Getting those golden letters of rec can be one of the most stressful/awkward parts of the application process – fostering good relationships with profs, tracking them down to politely ask if they’ll please recommend you, crossing your fingers that they’ll say something awesome about you. When I was navigating the process, I had a lot of questions. See below for an asked-and-answered... hope this helps!
Most PhD programs ask for at least 3; some fellowships require 4; some programs let you submit up to 6 (cray, I know). Check out program websites now to figure out how many you’ll need, and start asking. Also, be wary of the extra, optional letters, and don’t go overboard.
I choose you, Pikachu! But really, who do you ask?
If you’ve done research in someone’s lab, ask that PI (Primary Investigator, aka lab boss). As long as you put in a decent effort in the lab and didn’t actively alienate anyone, they’ll be down to recommend you. If you work for an absentee PI and have never actually met him/her, ask your grad student/post doc mentor for help and they’ll probably hook you up (i.e. write a letter about you and get PI to sign off on it. This is a thing in some labs).
The university probably assigned you some kind of academic advisor. If you’ve been having semi-regular (1-2x/year) meetings with this person, definitely consider asking him/her.
If you had a summer internship or held a job after undergrad, ask your boss or mentor (or both!)
You’ve taken classes. Think about the classes in which you’ve done well, participated, and attended office hours. Especially in your junior and senior years. If you haven’t kept in touch with
Many extracurricular groups (Society of Women Engineers, Honors Societies, etc.) have professors as advisors; if you’ve served as a leader in these groups and know the advisor well, ask him/her.
#celebstatus Does this really matter?
Fortunately, in the US, status of the recommender is not the most important part of the letter of rec – you are! That being said, if one of your recommenders is a department chair, a big name in the field, etc. it can only help you – IF they know you well and can write a great LoR. It’s much better to have a long, glowing rec from a relative newbie than a quick note from a bigwig that says “Sally took my Potions course in Fall 2013 and received an A. She participated in class, brewed her potions masterfully, and has a promising career as a PhD Potions Master. Sincerely, Prof. S. Snape.”
What if they say no?
Sometimes, professors say no. Usually it’s not because they don’t want to recommend you, it’s because they don’t want to write a bad rec. What makes a bad rec? One that is too short. Because they don’t feel they know you well enough. If someone says no, politely ask why, and try to remedy those issues with future recommenders. It’s good to have a back-up option, just in case.
Stay tuned! Up next, I’ll talk about how to ask a professor for a LoR!