Friday, October 05, 2007

The Importance of Recommendation Letters

If there is one piece of career-gamesmanship advice I would give to anyone, especially undergraduates eventually looking to get into graduate school or beginning PhDs who will be eventually looking for jobs, it would be to think carefully well in advance about where you plan to get letters of recommendation from.

For graduate school, your letters are probably the most important deciding factor for whether you'll get accepted or not. For job searches, good letters won't really get you the job, but you'll need great letters to even get your foot in the door for an interview.

Yes, great work will trump everything (if you do really great work, you'll get the great letters). But I've seen numerous students do less well than they should have because they didn't think well enough in advance about this part of the game.

For undergraduates thinking about graduate school, have you formed a close working relationship with one or more faculty members? (This can be done by doing research with them, writing a thesis with them as an advisor, being a teaching assistant for them, etc.) Lots of students will have exceptional grades and test scores; we want to know about you as an individual, and your capacity for research. Letters are the best way for us to get this information. Particularly if you go to a smaller school or a school with a smaller CS department, you may want to try to find a way to do a summer internship with a "bigger name" person -- a letter from such a person will likely make the difference between getting in and not for many places.

For graduate students thinking about jobs, who besides your advisor is going to write you a letter? We expect your advisor to say that you're wonderful; we want to hear from less biased sources. (Many students fall into the trap of working almost exclusively with their advisor -- good in the short-term, not in the long-term.) What other faculty have you worked at your institution? Have you worked with anyone from another institution? Have you thought about doing a summer internship -- which can be worthwhile just to get a good letter! It's important to work with multiple people, not just your advisor, so we can see multiple letters explaining and confirming why you and your work are so outstanding.

I thought about this after a discussion on the complexity blog about graduate school detoured slightly into the subject of letters for jobs (in particular, check Paul Beame's insightful comment #41).

By the time you get to tenure, letters are still important, but ostensibly you have less control about where the letters come from. The same general advice seems to apply, though -- great work trumps all, but working with or having some shared experience with many colleagues, including more senior ones, can be key to career advancement.

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