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John

March 17th, 2024

PhD applications: five steps to getting academic references

0 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

John

March 17th, 2024

PhD applications: five steps to getting academic references

0 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Obtaining academic references can be one of the most stressful aspects of applying for postgraduate programmes. At first glance, it’s easy to get caught up in questions of who to select, how to approach them, and how to ensure you receive a stellar letter of recommendation. If you follow these five key steps, this process can become less daunting.

1. Taking a step back

It’s important to first consider the purpose of academic references. The goal is not to create another hurdle for you to jump through. Rather, it’s to glean a better understanding of your experience, how prepared you are for the programme you’ve chosen, and your key personal attributes. After all, references offer important information on what kind of student you are and how well you would fit into the School’s community. Rationalising the purpose of academic references can relieve some of the stress caused by compiling applications, and demystify the process.

2. Making a selection

After considering the context, carefully make a list of potential referees. Don’t worry excessively about things like academic status or notoriety in their respective field. Rather, focus on selecting professors who know you well, have made a positive impact on your academic trajectory, and are familiar with your work. To put it bluntly, having a famous referee won’t guarantee your acceptance, especially if they can’t speak well to your personal attributes and abilities. It’s preferable to pick someone who can do this (and do it well!), even if they are a teaching fellow or an associate lecturer with only one forthcoming publication.

That said, it’s vitally important that your prospective referees qualify as an academic staff and meet the requirements of the programme application. Ensuring this will save you the issue of having to change references and prevent a weak spot on your otherwise stellar application.

3. Approach referees

Once you have a list of potential referees, begin approaching them. Make sure to do this with respect and courtesy. If they accept the request, these individuals would be taking time out of their busy schedule to assist you. Don’t send a single email to every potential referee at once. Instead, approach them each individually, either through personalised emails or an in-person meeting, if possible.

It’s also important not to be presumptuous. Academics encounter hundreds of students, on top of research and administrative responsibilities. As you approach referees, it’s always a good idea to gently remind them of who you are, when you studied under them, and perhaps how they helped you understand a key concept or offered memorable insight. If necessary, also be prepared to share your CV or a writing sample, to further assist with writing your reference.

If a potential referee declines to write your reference, understand that they may not feel familiar enough with your work, or simply, be too busy. This happens quite frequently, which is why it’s good to identify multiple individuals who you can approach.

4. Follow up if needed

Once you have found two high-quality referees who agree to assist you, you’re ready to submit your application. Once it’s submitted, these referees will receive a request to upload their reference. This is usually a straightforward process, however, there are sometimes hiccups. A referee might miss the request email, or the task might slip their mind during a busy period in the term. If this happens, don’t fret — just be sure to follow up with a well-written email or another in-person meeting.

Remember, always be tactful when following up with a referee. Don’t take a demanding tone or send reminder emails after waiting for only a few days. Provide a reasonable amount of time for your referees to compile a well-written reference — at least three weeks to one month. Also, communicate openly about any pressing time constraints, such as funding deadlines for your application.

5. Accept the situation

References are stressful because you are not in the driver’s seat during this part of the application process. Accept that what goes into your reference ultimately comes down to someone else’s perspective. Focus on the aspects of the application you can control, follow these steps, and trust that your referee will make a positive impact.

Find out more about the process of supplying references to LSE.

About the author

John

Jack is an MPhil/PhD student in the Department of International History, researching the history of diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States. Outside of his studies, he's currently trying to eat food from every country in the world while staying in London.

Posted In: Applying: PhD

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