PhD life

A laptop computer with the screen open. A coffee cup to the left of the computer and a stack of scientific magazines to the right.

—from the PI's desk

No matter if your long-term career goals include research, medicine, or using your STEM degree primarily for science communication, policy, or another direction, participating in an undergrad research experience is a unparalleled opportunity. This is in no small part due to the personal and professional development you gain from the exposure to in-depth, experiential learning--especially one that takes places over the course of a summer.

In addition to learning new research skills, communicating your results, and making a discovery to solve a problem or answer a question, you have the opportunity to earn a recommendation letter to support future applications for grad, medical, or professional school, and graduate fellowships.

However, if you are early in your undergrad career, you may not need that letter until a few years after your summer research experience. Sure, you could come back to your mentor after that time and request a recommendation, but that approach has some major disadvantages. Most importantly, the more time that passes between when you leave the lab and when you ask for a recommendation letter, the fewer the specific details about your strengths and successes your mentor is likely to remember—and it’s those specific details that can turn a strong letter into an epic one.

When I start to write a letter for a former student, for example, I might find myself pausing to think, “What did they do again? How did they demonstrate perseverance? Self-reliance? Creativity? Was this the student who worked out the problem with the actin assay, or was it the student who stayed quite late one night to help an ill labmate finish an experiment?” These are the authentic details that help me tell their story through my observations and craft a letter that will be useful to selection or admissions committees. Unfortunately, those same details become more challenging to remember as time passes, new students join my lab, and new research projects are pursued.

So, as a summer student, or one who participates in only a single semester of research, you need a strategy to cut the lag time between your departure from the lab and the first recommendation letter your research mentor writes for you. You want them to put their fingers on the keyboard while the details of your efforts and accomplishments are easy for them to recall.

My suggestion—which I recommend to all of my undergraduate lab members—is simple: Apply for a scholarship, fellowship, or award of some type that requires a recommendation letter and has a deadline in the fall or spring after your research experience ends. It doesn’t need to be a science-related opportunity, but be certain that you meet the eligibility requirements. Once, an undergraduate asked me to write a letter for a scholarship that required second-year graduate student status. It didn’t matter how skillful and dedicated this undergraduate was at the research bench; they did not meet the basic requirements, and I declined to write a letter of support.

Once you find an appropriate scholarship to apply for, you have a specific reason to ask your mentor for a letter. And once they writes the first letter for you, they will have a template to update for future letters, which increases the chance that an overcommitted professor will find the time to prioritize additional letters you will need as your training progresses.

Asking for the letter

When begin to write a recommendation letter, the first thing I do is review the research overview that I require all of my students to write. This description of four to seven things they gained from their research experiences helps remind me of their most noteworthy accomplishments and jogs my memory about the contributions they made to my research program, which helps me write a strong letter.

To help your prospective letter writer, write your own overview a week or 2 before the end of your summer research experience. Think of it not as bragging, but as an opportunity to remind your mentor how you took ownership of your research project. Whether you make a detailed bulleted list or write a few short paragraphs, do not underestimate the importance of this task; completing this “assignment” will make a lasting impression on your research mentor.

Your research overview should be more than a list of skills or accomplishments (which should be included in an updated CV). It should demonstrate professional and personal growth or unique and noteworthy achievements. For example, a generalized statement such as “I learned a variety of techniques” won't make the same impact as “I learned to express, isolate, and purify two proteins, which I used in an assay to test their interaction.”

If you wish to add a personal touch, include how your summer research experience led to self-improvement. Perhaps you struggled to learn techniques at the start but you learned to set aside disappointment and be resilient as you overcame technical challenges. Or maybe you learned to embrace the chaotic nature of research instead of being overwhelmed by what seemed to be an endless string of uncontrollable, spontaneous events. Acknowledging the challenges you faced and explaining how you overcame them help convey that you are capable of self-assessment, which both your mentor and future letter readers will value. 

After you complete your overview, meet with your mentor to discuss the scholarship and request a letter of recommendation. With your overview in hand, it will be easier to say, “I’m applying for a scholarship in the fall. Would you be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me? Here are some things I’ve learned in your lab so far.” Most likely, their answer will be yes.

If, however, your research mentor declines to write a letter, ask if it is due to your performance during the summer. If this is indeed the case, pay careful attention to their explanation, even if it is difficult. Negative feedback is tough to process, but when based on a fair assessment, it can used as a stepping stone to future success.

Making it easy

Early in my career, I was taken aback when, after I agreed to support a student’s medical school application, they handed me a draft letter they had written. I later learned that the student thought it was a standard expectation, as they had been asked to write a draft letter by another professor.

To avoid putting yourself in this awkward position, ask your mentor, “What do you need from me in addition to an updated CV, the link to the scholarship website, and information on where to submit the letter?”This leaves the door open for them to request a draft letter from you but should not offend them if they prefer to write the letter without your input. How mentors feel about draft letters from their students varies; you shouldn’t offer to write one, but be prepared to do so if asked.

As your meeting comes to a close, ask your mentor, “Would you like me to remind you by email 2 weeks before the letter is due?” Most mentors will immediately say yes. If yours does, mark the date on your calendar and do not forget to send them the reminder, even if it feels awkward. It’s not pestering them; it’s your insurance policy to ensure that the letter gets written and submitted. And rest assured, that reminder will be appreciated!

Keeping in touch

The submission of this first letter of recommendation is not the end of your relationship. After your mentor submits any recommendation letter, send a short thank-you email, even if you thanked them when she first agreed to write the letter. “Thanks in advance” makes less of an impact than “I appreciate that you spent your time to do this for me” after a letter has been submitted. Then if you are awarded the scholarship or fellowship, send a short email update with the good news.They will appreciate learning about your success!

As you continue with your undergraduate experience, do not lose contact with your summer research mentor. Sending an email update one to three times a year should be enough to maintain a professional connection but not so much that your emails end up in the spam folder. If you continue with research elsewhere, for example, send a short update about what you are doing or how your current success is related to the training gained in their lab. If you don’t do additional research but instead join a volunteer program or take an upper-division class on a topic related to the research focus of their lab, use that information in your update.

Maintaining this professional connection with your former research mentor is important, in part, because it can lead you to new connections and new opportunities. Your mentor will have observed your professional skills and personal strengths, and if you keep in touch, they may alert you to opportunities such as a scholarship or fellowship program, a conference travel award, or an additional summer research program that might suit you. I’ve written recommendation letters for former students several years after their graduation, served as an employment reference, and given career advice long after someone has moved on from my lab. Your mentor has life experience; you can benefit from their advice and perspective.

And frankly, you simply cannot have too many people in your life who care about your success.

A version of this article appeared in Science Careers.

For a strategy on how to ask for a recommendation letter if you've already left the lab read I Need a Reference Letter in Two Years

And how to put together a "letter packet" after a long-term research experience for undergrads and grads, check out The One Letter to Rule Them All

ProTip for undergrad and grad students alike: Try to apply for at least one scholarship, fellowship, or award each semester--even if it's not science related. This will help you build your CV, possibly be a source of cash or a conference travel waiver, and be part of an overall strategy for staying connected to former and current mentors.

—from the Researcher’s bench

The big motivation killers get top billing--and for good reason. If a labmate has created a toxic working environment, your PI is unsupportive, you're struggling to manage a disability (invisible or obvious), your mental and physical health are all put at risk. These are all serious issues and it's critical that you find support in navigating through them.

However, it's also important to recognize that there are issues or work habits that can destroy your motivation but they do so in such a subtle way that you might not be aware of what's happening until you're burning out. Many of these don't seem serious and it's easy to think "Oh, I'm just being sensitive. I shouldn't complain because others have real problems."

But a motivation barrier--even a small one--doesn't take much to grow into a much larger issue. It's dealing with these sneaky motivation killers that are the subject of this article.

15
Mar

Keep in Touch with Your Mentors. You Matter and We Care.

—from the Lab Manager's bench

As a mentor, I don’t stop caring about a former student’s success, well-being, or happiness because they are no longer part of my research group.

I want to know about the life events that they want to share with me—professional and personal--and celebrate when they achieve milestones in either category.

15
May

Empty Bench Syndrome

— from the Lab Manager's bench

Here’s to all the undergrad research mentors who said goodbye to a great student this semester, and feel that little pang of sadness as they clear the bench for a new researcher who starts this summer.

Even though this article was originally published a while ago, it still rings true. Saying goodbye to students, postdocs, technicians and anyone I've mentored never gets easier—no matter how many times I do it.

The words Warning Learning Curve Ahead in the front. Several stacks of petri dishes with blue liquid in them in the background.

New Researchers Beware: Learning Curve Ahead

For almost everyone, research turns out to be more complicated, and take more effort to gain skills and accomplish the objectives of a project than anticipated. So, if you struggle to learn a technique, or you don’t immediately understand a concept your research mentor explains, remind yourself that such challenges are to be expected.

16
Oct

If Only Choosing a Career Path Was This Easy

—from the PI's desk

Not knowing exactly what you want to do with your life doesn't mean that you're doomed to fail.

If you're struggling to answer questions such as, "Should I choose medical school? Graduate School? Pursue an MD-PhD?" and "What if I'm already set on a path is it too late to change my mind?" or "I'm not sure what I can use my degree to do," know that you're not the only one.

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