Letters of Reference....

Oct 01 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

...make the world go round. Alternative title: What you should do to maximize your chances of getting a good letter of reference from a pre-tenure PI*.

When you are a grad student or postdoc and you need a letter from someone it seems like a Big Deal. But it really isn't. As a PI, it is part of your job to write letters for folks that have trained with you (plus others that you interact with).  In my short time as a prof, I have had to write a few letters. For folks that want to go to grad school, grad students (in and outside my lab) applying for training grants, and the occasional postdoc applying for fellowships or jobs. I am not (yet) the person that asks someone to "draft" a letter for themselves. I kind of find that disturbing, though I now understand why one might do this.

I try very hard to write a letter that accurately reflects the accomplishments and talents of the person for whom I'm writing. In a perfect world, I would make sure to mention all the things the referencee (who I'm writing the letter about) has done that would be appreciated by the granting institution. There are two main things required for me to do this: 1) I need to know all the awesome things the referencee has done and 2) what the granting institution is looking for. As a letter-writer, the more information that I get from the referencee that can help me fill in these blanks the better (with the best possible view of you, of course).  In the best case, the referencee will give me the answer to ALL the questions that are asked in the instructions to letter writers. This is not as easy as it seems, especially from folks that are not actually in my lab**. There are different ways around this. When I was a postdoc, some folks had me "write my own letter". I HATED THIS. But now I can see how it is a great way to get all the info you need from the referencee. I didn't know what was supposed to be in a letter, and it is really, really hard to write a letter about yourself.***** But I was always very careful to address all the important points based on the application. I also had folks ask to provide a bullet-point list of my accomplishments. At the time, this seemed vague. But in retrospect this would be a great way to make sure that all the information that the letter writer needed was easily accesible. Other folks just wrote me letters. They (I think) knew me pretty well. We would talk before they wrote me a letter, and I sent them a current CV and a copy of my grant, so hopefully they had all the information they needed.

ANYWAY. Writing letters is not that hard. After you read a few you get a sense of what people are looking for. And honestly, it is part of my job that I don't get pissed about. Folks wrote letters for me, I'll write letters for students and postdocs that I train. But if you want to make sure to get the best, most accurate letter possible you have to help out the folks that are writing for you. Especially if it's not your primary PI. Here are some easy tips:

1. Send your current CV, your grant, and a copy of the funding announcement to your letter writers.
2.  Include the instructions for letter writers.
Seriously, make sure they know what the grant/position is and WHY you are applying

3. If there is a bullet list of things the agency is looking for from letter writers, ask the writer if they would like a bullet list response. They may not use all your answers, but knowing how you see your past experiences and accomplishments fitting in can be very helpful.

4. Give the letter writer a friendly reminder by email or phoe. Don't go all crazy emailing every day. But you should send a reminder 2-weeks-or-so before the letter is due and again 2-days-or-so before it is due (depending on if they have turned it in).



*IME, YMMV (obv). Also, that second title sucks.

**because I can yell out of my office and ask them for info I don't have.***

***Also, I know them better

****REALLY HARD. In fact, I ran the letter by some faculty I trusted and many thought that I wasn't positive enough about myself. WTF?


10 responses so far

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    I'm going through this myself right now. I'm submitting a fellowship proposal that requires four letters and I'm having to write three of them. Over the years I've gotten pretty good at writing sincere sounding praise (mostly by pretending I'm not talking about myself) but the hard part is making it sound like three different people are writing it. It makes my head hurt.

    • gerty-z says:

      ouch. Can you give the letters to three different people and let them edit for "style"? That way you can avoid all the letters sounding exactly the same.

      • Crystal Voodoo says:

        Unfortunately for two of the three letter writers I do the first and last pass edits on all of their grants and manuscripts (also reviewer comments and occasional collaborator correspondence for my current PI who has a pathological snark problem). They know I can write it in a way that is completely indistinguishable from their own; it just requires a lot more work on my end. At least the third can be a bit more generic but it's hard to do without resorting to the word "awesomesauce."

  • scicurious says:

    I got that too! I wasn't positive enough about myself! I thought I was freakin' glowing. 🙂

    • gerty-z says:

      I thought that I wrote a letter which made it clear I was kick-ass. But it apparently read that I was "meh" about myself. This is because, I think, that as a trainee I didn't really KNOW what things were supposed to be in the cover letter. And if you leave something out it is considered a big, red flag.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    So happy that I never had to write my own letter....But I want to second and triple what Z is saying about giving your referree an up-to-date CV, at the very least your specific aims, if not your whole grant/fellowship, and let them know papers* that are in the works that are quite appropriate to be on your CV yet. AND in your email for phone conversation with them, let them know why you are SO excited about this fellowship/grant/potential job opportunity.

    You may** want to let your referee know any life changing events going on. Did you just have a baby? Did you just take time off to care for an ailing partner/parent? These are things that will affect your productivity on paper, and usually can't be explained

    *Papers that have been submitted or you are literally writing...you can't or shouldn't put these in your CV, but they are a measure of your productivity and can be mentioned by your referees.

    **Hopefully you are comfortable enough with this person to talk about these things. A BSD that you don't know very well, may not be able to give you as great of a reference as you think....

  • Dr Wrasse says:

    I had a difficult situation when I was asked to write a letter for a very sub-par summer student. Like VERY sub-par, as in we had to throw out all the reagents that she touched and start the project over again. She was just clearly not cut out for lab work and didn't seem to care that she was costing us thousands of dollars in reagents and time.

    When she asked me to write her a letter I told her she should probably ask her direct supervisor (our tech). She said she wanted one from me because I had my Ph.D. Well, I didn't want to write down that she was horrible, because she was very young at the time and I have hope for the future. So I ended up just writing that she worked for me for specific dates and that she was very punctual. I think that if I got a letter like that I would be able to read between the lines.

    What have others done when faced with a similar situation? I'd be curious to know

    • gerty-z says:

      that is hard. I think that you did the best that could be expected. There is no way the person reading that letter did NOT read between the lines. I hope that you had the chance to explain to the student why you would not be able to give a better reference?

  • [...] As Letter of Reference writing season begins, good advice for student and job applicant letter seekers from @GertyZ http://scientopia.org/blogs/gertyz/2012/10/01/letters-of-reference/ [...]

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