Jun 30, 2022

Communicating with faculty and staff during your graduate school application process and beyond

Overview: Faculty and staff typically work at universities because they adore working with students and helping those students each their goals.   However, these same faculty and staff have a myriad of constraints on their time. By carefully crafting your emails with them, you will be able to get better support through your graduate application process and beyond. 


Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy




Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash
I chose to be a faculty member because I love seeing students grow and evolve into engineers and scientists.  I get to interact with hundreds of students each year in a variety of roles-as their instructors in a class, academic advisor, research mentor, guest speaker for their club, etc.  That interaction includes both face-to-face meetings as well as email. 


Email has become a significant portion of my day, sometimes taking up to 15% of my time.  I am reluctant to spend any more time on email because it competes with my ability to leave the office and get to spend time on the other things that matter (my friends, family and hobbies). 


When students request help during their graduate school process, I want to help.  I can respond faster and more thoughtfully when a student does the following: 


(1)   Keeps the length of the emails short by being concise.  When the student identifies what they would like from me within the first or second sentence, it makes my life easier because I can more quickly identify if I can commit to the request and the date by which I can meet it.  Emails that begin with sentences like “I am writing to ask for a reference letter for my coop application,” are ideal.  


(2)   Includes an email signature with key information such as:

a.     Full name

b.     Role or affiliation

c.     Current degree program and projected graduation date

d.     Email

e.     Cell phone number 

The cell phone number is crucial, as this allows me to pick up the phone and call them with any last-minute clarification questions. 


(3)   Reaches back out to me know the results of their application process.  This allows me either to celebrate with the student’s acceptance or to help that student know of emergent opportunities they might like to consider.  I also appreciate their perspective on their application process and try to use their insight to better serve subsequent cohorts.  Finally, by reaching back out to me, I can stay connected with the student and continue to be a reference.  This allows me to write letters for them while in graduate school as they apply for travel grants, fellowships, etc.  In addition, I often serve as a reference for the post graduate school positions. If you really want a faculty member to remember you, you can send them a handwritten note or postcard to let me know where they are.  The few I received are cherished and kept on my desk or in a keepsake box on my bookshelf.  I rarely get physical mail at work anymore and there is something special about opening a note that has been dropped in my mailbox.  If you want someone to know how much you appreciate them, this is the way to do it.


Acknowledgements:  This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords.  She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at epsteinwords.com.

Jun 28, 2022

Recommendation Letters- How to ask and what to give to get the letters you deserve

Overview: Most undergraduate programs, graduate programs, award nominations, etc. will request at least one letter of recommendation per submission packet.  This post describes how you can identify the right people to write those letters and provide them the information needed to write a good letter for you.

Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy




Photo by Tamanna Rumee on Unsplash
Most undergraduate programs, graduate programs, award nominations, etc. will request at least one letter of recommendation per submission packet.  At this point of the process, many components of your submissions cannot be optimized (such as an academic transcript or journal paper published).  However, you have agency over your statements and letters of recommendation. 


Letters of recommendation should be written by people who both know you well and can speak to your qualifications for the program. So, as you consider who to ask for a letter, think about their experience.  For candidates applying to a graduate program in engineering, their letters should come from people who have completed a similar program.  That is, if you are applying to a doctoral program in mechanical engineering, a letter should come from a person who has earned their doctoral degree in that field.  The letter will also hold more weight if that person has advised doctoral candidates or early career engineers/scientists in that field.  This is because the committees reviewing these applications want to admit students who have a high probability of successfully completing the program. 


I normally advise students to reflect on who they know could write these letters and to make a list.  Once you have a list of 4 - 6 people, ask a mentor to talk through the list with you.  Once you have determined the list, you will need to gather the following information:

  • Your resume
  • A statement of interest (why you want to join this program and how it will help you meet your current career goals)
  • A complete list of the programs you are applying to and the deadlines for the letters.  You will also want to notate how the letters will be submitted (through a website, requested by email, etc.). 
  • A paragraph on when you met your reference, how, and some reminders about you. This is helpful to faculty who meet 200+ new students each year. 
  • You may also wish to suggest a “focus” and provide relevant evidence – scholarly achievement, community or public service, leadership, or vision and innovation. 


Once you have these materials, set up a meeting with your potential letter writers either in person or Zoom and ask them if they feel that they can write you a strong letter of recommendation.  If there is any hesitancy at all, do not try to convince them.  Instead move on to another person in your list. Potential references may find it hard to tell people ‘no’, and there are many reasons outside your control impacting their response (such as already having a ‘full plate’ at work). 


Once they agree, you can gently check in every 2-4 weeks until submitted.


Acknowledgement:  This blog post was edited by Jennie LaMonte, the director of scholar development for the Clemson College of Science.  Her comments and suggestions were integrated into this post and are much appreciated!