Advise: On requesting recommendation letters

Many students ask me to write recommendation letters for a variety of purposes, like internship abroad, summer school and most importantly – graduate schools. It’s an important part of our job as academics to encourage younger and aspiring students. Therefore, in general, I am happy to write supporting letters if I know you ‘sufficiently well’.

Here are some general tips to follow when you request me (or more generally it may apply to others whom you approach) to send recommendation letters – this information will help me to write better-supporting letters.

  • First, do write a short note requesting if the person you think is suitable to write a letter is willing to do so. When you do so, state the purpose of your application, attach your cv and mention the deadline.
  • In general, write at least a few weeks ahead of the deadline and clearly state what is the deadline. If the deadline is very short – you can still write, but be aware that many mentors may decline even if they feel you are a fantastic candidate.

Once I have agreed to send you the letter:

  • If it’s a graduate school application season, send a list of university, department, their respective deadlines, the program (PhD vs Masters), etc all in a single email. I usually request students to create a google spreadsheet and share all the relevant information via a (editable) link, so that it can be easily updated by both of us.
  • Send an updated CV every time you ask for a letter – even if I had sent a letter last year for a similar purpose. I would like to know how your cv has improved since last time, so that any modifications to the letter can be done.
  • Provide as much information on what is the recommendation for. Add all relevant information about the application. For example, if you wrote a proposal or statement of interest that is not confidential – share it with me. Share any pdf/link to details of what the application is asking (some applications ask for very specific questions, its very useful for us to know those). Sometimes, some advertisements are aimed for specific candidates with a certain background (for ex: this conf is aimed for physicists interested in biology, or vice versa). Do point out them to me. A generic letter won’t help the selection to committee decide whether you are suitable.
  • A short note on any specific points that you would like me to highlight about you. It could be about your project/work done with me, about your grades, a new publication/work of yours that I am unaware of, or anything that you think will help your application. If you are applying to unusual programs (e.g. Masters in conservation biology but your background is in mathematics), tell me reasons for the same. Such information is very important and useful for me to write a good supporting letter.
  • Do not hesitate to remind me whether I have submitted the letter. Check the status at least a week, and a few days before, the deadline.
Some places (in Europe I think) as for recommendation letters to be sent via student herself/himself. As a general rule it’s not a good idea to have the letters sent via your own application; I think it actually weakens it (certainly in the way we write, and how they read). Always ask if there is a way professor can send it directly to them.
Finally, let me know the outcome of your application because I am curious to know, and am also interested in making sure you succeed. Moreover, it’s a basic courtesy to inform the outcome (even if it is negative) to someone has invested time in writing a letter of recommendation. A negative outcome may also help your referee to improve the letter the next time you ask him/her.  Finally, all the best!!! 

How to write an email/application for a short-term or summer research internship/project?

About an year ago, I wrote on the sort of hilarious to irritable emails that I get from students asking to join our lab for short-term positions (see this for the experience of another Indian professor). A few days ago I accidentally discovered that the search phrase that brings maximum number of people to my blog is something like “How to write emails to professors for summer internships” or “write an email for internship to professor”. This has motivated me to write an advice post for students on how to write summer internship emails/applications.

Before going on to providing my advice, let me emphasize why it is important to write good emails (which also serve as an application for that position) even for relatively not so significant positions like summer internships. To give my own example, over the past four to five months I have received at least 30 applications asking for various short-term positions. Given the current strength of my lab, I may at the best take only one or two students for the summer (I would like to write another post on costs and benefits of having  short-term students, what sorts of projects are suitable for them in another post).  Note that number of applications may be significantly higher for other professors, depending on their research work, their accomplishments and the how hot or cool their research is (as perceived by students). How will you make sure that your application catches the attention of the professor?

Your best bet is to write a good email/application (also called cover letter if the position happens to be a more formal one). Based on my experience of last one and a half-years at IISc, most of the emails I receive are of terrible quality, perhaps largely due to the fact that students in India are never taught how to write good cover letters or emails. While I don’t think I can fix that problem, here is my advice to students on writing good cover letters for short-term or summer positions. The broad outline below applies for any position but more formal positions may require additional materials as mentioned in their advertizement.

1) Salutation: Address the professor by “Dear Prof. Lastname”. You can write “Dr.” instead of “Prof.”.

I want to mention an important cultural issue that is relevant to any sort of email you write, not just for summer intern applications: Indian students hesitate to address professors or their teachers by their name. It is considered more polite to say “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam”. Some senior professors even in elite research institutions of India may expect the same cultural norm. Given this here is my suggestion:

(a) If you are writing to anyone in the West (US/Eurore/Australia, etc), it is strongly preferable to address them by their name (Dear Dr. Lastname). If you write “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam”, it is considered a a generic email that could be sent to anyone and may not be taken seriously. Of course, double cross-check the spelling of their name. Its easy to get them wrong and I think Indians (including me) are very careless in that aspect.

When they respond to you, they usually sign of the email with some name which is either their first name or nick name. It is usually okay to write back to them by the name they use to sign the email, without Dr. or Prof, especially if the person is from the US. Given cultural and individual differences that you may or may not be aware of, it may be safer to continue “Dr. Lastname” unless they tell you otherwise. However, a lot of the time, they may even explicitly ask you to address them by their first name or nick name. If so, you should feel free to do so, although it might seem awkward at the beginning since you are not used to it. If you are not comfortable, let me them know and continue to address them by “Dr. Lastname”.

(b) If you are writing to a relatively young Indian professor, lets say < 50 years ago [1], I think it is  best to address them by their “Dr. Lastname”.

(c) If you are writing to a senior faculty in India, I think it may be safer to write “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam”.

Now, lets move beyond salutation!

(2) The first paragraph. Introduce yourself saying your name, where are you studying, which year of which program and your major/minor program, etc. End the paragraph by stating the purpose of your email.

(3) The second (and may be the third too) paragraph(s): This is crucial. You should write a short “story” to convince why you are interested in the sort of research work that the professor is doing. How did you get to know about their work, any previous reference like I attended your talk at so and so conference, I spoke to you briefly on that corridor, or how you found the website of that profesor, read one of his/her paper (that is one of the most convincing ways to demonstrate your interest) and found the work interesting.  Do you have past experience in research? Or do you have your own idea? Do mention and explain it briefly (or may be even attach a short write up).

Of course, the level and quality of the story expected of you will vary depending on  whether you are a first year UG student and a final year student, your background (an ecology student writing to ecologist can be expected to write differently compared to a mathematics student writing to get exposure to ecology). But the main point is, is your story compelling?  You should present a convincing story of how given your background and interest, the lab you are applying is an appropriate one.

(5) Logistics: How long do you want the project to be? Tentative dates (note that lot of faculty travel in summer)? Do you have your own funding (Are you any of the KVPY, INSPIRE, IAS fellows)? If not, are you expecting the professor to fund your stay or are you self-funded?

(5) CV: Attach your updated CV (in pdf, not MS word). And mention that CV has been attached!

End your email thanking the professor for their time, and that you look forward to their reply.

(6) Waiting and Reminders: Once the email goes, the best thing to do is to wait. As this article (at the bottom of the page) says, Indian professors are less likely to respond to your emails compared to Western counterparts. So do you remind them about your email? Yes, you can and you should if that lab is of interest to you – but wait for at least a week. After waiting for a week or so you can gently remind your about previous email and ask if they received it, and that you would greatly appreciate their response.

(7) Strictly avoid the following (see this satirical note to applicants by Jonathan Eisen):

(a) Copy paste key words or phrases or worse, entire paragraphs, from their website or their research papers when you talk about research interests.

(b) Spelling errors of professor’s names when you address them.

(c) It is extremely irritating to refer to the reputation of the research group or the institute and use that as a reason to apply for any position.

(d) Write “Dear Sir” (assuming that all faculty are male) or “Dear Sir/Madam” (let the faculty chose their gender!).

(e) CC’ing your email to multiple faculty at the same time.

Would you as a student or a faculty like to add any other points?

[1] This is an arbitrary cut-off that I came up with. I am pretty sure most faculty at IISc would prefer to be addressed by their name, but if it is a general to any senior faculty in India, I am not so sure.
[2] Related article by Prof. Shubha Tole, TIFR