By Dr. Jennifer Austin
What to do well before requesting letters of recommendation
Change can be challenging for anyone and the transition in moving beyond an undergraduate career can be arduous for many. You can make this time easier by being proactive and planning ahead to ensure your success. In the semesters before you are at the point of requesting letters of recommendation there are a number of actionable steps you should be practicing.
First, make meaningful connections with your mathematics faculty as you will need at least three faculty members in your field of study to write letters of recommendation for you during your senior year. To write strong letters on your behalf they need to know you, how you work with others, how you work independently, and your overall potential. Be an active participant in your mathematics courses, attend office hours, ask your professors about their research, get to know your professors, and allow them to get to know you. Second, you must check in with your academic advisor and/or faculty advisior at least once a semester to see that you are taking the best mathematics coures to prepare you for your desired career or graduate school program.
Third, network, network, network. Find out if there are local chapters of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), and other professional mathematical societies on your campus. Join them or help found your own local chapter! Participate in your school’s math club, actuarial science club, or future mathematics teachers club. Finally, I would add that volunteering for outreach opportunities is a great way to connect with the larger community, share your knowledge, serve as a math expert, bring mathematics alive, and enhance your own communication skills.
How to request letters of recommendation for graduate school
For those of you who are grad school bound, during the summer between your junior and senior years, investigate graduate programs and compile the list of schools to which you will apply in the fall. The AMS has a great webservice to help you compare graduate programs in the mathematical sciences. In the fall, have fellow students, your school’s career services office, and your faculty advisor proofread your statement of purpose and CV. By November be prepared to request letters of recommendation from at least three faculty members (two of which should be mathematics faculty). When you request letters of recommendation, provide your letter writers with your resume, statement of purpose, an unofficial copy of your transcript, and a spreadsheet or chart listing all schools to which you are applying. When I am asked to write letters of recommendation here is a questionnaire that I request students to complete. You want to provide your letter writers similar information about you. In the spreadsheet that you provide your letter writers include the name of the school, the particular program to which you are applying, due dates, and the method of letter submission. Here is a sample of such a spreasheet.
Are you going on the job market with your undergraduate degree in mathematics?
If you are going on the job market directly after earning your undergraduate degree, all the above information also applies to you as well. Moreover, networking and utilizing your on-campus career services office is of utmost importance to you throughout your undergraduate years. Your local student organizations such as math club or AWM will usually host career panels and resume workshops as part of their regular meetings. Your on-campus career services office will frequently host career fairs. Attend career panels and participate in career fairs early in your undergraduate years so that you are aware of all the potential directions in which your math degree can lead you. When you request letters of recommendation remember to provide your letter writers with a resume or CV detailing relevant extracurricular activities, employment, and experiences you have had. This is especially important if your letter writers are your professors who may only know of your academic endeavors.