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Getting a great recommendation letter

Participating in an undergraduate summer research experience is a crucial early step in your scientific training. This is in no small part due to the personal and professional development you gain from the exposure to in-depth, experiential learning. And in addition to learning new research skills, communicating your results, and making a discovery to solve a problem or answer a question, you have the opportunity to earn a recommendation letter to support future applications for graduate school and graduate fellowships.

However, if you are early in your undergraduate career, you may not need that letter until a few years after your summer research experience. Sure, you could come back to your mentor after that time and request a recommendation, but that approach has some major disadvantages. Most importantly, the more time that passes between when you leave the lab and when you ask for a recommendation letter, the fewer the specific details about your strengths and successes your mentor is likely to remember—and it’s those specific details that can turn a strong letter into an epic one.

When I start to write a letter for a former student, for example, I might find myself pausing to think, “What did they do again? How did they demonstrate perseverance? Self-reliance? Creativity? Was this the student who worked out the problem with the actin assay, or was it the student who stayed all night to help an ill labmate finish an experiment?” These are the authentic details that help me tell their story through my observations and craft a letter that will be useful to selection or admissions committees. Unfortunately, those same details become more challenging to remember as time passes, new students join my lab, and new research projects are pursued.

So, as a summer research student, you need a strategy to cut the lag time between your departure from the lab and the first recommendation letter your summer research mentor writes for you. You want her to put her fingers on the keyboard while the details of your efforts and accomplishments are easy for her to recall.

My suggestion—which I recommend to all of my undergraduate lab members—is simple: Apply for a scholarship, fellowship, or award of some type that requires a recommendation letter and has a deadline in the fall or spring after your summer research. It doesn’t need to be a science-related opportunity, but be certain that you meet the eligibility requirements. Once, an undergraduate asked me to write a letter for a scholarship that required second-year graduate student status. It didn’t matter how skillful and dedicated this undergraduate was at the research bench; she did not meet the basic requirements, and I declined to write a letter of support.

Once you find an appropriate scholarship to apply for, you have a specific reason to ask your mentor for a letter. And once she writes the first letter for you, she will have a template to update for future letters, which increases the chance that an overcommitted professor will find the time to prioritize additional letters you will need as your training progresses.

Asking for the letter

When I sit down to write a recommendation letter, the first thing I do is review the research overview that I require all of my students to write. This description of four to seven things they gained from their research experiences helps remind me of their most noteworthy accomplishments and jogs my memory about the contributions they made to my research program, which helps me write a strong letter.

To help your prospective letter writer, write your own overview a week or 2 before the end of your summer research experience. Think of it not as bragging, but as an opportunity to remind your mentor how you took ownership of your research project. Whether you make a detailed bulleted list or write a few short paragraphs, do not underestimate the importance of this task; completing this “assignment” will make a lasting impression on your research mentor.

Your research overview should be more than a list of skills or accomplishments (which should be included in an updated CV). It should demonstrate professional and personal growth or unique and noteworthy achievements. For example, a generalized statement such as “I learned a variety of techniques” won't make the same impact as “I learned to express, isolate, and purify two proteins, which I used in an assay to test their interaction.” If you wish to add a personal touch, include how your summer research experience led to self-improvement. Perhaps you struggled to master techniques at the start but you learned to set aside disappointment and be resilient as you overcame technical challenges. Or maybe you learned to embrace the chaotic nature of research instead of being overwhelmed by what seemed to be an endless string of uncontrollable, spontaneous events. Acknowledging the challenges you faced and explaining how you overcame them help convey that you are capable of self-assessment, which both your mentor and future letter readers will value. 

After you complete your overview, meet with your mentor to discuss the scholarship and request a letter of recommendation. With your overview in hand, it will be easier to say, “I’m applying for a scholarship in the fall. Would you be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me? Here are some things I’ve learned in your lab so far.” Most likely, her answer will be yes.

If, however, your research mentor declines to write a letter, ask if it is due to your performance during the summer. If this is indeed the case, listen carefully to her explanation, even if it is difficult. Negative feedback is tough to hear, but when based on a fair assessment, it can used as a stepping stone to future success.

Making it easy

Early in my career, I was taken aback when, after I agreed to support a student’s medical school application, he handed me a draft letter he had written. I later learned that the student thought it was a standard expectation, as he had been asked to write a draft letter by another professor.

To avoid putting yourself in this awkward position, ask your mentor, “What do you need from me in addition to an updated CV, the link to the scholarship website, and information on where to submit the letter?” This leaves the door open for her to request a draft letter from you but should not offend her if she prefers to write the letter without your input. How mentors feel about draft letters from their students varies; you shouldn’t offer to write one, but be prepared to do so if asked.

As your meeting comes to a close, ask your mentor, “Would you like me to remind you by email 2 weeks before the letter is due?” Most mentors will immediately say yes. If yours does, mark the date on your calendar and do not forget to send her the reminder, even if it feels awkward. It’s not pestering her; it’s your insurance policy to ensure that the letter gets written and submitted.

Keeping in touch

The submission of this first letter of recommendation is not the end of your relationship. After your mentor submits any recommendation letter, send a short thank you email, even if you thanked her when she first agreed to write the letter. “Thanks in advance” makes less of an impact than “I appreciate that you spent your time to do this for me” after a letter has been submitted. Then if you are awarded the scholarship or fellowship, send a short email update with the good news. She will appreciate hearing about your success, and it will remind her of your qualifications.

As you continue with your undergraduate experience, do not lose contact with your summer research mentor. Sending an email update one to three times a year should be enough to maintain a professional connection but not so much that she sends your emails to the spam folder. If you continue with research elsewhere, for example, send a short update about what you are doing or how your current success is related to the training gained in her lab. If you don’t do additional research but instead join a volunteer program or take an upper-division class on a topic related to the research focus of her lab, use that information in your update.

Maintaining this professional connection with your summer research mentor is important, in part, because it can lead you to new connections and new opportunities. Your mentor will have observed your professional skills and personal strengths, and if you keep in touch, she may alert you to opportunities such as a scholarship or fellowship program, a conference travel award, or an additional summer research program that suits you. I’ve written recommendation letters for former undergrads several years after their graduation, served as an employment reference, and given career advice long after someone has moved on from my lab. Your mentor has life experience; you can benefit from her advice and perspective.

And frankly, you simply cannot have too many people in your life who care about your success.

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