“Applications must include three letters of reference…”
If you’re applying for graduate research fellowships and grants, you will likely find something along these lines in the application instructions. These letters are absolutely critical to the success of your application, yet you have no control over them — or do you?
Although you are dependent on others to write the letters of recommendation, that doesn’t mean you play no role at all. You can choose your recommenders wisely and help them write the best letter possible. Even more importantly, you can build relationships over time that will lead to strong letters and strong scholarship.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” set of guidelines on this topic. Letters of reference are by their very nature highly personal. Ways of building relationships will also vary according to discipline, the nature of the research, and the applicant’s career goal. That’s why it’s essential to get advice from your advisor and talk with other students in your program about their own successful strategies. However, there are a few overarching points to consider.
What role do letters play?
Letters form one component of a larger fellowship application that may include a résumé, a research statement, and often a set of transcripts. Together, these components tell the reviewer about you, your educational background, your experience, and your research project. A strong letter is one that can speak persuasively and in detail about the project you are pursuing, your skill as a researcher, and your long-term promise.
Letters of reference can help make the case for both you and your project by providing important contextual information. For example, a letter written by an expert in your area might discuss the innovative nature of the approach you are using. A letter writer might talk about your intellectual growth over time, and compare you (favorably!) to other students who have gone on to successful careers. Perhaps a letter writer could discuss a manuscript currently in preparation or resources to which you will have access.
It’s not about letters, it’s about relationships
How do your letter writers know all this about you and your work? A good letter is the product of a relationship. Building relationships is an ongoing process and should be a natural outgrowth of becoming a member of a profession—one who knows what is going on in the field and is actively engaged in research. Investing in these relationships will lead to better scholarship as well as stronger letters.
OK, but what if you need a letter right now? Who you ask depends on several factors, including your stage of study, the nature of the work you do, and the goal of the fellowship for which you are applying.
The most logical person to ask is your advisor. If you are applying for a dissertation fellowship, this letter is essential. If you have recently started graduate school, however, you may not yet have an advisor. You can ask the people who wrote letters for your successful application to graduate school. Additionally, your department’s Director of Graduate Studies will be able to speak to the factors that led to your admission to the graduate program.
In the sciences, first-year students generally begin working in a lab as soon as they enter graduate school. This gives them the advantage of having a faculty member with first-hand knowledge of their work early on. In other fields, such as the social sciences and humanities, coursework in these early years offers graduate students opportunities to develop and exhibit their skills through the papers they write. Reviewers understand that there are different disciplinary norms.
Regardless of the field, as you progress, you will develop a long-term relationship with an advisor, and will begin to build relationships with faculty who will serve as committee members. These might develop through coursework, discussions outside of class, or, in some fields, an advisor’s collaborations with other faculty. Over time, these individuals will become familiar with you and the research you are pursuing, and will become a source for letters of reference. Make sure to keep them up-to-date about your progress.
You are not limited to letters from (or relationships with) Illinois faculty. Research takes place in many settings, including archives, museums, laboratories, and field sites throughout the world. The scholars and scientists who come to know your work may be potential reference writers as well. Whether this is appropriate will depend on the discipline, the fellowship you are pursuing, and your ultimate career goal. It’s worth discussing your choices with your advisor.
What can you do to help?
Although you don’t write letters of recommendation yourself, you are in a position to assist your recommenders. You can help them prepare a letter for the specific fellowship for which you are applying by providing them with the following:
- An outline of key points about the fellowship and why you’re a good candidate.
- The deadline and any special instructions for letter writers.
- An up-to-date copy of the résumé or curriculum vitae you will submit for that competition.
- A draft of your research proposal and any other application components.
- Copies of any papers, including those in preparation, related to the project you are proposing.
- A copy of the solicitation and/or link to the funder’s website.
Make sure to do this well ahead of the deadline. Even if the people you are asking have written letters for you in the past, they still need time to update them for this competition. You might also ask your letter writers for feedback on the materials you intend to submit. If you do, allow plenty of time for them to give you comments and for you to incorporate their comments into your final draft.
Don’t forget to thank your letter writers for their time and effort once you have submitted your application, and let them know the outcome when you hear back from the funder. Even if you end up with disappointing news (you didn’t receive the fellowship), it gives you an opportunity to tell them about the progress you have made in the meantime. That is also part of relationship building.
After you’ve submitted an application and thanked your recommenders, take a deep breath, and then take a moment for reflection. Are your relationships on track? Are you building a network that reflects your career goals? Prepare now for next time you’re asked for “three letters.”
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Karen Ruhleder worked for the Graduate College from 2014 - 2018. As Assistant Director of External Fellowships, she presented proposal writing workshops for graduate students and postdocs in STEM fields and individually advised graduate students applying for grants and fellowships across all disciplines. She also helped manage the Fellowship Finder database. Ruhleder earned a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in Information and Computer Science and a B.A. in German Language and Literature from the University of California at Irvine. Karen reviews for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship competition.