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Can my professors help me get into graduate school?

Dear Professor:

How can I develop relationships with professors that will lead to research opportunities and strong letters of recommendation for graduate school? Can I realistically ask my professor for his or her help with a personal research project?

A BYU Student

Dear Student,

Meaningful research is a long-term, disciplined process. I suggest you find one topic that interests you and plan on spending significant time (6-10 hours a week for several semesters and possibly full time in the summer) to master it. This level of effort is much more likely to produce a meaningful contribution that will lead to a great relationship and a spectacular recommendation letter/entrée to graduate school than a short-term interaction can. If your schedule allows such a commitment, I suggest you (1) do enough research to know who on the faculty is interested in the same question you are and what is already known about it, and (2) go to that faculty member with a specific proposal.
Dr. Larry Baxter
Chemical Engineering

Dear Student,

Yes, of course you have the right to ask the professor or instructor for help in research assignments associated with the class, but you should be aware of certain constraints which may limit the interaction, such as class size, requirements for the assignment, and so forth. As for how to go about asking for help, since most instructors have penciled in student consultation time, or “office hours,” this would be the ideal place to start. Emailing prior to setting up a specific block of time is also recommended.
Dr. Dan Belnap
Religious Education


Todd L. Goodsell &mdash Jun 19, 2009 @ 6:26 pm

Dear Student,

I appreciate your linking research opportunities to strong letters of recommendation to graduate school. Indeed, I can write stronger letters of recommentation for students I have come to know well as my research assistants. I agree with Dr. Baxter that you should plan to spend enough time to master the research and to develop a relationship with the professor. Not all professors can assist with a student’s research project, but some may have opportunities for students to help with the professor’s research projects. Here are some suggestions:

(1) Take a class from the professor, and excel in it. Some professors invite their best students to become their research assistants.

(2) Talk to your professors about your educational and career plans. Let them know you want to go to graduate school. Get some advice from them. Tell them that you are looking for opportunities to do research and to develop relationships that will help them get into graduate school. Not every student wants to go to graduate school, so it helps me to know what each student’s goals are.

(3) Develop skills that professors need their research assistants to have. That may involve, for example, taking statistics or research methods classes as soon as you can so you then have time to apply them in a real research project before you graduate.

(4) Ask your professors what research they are doing, and whether and how they involve students in research.

(5) If you become a research assistant for a professor, be excellent at it. The more you can accomplish as a research assistant, the more good things the professor can say about you when he/she writes you a letter of recommendation. Be cooperative, be reliable, and be a problem-solver.

(6) Start early. Don’t wait until the semester you are applying for graduate school to get some research experience.

Finally, keep in mind that many graduate schools ask for multiple letters of recommendation, so you should try to develop relationships with several faculty members who may be able to write such letters for you.

Dr. Todd L. Goodsell

Mike &mdash Jun 24, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

I have been an aspiring graduate student for some time now. BYU has fantastic, motivated professors that are generally interested in helping students achieve their academic goals. Thanks to a few professors’ help, I have started to build an attractive application.

It is remarkable how accommodating many professors have been. Still, these good feeling don’t obtain without disappointments. Some professors fail to live up to the high standard of involvement set up by the BYU faculty. Fellow students, press forward through these occasional frustrations: there is relief and opportunity for those who do.

Cory Leonard &mdash Jun 26, 2009 @ 9:25 am

I strongly support this conversation an earlier recommendations–and want to emphasize the importance of ensuring that letters from professors connect closely with your overall application. For example, if you claim to be an avid learner, your supporting letter can confirm this assertion with specific examples from your coursework or student job. (Of course, you’ll have to help “remind” your faculty–and most are appreciative of the help.)

Also, remember that the letter is a key part of your ‘pitch’ to an admissions committee–an austere body that may have read through hundreds of similar applications. Think about what differentiates you from other potential grad students and be sure to include it–in the letter you request or another part of your overall packet. A fresh, specific, sincere letter from a faculty member who knows you well is a worthy goal. Approach your classes accordingly–participating, asking questions, volunteering, stopping by during office hours, and–of course–doing well in the course!

Finally, writing these letters is a mostly thankless job. Deadlines can be inconvenient. Some students ask for multiple letters, requiring modification, to various institutions. Thank your professors with a personal note and heart-felt expression. Not only is it good manners but it furthers what should be a life-long professional relationship.

Cory W. Leonard
David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies

Laura Catharine Smith &mdash Jul 2, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

All of these suggestions given above are really useful to follow.

If there’s one thing I could add, it would be to emphasise that personal qualities bear just as much weight (and often more weight) than whether you had the top marks or grades in your classes. I try to underscore each semester that I can write a better letter of recommendation for a student who got a B in my course if they came to office hours, “played well with others”, didn’t complain, did their work on time, were courteous and respectful to their fellow students, and showed a genuine desire to learn than a student who got an A, but was arrogant, felt entitled to a good grade, was pushy, argued over points (and grades) on assignments (!), dominated classroom discussion, and did not take criticism well.

Quite simply, when I write a letter of recommendation for a student, it is my reputation that is on the line just as much (and in fact possibly more) than my student’s. If a student is exceptionally bright, but not pleasant to work with, my colleagues will not be happy with me if they have to deal with behavioural and personality issues. Moreover, when you are asking for a letter of recommendation, please remember that you need to live up to high expectations when you start graduate school. Failure to do so puts other well deserving students at risk of not being accepted if your professor’s colleagues can’t trust what they write in future recommendations because you didn’t live up to the student you once were. You need to do what you can to EARN a good letter of recommendation, and once in grad school, do everything you can to KEEP that recommendation from others. In reality, faculty may do the typing, but the students are the ones who really write their own letters of recommendation.

So cultivate positive relationships with your professors early. Be courteous and respectful to all your professors and classmates. Be prepared in all you do. Be sincere. Make it easy for us to recommend you. And keep in mind that you want to be this way with ALL your professors and classmates. Not just the ones you ask for letters. Faculty notice how students treat their colleagues and other students.

That said, when I have a good student who has been a delight to work with, writing a letter of recommendation is a positive experience. That’s how you want your recommenders to feel about you. Think about what you’d want people to write about you, and be that person.

Sam Hardy &mdash Jul 3, 2009 @ 10:47 am

Dear Student,

Your professors are essential assets in helping you to get into graduate school. Here are a ten things they can do for you:

1) Help you best plan your curriculum as an undergrad.
2) Get you involved in research.
3) Teach you about various areas of theory and research you may be interested in.
4) Help you decide whether to go to graduate school, and if so, what to get your degree(s) in.
5) Help you select the specific programs to apply for (and select the best graduate mentors).
6) Write letters of recommendation for you.
7) Give you opportunities to present research at conferences, and to meet other scholars in the field.
8) Sometimes they can talk to people they know at the places you have applied, and give you an extra leg up.
9) Help you with your other application materials, such as your Personal Statement.
10) Help you plan for interviews you might have at schools considering accepting you.

I’ve done these things with my students, and they have all had great success getting into graduate schools.

Sam Hardy
Department of Psychology

brooke shields &mdash Jul 4, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

How can I get a strong letter of recommendation for graduate school when I have just graduated and did not develop any close relationships with any professors?

Todd L. Goodsell &mdash Jul 4, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

Brooke is not alone in asking that question. Students do not develop close relationships with professors for various reasons. Some simply were not planning to go to graduate school and only later changed their minds. Some came from families in which no one had gone to graduate school before, and so they had no one coaching them through college (and telling them that relationships with faculty are important). And then, their situation is similar to those who may have had close relationships with professors when they were students, but they were out of school for several years and now that they want to apply for graduate school their old professors have retired, passed away, or otherwise become unavailable. So it is good that Brooke asks that question!

I would say that it is good to plan for graduate/professional school while you are an undergraduate. Even if you do not go on, or even if you do not go on for several years after being in the workforce or staying at home, developing relationships with professors (including being a research assistant) will still help you. At a bare minimum, you can discuss your research experience in your personal statement and list it on your resume.

But let’s say you don’t have that and you’ve already graduated. There are several things you can do.

First, try to reconnect with faculty. A former student might, for example, come back to visit me and talk about his/her life since graduation and about his/her goals and accomplishments. Keeping in contact with faculty is one way to maintain relationships just in case a letter of recommendation will be needed. I ask my graduating research assistants to write me a letter or give me a phone call once a year after they leave BYU.

(And by the way, after I write a letter of recommendation I like to find out how things turned out. One colleague told me how perplexed she was that some students asked for and received letters of recommendation from her, but she never heard from them again! Remember, you want to sustain relationships.)

Second, look more broadly for letters of recommendation. For some graduate or professional programs, not all of the letters need to be from academic sources. You might get a letter from a work supervisor or someone who can comment on your community involvement. Many of the same principles apply for these letters. For example, they are more helpful if they are more detailed and focused on your skills, personality, and accomplishments than if they just recount that you worked somewhere and seem like a good person. If you don’t have people at work or in the community who can write you such letters, work at developing relationships there.

A third approach is to see various programs as stepping stones to higher programs. Think about both your education and your work as “careers.” For example, let’s say you want to get a Ph.D. and you already have a bachelor’s degree, but your application is not strong enough yet. Maybe you can get into a good master’s program where you can get research experience and good letters of recommendation, and then go on to get a Ph.D. This may be a more effective strategy if, for example, you want to get a Ph.D. in a different field from the one in which you got your bachelor’s degree. In this case, you might use the master’s to transition into the new field. Some other combinations might also work. I’ve seen some students get a master’s degree to strengthen their application to go to law school. But let me emphasize that you should not treat the master’s program as an extention of an undergraduate program. You should not (relatively passively) take the classes and graduate; that should not be how you approach your undergraduate education, and it’s really not going to work in graduate school. You should plan on focusing your experiences to prepare yourself for your long-term goals. Also, make sure you select a master’s program that does in fact send its graduates on to the schools or work that you seek.

Fourth, you might try to look for equivalence to academic recommendations. Can you get a full-time job that is just like being a research assistant at a university? For example, a sociology B.S. graduate should be qualified to do research work at a think tank, various government entities (e.g., Census Bureau, FBI, Department of Agriculture), or a business consulting firm. The recent graduate with a B.S. would not become a manager — at least not at first — but his/her first job out of college can give him/her valuable research experience. Again, focus on being an excellent researcher and on developing relationships that can lead to excellent letters of recommendation.

Finally, sometimes you can develop or continue collaborative relationships with faculty after you graduate. Whether this is even a possibility varies widely, depending on whether you are still associated with a university, what field you are in, how much you can invest, and what skills you have to offer in a collaborative relationship. My sense is that this is unusual, especially for a former student who only has a bachelor’s degree. It is much, much easier to get these research-assistant experiences and to develop relationships with faculty while you are still in school.

I hope this helps.

Todd L. Goodsell
Department of Sociology

Elly Lavender &mdash Jun 25, 2011 @ 7:37 am

I am just thankful that as of now professors are being approachable compared to those professors before. I am not having hard times including this concern because they are happy answering my concerns and sometimes they are the one who approaches me first and asking me what difficulties I am facing right now. Nice blog!

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