As I sit here staring at the stack of letters I need to write for my students, I thought I might make a few notes about this altogether fun aspect of the application process. Especially a few things you might want to avoid, so your letter writers aren't silently cursing your name while they try to come up with things to say about you to your dream school :)
So, the first question you might be asking yourself about this, is who the heck am I even going to ask? Well, if no names are coming to you right off the bat, you might be in a bit of a sticky situation. This is where getting to know the people who teach your classes comes into play. And by "getting to know" I mean, attending office hours occasionally to ask informed questions, being an attentive classroom participant, and overall not being the student your TA/Professor wants to hide under their desk from. If you're in your senior year, you hopefully have a few people who know you by name and you've managed to develop a little report with. If not, well, there's a reason professors hold office hours. Go! Talk! Ask nice questions and don't make a nuisance of yourself :)
The best people to get to know are those that are in your field of study (which hopefully in some way corresponds with what you are planning on doing in your graduate career), and who have had experience working with you in the classroom--and even better, outside of the classroom in a research setting. Yeah, I know, not all fields allow for this kind of thing, but hopefully you've managed some kind of internship or job where you can ask someone to recommend you. If you've been out of school for a good long time and no longer have contact with the people who were your professors, that does make things more difficult. In that case a boss, a co-worker, or maybe even a peer who is now working in your field of choice might be a good avenue to take. It's hard, I know, but a little brainstorming might prove that there are more people out there than you might expect.
As for how to ask itself, my best advice is to not wait until the last minute. Seriously. Nothing frosts my cookies more than a student who thinks I am not doing anything right now ("it's summer, right?") and have a spare couple of hours to write a letter. Now, I know sometimes emergencies come up and other people can flake out, but asking as early as possible is great, and makes you look prepared and on the ball.
Other things to do when you've got your references all lined up is to put together a little packet of all the information they're going to need for writing a letter for you. This can include:
-your CV or resume
-your personal statement
-a complete list of the schools you're applying to
-a complete list of what these schools are going to ask for
-envelopes (with postage!) to those schools who still want paper
-Deadlines for each of the schools
I hate having to wonder where and when I have to send stuff, so keep it concise and clear; that will help your letter writer out loads. Sending a thank you note (especially on paper) is the perfect way to express your thanks once the letters have been submitted (though doing so before they are in can look like you're trying to suck up). Also, do tell the person who wrote your letters what came of them--I want to know if you got in if I took the time to write something up for you.
Soo, questions? Anything I'm forgetting? General comments? I'm all ears!!
Been there, done that.
After six years of grad school, there are a few things I've picked up from personal experience and a whole lot of time talking with other female grad students (AKA procrastinating). I've always wished there had been some kind of handbook about how to handle the whole world of graduate school, so I figured I'd start a friendly place to discuss what it's like to be female in grad school, and maybe pass on some wisdom too!
Sunday, July 3, 2011
As summer school grinds on, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be an instructor at a university. I really enjoy being up in front of a classroom, but I do recognize that as female there are a few additional things that go into being successful. This goes for both being a teaching assistant and the professor. The last few years I've spent quite a lot of time in both roles (indeed, I've taught almost every quarter of my graduate career), and lately as I watch my own actions in comparison to my TA, this has really started to irk me a bit. It may be just me, but it really feels like I have to work a whole lot harder to obtain the respect and attention that males command with much more ease. Has anyone else seen or felt this? I've sat in on other's discussion sections and lectures, and while the level of subtle ignoring of the instructor always goes on, it seems that females have to work harder to get the room going. There is almost the need to be larger than life--much more so in females than males.
Other things that I have read (and really annoy me) is that females that are more attractive are perceived as more intelligent, more competent, and better teachers overall. What's up with that? Also, dressing well and wearing (normal amounts of) make-up, all play a role in the way students judge their female instructors. This goes for both female & male students judging their instructor, too. Male instructors don't have to deal with anywhere near the same level of judgement (although I won't go so far as to say they don't see it at all). It's not fair, but there doesn't seem to be much that can be done about it. It is an extension of our cultural perception of male and female roles, and while these can change, it doesn't seem to be something that's going to do so easily or quickly.
Another aspect of this same topic that has struck me is the role of the first impression. The role of being attractive and well-dressed plays such a huge role in this first, initial, (and often long-lasting) impression is much harsher for women. It also leads me to really pay a LOT of attention to what I wear on my first day of teaching. Each day, actually, that I get up in front of a class, results in a lot of extra preparation time, with the goal of looking professional always in the back of my mind.
How, my question is, does competence play into this? Why do students view "pretty" female instructors as smarter, more fair, clearer, etc.? It doesn't make much sense to me. Does anyone have a good idea? Is an outward extension of grooming indicative of an inward attention to detail? That's the best guess I can get at.
At any rate, when teaching in graduate school, these factors can (and possibly should) play a role. Teaching evaluations can be vital to getting a job later on down the line. I've had to copy mine multiple times to submit with my job applications (and I've often wanted to add little notes to them, noting that from the stack from any given class, I sent X number to judicial affairs for cheating, so keep that in mind while reading!). Taking an added interest in how you present yourself in front of a classroom, not just in preparing well and presenting a great lesson, but in your appearance can play a big role.