A reference letter a year makes the doctor(ate) appear?

Part of my recent writing a recommendation letter for Victoria Sosik had me looking back at my history of letters I’d written for her [1]. Doing this leads me to propose a worthy goal for PhD students: try to need at least one recommendation letter a year from your advisor [2]. Why?

First, recommendation letters mean that you’re trying to achieve something good: a fellowship, an internship, a job, a scholarship, a doctoral consortium, an invited workshop [3]. They don’t have to be big: local (department, college, or school-level) recognition and support for research is worth finding too, and you should have these on your radar [4]. Being recognized is never a bad thing, and for ones that come with support, this gives you freedom and opportunities [5].

Second, it helps keep your advisor up on what you’re doing. In principle, we should be pretty good at this through regular contact and scheduled times for reflection on the bigger picture [6]. However, people get busy (or as Amy Bruckman points out, overcommit their time), go on sabbatical or leave, or fly under the radar for a while, so distance can form. Needing to write a letter is a forcing function for attention.

Third, it means there’s always a letter ready to go that’s pretty current. Opportunities come up, sometimes on short notice [7], and it’s normally awkward to ask someone to write a reference letter from scratch on short notice. A recent version can often be tweaked pretty fast.

I’d be interested to hear other folks’ takes, but my general advice to students would be to get crackin’ and start askin’ [8].

[1] Which is a fair number at this point as she prepares to head out the door.

[2] Sorry, advisors! Actually, though, as you’ll see, this is not such a bad thing for you.

[3] It turns out that the essays, plans, abstracts, goals, proposals, and other documents you have to write for these things are also often helpful for your thinking. Grant writing, in moderation, is like that for me, as was writing up the tenure docs.

[4] I try to shield students from the need to garner resources, especially early on, but finding resources–whether it’s money, material, sites, people, or support–that can help you get things done is part of the job, and it doesn’t hurt to get practice at this early on.

[5] There’s also a kind of moral suasion this should pose on your advisor: the more you help yourself, the more they should feel like they should help you with ancillary things: travel costs, participant payments, tools and/or transcribers.

[6] I try to have everyone I work with or teach do at least one self-evaluation a semester. These are super lightweight but do remind people that they should take stock and give them occasions to make changes they see as valuable.

[7] Sometimes on longer notice, because you go back and forth, then make the call late in the game. FWIW, it doesn’t hurt to ask your advisor whether shooting for some X is a good idea earlier on.

[8] But ask in ways that make it easy, by including pointers to the thing you’re applying for, guidelines/criteria, your CV, a transcript, drafts of the docs you’re writing for it, your current website, and anything else you’ve got that’ll give people the information they need to write a better, faster, stronger letter.