What are good recommendation letters for PhD applications? How to get them?
Recommendation letters for Business School PhD applications
Now, you may have questions in your mind like “Are there exceptions?”, or “can’t my boss or supervisor vouch for my abilities?” Well, as with anything in life, there are definitely exceptions. For example, if you have been working at a non-academic research institution, and have been producing quality research, then a recommendation letter from your boss or supervisor could reflect favorably on you due to the research component. That said, it is my impression that academics have a tendency to place a wall (justifiably or unjustifiably so) between the academic world and the practitioner (or real) world, and tend not to regard non-academic references as seriously. After all, academia in a lot of ways resembles an artificially constructed system or game, and people within like to associate with people who know how to play the game, or are at least like them.
So now that you know what sort of recommendation letters boosts your application the most, you need a game plan to get them. The ideal scenario would be that you have in the recent past done some research work with faculty members or professors, and perhaps had some publications with your name in them (as an author or co-author). In that case, getting a recommendation letter would be straightforward – just tell the faculty member your intentions of pursuing a PhD, and politely ask him if he would be willing to write a recommendation letter for you (and remind him of the work you have collaborated on). 90% of the time, that will be a done deal, as the recommender requires only minimal effort to put in a good word for you in the letter, as the research work or project would be fresh in his mind, and the publication (if any) would speak for itself in any case.
If you had not recently done any research work with faculty members, but know of faculty members that know and remember you personally (e.g. if you had just completed your undergraduate degree), make a list of them. Select 3-4 of such faculty members that you think you had impressed (intellectually) before, or just like you in general, and contact them. Approaching them in person would be the most preferable, but email would sometimes do the job as well. Before you approach them, think of the ideal recommendation letter you would want them to write for you. Draft this letter from their perspective – think of the skills/qualities you want them to mention in the letter, and the instances where you have demonstrated them. Doing this would almost certainly double your chances of bagging that recommendation letters, as the last thing a busy faculty member wants is to have to craft a recommendation letter out of thin air, especially if you have not really worked with him/her before or if you did not really make a very strong impression on him/her.
The worst case scenario is when no one (as in zilch) comes to mind that can write a recommendation letter for you. In this case, you will have some serious work to do. The fastest way to bag a recommendation letter in this case would be to volunteer to help out as a research assistant for a faculty member. Search online faculty listings for potential faculty members whose research areas you find interesting, and contact them (email, cold call, or in person). Once you establish some sort of working relationship with the person, you can then apply the steps above to get your recommendation letter.
In my final article of this series, I will talk about how to write a statement of purpose, otherwise known as a motivation letter.