Yes, it’s rec letter season again. Grad school, internships, fellowships, and the great Hunger Games that is medical school admissions. As a senior member of a large lab with a higher-than-average contingent of undergraduate volunteers, I count somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen students I’ve personally mentored over the last several years, and that means even have to write a letter now and then in the service of former students.
Which is great. Honestly. Duke students are an incredible bunch. Smart, hardworking, and ambitious in a way that’s almost sweet, they hide it so poorly.
Only problem is, the more students I work with, and the longer ago it was, the harder time I have remembering who did what and when. Not that I forget the people, but sometimes I have a hard time remembering even my own projects, and this is no exception. So believe me, I want to write you a compelling letter, filled with telling anecdote and high praise. But we are fighting a battle here against the slipperiness of memory.
To which end, dear undergraduate, research aspirant, I am encouraging you to make it easy on me. And to make it easy on you, I am going to give you the keys to the kingdom,
Follow these simple precepts, keep out of trouble, and you are well on your way to that glowing recommendation:
Sounds simple, right? It is. But just to be clear, this is what I mean:
Understand, this is my job. I work summers, spring break, finals, some nights, and many weekends. And I like my job. Naturally, I understand that you have other obligations, and I do not expect you to put in forty hours a week as my personal lackey. But you should understand that, just like with any internship in the real world, work goes on, with or without you, and if we can’t depend on you to show up and get things done, you are not going to make a good impression.
Understand, this is not like class. Classes push content to you. You make your own schedule, plan ahead or cram, and so long as you turn in something reasonable by the deadline, it’s good enough.
When it comes to research, that just won’t cut it. The questions we work on are not problem sets that we estimate will take you 4 – 6 hours to solve over a weekend. They might not be solvable at all. When you work as part of a team, you don’t have the luxury of cramming all the work in during an eighty-hour week at the end of the semester after disappearing for a month. I’m not that good, and neither are you. Progress takes consistent effort over the long haul.
Next time: What key quality separates good undergraduate researchers from great undergraduate researchers?