An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

August 18, 2010

Grad School Applications, Recommendations, and Mentoring

Filed under: Education — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Radical Scientist @ 4:38 pm

This post is part of 49 Percent’s zomg grad school!!!1 carnival. Go check out all the other lovely posts over there.

There is one part of the grad school application process that scares me shitless. I’ll stare down the GRE with gritty determination, and I can swallow my pride and lay claim to my lackluster GPA. But even thinking about having to ask for letters of recommendation makes me consider food service related career options instead.

I got my BS on the installment plan, over 8 years. Along the way, I worked more than I studied (out of necessity), and had a couple mental health flare ups, eventually culminating in a hella-awkward-at-the-time gender transition. I didn’t handle any of those issues as well as I should have. None of which is my professor’s fault (ok, maybe that one asshole who taught intro to calc), but let’s just say my best work was spread out across the years. Add in one mentor who retired and decided to move to a remote island with no phone, and a lot of giant lecture hall classes where the professors struggle to recognize more than a few of their students on sight, and, well, it’s a less than ideal situation.

I get that LOR’s serve a specific purpose in graduate admissions. Grad programs want students who work well with faculty, who have made a positive impression on at least a couple of their instructors, and they need some perspective other than the numbers on a transcript and the student’s own self-praise. And now that I’ve spent a couple years working in labs, I understand that any worthwhile professor or PI considers handing out recommendations for their protégées to be a standard part of the job. But no one told me that, at least not until I was…oh, 25 or so.

Some students can feel comfortable asking their professors or mentors to take the time to send out a half dozen recommendations for grad programs or internships. There are some academic environment factors–smaller classes and smaller departments breed familiarity. And some students will be outgoing no matter what barriers are thrown up in front of them, and some will always be shy.But at the broad generalities level, asking for recommendations is even more fucking terrifying for students who have grown up being told that the old guard of professors–white, male, straight, cis, and middle to upper-middle class–are their social betters.

Sometimes those fears are founded, often they’re not. But so long as they exist, they are one hurdle to the sciences (or any other discipline) becoming more welcoming and diverse. I know I, for one, am not looking forward to tracking down professors from several years ago, trying to get them to remember me, coming out to them (lest I get the wrong name on my rec letter), and then asking them to take the time to write letters to a number of schools and federal programs.

Meanwhile, my frat boy classmates have nothing to fear. They’re unafraid to ask, to send deadline reminders, to specify which of their most charming attributes they’d like highlighted. Even those who are, shall we say, on close terms with the gentleman’s C. They’ve spent their lives learning to navigate Old boy’s Networks; they seem to know what’s expected, and feel that they deserve to succeed.

I had a small honors class once where the professor did a wonderful job of pulling everyone in, and driving us to excel. Before handing out the final exams, he gave us a short speech about how lovely a class we’d been, that it had been a pleasure to  teach us, etc etc, but he ended by saying he’d be glad to write a recommendation or be a reference for any of us whenever we began applying to jobs or graduate programs. It was a revelation to me.

I understand that it’s unusual to have an entire class full of students you’d be willing to vouch for. But in my brief time in the science blogosphere thus far, I’ve seen a lot of great discussions on the value of mentoring, the importance of making science more ‘diverse’ in various ways, how to mentor, and so on. One thing that I haven’t heard (and I freely admit I may have just missed), is the value of offering recommendations. To student workers and interns, to students who excel in your classes, and to advisees. Look at each one, and think ‘would I be comfortable writing this student a warm recommendation, if they asked me to?’ If the answer is yes, for god’s sakes, tell them. Make sure they know you are willing to help them advance, and that that is part of what you do.

Sure, assertiveness and self confidence are good characteristics to develop. Ideally, students would have the self-confidence to a gruff senior professor for professional help based on their performance, rather than the professor’s friendliness or whether they feel inferior to their instructor.  But being unapproachable doesn’t weed out people who are bad at science, it weeds out people who are afraid to ask old white guys for favors. And that’s one more little thing that gives us a new generation of scientists no less homogeneous than the last.



  1. This is so awesome. You are so awesome. Thanks for writing this. Asking for those LOR is so stressful for so many of us for reasons that have nothing to do with science or merit.

    Comment by Samia — August 18, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

  2. This is a great post–I really appreciate you putting it up. I am new to the TT and still learning how to be a good mentor. I’ve been telling the students who work in my lab at any level that I would be happy to write them letters, but I haven’t said anything to people in my classes. I have never felt like I could vouch for a whole class, but there are certainly frequent office hours attenders who I would be happy to write letters for. I will be sure to mention that fact to them. Thanks for helping me be a better professor.

    Comment by prodigal academic — August 19, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

  3. Thanks a bunch, Prodigal Academic. I was a little nervous putting this out there–giving advice to professors (and professors-to-be) when I have only ever been on the other end of professor-undergrad interactions. So it’s great to hear someone say this was in fact helpful. I’m sure your office hour attendees will be happy, too.

    Comment by Radical Scientist — August 19, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

  4. I just came by your blog from the carnival so I don’t know you background, but I think there’s one more important point about letters-of-rec beyond the old boys network. Let’s say you’re someone who took 8 years to finish undergrad. Your grades are good enough, but not stellar because you aren’t rich and needed to spend a lot of time earning money to put food on your plate and a roof over your head.
    All a grad school admissions committee sees is a long undergrad degree and not stellar grades. Letters of recommendation are one thing that can bring a student into serious consideration. They can help explain things that an applicant can’t in their own application and thus enchance diversity in a program.
    That all said, I agree that bosses and teachers who explicitly say they can write a letter for someone is important for those who don’t know that they should ask.

    Comment by bsci — August 19, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

  5. That’s a good point–I hope my recommenders will help me explain my perpetual-undergrad years. I’m certainly not saying LOR’s are useless, or always disadvantageous to disadvantaged students. Just that I’d like to see more faculty aware that asking for them can be more intimidating to students who don’t have the old boys network thing going for them, or don’t know how the whole white-collar world works. Good mentoring goes a huge way toward fixing that–offering to help students rather than waiting for them to ask, and making sure they know how the system works. Besides, letting students know they’re supposed to ask their research supervisors, advisors, or favorite professors for the recommendations (and other guidance they need) spreads out the work. I’d hate to see the conscientious faculty of the world buried under a mass of extra paperwork. Share the burden.

    Comment by Radical Scientist — August 19, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

  6. I definitely agree that it helps for faculty to be proactive regarding letters-of-rec. In this case, I’m not sure if I’d call this an old boys network thing as much as someone not knowing how the white-collar world works. I never did something for the sake of a letter of recommendation, but I always tried to give a good representation of myself to people who potentially write a letter for me in the future. You don’t need a recommender to explain your last 8 years, but having someone say your a dedicated hard-working person who managed to put in 5h of high quality work a week in a lab in addition to taking classes and working 30h per week goes a really long way.

    I’ll add one other thing, the best letters-of-rec are from prominent people who know you well. I prominent person who is managing a million dollar small business (i.e. a research lab), writing letters for the 3 grads students and 15 undergrads that go through her lab every year is never going to stand up in front of a class of any size and offer to write more letters. For that matter, that person is never going to ask who want to work in her lab since she’s currently turning people away. If that’s a letter someone wants or a lab they want to work in, they need to ask! Knowing that this is the type of person who it is useful to know well is an acquired knowledge.

    Perhaps teaching this should be a more aggressive goal in freshman orientation documents and career counseling towards freshmen?

    Comment by bsci — August 20, 2010 @ 7:06 am

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