Student tips: asking a prof to be a reference or advisor
So, you’ve decided to apply to graduate school – congratulations on taking the next step in your educational career!
One of the key parts of these applications is asking for a reference or finding a supervisor. As someone who has gone through this process, I’m here to give you by best tips from writing a reference request, to inquiring about a thesis supervisor. And as someone who is starting graduate school in a few short weeks, I think I’m qualified to share some of the dos and don’ts!
Asking for a reference
First, some general advice about writing to professors, whether it be for a reference or asking for project supervision.
A mistake that many students tend to make is forgetting to cultivate a reference over time. A good reference is someone who can vouch on your behalf, who knows your character, your work ethic, and can speak to projects you’ve been a part of. This takes time and effort. Our professors do this for a living, and have hundreds of students, so they probably won’t be interested in writing a reference for someone who sat back row in their PSYC 1000 course in first year.
You want to ask a professor that you have a good relationship with, perhaps you have taken a few of their classes, have attended their office hours, or set yourself apart in their class with a stellar project. Remember, if they’re going to vouch for your intelligence and character, they need to have some idea of what you’re capable of.
Some other key tips include:
- Ask far enough advance. Try to give 2-4 weeks’ notice before the letter’s due date.
- Prepare a resume or CV for the professor to reference. This makes it easier for them to point to your accomplishments and add detail to the letter.
- Send a thank you note! This is a way to go above and beyond to show your gratitude and is far more personal than a quick email.
This article by the faculty of computer science has some great advice on asking for a reference.
Inquiring about thesis supervision
A mistake I watched some of my friends make in their pursuit of a thesis supervisor was not writing a good introduction email.
Professors and researchers deal with dozens of emails a day. To be frank, they are unlikely to take the time to download and open your email attachments. This is where writing a good intro email that can double as your cover letter is key. That way, you’re making it just a little bit easier for them to respond and decide if they’re interested in taking you on as a student.
You want to be direct and communicate why you would be a worthwhile student to supervise.
1. Email Subject
Be sure to include your name, institution, and the words “Thesis Supervisor Inquiry” or something similar. EX) “Thesis Supervisor Inquiry – Emma Cervinka, University of Guelph”
Introduce yourself, your program, your GPA (if it’s an asset to your application), and any awards or distinctions you have. This helps the professor know you are serious about academia and your research. This is also the place to include where you found their information, or how you found out they were recruiting thesis students.
3. Paragraph 1: Sell yourself!
Explain any relevant experience you have, such as lab work, past research experience, major projects, internships, professional experience, volunteer work, etc. that is RELEVANT to your thesis and their work. Then, briefly explain how those experiences translated to applicable skills.
For example, “I volunteered at a camp” probably isn’t relevant if you’re proposing neuroscience research in horses. However, if your thesis is about childhood development, something like “Throughout university, I volunteered at a summer camp offering recreational activities for children with cognitive disabilities. This experience allowed me to work with a range of participants and led me to my interest in how recreational programs can benefit the mental health of autistic children and their caregivers.”
4. Paragraph 2: Sell your research!
Explain your research interest or proposal and how it aligns with their research interests. You can find a professor’s research interests on faculty websites, and there will often be links to their publications. Remember that this is a two-way relationship. You want to work with someone with similar interests so you can get the most out of the experience, and vice versa. You do not want to spend 2+ years researching something you hate!
5. Thank you & closing
Offer your thanks for their time. For example, “I am very thankful for your time and consideration and look forward to your response.”
Attach your resume or CV. See this article on what to include in an academic CV. Check out this article and sample CV from Guelph Humber:
You could also attach a cover letter, but the whole point of writing this email is to eliminate that step entirely, and hopefully get you a faster response.
7. Hit send!
Proofread and hit send! If you don’t hear back within two weeks, it may be helpful to send a quick follow up email. If it’s radio silence after that, it’s a good idea to start looking elsewhere. But remember, you only need one person to say yes, and sometimes that takes a lot of knocking on doors.
Here's another short article by the Faculty of Bioinformatics on finding a supervisor if you’re looking for some more advice!
And it’s as simple as that! Be professional and confident. Don’t forget that you’re smart and have a lot to offer an institution and researcher.
About the blogger: Emma is a recent graduate of the Bachelor of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Guelph. In her fourth year, she completed a thesis and capstone project, while applying to graduate school. She's happy to share her best tips for balancing the challenges of fourth year with minimal loss of sleep, and maximum academic success.
In this series of blog posts, OAC students take us through some of the ups and downs of their journeys at the University of Guelph.