22 February 2008

Referee choice

RefereeAnother common question this year has been, "Who should I get to write recommendation letters?"

I can't speak for other programs, but in ours, there really is only one requirement: That your referee know you.

Now, that said, if you think about it, there are some characteristics that are going to be desirable for a recommendation letter.

Since research positions like our REU program are, fundamentally, academic positions, you want to have someone who can address your ability to learn and your learning style. Your referee might want to answer questions like whether you are a quick study or Whether you need a lot of guidance. Whether you learn better in groups or if you prefer to work independently. Your referee might also want to place your academic work in context. In some classes, many students get As, but in others, very few get As. Or perhaps you got a B or a C, but you just missed the dividing line by a point or two, as opposed to scraping by near the bottom range for that letter grade.

Second, since research work is work, you also want someone who can address your ability to work with others. So, generally, you want someone who has supervised you in some way in task-oriented situations. This might be volunteer work, work for pay, or academic classes.

In many cases, professors are good choices for writing recommendation letters.

Sometimes, teaching assistants can write helpful letters of recommendation, as they have more face-to-face interactions with students than in a lecture setting with a professor. Teaching assistants also get to see how you handle equipment and your lab technique.

The one thing you probably don't want, though, is a letter from your mother. We're sure your mom is nice and all, but she's your mom. She has to like you.

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