Writing Letters of Recommendation

Oct 26 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Now that we understand what you own, and why its important, we can talk about what makes a letter a good letter. Here is something that I wrote about letters of support for a grant application. And something about supporting a junior colleague's grant proposal.

But how to write a job letter under difficult circumstances? For example, the person is trying to change jobs for a difficult, personal reason that is nobody's business. Or the person took the job that they could, which involved a 4-4 (four classes in each of two terms) load, but now wants to try and move. I think that first one must master writing a letter for someone without such issues. At that point the the changes that one needs to make become obvious.

The zero-th guideline in my view, is to determine: can you write the letter? Do you really believe in the person and their abilities? If you, yourself, are an overwhelmed junior faculty, or an overwhelmed senior faculty, it is important to make the decision about how you spend your precious time & energy. Are you writing this letter for a friend, out of friendship, yet in the end you can't say anything beyond this person was a good friend? Ask yourself the hard questions, and answer honestly. It is ok to say no to a friend.

Given that you do decide to write a letter, there are some parts that are good to have in all letters. You can't just say "this person is marvelous". I've read too many letters like that, and what they say to me is "the person writing doesn't have a clue as to who they are writing about".

A first paragraph that contains [note: the examples here are from real letters I've written, but for a number of different people, at different levels]

1. the Name of the Person, usually in bold & italic so that people know who this letter is about. They may be reading lots. They may gets sorted into the wrong place.

2. A (brief) sentence about who you are. How long you've known the person. In what capacity. You can also sneak in something good about the person here.

It is my great pleasure to recommend Dr. Bunny J. Hopping for a position in your college. I have known Dr. Hopping since 2008, when I was responsible for hiring into the Department of Animal Locomotion at the MRU School of Vet Medicine. She started there as an Assistant Professor, but has recently been promoted to Associate Professor, but without tenure as MRU does not give tenure. Despite leaving MRU two years ago, Dr. Hopping and I have maintained our professional relationship. She is someone who’s scientific and professional opinion I value greatly.

A set of paragraphs outlining the greatness of the person you are recommending. Organizing them by type (research, teaching, mentoring) is helpful to the reader. I often break research and funding into separate para's.

3. This para talks about the specifics of science. I describe the science, and mention some metrics. I try to include specifics, in this case that its both clinical and basic science. That's important for this particular job, which was described as a mix of training researchers and clinicians.

Dr. Hopping is one of the finest young/mid-career scientists in the field of locomotion research. Her research and publication record are both deep and broad. Her work spans the basic science of the biomechanics of movement,  through to the clinical implications of that work for recovery from hunting wounds. Her 16 publications are in both strong basic science journals (example) and clinical journals (another example). She has won many major awards in our field, from the X, Y, Z.

If you have room you can include specifics of the research. If its a younger person, with fewer pubs, talking about the importance of a particular pub can strengthen the letter. I worked in (this is for a first job letter) that I believe, and why I believe, she has the capacity to be a faculty person, an independent scientist.

Dr. Hopping and I worked on a joint project, and I was impressed with her independence, intellectual maturity and insight. During this project, she not only measured the films of bunny hopping, but she developed new hypotheses about vertebral structure as she explored the data beyond the original hypotheses. While working hard on data collection or extraction, she is always thinking of what the next step will be, blending hypothesis generation with the data collection to test it together. Our collaboration involved using films that I had collected over 10 years ago. She knew of these films and came up with this project on her own, because it was something in which she was interested. I did not feel I was helping a student get a publication, but that I was working with a colleague who challenged my ideas and brought new ones to the table.  In my view, this paper is strong evidence of her ability to function as an independent scientist.

4. The para on funding also includes detail. I've gone back to show that Dr Hopping's funding also covers multiple fields. I know this is a long paragraph to put in as an example, but what is important is that I say more than she has funding from X,Y,Z. I say why that funding is important, what she's done with it, what she can do with it in the future. I want my readers to see more of the real person, not what someone would get from their CV.

Dr. Hopping is also very well-funded by NIH, NSF and the DOD. She received a XX on aging and hopping funded by NINDS. I was a mentor on that grant, and followed her progress closely. She made excellent use of the support from the K23, and was very productive during that time, producing Q,R,P. Currently she holds an R01 “name of proposal”. In my view, this is ground-breaking work, with the potential to transform our treatment of individuals with movement disorders. This work is based on a thorough understanding and comprehension of the basic science of neurophysiology. In this project she continues to combine her ability to perform research the relies on basic science, that expands our understanding of the neural basis of hopping with a goal of clinical outcomes that have direct patient benefit.

If it is a new person, without funding, say something about why you think this person will be able to get funding. Any experience in helping to write grants.

5. Finally a para on teaching needs to include more than "she's doing it":

As a teacher and mentor, Bunny is one of the most generous and intelligent scientists I know. Her commitment to the larger field is reflected in her teaching work, both through online courses, personal teaching and her contributions to an award winning textbook. Her lab is filled with young trainees who, after working with her, are both ready and energized to contribute as scientists and health care providers. [And then some more examples, or quotes from students or reviews].

6. If the person has done something else, some service beyond, like setting up a school for underprivileged children on your university campus, but something that is NOT necessarily being looked for in the job ad, here is the place to put it. If it is important for the job, put it up higher in the letter.

7. I always try to close with a para about the person as a person. Why I'd want them as a colleague:

In summary, Dr. Hopping is one of the best young scientists working in locomotion disorders today. Everybody who interacts with her, comes away stronger and better for the experience. Our collaborations have challenged me, made me grow, and improved my science. Her impact on the field is large; her potential to transform this discipline  is larger. I recommend her to you without reservation.

or for a younger colleague:

I think that Bunny is already a good scientist, with the potential to become an outstanding one. She is an excellent teacher, who is committed to education. I would hire her immediately, if I had an open position. She will be an excellent addition to your department.

Now what if the person is difficult, and doesn't have such a sterling record as our Dr. Hopping? This has gotten very long and I'll put that in the next post. Stayed tuned....

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