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I am going back to grad school and considering getting a PhD, but even though I got top grades and my professors usually have a great connection with me during classes because I am engaged and ask a lot of questions and get good grades, I am not good at building lasting relationships.

Do people keep in touch with professors after leaving? Do they get a letter of recommendation as soon as they graduate? Do they have to nurture the relationship for years and then fall back on it to get the reference? How do people get these letters of reference?

Forgive me that I don't understand how this works but I know this will be a requirement to get into top universities for a PhD program, so I better start doing it in my Master's program, because I didn't do it for my undergraduate.

I am very open to any advice, even if it seems elementary or obvious to you, because what you may think is obvious, I may not know, so I am very open to feedback. I'm not great with building relationships but I am willing to learn and grow.

How do I go about doing these letters of recommendation?

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  • I'm not clear what exactly you're asking. I think you are saying that you are now entering a Masters program, and you are wondering how in the future you will get recommendations for PhD programs, and what you should do as a Masters student to help with that PhD application process?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 16:24
  • Yes, you understood correctly
    – learning
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 16:33

2 Answers 2

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PhD programs are very different from all the coursework you've done as an undergraduate and before (this recent answer posted here includes a nice depiction: https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/195669/63475). The center of a PhD program is research, so for applications to PhD program you want to show potential in research, specifically.

By far the best way to do this is to get experience doing research - for that experience, you will need a mentor/mentors, and those are the best people to write letters of recommendation for you. It's not about "learningaddict got a good grade in my course", though in a pinch that may be sufficient, and if you need 3-4 letters, it's likely at least one or two will be of that type.

Of course, the easiest thing to do then would be to apply directly for PhD programs while you are close to finishing your masters degree. If your eventual goal is a PhD, there are really no academic reasons to wait. If you have other personal reasons to wait, then yes, you will need to maintain these connections a bit, but I think it's far easier for someone to just remember you when you've worked closely with them on a research project rather than simply being another head in their class.

I'd also recommend discussing your future plans with people you want to eventually write letters for you, and letting them know you plan to ask for a letter in the future, even if you don't plan to apply right away. You can even share with them exactly the question you've asked here - don't forget that these are people with a job that includes mentoring you. They may have their own advice for you, or they may choose on their own to pre-write a letter.

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  • Excellent advice, thank you.
    – learning
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 11:32
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I was lucky to meet my first mentor when I was 18. Because we shared similar substantive interests, he molded me into a statistician. If you seek a PhD, you should do the same. Seek out a mentor to collaborate with. Do research with them. Learn what academia at the higher levels is like. Don't be afraid to email people and speak with them. You will be surprised how far an email can take you. In this business, networking is invaluable, even compared to your grades in some ways. So, getting experience as a researcher is the main thing you should focus on. Most masters programs offer a thesis, just for this exact purpose. So hone your skills while you can.

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  • Thanks for the tips
    – learning
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 11:31

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