This is first post in a Q&A format following recent hangout on postgraduate options on jobs.ac.uk where there wasn’t time to answer all the questions and so in the next couple of weeks I will attempt to provide my perspective as somebody who holds a PhD in sociology and works as a coach with PhD students, helping them succeed in their education and careers.
Q: How can I request a reference from my professors? I am a little shy for this, so can i give their address without contact them or do they write something for me?
A: First of all, thank you for a very good question and I do feel your pain about having to reach out and ask your professors for what feels like a big favour and may make you feel somewhat uncomfortable so I am going to tackle your question both at personal and professional level as it may be useful to others.
First of all, on a professional level, when it comes to references for your PhD, you will want to ensure that you receive the best and most glowing reference possible as that will be a real boost to your application. Such a reference will reflect on your strengths and skills and the unique contribution you could make to the department and as such, your professors will need to spend some time to personalise the reference and provide the information in required format (for instance, there may be a web-based form to fill in etc.). You need to remember that your professors are very busy and are likely receiving hundreds of emails per day, in addition to various teaching, research and administrative responsibilities which fill their day up to the brim. They will also be receiving a number of reference requests and yours is probably not the only one so unless you were a superstar, they may not even initially remember you.
So imagine if your professors had no forewarning and get an email out of the blue from an administrator for the PhD course asking for a reference for you. Best case scenario is that they either remember you well and are able to put together a decent reference or they vaguely remember you and provide a reference which amounts to “yes, this student existed” which doesn’t give the PhD committee much to go on and will weaken your application. However, what is most likely to happen here is that the request will get buried in a pile of emails that will go unanswered for a couple of weeks, by which time you run the risk of missing the deadline.
What should you do instead? If you are still at the same university, going to their office hours and talking to them in person may be an option. If you cannot do it in person, send a carefully tailored email. Don’t just say, “Dear professor, I need a reference for my PhD, can I have one” – instead, make it as easy for them as possible. In the email, remind them how they know you, tell them very briefly about the PhD you are applying for and if possible, remind them of any achievements that they should be aware of. Maybe you did a collaborative project as part of the class that the professor taught? Be very clear about what the professor needs to do – is there a Word form to fill in? In that case, attach it to the email. Is there a link that they have to go to? Include it in the body of the email and let them know what the deadline is. At the end of the email, make sure that you thank them for their time and ask them whether they are happy to provide the reference. It is likely that they will be happy to do so, but will want some prompts from you, so be prepared for that as well and have a couple of bullet points that you would like to see included in the reference that demonstrate your research potential.
Now, for the personal part – you mentioned in your question that you are shy and I am guessing that is something that’s stopping you from reaching out and wanting to go down the easy route of just putting down the email address of your professors and hoping for the best. As I explained above, this approach will not bring you the best results and can actually weaken your application so professionally this is not the best idea. I also understand it may be intimidating to reach out to people you perceive as being much more senior than you, or much more accomplished than you, at least when it comes to academic achievements. It may be helpful to shift your perspective and think of them as part of your future network and your potential future collaborators. After all, a couple of years down the line, if you are successful with your PhD, this is precisely what may happen and you will be going back to the same people for collaboration on papers etc. so it’s best to treat them well now!
And the last thing to remember is that most people really like to help and being able to write references, whether for future PhD studies or jobs is one of the best bits of the job. In fact, I get reference requests every now and then for people that I managed previously and in 99.9% cases I am really happy to be able to tell others what a wonderful employee that person was! But I do like a bit of pre-warning and a chance to prepare, and I am much more likely to write a more personal recommendation if somebody is professional and takes the time to reach out and jog my memory rather than expecting automatically that I will do it just because I worked for them.