Professional Etiquette and the Student

Okay, so we are now three weeks into my semester at Pacific and some questions have emerged among my non-traditional as well as first year students about what is appropriate etiquette in class. It is funny that this should come up now, as I am presenting a paper on this topic in October at the Center for Scholastic Inquiry’s International Conference.

Here are some of the questions students asked in advising with me:

How do I address my professors? Doctor? Professor? First name?

Is it okay for me to tape record lectures?

Is it okay for me to bring my laptop to class?

I worry about childcare, is it okay if I leave my phone on during class?

The answer to all of these questions is…
It depends.

It used to be that professional classroom etiquette was relatively straightforward. When I was in college, most of the technology we have today was not around, so this was the list of things not to do in class:
1. Don’t speak without first raising your hand
2. Don’t wear your hat in the building (really, this was a rule), ditto for wearing torn shirts or clothes that had beer slogans (again yes, really this was a rule).
3. Don’t be late
4. Don’t leave early
5. Don’t talk during lecture
6. Address everyone as “professor”
7. Make an appointment to see your professor outside of class
8. Submit original work (i.e., no cheating off your neighbor)

That was about it. Now though, you have professors from that same generation still teaching. You have professors of my generation (Gen X) also teaching, who feel a bit more relaxed about these rules (I could care less what your shirt says and if your hair is dirty, by all means, wear a hat), as well as Millennials entering the professorial profession. They often don’t care about cell phones, laptops, whatever.

So what do you do? How do you navigate the classroom from professor to professor, when all of them have different ideas about what is appropriate professional behavior?

I would say that the old school rules are good to follow (my list above) just to be safe. Your professors will hopefully tell you what their expectations are in the classroom and you should likely adopt whatever is the most conservative of expectations. Are they sometimes dated? Yes. But in the interest of manners and in maintaining rapport with your instructors, do it anyway. We all have to do stuff we don’t agree with or like.

Also here are some links that specifically talk about this issue:



Since some of my juniors have begun the process of completing the Graduate Record Exam, I have had a number of folks vent about multiple choice format assessments. Yes, I know, they are a bummer. But they exist and are an easy way to assess knowledge on a recognition-memory basis. That said, you’ve likely had experience with these kinds of assessments before sitting through a standardized test. This examination format is pervasive in education and although selecting the “best choice” can be tricky when options are similar there is a strategy to taking MC exams.

Here are some strategies to help you succeed.

1.) Read the answers first.
Yes, before even reading the question stem, read the answers. You
will likely find an answer that doesn’t fit. This will help you in
eliminating the wrong answer if the stem is “which answer is NOT

2.) If you have time, reread the question to be sure you have not missed
any ‘tells’ regarding the answer. These are usually in the form of
underlined words, bolded words, or hypothetical examples.

3.) When you read the answers a second time, consider if there is a
distractor answer. Sometimes authors of exams run out of viable
options and just make up an answer. This may sound like a
legitimate answer but you’ve never heard it before. If you don’t
recognize the answer, this is a trap. Don’t select it.

4.) Avoid pattern-seeking behavior. I recall when I was in college
that there was a mythology about the number of answers that
could be repeated (e.g., one choice cannot occur more than 5 times
in a row). This is fiction, generally test authors don’t pay attention to
how many “a” answers occur in row. You could conceivably have
more than five “c” answers consecutively. So don’t look for patterns
in the answer items.

Best of luck and remember: study, study, study.



Consider the Typical Research Presentation:

You’re sitting in an uncomfortable room, crowded and hot. The presenter is visibly nervous, the equipment isn’t working properly. The presenter finally clicks on their PowerPoint (likely after well over ten minutes to get the projector to work) and the title slide is displayed. It says something about aging but mysteriously, the background is of a snowflake. As the presentation begins, the presenter begins talking about the published literature on adult aging, click, a new slide rolls on the screen. One after another: click, click. But you have yet to piece together what this presentation is really about. What’s the research question? You don’t know. Each slide is diligently read for you, as though you cannot read for yourself.

“Adult senescence is a problem in our culture.”
Really? Why is aging a problem?
Bored, you try to discretely check the clock on your phone.
Fifteen minutes left of the presentation.

The hypotheses are discussed and then the accompanying slide is clicked through, too fast to read. The clicker and the infrared lose their connection, the presenter stops talking to tinker with the clicker. Again, they read the procedure slide. But it’s not entirely clear how this procedure relates to a research question. The results are projected, but the graph is illegible, taken directly from SPSS with 12-point font. Did they conduct a t-test or an ANOVA? The slide just reads, “there was a sex difference between perceptions of aging and likability.”  There are no analyses to identify what the p-values were, no effect size estimates, no sample size information. You start writing down your questions, you want to show you were paying attention. But the questions begin piling up and you don’t want to be rude or self-righteous in asking all of your questions.

The discussion slide is projected, the results are summarized in order of the null results first, then the limitations slide appears – why didn’t they mention the limitations when the results were projected? What are the implications of this research? Wait, what was the research question again?

A “References” slide projects on the screen but before you can write anything down, the presenter has run out of time and have clicked to a “Questions?” slide.  Why do they need a slide to ask if there are questions?

The Problem with Typical Research Presentations

Regardless of how much education presenters have, the above scenario is the norm, not the exception. The problem with the above scenario is that it’s painfully BORING, both to watch and to present.

Somewhere in the evolution of presenting, we’ve forgotten how to be storytellers. Think of your elementary school education. It’s your kindergarten teacher who should really be delivering your research presentation. Why? Because they know how to tell a story. The big picture book comes out during story-time, they read – animated, engaged, and with the goal of conveying a story, with the goal not simply to share a story but to entertain. The illustrations are turned around. brightly colored pictures visible after each page is read. The book with its illustrations are a prop, just like the PowerPoint should be a prop, not your presentation, not your story.

TedTalks at only 15 minutes are without PowerPoint. TedTalks require their presenters to be storytellers first. Their audience voluntarily chooses to sit, wherever they are, to enjoy a show, to be entertained and to learn. Remember the presenters are telling a story. For you as researchers, the research story should be your presentation, what you have to say, not the PowerPoint slides.

How to Be Both a Good Storyteller and a Good Researcher

The Introduction

Before you even open a PowerPoint slide, write your story into a Word document, the whole thing.

The first thing you write should be the below statement or some variant of it, “This project hopes to address the empirical question of….”

This is your research question and it should not be saved until the end. Unlike fiction, you’re not trying to keep your readers guessing, hooking them with unexpected plot twists. In nonfiction, tell your audience where you’re taking them. Think of the results as unveiling a surprise. Do not unveil the purpose or the research question as your surprise.

The justification for your research question should be threaded in the existing problem. If you’re conducting a study that hopes to uncover underlying attitudes about marriage, outline through statistics why this is relevant. What are the divorce rates among the population of interest? Does this affect the marriage rate? How? It might be meaningful to show the historic trends of marriage and divorce across the last several decades.

After you’ve presented your empirical question and provided a picture of the
problem discuss the existing literature that attempts to address the question. Where
are the holes? How does your project build on this literature?

The Method

Your methods should clearly outline the population and sample, as well as the
materials you used. If you used surveys, cite them. If you used equipment to
manipulate your treatment conditions, explain what they were. If you use a new
methodology this too will need to be explained.

Identify your design, was it experimental? If so, was it a between-subject design? A within-subject design? If descriptive, how was it descriptive?

The Results

For your results, reiterate your research question as well as any predictions you made. These are the questions your data is hoping to elucidate, so remind your audience of what they were and how the analyses address these questions.

Whenever possible, show your data. What are the t-values for significant results?
What are the p-values? Did you conduct effect size estimates for your t-tests and
analysis of variance? Your effect size estimates tell you how large the mean
differences are between or within your groups. If you used questionnaires, what are the reliability estimates of your sample? Remember that reliability is a product of the sample, not a measure.

As they say in creative writing, “show don’t tell” whenever possible. Show your results using meaningful, clear graphs with fonts that can be read from the back of the room. I recommend using charts from Excel rather than SPSS for this.

Don’t rush through this section of your presentation, this is the hook of your
 presentation. It’s what your audience will be most interested in.

If you have null results, don’t wait to explain why you think your methodology or your research question failed to yield significant results. Your audience will be thinking about the limitations or confounds during the results section, not the discussion.

The Discussion

Your discussion is the take-home summary of the project. Reiterate what was
meaningfully learned from your analyses. Again restate what your predictions were or at the very least the empirical question for the project.

What might you do differently to tighten up the methodology?

What populations might benefit from the results of this project?

How might your results be meaningful in informing policy?

The Acknowledgements

If you received any funding for the research project, those supporters should be acknowledged.

If you received support through participation, revision suggestions, advice, etcetera, these people, either individually or as a group, should also be acknowledged.


Provide your select references cited during the presentation as the last thing you
show. You can do this with a references slide at the end of your presentation or better yet, provide a one-page handout with these references listed. The title and abstract on one page and the references on the back.

Other Suggestions

In your written story, the one in your Word document, make it conversational. You aren’t submitting the narrative for a grade, you’re using it as a guide for your story. One way to make a written piece feel more conversational is to use contractions (e.g., don’t, won’t, etc) and real-world examples. Also, get rid of unnecessary jargon (E.g., say “people” instead of “individuals,” “wo/men” instead of “fe/males,” etc).

It is okay to use humor, I say this with caution, as your audience will be grateful for it IF it’s appropriate. That said, if humor is inappropriate, you’ll repel your audience.

Avoid reading your narrative. Use it only as a guide for preparing your presentation. If you
read from it directly, without rehearsing it, your presentation will sound stilted, uninteresting,
and academic. Further, any humor you’ve written into the narrative will fail to amuse.

Finally, you’ll likely feel nervous, so be prepared. Preparation is the best inoculation from anxiety, forgetting your “lines” and struggling with fluency (E.g., “ums”) during the presentation.


Here are some links to online resources that might help you in both writing your story but also in presenting your research:


Interviewing for Graduate School?

My apologies readers,

I have had an inordinately long hiatus from blogging…but since I have had a number of folks revive my blogging through questions….specifically about interviewing for graduate school, here are my suggestions about that.

1.) Be professional

No matter what, whether you are in the middle of campus interviews or out for drinks with graduate students. You ARE ALWAYS ON. That means, under all circumstances, you are still interviewing, do not let your hair down (as it were) to share negative thoughts about your college, the interview process or your interviewees. When you are interviewing, you are always under the spot light. Find the positive in most all circumstances or remain silent about those experiences. The interview process is generally a “jerk test” to see who will fit or not within the culture of the laboratory of the program to which you have been invited.

That said,

2.) Try to be Natural

One of the mistakes I made when I was interviewing, not for graduate schools but for professor positions, I had a script. And I followed that script, a series for questions, structured interviews and so on, for each person that would talk with me. This was a mistake. It felt artificial and everyone knew it. You don’t want that. While you’re visiting schools and their programs, remember that these are people who are trying to get a sense of who you are. They want to know if they can tolerate you in the lab, in their classes, or in service responsibilities. Try to be natural. Show of your sense of humor.  Behave as you normally would, but with some filter. Keep your opinions to yourself, but keep your humor, your humanity, and any questions you might have tactful.

3.) Ask Questions

Everyone likes to talk about themselves. If you ask about the program to which you are applying, the professor’s or the graduate students’ projects, and the degree to which graduate students (who you will be spending most of your time with) like their mentors, it will tell you a lot about whether you will want to be there. Ask about current events and what people do for fun.

These are some brief tips for your interview.

Best of luck,


To Be or Ph.D.? Where do I apply to graduate school?

As of three weeks ago, I reacquainted myself with my campus office and professional wardrobe.  It was nice to have a couple months to write at a local coffee shop in lieu of my office and the incessant meeting reminders, winking email notifications, and appointments.  Although I miss working in my yoga pants and baseball cap, it feels good to be back on campus. Perhaps it is the proximity of Rosh Hashanah, but the onset of the first semester of the year always feels to like New Year’s Eve should but rarely does. Full of promise, suffuse with potential and rife with all of the good intentions that I tell myself each year – “this year, I am going to learn R, I will apply for that grant, and I will submit that book proposal…or two.”  And in the first week of the semester, I believe it.

Students too are brimming with hope and shiny-faced idealism.  They have already begun making their way to my door with graduate school inquiries and internship possibilities.

“I need to start thinking about graduate school this year…where do you think I should apply?”

“How do I find relevant graduate programs?”

“How do I know which graduate program is right for me?”

Yes, I missed this. I am not sure where else but academics you can be perceived both as Yoda by your students and yet C3PO among your colleagues.  At the risk of overstretching the tired Star Wars references,

“Ready are you? What know you of ready?”    Yoda

If you are thinking about graduate programs, perhaps ready you are.  There are a couple things you might want to consider before you start shopping for graduate programs.  These are both practical considerations, like for example:

                 What is the average salary for the career you’re aspiring to establish?  

 This may seem like a superficial question, but this is an important and relevant consideration.  How much debt have you incurred in college?  How will you pay it off? What kind of salary do you believe will support the lifestyle you plan to have? What is the cost of living in the area you hope to establish a career? How long can you realistically tolerate continuing on in your education?  There was an interesting discussion on National Public Radio’s Planet Money program about what college graduates make once they leave college and which majors proves to be the most financially lucrative. Here is the link:

If you feel you have found your career niche, then it is in fact time to consider which graduate program will offer you the most for your time, energy, money and resources.  But again, another meaningful question to ask yourself before applying to programs is this:

How will you pay for graduate school?

If you are hoping to earn a teaching assistantship to help offset tuition, then you can eliminate those programs that do not offer teaching or research assistantships.  This usually means you will be looking at larger graduate programs.  You will want to look at websites carefully to see if Teaching or Research Assistantships are listed as possible options for graduate students. Often these assistantships will provide tuition waivers, others may provide financial support and still others might offer both financial support and tuition waivers.  It is important to be aware however, that just because a program has assistantships, does not mean that they go to all of their students. Graduate students still have to apply to theses assistantships.

Here are a couple of examples of programs that I know of that offer teaching assistantships, there are many, many more that you can find on your own.  But this provides you with an idea of where to look when you start checking on programs.

The University of Montana, Missoula:

University of Oregon, Eugene:


Now that we have dispensed with the financial concerns,

How do I find programs relevant to me?

Here are some websites that provide program catalogues for you to surf:

After students select a few programs that are in their area of interest, the next reasonable step is determining how many programs to apply to.  There is no straightforward answer to this question.  There are many different approaches to this, but again I tend to recommend that students consider their budgets and weigh the competitiveness of their portfolio against the cost of applications.

The average application will cost about $45/school.  The Graduate Record Exam Office will send your GRE scores to four schools for free, but beyond that, you can expect to incur additional fees in the way of $25/recipient.

I typically recommend that students submit applications to 8 schools if they are serious about attending graduate school in the upcoming year.  The math comes out to about $460. But of course, this number may vary depending on where you apply.

When you have made a list of places you are interested in applying, your work is not finished.  You also need to consider the mentor, which professor do you hope to mentor with?  Is that professor accepting graduate students for the year you are applying?  You may need to email them to find this out (do not send an email longer than a paragraph).

Typically, Emeritus faculty do not have full-time graduate students, so this may be one way to cull programs as well.  You may also want to consider the location. Is the graduate program seated in a place that you feel you can live for 2 – 4 years? Do they have placements or support for students once they finish their programs?  Most do not, but some do, so this is worth checking as well.

This should be enough information to get you started, be mindful of application deadlines and GRE dates while you are making these decisions.

Happy hunting!

Should I declare a minor?

This post will be most relevant for those of you in your first or second year of college but may be meaningful to those of you in your junior and senior years as well.

During advising meetings, I am frequently asked if I think a student should minor in a particular discipline. It should be said that there is no clear answer to this question. But there are three issues a student should consider before deciding to minor,

1.) What is your major area of interest and what job are you hoping   to land after college?

A minor is essential for some disciplines. For example, Professor Phil Ruder, an
Economist at Pacific University had this to say about students majoring in Economics:

“For students interested in graduate study in economics, a math minor — or even a math major with an economics minor — is all but essential. For most of my students, economics is either their minor or their second major — their first one being business. Apart from a math minor for students applying to econ grad programs, I don’t think that a minor offers much of a competitive edge and, indeed, think most students would benefit more from a wider sampling of random courses than from a minor.”

2.) What is the minor?
For example, consider a minor in music.

So you love music, you want to have a music minor so you have evidence of your extensive secondary training in this area. Wonderful. Do it, but do it for that reason. Unless you plan to go into music therapy, a music minor is unlikely to help you in finding a job in psychology, economics, sociology, biology, or most other non-performance arts professions. But you have to make this decision. There are other considerations you may need to take into account besides career opportunities within your major discipline. For example, are you a music instructor on the side and plan to continue this avocation? Are you interested in researching music or linguistics (music is, after all, a language. It has syntax, semantics, rules, and meaning) within your major discipline? If so, this minor may help you achieve those aspirations.

This is consistent with Political Scientist, Dr. Jules Boykoff’s advice when students approach him about declaring a minor.

I definitely recommend minors for students/advisees who have a passion for an area but simply don’t have the time to fulfill a major. When they declare a minor, I also make sure they get an advisor in that minor area, preferably, a faculty member they’ve enjoyed working with. That said, I do not tend to recommend minors for tactical reasons (e.g. so they can secure a job), although I am happy to talk through such calculations.”

That said, if the minor is in a foreign language and will result in some competency in a second language, this could certainly help you. A second language will almost always provide a competitive edge in garnering a meaningful job later. This is especially true for the health professions.

3.) Are your resources limited (e.g., time and money)?
If you are hoping to finish college in four years either due to an urgency to complete your training or because your financial situation demands it, a minor will hurt you.

A minor typically requires at least another full semester of college to complete. This is the cost that students frequently forget to consider when declaring a minor. Unless you take a course overload every semester, a minor will increase your time and the cost of college.

4.) Will a minor contribute to a more favorable GPA?
If you excel in the minor discipline and you are assured of an A or B in those courses (i.e., they doe no violence to your grade-point-average), then a minor could also be beneficial. That said, declaring a minor will add to your workload. If you think it could hurt your overall grade-point-average, then perhaps a minor is not a good plan.  In fact, Gretchen Potter, Pacific University’s Advising Director had this to say,

“There are two main issues to think about from a general advising perspective when it comes to minors. The general rule is that a minor should contrast the major to show a well-rounded, multifaceted individual. Foreign language minors, for example, look very good on a resume. Of course, within a specific discipline having a related major/minor, combination may serve a student better. In my teaching discipline of theatre the combination of a theatre, major/music minor would serve an aspiring performer better than a contrasting major/minor combination. The other issue is one of practicality. For many students there might not be enough room in their degree plans to complete a minor without extra time or tuition. This is often the case for transfer students and students switching majors later in their college careers.“

Some other considerations:

I am a behavioral neuroscientist, this mean that the work I do falls within two separate disciplines, Psychology and Physiology. Most graduate programs will want a background in both the social as well as the natural sciences. I occasionally have students who are passionate about this line of work as well and hope to find a career in behavioral neuroscience. This can be tricky because a dual major in both psychology and the biological sciences is advantageous but is not necessarily required.

A Solution: Major in one or the other. If you choose psychology, you will also need a full year of physics, a full year of chemistry in addition to a semester of organic chemistry, and a year of introductory biology. If your minor will include these classes, then go for it. Tailoring your transcript to meet the needs of a graduate program is helpful, but the downside is you need to plan this far in advance, usually in your first year of college. In my experience, students are not this planful or even aware of their career trajectory. I declared three separate majors in college, to the extent that I earned two separate Bachelors of Science degrees before graduate school because I just couldn’t decide which area was my passion, I could see myself as a marine biologist, as a medical doctor, as an animal behaviorist, as a veterinarian, etc. What resulted in my career path was a stellar undergraduate research program, a summer applied job, and a wonderful undergraduate advisor.

The point is, you have to make the decision about whether to minor on your own. But think about your individual circumstance as it applies to the above considerations. This should help guide your decision.

Best of luck!

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the following professionals for their feedback on this issue:

Dr. Jules Boykoff (Political Science), Pacific University                                                      Dr. Brian Jackson (Exercise Science), Pacific University                                                Dr. Larry Lipen (History), Pacific University                                                          Gretchen Potter, Director of the Advising Center, Pacific University                         Dr. Phil Ruder (Economics), Pacific University                                                                    Dr. Phil Schot (Exercise Science), Pacific University

“Will you write me a Letter of Recommendation/Reference?”

Although both letters of reference and letters of recommendation are often used synonymously, they are in fact two different kinds of letters.  In general, here are the primary differences between a letter of recommendation and a letter of reference:

Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are specific, largely glowing accounts of your letter writer’s experiences with you. They are typically longer letters because the reference has more to say about the student, mentee, advisee, volunteer, and/or research assistant. Therein lies the key difference between a recommendation and a reference letter. The recommendation letter speaks to your abilities in a variety of contexts, not simply as a student. A letter of recommendation will provide a more complete overview of your skills, competencies, character, and perhaps some of the struggles you have overcome. This is actually an important part of your character, it includes but is not limited to: How you manage stress, budget your time, the evidence of your intestinal fortitude, and the reference’s perception of your success and aptitude for a given program. The letter is an endorsement of your application for the program.  Recommendation letters are on a scale, from a lukewarm endorsement, to a luminous, enthusiastic, exceptional recommendation–these are letters with exclamation points! Some programs even ask professors to rate applicants along a continuum of experience,

“Of the students you have mentored, where does this applicant fall?  Upper 5 percent? Upper 10 percent?  Upper 25 percent?”  Consider that, where do you think you realistically fall along that scale?

Point of Reassurance: Grades are not the only consideration.  Some of my most effusive letters have been for students who worked hard,  overcame challenges, grew professionally, and who were a good fit for a program.  Many of these students, most in fact, did not carry a 4.0 grade-point average.

Letters of Reference                                                                               These letters are more general. If you have not interacted with the letter writer in a variety of contexts, you will likely receive a letter of reference. Therefore, it is often described as a character reference. But remember it is a reference. By definition, this is an instance, situation, or quality to which the writer is referring. Hopefully this is a positive instance, experience, or account, but it may not necessarily always reflect a sparkling, untarnished history.

As a Rule                                                                                                                                            You want letters of recommendation. This is also what graduate programs and employers want. In light of that, you need to consider carefully when and who you ask for a letter. Ask yourself this question, can this person provide me with a letter of recommendation or just a letter of reference?

A SURVEY OF 10 PROFESSORS                                                          Before I started drafting this post, I emailed a variety of professors from several universities within the natural and social sciences, humanities, arts, business, and foreign languages. I received a nice, even number of responses—10 in total, though these are not a representative sample.  There were naturally, some disparities in the kinds of things each professor wanted. But there was significant overlap in the expectations for writing a letter of recommendation. I summarize the consensus here (Note: there may be  individual differences based on professor, discipline, or institution not within my sample):

1.) Waive your right to read the letter                                                   This allows your writer to speak candidly about you.  It says something both to the writer and to the program if you do not trust your reference. The writer may still share the letter with you, but do not expect this, letter sharing is not the norm.

2.) Make it easy on your writer                                                               This means you need to be organized. Your reference may want materials emailed, they may want them printed, or they may want the request in person. But everyone from my sample wanted the information organized, professional, and detailed. In fact, Professor Brian Jackson (Exercise Science) of Pacific University emailed a great suggestion,

“I ask for a bulleted list of interactions (e.g., classes they have taken with me, advising, research, etc.).”

I love this idea. It is a great prompt for your writer in the event that they have forgotten something. Remember, like you, these are busy people. They have research, service, and teaching that they are also juggling. They also have families, daycare schedules, meetings, deadlines, publication projects, tests to write, tests to grade, research assistants to supervise, papers to read, advising, in some cases they may also have internship sites to manage, etcetera. This certainly, does not dismiss that you too may have all of these kinds of responsibilities, but then again, you are the one asking for the letter. It is a request. *They are not required to provide the letter and may not if they cannot provide an enthusiastic endorsement.*

3.) Provide your Curriculum Vitae                                                          This is important, like the bulleted list Dr. Jackson requested, the curriculum vitae (singular) or CV for short, provides a prompt for your writer. This is your comprehensive academic resume, a summative list of your experiences, some of which may not be familiar to your writer. The CV provides your reference an opportunity to see the breadth of your accomplishments.

4.) Statement of Purpose/Intent or Personal Essay                     Virtually any program, whether it is a graduate program, a scholarship, an internship, or a job application will likely ask for a personal essay of some kind. In the case of an employment opportunity, they may not explicitly ask for a cover letter. But you should provide this. The cover letter can serve as the personal essay.

Note: Students frequently balk at this request. They put off their SOI or cover letter until they are just about to send off their entire portfolio. But the fact that your references want this information shows a commitment to writing you a quality, competitive letter. You may even be fortunate enough to have someone like Economics Professor Phil Ruder as a reference, he wrote,

“I ask students who are applying to graduate school to share with me the essay they are writing for their application. Two purposes for this: One, I want to get an idea of the student’s goals and how they present their experience to the program. Two, there is an essay that virtually every economics program asks applicants to write…if they make a hash of their first attempt, I may end up guiding them through an extensive rewrite.”

Lucky you! That said, do not expect an SOI editor wrapped up with your letter writer.  This is a bonus.

5.) Program Details                                                                              Provide either documentation in the form of soft copy (emailed attachment), hard copy (printed), or as a web link (least preferred) of all programs to which you are applying. If you are applying to a graduate program, it is also a good idea to indicate which mentor or laboratory you aspire. This allows your reference to speak specifically to the ways in which you might be an asset to that program or mentor.

6.) Deadlines and Addresses                                                              Provide deadlines for each program. If you are applying to multiple programs, this means you need to create a list (see checklist link at the end of this post). This list should include the program details, the addresses and the deadlines for receipt of printed materials AND the way in which the program wants the letter sent.

Some programs want the letter sent directly to them, others want the letters sealed with a signature and bundled with the entire application. Finally, other programs are moving toward a more streamlined, electronic submission process and will send the professor a web link for the recommendation. Inform your references in what way each program expects to receive the letter.

7.) Channel Emily                                                                                           If you do not know who Emily Post is (or rather was, she died in 1960), she was the traditional, go-to-girl for all things etiquette. Her original Ms. Manners tome, called, “The Emily Post Book of Etiquette” is now, with all of the ways in which we communicate, pretty dated.  That said, there are contemporary versions of this writing (it is on its 18th edition); however, you need not read her book to behave professionally or with courtesy. What I mean by “channeling Emily” is remember the magic words from your early courtesy training: please and thank you.

No matter what, college is a profession. You are currently a professional student. Just like with any job, be gracious, professional, and organized. This is implicit, but since all of the respondents hit on this topic, it bears stating explicitly what professional courtesy means.

Be Courteous with Time                                                                                                     Provide at least one month from the time you give your references the materials to write their letters to the deadline the application should be received. This is by the way, standard academic etiquette.

Be Organized                                                                                                                                   This goes back to point two: Make it easy.  If you have cleared the first hurdle, you received a “yes” from a potential reference, do not think just because your reference has agreed to write you a recommendation that you can casually dismiss professional courtesy. The request for a letter is still formal and is still an interaction. Do not take this lightly, provide a single packet of all materials.  Avoid sending your reference several emails or materials piecemeal, wait and provide them everything they need in one email with the appropriate attachments or as printed copies.  Remember top-of-mind awareness, or in psychology, the availability heuristic.  If the last interaction your reference had with you was a sloppy delivery of application materials, or you made your reference seek out additional needed information, this could influence their letter.

Proofread                                                                                                                                         Just in writing this post, I reread and edited probably a dozen times, if not more (and I still could not get the formatting perfect).  Each time I read it, I found another error.  More education, does not mean fewer errors.  The first draft of anything is typically only 25 percent of the work, the editing reflects 50 percent of the labor, and another 25 percent is in the rewrite. Check for spelling, grammatical, and writing errors. And for God’s sake, spell your reference’s name correctly.  The more polished your writing, your portfolio, and your applications are, the better it reflects on you.  Also, make sure you have addressed your reference formally: Dr., Prof., or Instructor (this last one is appropriate if they have a MA/MS instead of a PhD).  We are informal at my institution, but as a rule, in correspondence it is better to be formal.  Your references have earned their prefixes, no one ever gets upset over “Professor,” but some folks get fighting mad over “Mrs.,” “Ms.,” or “Mr.”

Thank You                                                                                                                                            As a courtesy, thank your references for their time. Some letters may take several hours to write, especially if the writers are particularly enthusiastic about your application.  Consider this, how much time do you spend writing quality comments about your professors in student evaluations? 5 minutes, 10? These evaluations affect your professor’s career advancement, just like your letter of recommendation (or reference).  A “thank you” is appropriate.

8.) Follow-Up                                                                                                Let your references know the outcome of your applications. They are invested in you and in your future. Your references, whether they wrote you a letter of recommendation or reference, want you to succeed. Really.  They are your biggest cheerleaders. They want to see you go and do big things: be president, become a goodwill ambassador, create a start-up company, get your doctorate, or most importantly, be fulfilled, contributing citizens.  Let them know when you expect to hear back from the programs and when you do, tell them what the outcome was.  Many folks track this information (I do).  Acceptance to a program is not simply a win for you, it is also a success story for the institution, and your mentors.  You are an ambassador of your educational history.  Remember that your references will be sympathetic if you have bad news, there is no shame in a rejection.  Think of Teddy Roosevelt’s speech, “The Man in the Arena,” it is one of my favorite quotes of all time (linked here).  On the upside, your letter writers will run a victory lap for your acceptance–or at the very least, depending on their personality, they will give an inner, subdued cheer.  Don’t worry about letting a reference down, they are not your parents, they are your professional mentors. They have been rejected more times than they care to count, they can take any news you have.

There you have it. The above reflects the consensus among my colleagues. There were however, some criteria that differed among the professors I surveyed (see below).

Expectation Diversity                                                                                      

i.) Timing                                                                                                  Imagine you are going into the Peace Corps for a year after graduating college, you know that you will be applying to graduate school when you return.

Should you:                                                                                                                                         a.) ask for the letter before you leave for the Peace Corps so they can write the letter while their time with you in college is still fresh?                                                       -or-                                                                                                                                                             b.) should you wait and ask them for the letter the year you need it?

Not everyone is going to write you a letter in advance, but some will, I do for example. So as a rule of thumb, figure out who you believe can write you the strongest letter, ask them in advance if they want to write you the letter now or later. If they want to write you a letter in advance, have all 8 criteria above provided.

ii.) What if they say no?                                                                            Some professors will not write a letter of reference, others will. Those who don’t are not refusing the letter to thwart your professional goals. They simply don’t feel they know you well enough to write a character reference based on a single contextual situation or event. Or conversely, they may have a lot experience with you, but feel their letter will not do you any favors. Be gracious if a professor declines to write you a letter. This is a gift, be grateful that they told you this up front and find someone else who can.

Letter of Reference Checklist                                                                         I have a checklist (click the link above) that I ask of students who want a letter from me. It includes the information outlined in the consensus section of the 10 Professors Surveyed.  It also includes a link to a FERPA release, something you must provide your letter writers.  It is a legal waiver to discuss confidential information.  In that checklist, I also ask for your unofficial transcript or program evaluation.

I truly hope this helps clarify any questions you may have about the process.  If a question persists, please do not hesitate to contact me directly or pose it on this blog.

An Acknowledgement and Thanks to the Following Academics for their Contributions:                                                                                    Dr. Baine Craft, Psychology, Seattle Pacific University                                                    Dr. Stacey Halpern, Biology, Pacific University                                                                   Dr. Brian Jackson, Exercise Science, Pacific University                                                     Dr. Larry Lipin, History, Pacific University                                                                            Dr. Jessica Ritter, Social Work, Pacific University                                                             Dr. Phil Ruder, Economics, Pacific University                                                                     Dr. Sarah Phillips, Sociology, Pacific University                                                                  Dr. Dawn Salgado, Psychology, Pacific University                                                              Dr. Phil Schot, Exercise Science, Pacific University                                                            Dr. Allen Szalda-Petree, Psychology, The University of Montana