How to Seek Recommendation Letters for a Phd Program

In this episode of TUN TV, Dr. Crystal Rose interviews Dr. Cammie Rolle about her experiences in seeking letters of recommendation for a doctoral program and what worked for her.

Dr. Rose: Welcome to The University Network TV, where we scan the globe to give students, their families, and educators the very best tips for student success. I’m your host today, Dr. Crystal Rose, and on today’s show, we’re featuring our series, “How We Show Up.” 

These are human bios. There are stories behind our bios, and these are stories that make us human. Not always easy. Not always straightforward. They’re stories from which we may take inspiration, learn from, and grow.

Today, you get to meet Dr. Cammie Rolle. She’s been conducting independent research for about a decade as both the research associate and doctoral candidate. She obtained her Ph.D. in Neurosciences at Stanford and is now a post-doctoral fellow working within the neurosurgery and psychiatry departments at Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania.

For her undergraduate degree, she attended the University of California, Davis campus, where she earned a BS degree in Ecology, Evolution and Biology, and a BA in Psychology. Then she commenced her Ph.D. studies at Stanford within the neurosciences and since then, has been awarded three fellowships from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Health (NIH).

We’ve been hearing a lot about both of these organizations since COVID, and I’m sure you’ll get to hear some tips she’s learned along the way. Oh, and you’ll want to know she’s published nearly 20 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including Nature, and has presented over 20 peer-reviewed scientific posters.

She’s been invited to speak at national and international conferences in neuroscience psychology, neurology, and psychiatry. Yes, folks, she’s in high demand. But you will also need to know that Dr. Rolle has been mentoring high school students, college students, and post-college students in neurosciences and professional development since 2010, even before she commenced her Ph.D. 

Even more, if you are applying to any of the Stanford neurosciences Ph.D. programs, she’s one person on the admissions committee. This means she gets to interview and she helps with the admissions decisions regarding incoming neuroscience Ph.D. students.

Welcome, Dr. Cammie Rolle.

Dr. Rolle: Thank you. Dr. Rose. I’m very happy to be here and excited to talk a little bit more about my journey. So, I started off with my BA and my BS. So, I went to college with no research experience under my belt. I started just trying to pursue psychology. That was my primary interest with the goal of possibly going into medicine and possibly going into another field related to that.

I was really passionate. I thought about science, although it was all the high school level – physics and chemistry – and it was interesting but not necessarily what I wanted to make a career out of. I never really thought about pursuing science as a career. I was in a mandatory biology undergraduate course when I was at UC Davis. And it led me to learn a little bit more about how they were finding some of the things that they were sharing with us, some of the things they had learned about biology.

The professor who was teaching was actually a Principal Investigator of her own lab. I mean, she ran a lab that was dedicated to understanding biology, and she was one of the people that we were learning about in our biology books. 

So, I just couldn’t believe that I had access to someone like this who was literally cited in the book I was learning in college. So, I went up after class because she had mentioned her lab was there at UC Davis. I just asked if I could volunteer and be involved, thinking there was no way that was possible at my level without any experience. And she happened to have an opening, and I volunteered in that lab for the rest of my college career. It was my first research experience and I think it was the summer after I think I started that. 

So, I think it was the summer, maybe after my junior year of college, she invited me to go on a funded, totally funded trip, to Kenya to collect some of the genetic samples that we were looking at. So, my job in that lab was to be running PCR analysis on ants. I was doing genetic work on, literally, ants. And to be honest, I wasn’t actually interested in the content as much as I was interested in this lab experience. This research that you could be being paid to be doing was just so interesting to me. 

Then we got the opportunity to go to Kenya together. So, I went with my PI, my Principal Investigator, Dr. Maureen Stanton. She took me to Kenya. We collected ants and we ran genetics, and we lived in a literal little hut. It was part of a Mpala Research Institute there, and we sat around a table and ate watermelon and talked about all these exciting things that people were doing. That all over the world they had come and were doing research at this Mpala Research Institute. 

And I just could not believe that these people were getting paid and funded to travel and to research and talk about interesting questions they had and how they could answer them. Long story short, that’s where I got into research. This crazy one-off experience that I never thought would come into anything, other than maybe just an interesting experience, became my passion.

I did move away from the content of that particular lab and started going more toward what I was passionate about within psychology, studying neuroscience as it is related to psychology and behavior and specifically, how related to mental health. 

I had a few other research lab experiences that eventually landed me at UCSF, my final year in college. And I actually made that commute a couple of times a week from UC Davis to UCSF just to get that research assistant experience all-volunteer, and that was studying neuroplasticity that eventually led to a paid position – which I needed after college – as a lab manager. 

A lab manager is essentially an administrative role where I was able to kind of manage the funds and the oversight and the personnel in that lab. But also, I was able to, as part of my position, but also as part of my free time, I was able to be involved in the research. And this is where all the doors opened for me. 

And I guess the final piece of my journey from UCSF was – I applied after a couple of years, I took a gap, two years I believe, I intentionally only was going to take a gap year, and that in itself was really hard for me to stomach because I was always so sure if I stopped moving fast, that I would stop getting anywhere.

And I think for me, that gap year felt like –  if I took that gap year, what if I got too comfortable and what if I didn’t make it to that next step, and what if it looked like I was getting lazy? – so, that in itself was a big concern for me. 

But that year is when everything happened. It’s when I got all of my publications that started me out, and it’s when I got all of my networking and exciting research experience that made me more passionate and more focused on what I wanted to study.

Then from there, I applied for Ph.D. programs, thinking I was an excellent candidate. I was really sure that this would be my next step, and I applied for psychology neuroscience Ph.D. programs and got interviews with zero of those programs despite having publications, despite having posters. 

I did not totally understand why. So, I took another year at UCSF and I focused very intensely and aggressively on trying to do everything I possibly could to not – from getting feedback about why I didn’t get in to trying to get more publications and more posters and leading more research. And it was a team effort. I went to a lot of the professors there and tried to get involved in a bigger and more aggressive way.

But beyond that, there was a kind of a pivotal learning experience, which was that I had information from one of my mentors that in the letters themselves – because I was coming in with a managerial experience, but more than that, because I was coming in as someone who was excited and making cookies and bringing things, in addition to doing some of the research and being very rigorous in my own right there – the things that were getting highlighted in my recommendation had a lot to do with my personality and my contributions to the field and the environment of the lab. And this was not from my UCSF lab member, but it was more like the general recommendation. They highlight a lot about my personality. 

So, I learned that you have to be a little careful to be hand-holding some of your recommenders in terms of how they’re presenting you and the experiences that they’re highlighting. So, what I did for the following round is, I brought to everyone’s awareness that I wanted to make sure that not only was my personal contributions highlighted but also the rigor and the research and exactly the projects I was involved in. 

So, what I started doing for my recommenders –  all of them–  was giving a bullet-point list on the things that I wanted them to highlight as my experiences and my contributions. That used some of the keywords that I now know as someone who’s been on the admissions committee for Ph.D. programs. 

We actually highlight. We highlight things like dedication or determination or rigor or independence, leadership. We literally highlight and count how many of these words are brought up in recommendations. 

So, it’s really important that you are your own advocate coming into this for your recommenders. Tell them what you want highlighted. Tell them the words you want to use. I think it’s really important that we do that just so there’s not any accidental bias or accidental highlighting of things that actually don’t matter in certain programs or any Ph.D. program.

And then that following round, I got interviews and was accepted into 100 percent of the places I applied. and I was very excited to be at that stage just a year later. So, I think a lot of it was advocating for myself in terms of the experiences I got and how I was presenting myself and how I was being presented, and it worked out for me on the other side. 

So, I’ve finished my Ph.D. at Stanford and I am now, as Dr. Rose mentioned, a post-doctoral fellow in neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania, and I’m an affiliate researcher now at Stanford University.

I’m very, very excited and happy with the work that I’m doing, collaborating with psychiatry departments as well. And yeah, that’s my journey. Thank you for having me.

Dr. Rose: Until next time. Thank you very much for joining us today on TUN TV.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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