of recommendation, I've got you! I've created an info sheet template for you to give your letter writer to help ensure you get the best letter possible. Check it out!

If you are applying to a Ph.D. stay tuned for Blog 5 of the Applying for the Ph.D. Series: Drafting your Personal Statement.

Until next time...


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