Building Academic Relationships

Stacy Dikareva

This morning at work, my co-worker and I were using our valuable pre-breakfast rush time (a precious time for a breakfast server) to ensure a sufficient caffeine kick, by brewing the strongest pot of coffee possible, and catching up on the two main domains in each other’s student lives: How’s school? How are the other three hours of your week you spend doing something non-school related?  The latter was addressed by a quick recap ofour favourite TV shows. Then we quickly moved on to school.

My honeymoon excitement (and anxiety) about my Master’s project, classes and grad school in general, quickly lead to a conversation about the series of academic and bureaucratic hoops students frequently need to jump through in applying to a graduate program. Something my co- worker, Josh a fourth year Political Science major and a Master’s hopeful at Concordia, is currently facing in his last semester.

First and foremost, you will need adecent GPA, so if teetering on the verge of the cut-off isn’t enough pressure, you will also likely require two to three reference letters, a solid resume that shows that you are a well rounded, ambitious individual, and sometimes admissions will even throw in a personal essay for a fun linguistic project. (It is too bad you can’t submit your blog posts in support of your application). Of course, this is not  standard for every school and every program, a thorough read through the admission requirements or an appointment with someone in the program is a must.

Now, assuming you have been studying something you enjoy, you will likely have the grades for graduate school. Josh’s biggest concern and what I believe is the biggest hurdle for a lot of students from what I have gathered, is the letters of reference. How do you build a rapport with your professors? When should you do it? How do you avoid coming off as insincere or inauthentic in speaking to your professor? You know the  standard: I don’t want to seem like I am there simply for a reference, even though I kind of am.

If you are in any way, shape or form toying with the idea of pursuing graduate studies (especially if you are in your second to last or last year of undergrad), make it your first point to start an academic rapport with professors. For science students (I can only speak to my background), I  would consider doing a directed studies project or an Honours, which will allow you to perform some small scale versions of work that you can anticipate in graduate school while giving you an opportunity to network in the academic community.

Naturally, you might want to consider teachers who have taught courses most interesting to you and/or are in the same line of work as your prospective grad studies. It simply makes discussion easier. I’m by no means an expert at getting chummy with your profs (and really, you don’t have to) but I have always gotten the ball rolling by coming in to ask questions or for clarification throughout the course- i.e. making use of office hours. I am not suggesting you camp out in their office every week (other students may have questions too and you might just create a long list of disgruntled classmates) but I do think that you are not only more likely to be successful in that course by using the resources available to you, but also your professor is more likely to recall students who are actively engaging in their learning thus making asking for a letter of reference more natural. I would also suggest here, that you strive to attain a strong letter grade in that course because  when profs have to speak to your academic strengths there is actual empirical evidence to support your application, not just pretty words describing your demeanour. I may not entirely agree with this way of adjudicating and screening future generations of scholars but that is the way it is.

Next, I would recommend letting them in on your grad school ambitions, you might just be surprised at their excitement and willingness to help you. And if they’re not entirely jazzed about you and your application, you’ll also know not to choose them as your future supervisor/mentor. Once the time comes around to ask for letters of reference, make sure to supplement your request with an up-to-date and comprehensive resume to give them some context. And be prepared to write drafts of your own letter as if you are the professor  for them to edit and sign. Here, Google will be your best friend, if it already isn’t, in finding great advice on how to write academic letters of reference in third person.

 

 

 

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