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Acquiring Letters of Recommendation as an Aspiring Computational Biologist

The Importance of Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are one of the biggest factors for admission, besides the [personal statement[link], into a graduate program, receiving a major grant, or applying to your next dream job. They’re a crucial opportunity for evaluators to see your competence, potential, and work ethic not just through our accomplishments, but from the perspective of experienced individuals in your field. This is extremely valuable as your mentors often have more in common with the reviewers of your application than you do. Therefore, a positive word on their behalf is so important at these stepping stones in your journey.. As a computational biologist, it’s also a great opportunity for people from a wide array of backgrounds to speak to the interdisciplinary nature of your skills. That being said, asking the right person, staying on top of your materials, and leveraging your story in curating your reference circle are all important aspects of the application experience.

Who To Ask (and Who Not to Ask)

Most referees (applicants having a letter written about them) will not have the opportunity to see the letters that are written about them. This means it’s important for the person you ask to be a well-trusted and experienced individual in your network. This could be a long-term mentor or a research advisor. Faculty you’ve built a working relationship with and who understand you outside of the class are also great options. Additionally, the graduate students in your lab or your high school college counselor are also probably not the best choices because of the level and type of experience application reviewers are looking for in your referees..

Your freshman year general chemistry instructor in a class of 200 students, and who you may have only spoken to once in office hours, is probably not the best choice. Stick to people who can advocate for recent, relevant, and consistent efforts in your professional journey.

As a computational biologist, consider putting together a list of recommenders who could speak to your skills across common disciplines that contribute to computational biology-- biology, mathematics, and computer science.

It’s not impossible to encounter a recommender who essentially asks you to write your own letter of reference for them. This type of situation could be difficult to navigate and can manifest in many ways. For example, the person you ask if very busy, and so in order for them to get your letter in on time, they ask you to draft that letter for them, may promise to edit it a little, and ask for instructions on submitting it properly later. Though there are most likely ethical guidelines in place to prevent this from happening at your future graduate program or fellowship. Many budding scientists often encounter this scenario therefore it is important to speak to older peers who may have more experience. If you decide to stick with this recommender, consider sharing those ethical guidelines or meet them halfway by providing them with an easy-to-follow template.

How To Ask (at least one month before your set deadline)

Once you’ve gotten your pool of potential recommenders it’s time to start asking them. Consider gathering your potential letter writers 2-3 months before their application deadline, and build out a timeline to consistently check in with them at least twice before your materials are due. This is best done in person or through a formal and concise email. Highlight the role they have played in your professional journey, how they have positively impacted you, and brief them on the importance of your plans for applying to this program/fellowship/opportunity. You should be able to concisely show this person why you believe they would be a positive influence on your application package and simultaneously share your enthusiasm for taking this next step.

In some fashion, you should ask them if they feel they’d be able to craft a strong letter on your behalf. This does not have to be a long request at all, but should also include the mode of submission, and most importantly, the date the letter is due (feel free to shave a few weeks off of the actual due date for potential letter writers who are very busy).

Thank them for their consideration. Remember that this is a mutual exchange -- writing a letter for someone is just as important as receiving a letter from someone. Move forward with confidence and with the perspective of this experience as a partnership.

Being an Excellent Referee and Managing Your Materials

Whether you’re considering attaching more materials in your first correspondence, or you’ve waited for a response from potential writers, now it’s time for you to take control. Gather your reference letter package materials, and meet them halfway to not only ensure your letter writer has a smooth experience but to be as respectful as possible of their time.

Essentials for your referee package (it’s best to put this into an easy-to-read spreadsheet to share with all of your letter writers):

  1. For graduate school, a list of all of the graduate programs you are applying you

  2. Summary of application requirements where the expectations of the letter writers are outlined

  3. Related links for submission materials

  4. Your CV

    1. Share factors, experiences, or skills you would like your referees to highlight in their letters

  5. A draft of our personal statement (and research statement if possible)

    1. If possible, ask for feedback on your statements

    2. Important so they can better understand you and your angle for applying for this opportunity.

  6. A submission deadline that is about 1-2 weeks before the actual submission deadline.

Managing your time is not only important for you, but it’s important to respect the letter writer’s time as well. This means not just giving the recommenders a deadline and link to submit, but asking them with reasonable time to complete your materials is just a part of the job. Each time you check-in, you should attach your “referee packet” discussed above so they have an easy way to keep track of important resources. Don’t feel like a burden, simply ask if there is anything you can clarify or if they have any questions on the specifics of your package.

Leveraging Your Personal Statement

Your personal statement is another very important document in your graduate school application package. We write about that here. Including the reference writers’ names in your personal statement, if they are a crucial part of your story, is a great way of curating a cohesive application package that complements each of your other materials, especially if this is for a grant application. This allows readers to understand your recommenders’ relationship to you and your journey as you incorporate their influence to your success. Maybe there was a particular computer science project that sparked your interest in computational applications to biology that a letter writer was a significant factor in. This is a great opportunity to stay on the course of crafting a strong personal statement but also elaborating on the role that mentorship has played in your development.

Thank Recommenders and Keep Them Posted

Be sure to thank your recommenders for the favor they did for you. Consider a thank you card or another small token of your appreciation. Depending on the relationship you have with this person, they may need to write another letter on your behalf in the future. Maintain that relationship by keeping them up to date on your accomplishments and any news about your graduate program or fellowship status.


Jenea I. Adams, Khadija Wilson, Kaylyn Clark, Markia Smith, Pathways To Computational Biology Board

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