Monday, February 18, 2019

Dear me, I am awesome. Sincerely, me… aka How to write a letter of rec for yourself

Got an email from someone who got asked to write a letter for themselves by someone else and was looking for guidance… haha, now that PI has made work for me! :) Oh well, no problem, I actually realize how hard this is for the letter drafter, and it’s also something for which there is very little guidance out there for obvious reasons. So I thought I’d make a little guide. Oh, first a couple things. First off, I don’t really know all that much about doing this, having written a few for myself and having asked for a couple, so comments from others are most welcome. Secondly, if you’re one of those sanctimonious types who thinks the PIs should write every letter and never ask for a draft, well, this blog post is probably not for you so don’t bug me about it. Third, if the PI is European, maybe just like turn everything down a notch, ya know? ;)

Anyhoo: so I figure the best way to describe how to do this is to describe how I write a letter. I’ll aim it at how I write letters for, say, a former trainee applying for a postdoc fellowship, maybe with some notes about how this might change for faculty applying for some sort of award or something.

Okay. I usually use the first paragraph to give an executive summary. Here’s an example of what I might write:
“It is my pleasure to provide my strongest possible recommendation for Dr. Nancy Longpaper. Nancy is simply an incredible scientist: she has developed, from scratch and by combining both experimental and computational skills, a system that has led to fundamental new insights into the evolution of frog legs. She has all the tools to be a superstar in her field: talent, intellectual brilliance, work ethic, and raw passion for science to become a stellar independent scientist. I look forward to watching her career unfold in the coming years.”
Or whatever something like that. The key parts of this that you will want to leave blank is the first sentence, i.e., the “strongest possible recommendation” part. That’s an important part that the letter writer will fill in.

Okay, second (optional) paragraph. This one depends a bit on personality. For some letter writers, they like to include a bit about how awesome they are and thus how qualified they are to write the letter. This is important for things like visas and so forth. This could be something like “First, I would like to introduce myself and my expertise. My laboratory studies XYZ, and I am an expert in ABC. I have published several peer reviewed articles in renowned journals such as Proceedings of the Canadian Horticultural Society B and our work has been continuously funded by the NIH.” I personally don’t include things like this for regular (non-visa) recommendations, but I have seen it.

Third paragraph: I usually try and put in some context about how I met the person I’m recommending. Like, “I first met Nancy when she was looking for labs to rotate in. She rotated in my lab and worked on project ABC. Even in her short time in the lab, she managed to accomplish XYZ. I immediately offered her a spot, and while I was disappointed for her to join Prof. Goodgrant’s lab, I was very pleased when she asked me to chair her thesis committee.” If you are a junior PI, this might be replaced with something about how the letter writer knows about your work and any interactions you may have had.

Next several paragraphs: a bunch of scientific meat. This is where you are REALLY going to save your letter writer some time. I usually break it into two parts. First paragraph or two, I describe the person’s work. What specifically did they do. PROVIDE CITATIONS, including journal names. Sorry, they matter, too bad. Try and aim for a very general audience, stressing primarily the impact of the findings. But if you don’t, don’t worry, people probably either know the work already or not. Still, try. Emphasize specific contributions. Like, “Nancy herself conceived of the critical set of controls that was required to establish the now well accepted ‘left leg bias estimator’ statistical methodology that was the key to making the discovery that XYZ.” At all times, emphasize why what you did was special. Don’t be shy! If you’re too ridiculous, don’t worry, your letter writer will fix it.

Next part of the science-meat section: in my letters, I usually try and zoom out a bit. Like, what are the specific attributes of the person that led them to be successful in the aforementioned science. Like, “This is a set of findings that only someone of Nancy’s caliber could have discovered. Her intellectual abilities and broad command of the literature enabled her to rapidly ask important questions at the forefront of the field…” Be careful to emphasize big picture important qualities and not just list out your specific skills here. Like, don’t say “Nancy was really good at qPCR and probably ran about 4.32 million of them.” Makes you sound like a drone. At the trainee level, something about how rapidly you picked up skills could be good, but definitely not at the junior faculty level. Just try and be honest about the qualities you have that you think are most important and relevant. Be maybe a little over the top but not too crazy and then maybe your letter writer will embellish as needed.

Second to last paragraph: I try and fill in a bit more personal characteristics here. Like, what are the personal qualities that helped them shine. E.g. “Nancy also is an excellent communicator of her science, and already has excellent visibility. She gives great talks and has generated a lot of enthusiasm……” Also, if relevant, can add the standard “On a personal note, Nancy is a wonderful person to have in the lab……” Probably like 4-5 sentences max. Make it sound like you belong at the level you are applying for. If it’s for a faculty position, make it sound like you are faculty, not a student.

Finally, I end my letters with an “In sum, Nancy is the perfect candidate for XYZ. I have had the privilege of watching many star scientists develop into independent scientists in this field at top institutions over the years, and I consider Nancy to be of that caliber. I cannot recommend her more strongly.” This one can be sort of a skeleton and the letter writer can fill this in with whatever gushy verbiage they want. For some things, there might be some sort of “comparables” statement here that they can put in if they want.

  • Don’t ever say anything bad. If you say something bad, it’s a huge red flag. If the letter writer wants to say something bad, they will. That would be a pretty jerky thing to do, though.
  • Length: There are three things that matter in a letter: the first paragraph, the last paragraph, and how long the letter is in between. For a postdoc thingy, aim for 1.5-2 pages for a strong letter. 2-3 for faculty positions. 1-2 for other stuff after that.
  • Duplication: What do you do if two letter writers ask for a draft? Uhhhh… not actually sure. I have tried to make a few edits, but sometimes I just send it and say hey already sent this and they can kinda edit it up a bit. I dunno, weird situation.
Anyway, that’s my template for whatever it’s worth, and comments welcome from anyone who knows more!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The sad state of scientific talks (and a thought on how we might help fix it)

Just got back from a Keystone meeting, and I’m just going to say it (rather than subtweet it): most of the talks were bad. I don’t mean to offend anyone, and certainly it was no worse than most other conferences, but come on. Talks over time, filled with jargon and unexplained data incomprehensible to those even slightly outside the field, long rambling introductions… it doesn’t have to be this way, people! Honestly, it also begs the question as to why people bother going to these meetings just to play around on their computers because the talk quality is so poor. I’ve heard so many people say the informal interactions are the most useful thing at conferences. I actually think this is partly because the formal part is so bad.

Why? After all, there are endless resources out there on how to give a good talk. While some tips conflict (titles? no titles? titles? no titles?), mostly they agree on some basic tenets of slide construction and presentation. I wrote this blog post with some tips on structuring talks and also links to a few other resources I think are good. And most graduate programs have at least some sort of workshop or something or other on giving a talk. So why are we in this situation?

I think the key thing to realize is that giving a good talk actually requires working on your talk. A good talk requires more than taking a couple minutes to throw some raw data onto a slide and winging it with how you present that data. For most of us, when we write a paper, it is a long iterative process to achieve clarity and engagement. Why would a talk be any different? (Oh, and by the way, practice is critical, but is not in and of itself sufficient—have to work on the right things; see aforementioned blog post.)

I think the fundamental issue is the nature of feedback and incentives for giving research talks. Without having these structured well, there is little push to do the work required to make a talk good, and they are currently structured very poorly. For incentives, the biggest problem is that the structure to date is all about what you don’t get in the long term, which are often things you don’t know you could get in the first place. Giving a good talk has huge benefits and opens the door to various opportunities long term, but it’s not like someone is going to tell you, “Hey, I had this job opening, but I’m not going to tell you about it now because your talk stunk." Partly, the issue is that the visible benefits of good presentations are often correlated to some extent with brilliance. Take, for instance, Michael Elowitz’s talk at this conference, which my lab hands down voted as the best talk of the conference. Amazing science, clear, and exciting. Michael is a brilliant and deservedly highly successful scientist. Does it help that he is an excellent communicator of his work? Of course! To what extent? I don’t know. What I can say is that many of the best scientists presented their work very well. Where do cause and effect begin and end? Hard to say, but it’s clearly not an independent variable.

Despite this correlation, I still firmly believe that you don’t have to Michael Elowitz-level brilliant to give a great talk. So then why are all these talks so bad? The other element beyond vague incentives is feedback. The most common feedback, regardless of anything about the talk you give, is “Hey, great talk!” Maybe, if you really stunk it up, you’ll get “interesting talk”. And that’s about it. I have many times gotten “Hey, great talk” followed by a question demonstrating that I totally did a terrible job explaining things. I mean, how is anybody ever going to get better if they don’t even get a thumbs-up/down on their presentation? The reason we don’t get that feedback is obviously because of the social awkwardness to telling someone something they did publicly was bad. The main place where people feel safe to give feedback is in lab meeting, which while somewhat helpful is also one of the worst places to get feedback. Asking a bunch of people already intimately familiar with your story and conversant in your jargon about what is clear or not is not going to get you all that far, generally. Also, the person with the most authority in that context (the PI) probably also gives terrible talks and so is not a good person to get feedback from. (Indeed, I have heard many, many stories of PIs actively giving their trainees bad advice.) Generally, the fact that most people you are getting feedback from aren’t themselves typically good at it is a big problem.

Okay, fine…


Again, I think the key missing element is honest feedback—I think most talk-givers don’t even realize just how bad their talks are. As I said, few people are going to tell someone to their face that their talk sucks. So how about the following: what if people preregister their talk on a website, and then people can anonymously submit a rating with comments? Basically like a teacher rating, but for speakers at a conference. You could even provide the link to the rating website on the first slide of your talk or something. This would have a number of advantages. First off, if you don’t want to do it, fine, no problem. Second, all feedback is anonymous, thus allowing people to be honest. Also, the comments allow people to give some more detailed feedback if they so choose. And, there is a strong positive incentive. With permission, you could have your average rating posted. This rating could be compared to e.g. the overall average, and if it’s good—which presumably it is if you decided to share it :)—then that’s great publicity, no?

One problem with this, though, is it doesn’t necessarily provide specific feedback. Like, what was clear or not? Comments could provide this to some extent. Also, if you, as the speaker, are willing, you could even imagine posting some questions related to your talk and seeing how well people got those particular points. Of course completely optional and just for those who really care about improving. Which should be all of us, right? :)

Oh, and one suggestion from Rita Strack was to promote the 15 minute format, which is short enough to either require concision and clarity, or, should that not happen, is over fast! :)

Some suggested (e.g. Katie Whitehead) that we incentivize good talks by doing Skype interviews or having them submit YouTubes, etc. for contributed talks. In principle I like this, but I think it's just a LOT of work and also conflates scientific merit with presentation merit, so people who don't get a spot have something other than their presentation skills to blame. Still, could work maybe.

Another, perhaps more radical idea, is to do away with the talk format entirely. Most scientists are far more clear when answering questions (probably for the simple reason that the audience drives it). Perhaps we could limit talks to 5 minutes followed by some sort of structured Q&A? Not sure how to do that exactly, but anyway, a thought.

Anybody want to give this a try?