Read parts one and two of this series.

You’ve found the fellowships you want to apply for and have begun the writing process for your personal and research statements — but don’t forget the critical component of all fellowship applications:  the letter (or letters) of recommendation. Letters of recommendation are imperative to building and reinforcing the applicant’s narrative and themes from the personal and research statements. As I’ve said in my previous posts, the entire application needs to represent a few main points that are reiterated throughout the individual sections to form a cohesive image of who you are as an applicant. But how can you control the portions of the application that are not written by you?! I have a few suggestions for applicants to help guide letter writers in your favor to have a strong application.

Who do I ask?

Some applications may require three letters, whereas some only ask for one from your thesis adviser. When choosing a few people to write letters, the first should come from your thesis adviser, because you will be completing your Ph.D. training in their laboratory. The second letter could be from a professor you did a rotation with, or one whom you have had prior lab experience with — perhaps an undergraduate or summer research mentor. The principal investigators (PIs) chosen should be able to speak about your scientific skillset and be familiar with your lab work firsthand. They don’t need to know your exact career goals and specific details about the fellowship you have chosen to apply for because you will provide them with that information.

When I applied, I asked my undergraduate PI for a letter of recommendation because she was the main letter writer on my graduate school applications, and I spent three years in her laboratory. You can always ask someone you did research with as an undergraduate, but try to only do so if you have spent more than one semester in their laboratory and the experience is fairly recent (about two years prior). Overall, you want strong letters from people who can speak to your scientific and academic ability based on personal experience.

How do I ask someone to write a letter of recommendation for me? What materials should I send to my letter writers?

Chances are that almost anyone you choose to ask will have already written at least a few letters of recommendation and should be familiar with the general process. But you want to be sure that your letter will be specific to you and not generic-sounding or impersonal. I have found it helpful to ask someone if they will be a letter writer by sending an email detailing when the deadlines are, a brief overview of the fellowship, why you are applying, any personal or academic achievements that pertain to the fellowship and your long-term goals. One way to accomplish this in one fell swoop is to attach the following items to the email:

  • Transcripts
    • org/som/offices/registrars/additional.html
      • Requesting a Student Grade/Registration Report (Unofficial)
      • Requesting a Transcript (Official)
    • Curriculum vitae (CV)
    • Research statement
    • Personal statement
    • Individual Development Plan (IDP)
    • Draft of letter of recommendation

It may seem like a lot of attachments, but this will give your letter writers any materials they may need to capture who you are as a student and formulate a more personal letter of recommendation.

Transcripts are usually requested in the fellowship applications, and it varies whether an unofficial or official copy is requested. It is also handy to have a PDF version for your own records, and you can use this to help PIs who aren’t familiar with the coursework associated with your program or aren’t aware of what coursework you have completed up to this point in your graduate studies. You should also try to continuously update your curriculum vitae, because this is where you can accentuate activities that you’ve been involved in as a graduate student, and it will serve as a list that your letter writers can use to provide examples of your academic achievements if they don’t know of any offhand.

Since asking earlier is better than asking later, you may not have your personal and research statements ready when you first contact PIs to be letter writers — this is fine! In your initial email, you can simply state that the materials will be distributed when they become available, but as a rule of thumb you should try to have these materials to them within two weeks of the deadline. If you have an IDP, this is a good place to communicate your goals as a graduate student, as well as your career goals, before your personal statement is ready to go.

Finally, I have run across letter writers who prefer for students to provide an outline of a letter of recommendation. Remember, you aren’t writing your entire letter — this is just a basic outline of what the fellowship is looking for and how you fit into the category. Also, this is your opportunity to choose the academic achievements and research goals that you want to emphasize, and a good way for you to control or influence your narrative by incorporating your main application themes into the letter outline. Not all your letter writers will request this document, and those who do may not use all of the material.

Overall, this list of materials should provide a foundation for the person writing your letter of recommendation to understand what you are trying to convey as an applicant, and again, make your whole application reflect the handful of themes that represent you. Keep in mind that asking earlier is always better because this will give people the time they need to plan ahead to write your letter and clarify anything in advance prior to submission.

Reminders: Do’s and Don’ts

Fellowship applications revolve around deadlines, so it is helpful to send reminders to your letter writers if you don’t hear back within a week of asking them to write the letter. Also, if they agree to write one but you don’t get a confirmation from the application website that the letter has been uploaded (or started) a week before the deadline, you can send an email just to check in. I would not recommend sending daily emails or nagging your letter writers too much. There is a fine line before it becomes a bother to your letter writer.

Also, keep in contact with your letter writers even after you have clicked the “submit” button, because there will always be other applications (or later, job opportunities) that will require you to call upon these individuals again. Maintain relationships with everyone who provides support during the trying time of fellowship applications. Since the fellowships are competitive, a support network is needed before, during and after each application. Enjoy the process, and I hope I helped reduce the stress of fellowship applications for you!


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