Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner
As an undergrad, one of the reasons you devoted so much time to a research experience was to earn an epic letter of recommendation–one that speaks to your strengths, resilience, character, self-reliance, cultural competencies, ability to solve problems, and contribute to a group effort. This letter will be a comprehensive endorsement of your medical school application complete with specific examples that influenced your PI’s opinion. This one letter has the potential to outweigh all other letters from a professor whose class you attended, or from someone who oversaw a volunteer program you participated in for a semester.
With so much riding on this letter, it can be intimidating to ask your PI for it even if they have written several letters on your behalf in the past. This is especially true if you have primarily worked with a graduate student or postdoctoral researcher in the lab and feel uncertain when interacting with your PI. Therefore, if asking for a letter feels awkward, remember that your PI expects it and it isn’t being rude or entitled to do so.
However, you don’t want to inadvertently send the message that asking is a mere formality, or that somehow you are doing your PI a favor by asking him to write a letter. Your approach should be rooted in professionalism, and you should make it as easy as possible for your PI to get the letter done. Use the eight tips below to accomplish both.
Tip 1: Timing is everything. It’s a bad strategy to wait until the spring semester is almost over before asking for a recommendation letter. Professors are inundated with students asking for letters at the end of each spring semester and you don’t want to risk having your request overlooked. At the latest, ask by the first week of April— before your PI is busy with the pre-summer activity crush or is unreachable after traveling to a scientific conference. Asking early gives you time to prepare what she needs to write your letter, and gives her enough calendar time to get it done—even though she’ll likely do it a week or two before its due.
Tip 2: Prepare your Curriculum Vita (CV). Your PI doesn’t know about all of your volunteer activities, accomplishments, or awards so give him the most up-to-date CV that you can. Make certain to include a section of all abstracts and posters that you coauthored, and the names and dates of each scientific meeting or undergrad research symposium that you attended. In addition, although the content of your CV is important, keep in mind that quality formatting is equally important. As tempting as it is to cut corners here, resist the urge. A poorly-formatted CV sends the message that you had more important things to do than consider your PI’s professional opinion of you. For help crafting a high-quality CV, visit your office of undergraduate research or campus career resource center.
Tip 3: Write either a draft letter or a self-assessment statement. If your PI wants a draft letter she will ask you for one. If she does, writing it will probably be one of the most difficult “assignments” of your undergrad career. Even so, do not make the mistake of putting it off then rushing to get it done because it will be obvious. The one person who should absolutely be invested in the quality of your recommendation letter is you, so write a draft letter that reflects this. Remember, the letter from your PI is likely to be the most thorough, supportive recommendation letter supporting your medical school application. Spend enough time and effort to revise several drafts until you have a polished version to give to your PI.
However, if you are not asked to write a draft letter, do not volunteer to do so because some professors will be highly offended by your offer. Instead, write an overview of what you learned from your research experience in either a few short paragraphs or bulleted points. Label the document “Self-Assessment Statement” to prevent any misunderstanding, and email it to your PI with the documents mentioned below.
The advantage a self-assessment statement (or a draft letter) is that it gives you the opportunity to remind your incredibly busy PI how you invested in your research experience, what you gained from it, and the overall contribution you made to his research program. Therefore, avoid negative statements unless they are similar to, “I struggled with working out the actin filament assay, but eventually produced data that was used in a grant proposal.”
To be the most effective, your self-assessment statement should be more than a repeat of the accomplishments listed on your CV. For example, a generalized statement such as: “I learned a variety of techniques,” won’t make the same impact that this statement will: “I learned to isolate DNA, perform PCR, and used those techniques to construct a clone that I used to rescue the mutant phenotype of X.”
Additionally, if you had a particularly memorable success, found an inventive solution to a research problem, or your PI praised you for a specific accomplishment, definitely mention it in your statement. Don’t think of this as bragging as much as helping your PI remember your successes. Professors are often grateful when their students remind them of noteworthy accomplishments when it’s time to write a recommendation letter.
If you wish to add a personal touch to your statement, mention something that highlights how your undergrad research experience enhanced your personal development. Such as, “Before starting my research experience, I wasn’t sure if sure if I wanted to go to medical school or graduate school. Now I’ve clarified my career path and decided to pursue an MD-Ph.D.”
Tip 4: Consider including your personal statement. There is no doubt that personal statements are hard to write and easy to put off. But if you can provide a solid draft that has the essence of your final statement, it might help your PI write a more balanced recommendation letter. Even when an undergrad has worked in my lab for three-plus years, reading their personal statement has helped me add depth to their recommendation letter. However, if you’re not comfortable giving your personal statement to your PI, don’t worry because it’s not essential.
Tip 5: Complete a recommendation letter release (if required). Your college or university might require you to give your PI written permission before he can write a recommendation letter that includes personal details. Therefore, prioritize the letter release if you want your PI to mention any personal information such as grades, volunteer activities, scholarships, research presentations, or observations of your strengths. Fortunately, most letter releases take only a few minutes to complete and are available online.
Tips 6: Send your PI everything she needs in a single email. Your CV, transcript, personal statement (if you’re including it), draft letter or self-assessment statement, and recommendation letter release should be in the same email. Make a checklist of everything you need to attach to double-check before you hit send. You do not want your PI to spend her limited letter writing time sorting through her already overflowing in-box in search of the email with the current version of your CV or the document she needs to finish your letter. (And make the subject line easy for her to spot such as, “ Rec. Letter Info.”)
Tips 7: Stick around. You’ve no doubt heard about the letter writer who mysteriously goes missing before a letter has been submitted, but sometimes the student becomes unreachable and it prevents a professor from finishing or submitting a letter. Although this has never happened with one of my lab undergrads, I’ve had lecture students forget to sign a waiver or to include key information I needed to write their letter. If I email a student and they don’t respond quickly, I might not be able to submit their letter before the deadline. Therefore, don’t plan any trips that will make it difficult to contact you in case your PI (or any professor) needs a quick response.
Tip 8: Send a proper thank-you note. Even if you already thanked your PI in person when he agreed to write a letter, it’s important to acknowledge your appreciation after he submits the letter. Essentially, telling your PI, “Thanks in advance,” doesn’t come close to making the positive impact that, “I appreciate the time you spent writing a letter for me,” does. In addition to developing a good professional habit, if you need another letter down the road, a thank-you email increases the chance of it happening—and you should never presume you won’t need another letter. Although this doesn’t hinge on a properly written thank-you note for me, I’ve written letters for undergrads who have applied for medical internships and job applications two years post graduation.
David Oppenheimer, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Florida and co-founder of Undergrad In The Lab. He has been working in the field of molecular biology for more than 25 years. His first research experience was as an undergraduate working on bacteriophage T4. As an undergraduate, he joined a research lab that emphasized the scientific method, critical thinking, and a genuine interest in learning. All researchers at all levels (undergraduate, graduate, and professional) were considered part of the team, and their contributions to the laboratory were valued. As a professor he tries to replicate that environment in his laboratory. His current research interests are focused on the proteins that control cytoskeleton dynamics, and how this influences plant cell shape. He also co-authored Getting In: The Insider’s Guide to Finding the Perfect Undergraduate Research Experience, which was published this fall.