McGill Recommendations, Student Life

On finding references, letters, and research connections

You’re thinking of going to graduate school or professional school. You’ve lined up the universities where you wish to apply––research-intensive Canadian universities, British universities with specialized masters, our Southern neighbour’s Ivies, and high-performing public institutions all make the list. You stumble not on the personal and research statement, not on the potential standardized test, and not on the resumé. It is the recommendation letter(s) that have yet to be written, faculty members who have yet to be emailed, and you are at a loss for where to begin. 

For those of us who started, finished, and continued our education through the COVID-19 pandemic, with its severe impacts on inequality and mental health, the letters prove to be a challenge that asks us to salvage or even create personal and intimate connections with professors that the public health measures inhibited. But there’s still hope, and possibility, and most importantly, time. To assist students working through applications, The McGill Tribune has compiled a guide to reference letters.

Go through the archives of your education 

If you’re applying to graduate school, you have already taken a few years’ worth of courses. Go through your MyCourses page, back to the years of your youth. What courses stick out? What patterns slowly reveal themselves? Where did you succeed, and how does that tie in to your research interests? For example, you’re working on a portfolio for an MA in English with a specialization in creative writing. The classes where you exhibited innovation and artistry, both in your creative and critical writing, should be your first stop.

You might be trying to head to a specialized graduate program after a degree in one of McGill’s larger undergraduate programs: Engineering, biology, economics, political science, psychology, to name just a few. You are not a number, a black screen in a Zoom meeting, or just a face in a lecture of 600 people. Take it one step at a time, and put it in perspective. Why did your labour economics course make you more interested in a pathway in environmental policy? What about a research course on evolution pushed you toward critical museum studies? Start collecting assignments where you did well. Once again, returning to the past, something central to crafting a personal statement and CV, will prove useful to this process.

Reach out, reach out, reach out 

With a welcome return to the present––seemingly never-ending midterms and your obligations to caring for yourself––start reaching out. You’ve seen the past, and gotten a sense of the professors to contact. If you’ve done research courses, research assistantships, or independent projects, courses, or theses, pat yourself on the back. For those who missed these opportunities––it’s not only difficult overall to break through, but systemic barriers still in place at institutions prevent women, people of colour, queer and trans people, people with disabilities, and lower-income people from entering––look to what’s in your toolkit. Graduate school should not be reserved for the loudest, the richest, the most privileged, or the closest to the professor. 

That course on postcolonial political theory or anthropology of modern Africa or the history of human rights changed the course of your studies in international development, for instance. The professor will have an email listed in that syllabus. Reach out with grace and gratitude, and detail who you are, your interests, and why you wish to ask them. Remember that professors, especially on the tenure-track, untenured, and contract faculty are neither immune to institutional exhaustion, nor to their commitments to the profession, their families, and themselves. Make steps easier for them. Your email should be compelling and respectful, highlighting your performance in their class or asking for a brief meeting or interview.

Keep on keeping on

If your professor(s) agree, remember that letters take care and effort to write. Give your referee time and space to think and craft. If your professor(s) do not agree, remember to reach out to multiple faculty members or check if you’re allowed to use professional references if you do not have connections.

Have courage, remember why you made this choice, and know that there are people who want to help you and who want to make space in institutions for bright and dynamic younger scholars.

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