How to ask for a reference letter


There will be a few instances, maybe many, during your time as a graduate student when you will need a letter of reference from your supervisor or another professor. For example, some scholarship applications, award nominations, grant applications, and even some job applications will require you to include a reference letter from a faculty member. Or, to nominate yourself for a position on a committee within your department or somewhere else on campus, you will often need to submit a reference letter with your application. If you are applying to a PhD program, or if you are already a PhD student and you are applying for postdoc positions or some other academic appointment, you will definitely need reference letters.

So how do you go about asking for a letter of reference? Who should you ask and how should you ask them?

If you are hesitant to ask for a reference letter because you feel that you will be inconveniencing your professor, you should keep in mind that the vast majority of professors understand that writing letters of reference is part of their job.In fact, most professors take pride in being able to help their students succeed in their academic careers and understand that students might not know how to best approach them.

Who to choose and when to approach them

Not every professor will make the best referee, and some are better for certain applications than others. You should ask professors with whom you have a good working relationship with, for example the professor for whom you were a teaching assistant, research assistant, or with whom you have worked with in some other capacity. If you haven’t worked with any professor in an official capacity, choose the professors whose course you excelled in. Think about the following questions when considering who to ask:

  1. How well did I perform as a TA or RA for the professor?
  2. How well did I do in the professor’s course(s) / how well did I perform as a TA or RA?
  3. How well does the professor know me? How well does the professor know my work ethic and my capabilities?
  4. Will their reputation carry weight with the selection committee?

This fourth criteria is an important, but often overlooked, aspect of asking for references. Depending on what you are applying for, you should consider the reputation of your professors in that particular arena. Obtaining letters of reference from professors who have a degree of pull in the discipline or academic community in which you are applying is a huge advantage.

In general, you should ask for letters of reference as soon as you can. Giving your referees as much notice as possible is important since they all have busy schedules and will need to arrange time to attend to this task. Asking for the reference letter before it is urgent is crucial, since giving only 1 or 2 weeks notice only shows disorganization and will likely mean you won’t get it.  I recommend at least 5 or 6 weeks advance notice.

What to say and what to give them

When you ask your professor for

[Photo by Flickr user RDECOM, used under CC licensing]

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Kyle Massey

Kyle is a current PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin in the College of Education.

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