Category Archives: Faculty Applicant

You Can Live a Lavish Life on an Academic Salary

No, you can’t buy this ridiculous vehicle. You shouldn’t on ANY salary.

One of the most common complaints I hear about academia is that the salary is lower than private practice, sometimes substantially lower.  While this is factually correct, I have never understood this argument. Most academic specialists make at least $100k a year, sometimes quite a bit more, which is way more than you need.  Then there are the benefits, which are almost always better in academia than in private practice.  The opportunity to earn a PENSION? This is guaranteed money for the rest of your life once you retire.  I have never heard of anyone getting a pension from private practice, no matter how large the company.

If you calculate the value of the benefits, academia pays much more than the cash salary you earn.  I’ve heard some practices don’t chip in for health insurance or retirement- that is HUGE! So it’s hard to compare private practice apples to academia oranges. In addition, many academic institutions give you consulting time, which is time off during which you can go locum elsewhere and make more money.  Unless you have a chronic illness which continually drains your resources, academia pays enough. Even if you have huge student loans. Let’s look at how.

Let’s assume you make $100k a year as an academic- a pretty low salary for any specialist.  This puts you in the 24% marginal tax rate. With social security, health insurance, and other cuts taken out, let’s say this leaves you with $5000 a month in take-home after-tax after-benefit pay.  Now let’s break down expenses for a single person without roommates. This is a pretty free-wheeling estimate since this isn’t a personal finance blog, but it will serve as an illustration.

ExpenseAmount/Month
Mortgage ($200k house @ 4%)$950
Property taxes & insurance$200
Groceries$500
Transportation (gas, taxes, etc.)$400
Eating Out$100
Utilities (power, internet, etc.)$150
Cell Phone$50
Clothes, household items$100
Misc$200
TOTAL$2,650
SAVINGS$2,350

There are several assumptions made in these calculations.  Houses in most college towns are inexpensive (apologies if you decided to take a job at UC Davis).  Transportation is based off a 10-minute commute- college towns are usually small. You could dramatically cut your transportation costs by living in biking or walking distance to work.  You can increase your income by getting a roommate, dramatically offsetting your housing costs. Even if you have high student loans, you can pay them off in a few years and begin saving for retirement with this salary.

Maybe all of this sounds like deprivation to you.  Maybe you want to buy a huge house, drive an expensive car, and eat out every night.  But… do you really? Is that what will make you happy? Because the science for this is NOT on your side.  The science says the paths to real, meaningful happiness are through the purposeful life and the meaningful life, not the hedonic life.  And this is NOT a deprivation lifestyle. If you need more evidence, check out this blog which explains how you can have a great life without wasting tons of money.

So, there, if you want to have a nice quality of life as an educator or researcher or academic clinician, you can do so.  You have a flexible schedule, intellectual engagement, meaningful engagement (helping students AND animals AND clients), purposeful engagement (great flow during clinics or research or teaching), and you will make PLENTY OF MONEY.  OK, bring on the arguments in favor of making tons of money in private practice.

How to Negotiate a Faculty Salary

The Vetducator - coins indicate that money is the least important variable in deciding on a job.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

So you have an offer of employment- congratulations!  This is one of the most exciting experiences I have had in my professional progression (although I also enjoy interviewing).  Salary is only one piece of the negotiation package, but it is the one many people spend the most time thinking about. I would encourage you to focus less on salary, but you do need to earn a FAIR salary.  Fortunately, for most institutions, a fair salary is easy to determine.

Your goal with salary negotiations should be to get a FAIR salary.  You can always ask for the moon, but I believe it is better to be reasonable.  If you make a high salary a sticking point, you may put your future department chair and colleagues in an awkward position.  Because of salary compression, existing faculty may not make as much as incoming faculty. If you come in at a SUBSTANTIALLY higher salary than them, this may create resentment.

You should take advantage of a new offer to make your own life situation as good as possible without alienating your future colleagues.  You do this is by doing research. For most state schools, you can find the salaries for existing faculty. Find your rank (Instructor, Assistant, Associate, or Full Professor) and identify those current faculty at that rank.  Then search the salary database to get an idea of the range.

I would generally recommend choosing the median value within existing salaries, but you may adjust this up or down depending on your experience level and what else you are asking for.  For example, for my last negotiation, I came in as a Full Professor, but I am relatively young compared to many of the existing faculty. If I asked for a salary above what the highest-paid current Professor with 10 years’ more experience earns, I may have created some resentment.  And the median salary for current Professors was more than enough for me to be happy, so that is what I asked for.

Once you receive an offer of employment, you can indicate you are very interested and you need time to consider and get back to them with what you would like in your negotiation.  Many institutions will include a salary in the initial offer. In general, the first entity to give a number will set the bar for the negotiation, and it is preferable for that to be the institution.  However, I have been asked twice what I would expect to make DURING the interview, so you should have a fair number in mind. Whether they do or do not include a salary offer, do your comparative research so you can come back with either “That sounds good” or “I would like to ask for X amount.”

If you are applying to a private school or a school which does not publish salaries, you can still do the research.  Some institutions will have different salaries for different disciplines- supposedly to reflect the differences in the salaries those disciplines would make in private practice.  I personally feel that salary should be based on your rank and number of years of service and be independent of your discipline, but I don’t get to regulate the market economy. Find out approximately what others in your discipline and rank make at other institutions.  If you use those numbers, it is unlikely you will get a “Woah, that is way different than what we were expecting.” I expect most vet schools are within $10k of each other for starting salaries. Some may be dramatically lower- like Colorado State University (everyone wants to live in Fort Collins)- and some may be dramatically higher- like UC Davis (SO expensive to live there).

For most institutions, you can probably ask for a 5% increase over an initial offer without ruffling any feathers.  An administrator once told me, “Don’t lose a potential faculty member over five thousand dollars.” Some places will have a hard budget and not be able to move.  If you are asking for a LOT of other things or a high-cost item like a spousal hire, you may not be able to get any more in salary. If you have competing offers, you can share the salary information with each so they can factor that into their decision-making during negotiations.

Make sure to prioritize your requests so you will know how to respond.  It never hurts to ask, as long as it is a fair and reasonable ask. Consider if you will be happy regardless of the response.  If you ask for $120k, and they come back with $110k, is that acceptable? I think the most important question is: is that a fair salary for this institution, position, and discipline?  If it’s fair, then you need to decide how important cash money is to you.

Some people may be stressed about negotiating salary, but I don’t think you should be.  As long as you are professional, consider the impact on your future colleagues, and don’t get greedy, everything should be fine.

Please Use Commas

I was reading some residency application letters and my head was almost exploding.  Everyone has their “thing”, and maybe I have more than most, but I am passionate about appropriate comma placement.  I wouldn’t sink an application for poor comma use, but it just grates on me, and why would you want to irritate the people who may make your professional dreams come true?  I am not a grammar nut and this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of rules- those you can find elsewhere.  

The most common error I see in letters of application is not using the comma as a pause.  The most bothersome absent comma is the one needed to create an appropriate rhythm to the sentence.  Here are some examples. Say the one without the comma out loud. When you say that sentence, isn’t there a natural pause?  That pause is where a comma goes.

No commaAppropriate comma
As a student I worked with a faculty on a special project.As a student, I worked with a faculty on a special project
No I didn’t realize that trip would change my life.No, I didn’t realize that trip would change my life.
I did some research and did a RAVS trip.I did some research, and did a RAVS trip.
When I did an externship in Costa Rica I experienced the connection between people animals and the environment.When I did an externship in Costa Rica, I experienced the connection between people, animals, and the environment.
When I saw my first case a 5-year-old GSD I realized this was real.When I saw my first case, a 5-year-old GSD, I realized this was real.
Fortunately I was able to work with great mentors.Fortunately, I was able to work with great mentors.

I could go on.  My point is you should pay attention to this.  It doesn’t mean you’re a monster, but it does make me question your attention to detail.  If your letter of intent has these kinds of simple flaws, will you have the attention to detail needed for good records or research?  Be detail-oriented in your written materials. And please, PLEASE have other people read and edit your letters!

Successfully Navigating the Spousal Hire

The Vetducator - married wedding rings on each hand picture.

So you want to go into academia, and your spouse also wants to work at the same institution.  There is a position open for you, you interview, you get an offer. How do you handle negotiating a hire for your spouse?  I have been successful and unsuccessful in this pursuit, so I will share my perspective with you. Realize that the spousal hire is probably the most complex, nuanced, and difficult negotiation in academic veterinary medicine.  There are no guarantees, but hopefully these notes will help.

1) Do not bring it up during your interview.  I spoke to a department chair recently who mentioned that an applicant brought up the potential for a spousal hire during their discussions and I physically cringed.  DO NOT DO THIS. The job interview is about the JOB. Don’t bring up your kids, your significant other, NOTHING that doesn’t directly relate to your ability to be awesome at the job.  You wait until you have an offer in hand to bring up a spousal hire. Imagine two identical candidates: one is single without any hassles about hiring them, the other with a spousal hire which requires significant hassle dealing with the Dean and Provost.  Which do you think will get a job offer? Even if they don’t consciously discuss it, unconscious biases can creep in. Do not discuss your spouse before getting an offer.

2) Make it your highest negotiation priority.  You may not get a higher salary, or equipment, or any of the other things you can negotiate for as a faculty candidate.  Make it clear that a spousal hire is your highest priority- don’t just tack it on like an afterthought. Open with it in written negotiations once you have an offer.

3) Some institutions Do Not Do spousal hires.  This is most evident overseas. I had a couple of offers from universities in Oceania; when I asked for a spousal hire they looked at me like I had grown a second head.  Possibly some overseas schools do offer them, but I have heard that this is Not A Thing outside the United States. Possibly Canada- can anyone comment on Canadian schools doing spousal hires?  Also, within the U. S., some schools have a moratorium on them. One school I worked at had a strict no-spouse-works-for-that-same-university-at-all policy. So even if we had two open positions which would be perfect for two people who happened to be married, we could only hire one of them.

4) Be specific.  I recommend being as specific as you need to be for the position for your spouse.  If they would be happy doing any job at the university, fine. If they want a tenure-track position, specify that.  If there is a salary range they want, specify that. The worst thing is to say, “Yes, please give my spouse a job”, they do so, then you come back with, “Oh, yeah, no, can I also have This and That and The Other Thing?”  As with all negotiations, ask for what you want up front. This also makes it clearer when the department head brings it to the Dean.

5) Be flexible.  Maybe your spouse WANTS a tenure-track position, but would they be happy with a lecturer position?  Decide exactly how important each element of a potential position is. My spouse ideally wants a teaching-heavy lecturer position, but, when offered a clinic-heavy position with some teaching, she was happy with that.  Decide AHEAD OF TIME exactly what your spouse would be content with so that if you don’t get your first ask, but the institution is willing to work with you to some degree, you will know how to navigate it.

6) You must be outstanding.  If you are just finishing a residency, or only have one publication to your name, or otherwise are just ‘meeting expectations’, you are in a relatively weaker negotiation position.  If the institution is desperate, you may still get what you want. But the more amazing your CV, the more likely you are to successfully negotiate for a spousal hire.

7) Be prepared for no.  I asked for a spousal hire after getting an offer and was told “no” and “we need your answer in under 2 weeks.”  I was caught a little off guard, because I didn’t consider it an exceptional request for this institution. I should have spent more time thinking about and talking with my SO about what we would do if there weren’t a position for her.  Most other things you ask for in a negotiation you can get at least some traction on, but the spousal hire is a rare bird. Don’t count on it.

As always with negotiations, be dispassionate and professional.  You can always ask, but realize that you may get a ‘no’. Decide ahead of time if that is a deal-breaker for you or not.  On my last round of job applications, I decided the spousal hire WAS a deal-breaker, and I was willing to wait until I found an institution willing to offer one.  I believe that fortitude was essential to my success. I wish you luck, and let me know what questions you have about this process!

Why You Need an Elevator Speech and How to Make a Great One

How do you sum up everything that you are and do professionally in a short span of time?  This is the premise of the elevator speech- a few lines of dialogue which encapsulate your professional experience, approach, and future.  We don’t use them often in veterinary medicine, but I think it’s useful to have one ready. Let’s look at who the elevator speech is for, some uses for the elevator speech, and how to make a great one.

Use #1 – Talking with non-veterinary types.  Although most of the people you engage with during an interview are in the veterinary field, you may encounter some who are not.  Maybe you have a meeting with a Senior VP (for higher-level positions), maybe you have time with a basic sciences researcher or someone from a different college.  These people need a purchase to stand on and enter a conversation. Your elevator speech gives them a starting point.

Use #2 – You may get asked regardless.  Particularly in larger group interviews, you may get asked to give a quick summary of what you do.  Hopefully, everyone has read your CV and letter, but those don’t necessarily answer this question. If you don’t have an answer prepared, you can flail around looking for an answer.  This question may come up as, “Do tell us about yourself” or “I’ve read your CV- give me some insight into your overall approach.”

Use #3 – Priming your brain.  Similar to a mission statement, having an elevator speech helps to crystalize what you do and why you do it.  This can inform any professional interaction you have, even if you don’t actually say your elevator speech.  You can refer back to it and ask, “Is this still true? Do I want it to be?” You can even ask, “How would this project fit into my image of myself, given my elevator speech?”

Now that we’ve decided it’s useful, let’s work on crafting one.  Here are the few short, sweet suggestions:

1) The most important rule is to keep it short.  One to three sentences- what you could say to someone as you ride an elevator to the next floor.

2) Give some context for who you are now and what you do.

3) Provide an example.

4) Make a conclusion.  Or not. I like to leave the ending opening for a question.  You can see that in my elevator speech:

“I’m The Vetducator, I’m a Professor of Veterinary Anesthesia at the University of Wherever.  I look for improvements in systems- teaching, research, service, policies- using an evidence-based approach.  For example, I measured how students performed on quizzes of varying length over the years to arrive at the best amount of time to balance efficiency with student performance.”

Let’s look at how it hits the four points above:

1. It’s short- 3 sentences.  It takes about 18 seconds to verbalize.  2. The context is I work at this place in this role.  Since people may not know what a professor of anesthesia does, I expanded on what I do on a fundamental level.  Saying “I anesthetize pets and research animals” doesn’t add much to “I’m a veterinary anesthesiologist.” Also, it doesn’t really encapsulate my whole professional approach and philosophy.  3. There’s an example of my research. 4. I don’t give a conclusion because I want to leave them with something to ask. Hopefully, this gives the other person an easy next step in the conversation: “What did you find in your study?”

My wife’s is: “I’m The Pharmducator; I’m a PharmD and PhD at the University of Wherever. I teach pharmacy and other healthcare topics and I research natural products. The project most people are most interested in is my research on the phenolic and antioxidant content of craft beer and its ability to inhibit some of the processes by which diabetic complications arise.”

Let’s look at how it hits the four points above:

1. It’s short- 3 sentences.  It takes about 16 seconds to verbalize.  2. The context includes her degrees, which is important- she can do both clinical and basic sciences work.  She specifies what exactly in pharmacy she does. 3. She gives an interesting publication. 4. She doesn’t include a conclusion, but beer and science are always intriguing to people, so giving them an example, which will make them curious, leads them to asking about it.

The elevator speech is not often found in veterinary medicine, but I think it’s a good tool to have ready, just in case.  I believe it also helps to cement what you are interested in professionally, which can affect your global thinking.

Should I Send a Thank You Note?

The Vetducator thank you note for interviews.

Interviews are tiring events for everyone.  The interviewee has to be ‘on’ all the time.  But the interviewers are taking time out of their busy schedule to meet with you.  Academics always feel overwhelmed and time-stressed. Staff are often underappreciated.  Thank you notes acknowledge the time and energy dedicated to your interview.

Should I Send Thank You Notes?  Yes.  You won’t be cut from the shortlist for not sending a thank you.  But you DO appreciate people’s time, don’t you? Why not show it? This reflects a level of class and professionalism.  Who wouldn’t want to hire the classiest, most professional applicant?

Should I Send a Thank You Note to Staff?  Yes. I always send a thank you note to the staff who helped arrange the interview.  I have gotten reports from my admin during faculty interviews ranging from, “She seemed really nice.  She asked me questions and was interested in the area” to “We drove in silence the whole way.” Staff can subtly alter the perception of your visit- let them know their hard work is appreciated.

Should I Send a Thank You Note to Faculty?  Maybe. I recommend sending one to anyone you spent a significant amount of time with.  These will be the individuals who directly interviewed you. If you had a large session with 20 faculty for an hour, I wouldn’t send a note to all of them.  But if you had lunch with 2 faculty, a note to each is suggested.

Should I Send a Thank You Note to the Hiring Managers/Committee?  Yes. If applying for an internship/residency/faculty position, you should send thank you notes to the decision-makers.  For faculty positions, this is the search committee and the department chair, possibly to include the Dean. For internship/residency positions, this is whomever is in charge of those programs, assuming you met with them (Intern Training Committee, group of specialists for residencies, etc.).

What Should I Say?  I recommend personalizing each note as much as possible.  If you can remember a specific topic discussed with that person, mention it in the note.  If not, you can make it generic. It does not need to be long- 3 sentences are plenty. Begin with “Dear Title Lastname,” and end with “Salutation, Yourfirstname Yourlastname”.  Do not use your title in your salutation. Respectfully, sincerely, with thanks, and regards are all good salutations.

What Form Should the Note Take?  This is up to personal opinion so I will not be prohibitive here.  Your options are email and a physical thank you card. I personally prefer to send a physical thank you card, but an email in this day and age is acceptable.  I feel a physical thank you card is a little classier and more consistent with my professional image- I am a little bit old school and a little bit formal. It can also be hard to find email addresses for some individuals.  If you are concerned about a physical card arriving after the decision-making group meets, an email may be preferable. Decisions are rarely made less than a week after an interview, though, giving plenty of time for a physical note to arrive.

What Happens if I Don’t Send a Thank You Note?  Probably nothing. For vet school, those who interview you may not be on the selection committee.  In this case, after the interview is over, they have no say in your selection. For internships, residencies, and faculty positions, those who participate in interviews will probably have varying levels of influence on any hiring decisions.  I’ve never heard anyone say, “Well, that person didn’t send a thank you note, so I think we should put them lower.”

Does a thank you letter change them from a “no” vote to a “yes” vote?  Unlikely. In the event of two equally qualified candidates, does getting a thank you letter cause them to vote slightly higher for that candidate?  Possibly. It is a very low-cost action to take which may ever so slightly improve your chances of success. Why not send a thank you note?

The Key to Successful Negotiations

Imagine someone you think is a great negotiator.  Do you imagine a tough-as-nails, take-no-shit hardballer?  Do you imagine a sleazy salesman who wheedles their way into your mind and gets you to agree to something you don’t want?  A free-wheeler chatty type who “only wants your best interests”? None of these are helpful to you. What you need to imagine is Tyrion Lannister.  You want to be dispassionate, practical, and professional.

I have seen negotiations go seriously off the rails.  I have even seen offers for faculty positions retracted by administrators.  The reason these happen are ego and emotion. People take things personally, they perceive slights where none may be intended, they become irrational, and then everyone loses.  Before you negotiate, you have to decide what you NEED and what you WANT. From there, it should be a professional, factual, and positive experience.

When you negotiate, your interests are not the sole consideration.  You must also take into account your current colleagues, your current institution, your future colleagues, and your future institution.  A successful negotiation is sympathetic to all of these five interests. If you want something, it is much better to shape it in the context of one of these other interests than your own.  For example, if you want a piece of equipment, it should be clear that this is for the benefit of your future institution and colleagues as well as for you. If you want a spousal hire, this is for the benefit of your future institution because it will ensure you are a loyal, dedicated employee who will stick around and be appreciative.

So, decide what you NEED.  State these clearly, unemotionally, factually, and in the context of how it benefits someone other than you, if possible.  If you don’t get what you NEED, calmly explain that you cannot accept the offer but you greatly appreciate it.

Then decide what you WANT.  Again, state these clearly, but you may use softening language such as, “It would be easiest for me to accept if given XYZ.”  If you don’t get what you WANT but you get what you NEED, accept, be grateful, and be happy. Don’t be resentful you didn’t get everything you wanted and don’t be ungrateful.

Ask for everything you want UP FRONT.  Don’t ask for XYZ, then get that, and then you come back with, “Oh, can I also have This and That and The Other Thing?”  Now, if they don’t give you X, you can come back with, “Well, can I have U instead?” But if they give you what you ask for initially, the negotiation is done.

It should go without saying: be sincere.  I have to say it, though, because I see people negotiate who are not sincere and it is supremely frustrating.  If you don’t want the position, don’t bother negotiating. Don’t bluster and threaten and lie. At all times, be genuine to yourself and to the situation.  No one wants to feel like they have been cheated- institutions or applicants. If you are factual and dispassionate, this should be easy, but it bears repeating: do not lie.

When in doubt, be clear, be positive, and be factual.  Take emotion and ego out of the equation. During one negotiation I had, my wife didn’t get a position which was open as the same institution.  I could have ranted and raved that they missed out on an easy spousal hire, but instead I approached the department chair and calmly said, “OK, that didn’t work out.  What can we do to make this successful?” And then they made it happen. Just be a goddamn professional about it and you will be so much better off.

How to Address People in an Interview

Earlier this week I posted a general guide for how to address future colleagues during an interview.  Here is a helpful flowchart for you to determine what forms of address to use during an interview. I tend to err on the side of formality, because no one will be even a little irritated to be called “Mr.”, “Ms.”, or “Dr.”, but there are some people who may be irked at being called “Chuck”.

The Vetducator - forms of address flowchart for interviews.

How to Not Mess Up When Addressing Future Colleagues

The Vetducator - What do I call you people image text.

You would think that rules of formality as laid down by Society would be well-known.  Indeed, this is an assumption of social rules- they are generated in the aggregate. Nonetheless, we do have experts who weigh in on these topics, like Miss Manners and Emily Post.  Our rules in medicine for interviews and applicants are slightly different than the social sciences, so I wanted to take a brief minute to go over them.

These rules are fairly consistent regardless of the form of communication.  You can apply them to any professional academic veterinary interaction- email, phone interview, video interview, or in-person interview.  You are unlikely to be corrected by anyone, and opinions on these may differ.

My general approach and advice is to be more conservative.  No one is going to look at you strangely if you address the Dean as Dean Smith.  But if you call him Chuck, it will be noticed. Maybe not enough to keep you from the short list, but when competition for a position is fierce, why not make yourself the most outstanding candidate you can?

These are in generally increasing order of conservatism:

Do you know this person personally?  Have you worked with them extensively, preferably as a peer?  If you were an intern and this person was a faculty member, unless you had a close relationship with them, go to the next level.  If you know this person and have worked with them as a peer, you may use their first name.

Is this person the Dean?  If so, they are addressed as Dean Lastname.  An exception may be made if you are interviewing for a Dean position or higher.

Otherwise, use Title Lastname.  This even goes for administrative staff.  Addressing an email to Ms. Lawrence is a nice, respectful touch.  Staff are people, too, and they appreciate being addressed by a stranger in a socially-acknowledged way.  Those with doctorates should be addressed as Dr. Lastname.

Can you be more informal than these rules dictate?  Sure. But you will never go wrong adhering to these rules in the application/interview phase of an academic position.  Once you get the position, the rules may vary depending on your position and institution. But while you are a candidate, err on the side of formality.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

The Vetducator - mentor growing pupil.

You would think this would be simple.  You need a letter of recommendation. You contact someone you think could write one for you.  You ask them to do so. Job done, right? For some reason, I continue to encounter students who do not do a good job with this step. Those students need help, and I am here to give it to you.

The academic career system is predicated on other academics vouching for you.  This process ensures that someone familiar with the position’s demands and your abilities can evaluate your preparedness for the position.  They then write an analysis of your preparedness in a letter of recommendation. Letters are ubiquitous and are variably important, depending on the position to which you are applying.  We will cover elsewhere who you approach to write for you. Here we will discuss how to approach a potential letter writer.

Once you have identified who you want to contact, you have three options: email, phone call, in person.  In all cases, the specific phrase you need to use is, “Would you be willing to write me a GOOD letter of recommendation?”  The good is important. It is often implied, but you need to make it explicit. Otherwise, you may end up with someone writing you a letter of recommendation which is not good.  It is possible even if you ask them to write a good letter that they will not. But most academics are professionals, and if they feel they cannot write you a good letter when asked explicitly, they will tell you. You have three options for initiating this request:

Email.  This is the easiest, lowest-stakes, and generally preferred method.  You have time to compose your message and consider how you want to phrase your request.  In general, you should open with the position to which you want to apply. If you have not been in contact with the person for a year or two, you may mention your current position or your interest in the new position.  The only reason not to use email is when you have an individual whom you know who does not rapidly (or ever) respond to email. Then you may need to resort to other means.

Phone Call.  This requires some preparation and timing can be problematic.  You need to reach them when they are available to listen to your spiel and are not distracted.  After the usual opening pleasantries, you can ask, “Is now a good time to chat?” If not, you may ask about a time to schedule a call.  You should have a plan for what you want to say. If it has been a while since you have been in contact, you should chit-chat about your current status and ask how things have been for them.  You can then make your request.

In Person.  This is usually done with individuals you see regularly and it is just as easy to ask in person as it is in email.  Usually you won’t need much of a lead-up, but asking, “Can I ask you something?” is a decent opener. As with other steps, explain what you are applying for and then make your ask.

For phone calls and in person asks, ALWAYS FOLLOW UP WITH EMAIL.  Send them an email reminder of your request. After you receive a “yes”, regardless of contact, make sure to send a follow up reminder a couple of weeks before the due date.  Reasonable people will find this helpful and not irritating.

What if you get a “no” response?  That’s fine, it’s better to know before they send off an unflattering letter!  Thank them and, if appropriate, you may ask their advice for whom else you could ask.  Hopefully they will give you some constructive advice and, if not, you haven’t lost anything.

Most professionals who are willing to write letters of recommendation are not scary.  It should not be an anxiety-inducing experience to ask for a letter from someone with whom you have worked.  Most professionals will be flattered. Try to be realistic about it. What’s the worst they can say? “No”, and then you know they would not be a good writer!  It’s a win-win. Be bold and respectful and everything will be fine.