I Need a Reference Letter in Two Years. Should I Ask Now?


I Need a Reference Letter in Two Years. Should I Ask Now?

—from the PI's desk

We received a request for help from a former undergrad in the lab (edited here for brevity and to maintain anonymity):

Hi Undergrad in the Lab, I have a question for you. I recently finished a 4 month summer research project. I understand the importance of references and I was thinking of asking my supervisor for a reference for professional school but I'm planning on applying in 2-3 years. Should I be asking for a reference letter now while they still remember me or is that a bad idea?

Dear (Former) Undergrad In The Lab:

You should absolutely ask for a letter of recommendation sooner rather than later.

Ideally, you would have asked, in person, before your last day in the lab. So remember to do so if you participate in a summer research experience in the future. (And I strongly recommend that you do if you can manage the time commitment.)

It’s true that you’ll still need to ask for a recommendation letter when you’re completing your applications for professional school. And between now and then, you’ll want to update your former research supervisor on your accomplishments once a year (especially if you continue with other research). But asking for a letter of recommendation now is important for a very significant reason: What if they say no?

Okay, take a deep breath and don’t panic.

It's likely that they will say yes to you now regardless of whether or not they uphold the commitment 2+ years down the road. (More on that later in this post.) However, if they do say no at this time, you'll know to cross them off your list and not to count on a letter that isn’t going to happen. It's also important to ask why in case their reason is based on your performance in the lab.

However, consider a few words of caution before you ask for a recommendation letter. When you ask for a letter, you’re asking for a favor. So reflect on how you left the lab. If you didn’t take the time to sincerely thank your research supervisor for their time, your training, and explain specifically how you valued your research experience last summer do it now. Nothing is more disingenuous than telling someone that you learned a lot or appreciated the opportunity then immediately asking for a favor. It dilutes out the compliment and might make you seem insincere--as if you are only taking the time to thank someone because now you need their help.

Therefore, if need be, send that thank-you note as soon as possible. Make it sincere and include a short list of what you learned or why you value the research opportunity you were given. Then, later on this semester, ask for the favor of a recommendation in another email.

If you expressed your gratitude to your research supervisor before departing the lab, you can outright ask for a recommendation letter as long as you do so in a professional manner.

A note on letters—sometimes references bail

Even if your research supervisor agrees now to write a letter for you in 2+ years, there is still no guarantee that they will be able to fulfill this commitment when you need it. People change jobs (even at the university level), have personal crises, or have circumstances that alter their ability to uphold commitments. This is why I always recommend to undergrads, especially those who need several letters for applications, to always work on establishing connections with several professors.

At the minimum, if you’ll need three solid letters for your packet, then plan to make connections with at least five people. If you’ll need five letters, plan to make connections with eight. You’re early in your undergrad career but don’t save this all-important task for the semester before you need letters. It feels like you have plenty of time but you need it to make quality connections that lead to quality letters.

Thanks for the response post! I do have another question that came out of reading your post:

  • Would it be a good idea to write a thank you card or is that too formal? Does an email suffice?
  • You did mention that keeping in touch with [my research supervisor] is a good idea but I want to be considerate. How exactly do I stay in touch?

Although some would disagree, I recommend sending an email thank-you note because you’ve already left the lab.

Over the years, I’ve received numerous thank-you cards from my undergrad researchers but all were hand-delivered on their last day in the lab. If any thank-you notes have been sent through snail mail, well, I can’t be sure if they actually made it to my campus mailbox or if I noticed them among the massive stack of mail I regularly receive.

Quick Tips to Keep in Mind:

  • Keep in touch through email around once or twice (maximum) a year. Understand that your former research supervisor might not acknowledge your thank-you email or your updates. Don’t let that bother you. Also, when sending an email to a professor, brevity and sincerity are equally important.
  • If you continue with research elsewhere, send your former supervisor ONE short update per year on what you’re doing, and how your current success is related to the training from their lab. Be specific and authentic or it’s not effective.
  • OR If you don’t do research but join a volunteer program, or take a class with specific, relevant material related to the research focus of their lab use that to write your update.
  • Finally, if they write you a recommendation letter, follow up with a thank-you note in less than one week (see our previous post, here). Even if you think you’ll never ask for another one.

Professional email correspondence is a skill. When emailing a professor (or anyone in a professional context) it’s important to demonstrate your professionalism. Very few students do this well.

Although sending professional emails doesn’t guarantee recommendation letters, a reply, or that a favor will be granted, they do make a student stand out in a positive way, and they do make a difference.

There is a lot of free information the Internet on how to write emails to your professors and I highly recommend that you spend time reading a few sources to help you build your email skills. Alternatively, I suggest my book, Getting In. It includes a section on how to email professors for a research position, but the tips are relevant for all professional email correspondence.