Tag Archives: mentor

Learn to Write an Email Asking for a Recommendation

You may feel this small when you ask for a letter. It’s OK. Photo by Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash

As we’ve discussed before, people seem to have some anxiety around asking a potential mentor for a letter of recommendation.  I used to teach an undergraduate seminar course in clinical research, and one of the assignments was for the students to write an email asking for a letter of recommendation.  I was surprised at the range in quality of these emails, so I think the topic deserves some attention to make sure you all write excellent emails.

Here is the basic structure:

  • Email title
  • Salutation
  • Introduction (if necessary)
  • A description of the position to which you are applying
  • Your ask for help
  • A closer

Email title

This one is pretty simple.  You can’t go wrong with “Letter of Recommendation”.  It is straightforward and tells the reader exactly what the email is about.  “Inquiry” is more vague but could be used if you don’t want to prime the reader about what your ask is.

Salutation

“Dear Dr./Mr./Ms. X,”  That’s it. Keep it simple.

Introduction

If there is a chance the reader does not know you, this is recommended.  If you are a senior veterinary student and you just got off a clinic rotation with the person, this is not necessary.  I would suggest two lines. The first is giving your current professional role and the context of how you know each other.  “My name is John Smith and I am a senior majoring in Biology; I was a student in your research seminar course.”

The second line provides something memorable about you or your interaction.  “I did the research project comparing pricing of men and women’s beauty products.”

A description of the position

Provide enough information that they can write a specific letter.  If this is “vet school”, that’s fine. If it’s an aquarium externship in Florida, give them more details.  If there is a link to the position description, provide that. “I am applying for small animal rotating internships in academic and private practice institutions.”

Your ask for help

Just keep it simple and gracious.  Always attach your letter of intent and curriculum vitae.  “I was wondering if you would be able and willing to write a good letter of recommendation for me?  My letter of intent and CV are attached for your reference. Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you.”

Closer

These commonly include “Sincerely,” “Best Regards”, and “With Appreciation.”  I personally like “Respectfully,” but you can choose what you like. “Cheers,” “Take Care,” and similar too-personal closers should not be used.

So that’s it!  If you want to put some examples together and share them in the comments, I will comment on them!

Deciding if you are a Good Fit for Research

If you’re an undergrad interested in vet school, or a vet student interested in post-graduate education, research may be an important part of your educational experience.  Sadly, I would say about 50% of students with whom I talk indicate they had a terrible experience with research. Not just a not-positive experience, an actively bad experience.  How did this happen? I believe a large chunk of responsibility rests on the mentors, who didn’t create clear expectations, or who were a bad fit for the student. But it is also because these students didn’t figure out if they were a good fit for research, or didn’t know how to find out if they are a good fit.

The first step is to understand what research will do for you as an undergrad or as a vet student.  In the ideal situation, you discover that it is fun and may form a part of your future career. You may also bolster your application by demonstrating your grit, ability to work with others, and willingness to develop a relationship with a faculty member.  Once you understand the WHY to do research, you can focus on how to get a good fit.

The most important determinant is the faculty mentor.  The type of project and other people involved factor in, but are distant seconds in deciding if research will be a good fit for you.  It’s not about research at all; it’s about a human connection. I believe the two most important variables are communication style and level of direction.

Communication style.  Do you understand what this person says and do you like how they communicate?  If they insist on email, does that work for you, or is anything other than text messaging difficult for you?  Do they make you feel comfortable when you meet or do you leave confused, frustrated, or weirded-out? Ideally, you will find a faculty member with whom you communicate well.

Level of direction.  How much supervision do you need or want?  Do you want to be micromanaged or given vague directions and left alone?  Try to establish this before deciding to work with a faculty member. Of course, you have to know yourself and be honest with yourself first.  One of my greatest frustrations is when I tell students how I work (I give them some direction and then answer questions as they come up and expect them to be self-motivated), but then they turn out to not be self-motivated and require me to crack the whip to get things done.  I don’t like being a whip-cracker. Some faculty members do, and that’s fine. There’s not a right way to do things, just good and bad fits.

Once you have decided you will get along with the faculty member, then you can consider the project.  If the project isn’t interesting to you, will you be able to stick with it and demonstrate your enthusiasm and get a good letter of recommendation?  Is the project relevant to your future professional path? This doesn’t mean you can’t do something fun in social sciences (and I would argue this may be a better research skill to acquire than pipetting things in a lab), but you should be honest with yourself and your motivations for doing research.

Finally, with whom will you be working?  You want to be working primarily with the faculty member.  If you will be dumped off onto a post-doc or a grad student, that is less than ideal and may not suit your needs.  Will there be other students in the research group and do you get to work with them? Collaborating with peers can be fun and a way to improve your internal motivation.  If you’d rather work by yourself, know that and identify projects and research groups where that is the case.

Most people think they either “like research” or “don’t like research.”  I would argue that research work can be just like any other work- extremely fun and engaging or horribly tedious and soul-crushing.  I believe this is not due to the nature of the work itself, but rather the three elements of internal motivation: do you have autonomy, are you getting an interesting skill, and how does it affect your relationship with others?

Making sure you enjoy working with the faculty member (autonomy, relationships), the project (skill acquisition), and co-researchers (relationships) is the best way to decide if doing research will be a good fit for you.  What concerns do you have about doing research as a student?

How to Successfully Seek Assistance

The Vetducator - Be smart enough to know when you need help and brave enough to ask for it.

Do you have a hard time asking for help?  Talking to people? There are a lot of veterinary professionals out there who have a hard time with both of these.  Veterinarians are notoriously self-reliant and independent. Imagine the early days with the lone vet out there on house calls- you didn’t have a cell phone to call for a consult, you had to Figure It Out.  It’s built into the very bones of our profession. I think this must be why I see so many applications and interviews where the individual clearly didn’t ask for help, and it reflects in their work. Faculty are easy resources- they are being paid to teach you, after all.  You must ask for help. We’ll see why and how in this post.

Why you need help

1) This is a high-stakes event.  If you are applying to vet school, internships, or residencies, there are MANY others also applying for these positions.  At UGA we would routinely have 200 applicants for six intern positions, and I heard from a friend this year they had 190 applicants for a one surgery residency position.  You need the best possible application and interview in order to stand out from the crowd and secure a position.

2) You are not an expert at career progression through veterinary academia.  Heck, you’re barely a novice. It would be like someone with no training getting into a boxing ring- you’re going to get hurt.  You haven’t been through this process, so you don’t have the experience. You haven’t mentored others, so you don’t have the perspective.  Mentors and even peers can provide this experience and perspective.

3) I have evidence you need help.  I read materials all the time and think, “Did they even show this to their mother?!?”  Simple typos, bizarre sentences, odd flows of logic- all of these would be identified and helped by an outside observer.  Many applicants could dramatically improve their application and interview skills by working with mentors.

How to ask for help

First of all, don’t just limit your editors to faculty with whom you have had a long-standing relationship.  If they have supervised you on a clinical rotation, or even in a didactic course, you can ask for their help.  It’s possible you won’t get a response or will get a ‘no’, but remember: most faculty are there because of the students.  They WANT to help you, you just have to ask!

1) Ask in person.  This is usually whenever you see or interact with the faculty member.  You can also swing by their office. It’s not hard, just say, “Hey Dr. X, I’m applying for ThisKindOfPosition, would you be able and willing to give me some help with my application?”  That’s it! So simple! As always, if you get a ‘yes’, follow up with email.

2) Ask by email.  This requires less timing to figure out- you can send it at any time.  It is slightly less personal, though. Particularly if you don’t have a strong relationship with your mentor, email may be a little too impersonal.  They may not remember working with you and you may get somewhat tepid assistance if they don’t know you well. If you choose to email, take a similar tack to in-person: a short email along the lines of, “Hello Dr. X, I am applying for ThisKindOfPosition this <timeframe> and was wondering if you would be able and willing to provide advice on the process and look over my materials?  Any help you can give would be appreciated. Please let me know what you think. Thank you so much!”

Now you know why and how.  Go out there and get help! What obstacles do you experience in seeking out help with your career?

The need for this blog

Vetducator demonstrates veterinary academic professionals need help.
Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

This year, I’ve had quite a few students and interns approach me about reviewing their materials for the VIRMP, which I am more than happy to do.  I thought, instead of sending individual emails to each, I could write a single blog post and direct them to it. I could also offer my services online.  That way, others outside of my institution could also benefit.

I have seen some atrocious applications for vet school, internships, residencies, and faculty positions.  Video interviews where the interviewee was backlit. Poorly composed CVs that evaluators had to dig through until they figured “why bother” and stopped considering the applicant.  Negotiations where one side or the other acts unwisely or unprofessionally, sinking the whole deal. I have been shocked that no one has mentored students on how to structure their senior year to maximize the impact on their internship application.  There is a need for people to get help in their professional progress in veterinary academia. I want to help those people.

This blog will be about employment and professional progression in academic veterinary medicine.  The focus will be on undergrads applying to vet school, veterinary students applying to internship, residency applicants, and faculty applicants.  We will talk about cover letters, CVs, interviews, how to strategize to position yourself for the next step, who to talk to and when, and all other things related to the business of veterinary academia.

I have personally experienced this progression and the job market, have served on and chaired countless search committees, have been a hiring manager in my role as a Department Chair, have helped innumerable undergrads, vet students, interns, residents, and junior faculty get to their next step, and have published in peer-reviewed journals about post-graduate education.  I have always had an interest in the business of veterinary medicine, I stay up to date on current trends, I touch base with colleagues at other institutions to sound out the academic world. I want to share this expertise with those of you who want to make your professional progression as excellent as possible. Please follow along, comment, email me, and work together to make things better.