Asking for a Letter of Recommendation

There’s a good chance that at some point during your time at Williams, you’ll need to ask someone for a letter of recommendation. Here are some guidelines on rec letter etiquette.

  • Be organized. Professors and researchers are busy people, and it’s much easier for them if you can be clear about what you need and when. At least a month in advance of the deadline for whatever you’re applying for, approach the person you’d like to ask for a letter. Set up an in-person meeting if that’s at all possible.
  • Actually ask. At your meeting, explain what you’re applying for, then ask politely if they would be able to write you a strong letter of recommendation. Listen to their response. If they’re really enthusiastic about it, great! If they sound hesitant, that’s a red flag. Perhaps they feel they don’t know you well enough to write a strong letter for you, or maybe they feel like they’re not the best person to recommend you. You want to have a conversation, which is why in-person > phone conversation >> email when it comes to asking for a recommendation.
  • Help them out. After someone has agreed to write you a letter, send them some information about yourself and whatever you’re applying for. For things like internship, scholarship, and grad school applications, helpful things to include are: your CV, an up-to-date unofficial transcript, and a list or brief description of your interactions with the recommender (classes taken from them, contributions to their research, etc.). Ask your recommender whether there’s any other information you can provide that would make it easier for them to write a good letter. As the deadline approaches, send them polite reminders about the letter (email is fine).
  • Thank them. Once they get their letter in, make sure to let them know you appreciate their help. Keep them updated about how the application process goes…if they cared enough to write you a recommendation letter, then they’ll be excited for you when you land that internship you had your heart set on! 🙂


Fellowships and scholarships can help you finance your education and offer access to resources beyond Williams.

     The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship is a two-year fellowship that funds research in select disciplines (including physics and astronomy), presented to five Williams students at the end of sophomore year. The summer after sophomore year consists of a six-week summer research intensive, followed by a four-week period for additional research. After this summer, fellows are expected to do 8-10 hours of research per week during the school year and 40+ hours of research during the summer. The fellowship pays the student a stipend both during the year and over the summer, and, except in rare cases, requires that the student have no other income source so as to encourage the student to focus on research. To be eligible for MMUF, you must be a U.S. citizen.

     The Allison Davis Research Fellowship is the Williams College version of MMUF. International and first-generation students, as well as students interested in fields that are not MMUF-approved, are encouraged to apply. You may also apply to both fellowships.

     The application process requires three short essays: a research proposal, a personal statement, and an explanation of which faculty member will be your mentor. Ideal candidates are interested in pursuing an academic career and either belong to an underrepresented racial group or demonstrate a strong desire to diversify their field. The process begins in January and new fellows are announced around spring break.

NASA sometimes offers scholarship programs to undergraduates. Because funding is not constant, available opportunities for undergrads change often. Check the website for info on what’s currently available. NASA funds students doing all sorts of research (not just astronomy!), so check it out if you’re looking for scholarship opportunities.

Sophomores and juniors majoring in STEM fields and interested in a career in research are eligible for the Goldwater Scholarship. The Goldwater is a competitive merit-based scholarship; in addition to the financial award it is useful for preparing you for writing fellowship and graduate school applications your senior year. The scholarship requires an application form, several essays, three letters of recommendation, and a school nomination. You first apply to the fellowships office in early January. A panel then nominates three students for the scholarship. The national panel determines scholarship recipients based on the student’s home state.

Summer Research Internships

There are about a million different summer internships to participate in as a physics major. Here, we’ll detail a few that we as Williams physics students know about or have participated in.

  • On Campus: At Williams, we are privileged to have a number of brilliant professors doing amazing research. You can stay on campus during the summer and do research with a physics or astronomy professor (and maybe travel with them if their research takes them off campus!). The professors are always more than happy to talk about their research and what projects they have in mind for new students. This is a great opportunity to explore an area of physics that sounds interesting to you. There are several funding sources for on-campus research, but you will be paid if you do summer research with a professor.
  • NASA: There are 10 NASA centers across the country. Every summer, NASA scientists and engineers seek students to help with projects in a wide variety of disciplines. While there are certainly astronomy-related projects for interns, there are also many other projects for students to participate in. The nature of the projects vary wildly, and can be hands-on lab work or office work, in everything from materials science to aerospace engineering to space policy. Typically, you apply for a specific project and are chosen by a NASA mentor who thinks you will be a good fit for that project. Check out the opportunities on the website (it is usually open from November-March for summer internships) for more info. NASA accepts students from high school to grad school, so all Williams students should be eligible. All NASA internships are paid!
  • NIST: The National Institute of Standards and Technology has a summer undergraduate research fellowship program that matches students with a professional scientist at NIST on the Gaithersburg, MD campus or the Boulder, CO campus. There is a large physics branch at NIST, but the program includes other subjects such as Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, and Materials Science in case you are interested exploring a different field. Students are paid and the program provides optional housing. You must apply through your school; the Williams faculty contact for the program is Professor Jones.
  • DOE: Similarly, there are 15 Department of Energy labs that take undergraduate student interns each summer. You can apply for their undergraduate research program (the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship program, or SULI) which pairs you with a DOE scientist as a mentor. The DOE also looks for students with a variety of interests, from plasma physics to nuclear physics to applied optics. The SULI program is also paid!
  • NSF REU: The National Science Foundation runs a program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). There are REUs across a variety of disciplines, and each REU is associated with a particular institution or set of institutions. You apply for whichever experiences you are interested in, and they all have specific requirements. Astronomy and astrophysics students, note that Keck Consortium internships are REUs. REUs provide stipends for students (in other words, you will be paid!). REUs are extremely competitive (acceptance rates can be less than 10%!). If you want a shot at getting into one, you should apply for many programs (10+). They are great experiences though, as you get to see how science works at other universities (and maybe in other countries), work on science topics that aren’t necessarily available at Williams, meet other aspiring physicists, and have something that looks good on your resume. Some programs (especially the international ones) have deadlines as early as late December. If you are really interested, it is worth to start searching for REUs as early as the beginning of fall semester for the next summer. Be proactive in your research and finding and applying for programs. Some REUs are international. Advice from Mir Henglin ’13: If you are lucky enough to get into one of the international programs, negotiate to see if you can delay your return to the US, so that you can take a vacation in Europe after your program ends.

Make sure you do your research about any internship that you choose to apply for. Check that you are actually eligible to apply for that program (look for things like required GPA, necessary courses, class year, etc.). If you need to submit recommendation letters or references, give the people you ask at least a few weeks notice, especially if they are professors. Think about where you will live during the internship, and how you’ll be supporting yourself.

Study Abroad

The opportunity to study abroad is one of the huge benefits to being a physics major at a liberal arts school. There are many things to consider once you choose to go abroad.

  • Do you want to go for a full year or just one semester? In principle, it is possible to complete the physics/astrophysics major if you study abroad for a full year, but it’s difficult. Most physics students who study abroad opt to study abroad spring semester of junior year so that they can take PHYS 301 in the fall. Talk to your advisor or another physics prof about what will be possible for you given your background and schedule.
  • Do you want to study physics while you are abroad? There are a few study abroad programs that allow you to focus on physics. Getting a taste for physics at a different institution (usually a large research university) may help you decide if you want to go to graduate school or not. Studying physics abroad allows you to meet physicists from across the globe and also allows you the opportunity to experience a school system outside the U.S. The study abroad office (and of course Google) can point you towards information about a variety of programs, but some programs are detailed below:
    • Boston University Geneva Physics Program, Geneva, Switzerland: Intern at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Physics, Europe’s premier institute for particle physics) and take classes in physics in French at the University of Geneva. The program requires at least two semesters of French courses before you arrive in Geneva, so you’ll need to plan ahead if this is a program you’re interested in. Talk to Alyssa Barlis and Alice Sady ’13, or Henry Koster ’14 for more info.
  • You can, of course, also choose to take a break from physics and study abroad…anywhere! See the study abroad office for more information about other programs.
  • Can’t study abroad during the year? It’s also possible to do a summer study abroad program. This option is a good one to consider if you are a double major or if you play a sport that makes going abroad during the academic year difficult. Getting credit from Williams can be tricky, so definitely consult the study abroad office as you plan your experience. You can also find internships abroad that relate to a field you’re interested in.

Senior Thesis

The Williams physics and astronomy departments offer seniors the opportunity to conduct research as part of a year-long senior thesis. Doing a thesis project requires a lot of time and energy, but it can be a very rewarding experience. If you want to go to grad school in physics, you should seriously consider doing a thesis. Grad schools want to see that you can do longer-term, original research, and balance it with other coursework.

Thesis experiences vary wildly depending on advisor and project. You should begin considering working on a thesis by the beginning of spring semester of junior year. The department usually hosts a colloquium towards the end of the winter at which professors give quick talks about the projects they have available. Talk to any professors whose research interests you, along with their current or former research students. If you’ve already done research on campus, you can either stick with the same professor if he/she is looking for thesis students, or explore other options. If you are involved in off-campus research, it is also possible to continue that work as a thesis project. You’ll need to find a Williams-based advisor to oversee your progress, however, so talk to your department advisor if that is something you’re interested in. Around March of your junior year, the department will solicit applications for theses. You list your top three choices for thesis advisor, and then the department meets to match students and advisors. The process is not usually competitive, but it is not guaranteed that you will be accepted to do a thesis.

It is strongly recommended (in some cases, required) that you begin your thesis research the summer before your senior year. This gives you the chance to learn the ins and outs of your lab/project, and a full ~10 weeks to work full time with your advisor. Senior year, you register for the thesis as one of your classes each semester, and it is your winter study project. Thesis students give mid-year presentations at the end of the fall semester, then final presentations at the end of the year. The end product is, of course, an actual thesis which documents your progress and any findings. The department meets before graduation to determine which students graduate with honors and highest honors on the basis of thesis work.