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!

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