Requesting a Recommendation

On October 5, 2011 by Grad Forum

“Will you write me a recommendation?” can be an awkward question for any graduate student to ask a professor. However, graduate students pursuing academic or non-academic careers will need to have at least three faculty members write letters of recommendation or serve as references. As graduate students pursue their degrees, it is important that they make an effort to know faculty before they find themselves applying for jobs.

How can students get to know their faculty early on? Attend classes, participate in the discussions, and talk to professors after class or during their office hours. Attend departmental social functions and chat over appetizers. If the thought of talking to your professors outside of class gives you anxiety and discouraging thoughts such as, “I do not want to bother him or her,” “He might not remember me” or  “She is so intelligent, what do I talk about?” just remember that everyone likes to talk about themselves and faculty are no exception. Ask faculty about their current or future research projects to get the conversation started. Conferences provide another opportunity to meet faculty members. Instead of hanging out with your graduate school friends, reach out to a faculty member doing interesting research. Could this person eventually serve as an outside committee member?

Be sure to meet with your advisor and keep him or her up-to-date on what you are working on. The transition from being an undergraduate to graduate student means that faculty will assume you are responsible for contacting them and making progress toward your degree. Graduate students need to make the effort to meet with faculty even if they seem really busy. It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day activities of research, so make sure to ask your advisor to go get a cup of coffee. While sipping coffee, take the opportunity to talk about your research and your future career goals.

Once you have developed a few faculty relationships, you need to decide whom to list as your references. Usually students choose the three faculty members who are on their thesis committee. For an academic job, it is a good idea to have someone outside the institution also be a recommender. Usually five recommenders are more than enough because there is only so much to be said about one person. For graduate students applying to a small liberal arts college or community college, it is a good idea to have potential recommenders observe their teaching so the recommender can highlight the graduate student’s teaching ability.

In some cases, a graduate student does not feel his or her advisor would provide a strong recommendation and is reluctant to ask their advisor. In this situation, it really is best to ask your advisor directly, whether or not they can provide a positive reference for you. A positive reference from your advisor can go a long way, so do not sell yourself short by making assumptions. It is worth the temporary discomfort involved in asking. If your suspicions are confirmed, and your advisor does not feel that he or she can provide you with a glowing recommendation, then you should approach someone else in the department who is supportive, such as the department chair.

It is a good idea to ask all potential references if they are able to write a strong letter of recommendation. An average recommendation does not help anyone get a job, so it is better to know a professor cannot write a strong letter than to have an average recommendation. To make the recommender’s job easier, and to ensure they address the points most pertinent to the position you are applying for, provide them with a cv or resume, a description of the position you are applying for, and perhaps a few bullet points of what to highlight. A gentle reminder to the recommender of the upcoming deadline is fine as long as it does not border on pestering.

Graduate students should create an account with Interfolio so recommenders can upload their recommendation and have them on file. Dartmouth has a partnership with Interfolio (a Washington, DC based provider of web-based, credential processing services), which now hosts recommendations at

Writing a thoughtful letter of recommendation takes time, so ask them well in advance, and, when the recommendations are submitted, send a thank you letter; this is not just good manners—it lets the recommender know you appreciate their time and makes them more willing to write another letter in the future. Once you do get a job, write another note to your references to let them share in your success.

by Kerry Landers

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