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I presently work for a biotech company in biotech manufacturing with some other duties (QA/starting a research project) thrown in. I graduated with my bachelors degree in 2010 and am 31 now, and now am finally getting to apply to some PhD programs this year after gaining industry experience and dealing with some psychological issues. I currently work with two supervisors both with MSc and 10+ years biotech experience.

I am presently working/volunteering with a professor at a local university for just over a year who has encouraged me to apply to do a PhD. Right now he will write me a letter of recommendation and also my supervisors at work will write me recommendations.

My question is then if I apply to 5 different grad programs, will my supervisors have to email the same letter to 5 different institutions? What if I had them email the letter to HR and then HR emailed the letter to the different institutions? I'm just a little unclear on this.

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    Well, when professors accept writing you a recommendation letter, they understand all that it entails, including having to send the letter to more than one place. I would not worry too much about that. Just thank them, appreciate their effort and let them know if it works :) – Ivo Terek Oct 2 at 18:24
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    @Ivo while this is true, I wonder if the OP is concerned about their work supervisors, who it seems are not professors. OP, can you clarify? – astronat Oct 2 at 20:48
  • Oh yes, I agree. If the supervisors do not work in academia then I'd think about it too. But I think OP could clarify it to them when asking, just so they have an easy out in case they think it's too much of a hassle. – Ivo Terek Oct 2 at 20:50
  • I'm not a professor, so I can't say for certain, but it seems the majority of letters are not emailed to an inbox, but uploaded to a service, so I don't think HR would be very much help here – Azor Ahai Oct 2 at 23:11
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If I apply to 5 different grad programs, will my supervisors have to email the same letter to 5 different institutions?

Unless they write customized letters for each institution, then yes.

Or more likely, they'll have to email their letter one institution and fill out four different forms on four different web sites. At least one of those web sites will require setting up a new account with a secure password (containing at least one upper case letter, one lower case letter, one digit, and one special character, but no spaces, hyphens, asterisks, or emoji) and two-factor authentication. Four of the institutions will email instructions for submitting the letters to the email address you provide; one will assume that you've already given the submission instructions to each of your references. One of the reference web sites will require a recent version of Java; another will silently fail if an ad-blocker is active.

(I'm exaggerating, but only a little.)

Some of your references may be able to delegate the submission process to someone in HR, or to a clerical assistant, but everyone needs to agree on the precise protocol well in advance, so that you can include the correct contact information in your applications. As Buffy suggests, be sure that the actual letters are written by people who know you personally, who have the technical expertise to judge your suitability for graduate study, not by a random person in HR or by a clerical assistant.

I also agree with Buffy that letters that are customized to each institution are stronger, provided the customization is truly substantive. If there are clear significant differences in emphasis at different institutions—for example, one department that focuses on biology, versus another that focuses on manufacturing—then you should communicate those differences to your letter-writers. (That said, the vast majority of recommendation letters I read for successful graduate school and faculty applications are not customized, so customization may not be necessary.)

Finally, do not, under any circumstances, write the letter yourself. You do not know how to write a strong recommendation letter. You certainly do not know how to write strong recommendation letters in three different voices, all different from your own, which are consistent with previous letters "written" in those voices. I think even drafting the letter yourself is dangerous. If one of your references needs more information about your background (that isn't already adequately described in your statement of purpose and your CV, which of course you've already shared with them) to write a strong letter, talk to them face to face.

  • I was able to clarify with my supervisors that I would be applying to >1 institution, and that they would need to send multiple letters. Thank you, answered! – rayj Oct 9 at 20:50
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Tell them at the start that there will be several requests and give a hint about how many, if possible. This lets them prepare a general response that can be sent to several places. But it is a bit better if the letter is tailored to the recipient, so...

For each individual request, tell the letter writers what you think it might be good to emphasize, provided that you think it is important for that recipient. This lets the letter writer modify the basic form a bit to suit you better.

Some professors, and maybe others, ask that you write the general draft yourself and send it to them. This lets you include the things you think are important in general.

It is probably better that letters come from individuals who know you, rather than from offices like HR.

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    Some professors, and maybe others, ask that you write the general draft yourself and send it to them — Tell them no. – JeffE Oct 2 at 23:21
  • @JeffE, I'm not sure that is wise. Why do you think it is? I would think it would depend on your relationship and on how busy the letter writer is in general. If you refuse to provide a draft and they then refuse to write the letter, where does that leave you? – Buffy Oct 2 at 23:25
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    Yes, I think it is wise to say no. When you ask someone for a letter, you are relying on their expertise, in particular for writing letters. Applicants do not know how to write good letters. If someone refuses to write me a letter because I insist—correctly—that I'm unqualified to draft it for them, then I've avoided a weak letter. – JeffE Oct 2 at 23:35
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Let your supervisors know well in advance how many places you're applying to and crucially, how they will need to submit their reference. Some institutions will email your referees requesting their reference, others may have an online system they will need to log in to, etc. Try to compile all this information beforehand in a single email/document and give it to your supervisors. You could also include the application deadline and some information about each institution, if this will help them tailor their reference letter. Then, let them know once you've submitted the application, so they will be expecting the email requesting the reference.

I would not leave this to HR; if the letters don't get sent it may be tricky to chase up. However, if you supervisor forgets to send one, I'm sure it would be very easy to drop them a reminder email or have a chat over lunch.

Good luck with the applications!

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