letters of reference

For lab members, please refer to our lab wiki for more relevant information.

For individuals currently outside the lab, please follow the below guidelines:

Basic information

Letters of reference are important elements of graduate school and job applications. I’m happy to write letters for students who have worked in the lab for a significant period of time. The nature and coverage of letters differs considerably, depending upon whether they are for graduate school applications, academic jobs, non-academic jobs, etc. So, when requesting a letter(s) please be sure to specify what the letter(s) are for. If you are applying to graduate schools, it would be helpful to have a list of all schools to which you are applying on one sheet of paper, along with the review deadlines, school address, search committee chair (if available), etc. See further info below for complete details.

These letters are very important. However, I’m often writing a lot of them simultaneously for different students, and fitting this in amongst other various responsibilities. I would prefer having at least two week’s notice, and in most circumstances I will not be able to honour requests within 1 week or less of the deadline. I have to sequence these letters, along with others that do not appear on the timeline and commitments for various lab members and colleagues. It is simply not fair to others for them to be shortchanged simply to accommodate your last minute request. I am aware that some opportunities emerge only when you are delving into details of others – so please plan ahead and start looking at these well in advance. If you are interested enough in the grad program to consider spending a significant portion of time there, you should checking these things out well in advance.

Getting the letters in on time for lab members is a high priority – so indicate the due dates (clarifying whether it is a “due date” or a “post-marked” date) clearly. Please keep in mind that mail delivery across the US-Canada border can take up to 10 business days. If you need multiple letters, please make a table of which letter form/etc is due when and including this in your materials will help me get the letters out on time. If a letter is due on a certain date, but you would like to have it earlier then feel free to indicate that. However, please do not simply say the letter is due earlier than is actually the case. The letters tend to bunch up and if there are some are due, say, Dec 15th rather than Dec 1st then it is very helpful for me to be able to plan a writing schedule accordingly.

Help me help you.

In order to help me write the best and most relevant possible letter, here are some simple guidelines:

  1. Please do not ask for letters in support of jobs/graduate program you are not qualified for. Similarly, feel free to highlight the elements of your background that make you a good candidate for this particular application.
  2. Feel free to guide my writing by listing the area(s) of your work, etc that you would like discussed. It is generally good strategy to have different letter writers address different aspects of your background, so please do let me know which aspect(s) fall under my letter. Similarly, let me know who else will be writing letters. This will help me make your letter as relevant and targeted as possible. If you’ve done relevant work in Lab A with Prof X but Prof X is not writing a letter then I want to highlight that experience. However, if you’re also getting a letter from Prof X then it will be more helpful for me to focus on other things.
  3. Remind me of where we first met, classes you’ve taken and/or projects you’ve done. Obviously I’m pretty familiar with your current work but for students that have been in the lab for a while it’s easy to forget who did what at which time. It is vital to relay this information in both absolute (i.e. Fall of 2012) and relative (i.e. the start of my 3rd year) frames. I’m often writing many letters for students who started a different times and are taking varied paths to graduation. Occasionally it is in your interest for me to talk about your growth from level 3 when you did X in the lab to level 4 where you did Y. Other times it is beneficial for me to put your work in a broader context (Bob began right as we began work on my SSHRC grant in 2014).
  4. Be sure to clearly specify the program you are applying to at each institution. Depending upon the circumstances, it is sometimes advantageous for your to have letters directed towards certain attributes for some programs, and other attributes for others. If I can’t easily tell which program you are applying for, then I can’t tailor the letter accordingly.
  5. Include the most recent available transcript (unofficial is fine), and please comment on the courses/aspects of the degree that are most relevant to the application at hand. This is particularly helpful when writing for students outside of SOTA.
  6. You might wish to add to this a brief narrative highlighting talents, skills, and experiences, such as a particularly rigorous part of your record, the leadership roles which you have held, or an unusual study or travel experience.
  7. If sending me updated materials (i.e. revised CV, refined project application), please include it as part of a single zip file with ALL of your pertinent documents.  This way I can use the folder which I know contains the most current info to write the most up-to-date reference.
  8. Provide me with details so that I can offer specific instances to back up general statements. In other words, saying that “this person is a hard worker and a nice person” is less convincing than being able to list concrete instances of specific projects done well and things demonstrating conscientious work. If you’ve given conference presentations and class presentations, note this clearly. As wonderful as all of your individual accomplishments are, don’t assume I remember them clearly off-hand (as impressive as I’m sure they were). Additionally, if you’ve helped other students with particular projects, or done other useful things that might not be immediately obvious to me at the moment I am writing the letter (probably late at night and/or in between lots of other tasks) then feel free to point these out explicitly.  I can help you best when I know pertinent things you’ve done.