How do you network when you have nothing to offer?
January 2, 2008 11:39 AM   Subscribe

How do I cultivate relationships with people so that they will write me letters of recommendation (for artist residencies, post-grad programs, MFA programs, and grants)? This problem has been stymieing me for years!

- I was in college 12+ years ago, in an unrelated field, so my links back there are dead.

- These letters of recommendation need to not only testify to my industriousness and maturity, but address the level I'm at as an artist and my communication ability. In other words, the letter writer would need to know me fairly well.

- My current one recommender is great; I "earned" his letter by working for him for free for 2 years. But I still need two more letters! One of them by April 1st!

- Upcoming, I will be in a few continuing education classes, 1-3 months in length, meeting 1x per week. Is it possible to cultivate a relationship with the instructor in such a short period of time? How?

- I am aware of some friends-of-friends or acquaintances whose credentials would make them good people to vouch for me, but I have no idea how to start up a relationship from the vantage point of me having nothing to offer but only hoping they'll be able to do something for me.

Please help!
posted by xo to Work & Money (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You don't need each reference to cover all the bases. You already have one reference who can provide the personal aspect. Another one could, for example, be someone who knows (or is qualified to judge) your work but doesn't know you personally.
posted by winston at 11:55 AM on January 2, 2008

Speak to the instructor and to the friends-of-friends about your problem and ask what they think. There's no downside whatever. You don't need to clear it with us first.

And what Winston said. Good luck.
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:10 PM on January 2, 2008

More volunteering. What do these friends-of-friends do outside of work? Anything community related that you could help out with? They can get to know you in these activities and they will be able to judge your abilities. If they aren't involved in anything, maybe you can organize an event of some sort and invite them all to help out. If you do a good job, at least one of them should be willing to vouch for you.

To cultivate a relationship with an instructor, ask for an extra credit project. Offer to organize their files for them, or scan documents for them or whatever they need help with in exchange for extra criticism of your work. Go ahead and be upfront about why, otherwise they may wonder.

Become involved in your community. Do they need an art teacher at your local afterschool program? Would they like a mural (insert your artistic equivalent) at a neighborhood restaurant? The current political campaigns are a good place to get involved and network. If you work in a local political campaign headquarters, you will meet people quickly.
posted by Eringatang at 12:14 PM on January 2, 2008

You can return to your old professors with samples of your work — ideally, samples of the work you did in their classes as well as some that's more recent. They still may not be able to address your character in their letters, and you'll need other references for that, but giving them something to look at will help them write about the quality of your work.

As for cultivating a relationship with your current professors, the important thing to do is talk to them. Usually that means going to office hours. Show up with a legitimate question — something from the course that's confusing you, something related to it that you're curious about — and if the conversation's going well, stick around for a few minutes to talk about whatever comes up. Repeat, a few weeks later, with another question. If it comes up, mention your plans for the future.

Keep in mind that most professors wish more of their students would attend office hours. It won't look strange or brown-nosey. (On the other hand, I would think it was strange if a student asked to do my filing in exchange for a better letter of recommendation — almost as strange as if they'd offered me a cash bribe, in fact. But I'm just a grad student, and I'm not in your field. Maybe things are different in art.)

When the semester's over, the crucial question to ask is, "Do you feel like you know me well enough to write a decent letter?" It's not rude to ask, and you'll get an honest answer: nobody's out to ruin your career. But you might get "no" as an answer, and you should accept it if you do, since you want the best letters you can get.

Jim's right, too, that you can ask your current professors flat-out how a person in your situation can get better letters. The best-case scenario is they offer to write one, or point out a mutual acquaintance who can. The worst-case scenario is they say "I don't know."
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:26 PM on January 2, 2008

(You know, I noticed your title after I wrote that, but I think this may be a case where the business world and academia work very differently. Your relationship with a professor isn't much like a professional relationship. It will be one-sided, and that's okay. Think of it, in this situation, like the sort of relationship you might have with a union rep, a tech support person, or a librarian — it's their job to help you access the resources you need, whether or not it benefits them directly.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:36 PM on January 2, 2008

if a student asked to do my filing in exchange for a better letter of recommendation

To clarify: I said filing in exchange for more criticism of their work, so that the instructor becomes more familiar with XO and their work, and XO can become more familiar with the instructor. XO is looking to cultivate relationships, and this approach works for cultivating academic relationships. If the relationship deepens, XO can ask for a letter b/c the instructor will be familiar with their work and how they respond to criticism, not because they did some filing for the instructor. No, XO should not bribe them.

If it's a one month continuing education course, the instructor probably does not hold office hours. They may be a professor or they may be a part-time instructor. In either case, in order to positively answer the question:

"Do you feel like you know me well enough to write a decent letter?"

The instructor will need more interaction than in-class questions or one-month of assignments (especially if the class meets once a week). To get that interaction the student must find a way to become more involved with the instructor's work outside of class. Frequently, this starts with office jobs but progresses quickly to other tasks. I've seen students take this route countless times and it is effective.
posted by Eringatang at 5:09 PM on January 2, 2008

I've written my own reference letters many times. I'll send an email to someone like this:

Hi Claire, I'm applying for XYZ and I need a reference letter from someone in a related industry. I thought you would be the ideal person to write it, given your background in PQR and our work together in 2006, but know you're really busy and I don't want to add work to your plate. If you'd be ok with providing the reference, I could draft a letter for you, that you're welcome to alter if you like, or just sign it and I'll send it along. I'm sorry to bug you for a favour like this, and no worries if you don't want to be involved. The letter is due on this date. Thanks so much for considering this request, Claire!

Then, after she agrees, I send an email with a quick overview of the program I need the letter for:

XYZ is a 6-month internship seeking people to do ABC. Ideal candidates have strong communication skills, are self-motivated and competent. I think my experience working as an office manager, and my background in sales should be good, and would like to highlight my leadership skills. I attached a draft of a letter- please make any changes you see fit- Thanks again so much for helping me out, Claire!

To this email, I attach a letter that's exactly what I want them to send, including an introductory paragraph about the letter writer, perhaps leaving obvious blanks for them to fill in details that I don't know: "I've worked on projects including P, Q, and R." -- But I research this stuff so I can write as much of it as possible. When they do come through with the letter (which they generally do), I call them to thank them and usually send a thank you card with a Starbucks card or something in it later, especially if I get the gig I used the letter for.

I think that using this method, you should be able to get a letter from at least one of your acquaintances, and if you ask a teacher for another- especially if you ask shortly after you've had some sort of in-class success or connection with them (a good assignment, or they compliment your questions or contributions in class, for instance), they should be able to agree to give you another. Good luck!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:56 PM on January 2, 2008

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