On letters of recommendation…

We alluded to some of this in a previous blog about summer internships, but timing is everything and this is a topic to consider now, in early August. Because as we approach the end of the summer, a lot of students are finishing up a two month stint in a research lab or, for that matter, on the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange. Wherever. For those of you who have finished already, get your letter of rec as soon as possible if you haven’t done so yet! This is really important because a good letter is one where the letter writer obviously knows the individual about whom it is written, and a letter stating “Jane worked in the lab and everyone liked her. She accomplished a lot” isn’t going to cut it. But that is what you are going to get if you ask someone for a letter three months from now, because they will have forgotten most of what you did over the summer. By analogy, consider how much of that Shakespeare scene you wrote the essay on in May that is still fresh in your mind. Not too much, perhaps! Your lab chief faces the same challenge, and while the letter has to say nice things about you as well, a really good letter includes a summary of what your projects were, how you approached them, how you dealt with things if they didn’t work, and what you ultimately accomplished. Incidentally, one of the most important things that a good letter can say about you is that you work well with others. All of these things translate best into writing a letter of recommendation when you are freshest in someone’s mind.

Also to consider is who exactly writes the letter. In an ideal situation, the graduate student or post-doc with whom you worked, and who thus knows you best, will write the letter and the PI (principal investigator/professor) who oversees the lab signs then signs off. It will be a given that you receive a letter when you leave, but the higher you can go in terms of the signature the better. Remember though, a one-page letter about you from a second year graduate student who knows you beats the brief paragraph written by the professor who you maybe met twice.

Lastly, for those of you for whom your internship has not yet concluded, do what you can to work as independently as possible from this point forward until you finish. Even if up to now you have only done support work, try and finish with something that has your name on it. The more independently you work and the more someone can say you have an ability to think on your feet, the better that will reflect in your letter. Often, you will hear the word “shadowing”, ie that you will follow someone else around as they work. Shadowing becomes boring for you, and hinders someone who has to stop and explain everything to you. There is not much someone can say about you in a letter if all you did was stand there and watch them all summer!

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