Here is part 1 on general writing of letters. Understanding what goes into a good letter, irrespective of the a particulars of the person you are recommending, is the first step for any letter. But what else do or can you say when there is a problem? What kind of problems? Different kinds of problems, suggest the need for different responses. Some of the problems are when the person you recommend:
- is trying to change jobs for a difficult, personal reason that is nobody's business.
- 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.
- is applying for a job that's not quite a match, but again, has personal reasons for wanting that location
- didn't quite achieve all they thought, you thought, they wanted to achieve
The first, and sometimes easiest situation is when the person still has a good to stellar record, but is moving or changing for reasons that may not be transparent to the people reading and evaluating the application. The applicant needs to at least address the issue, and sometimes you, the recommender can or might want to in your letter. This can be difficult. First off, I do not believe that anyone has to or must disclose personal information, even if its the main reason for applying for a job. Yet, still, there is a committee evaluating the application, and if the goal is to at least get invited for an interview, one needs to address problems the committee (or whoever is doing the hiring) will perceive. It's far easier for the search committee to throw an application into the "hold for later in case we don't find anyone in the first group we invite in" pile.
When you do write a letter for someone in this situation, it's really good to check with them as to what their story is going to be. In fact, its always good to check what the person is going to say before you write a letter. Nothing will reduce the impact of your letter if it is at odds with what the candidate says.
Honesty is important. You cannot say "this person is an excellent fit for your position" when you and the person applying and the search committee know damn well that it isn't true. It is possible to address this directly, if you can:
Dr. Hopping may not seem like an immediate fit for a position in your department, but her expertise in biomechanics, in particular the effects of scale on leaping and jumping, has the potential, to broaden and enhance the insect locomotion group's research interests.
That is, find something in Dr. Hopping's work that speaks to what is important to the place where she is applying for a job. Be careful not to tell them how to do their work: "you would be fools not to include the scaling of locomotion in your studies". Tell them, show them, how Dr. Hopping would be of value to them.
Dr. Hopping's work on the evolution of scaling in biomechanics of saltatory locomotion is broader than just one group of animals. She has looked at the impact of small scale (allometry) but also the major changes in design over orders of magnitude in body size.
A second situation is someone who you know is good has not quite lived up to their potential. The power of a letter is that the problem can be discussed, and strengths brought forward in ways that may be awkward for the candidate themselves.
I would like to discuss Dr. Slithering's publication record. When she was a graduate student, she published two papers (first author) that showed great promise as part of her thesis. These papers were excellent because... blah blah blah. Yet, for family reasons, she took a job at Lower-Lame-Deer State College, where she had a 4-4-2 teaching load right out of graduate school. Her work at LLDSC was excellent, including teaching reviews that demonstrate the same enthusiasm and intelligence she brought to her PhD work. During the 3 years at LLDSC, she published two papers, despite being in a job that was 80% teaching. She has continued to maintain a research career in the face of difficulty. Dr. Slithering has decided to try and return to a more research/teaching balanced position. I support this transition, as despite her publication record, she has maintained her research. Further, she will be able to walk into any teaching position without difficulty.
This is the old "turn weaknesses into strengths". Do not lie, or even bend the truth about what happened. You do not even necessarily have to justify why Dr. Slithering went to LLDSC in the first place. "Family issues" or "personal concerns", if true, are always acceptable. But, emphasize and talk about what the person is good at. If there is an objective reason, offer explanation for what happened, in this case the teaching load. Try to point out what the person will bring, given who they are and what they have done, to the new position.
Now, what about the person who just hasn't produced, despite having everything going for them? They haven't done a postdoc (in a field where almost everyone does), they have one middle-authored paper from their PhD. They TA's one class, but didn't like the teaching part. Now, they want a shiny job to which everyone and their second cousin is applying. The first question I have for you, the letter writer, is why are you writing this letter? Yes, Dr. Crawlsaround is a good friend. Maybe they saved your bacon in grad school. If you are good friends, have a chat, and ask them why they are applying. It gets harder when there is a significant back story. Maybe it includes bullying or hostility or out and out sexism/racism/genderism something that kept them from producing. If this is a person you care about, and you really believe that they aren't even going to get asked for letters for this position (but they've come to you for one "just in case"), maybe its time to talk to them about other options: A postdoc, a 2nd postdoc, things they can do to enhance their CV. Why are they applying for this job? Keep in mind that every letter you write also reflects back on you. Its often a small pond in which we swim. If you write too many letters for friends who aren't great, you will be known as someone who writes letters for friends who aren't great.
But Dr. Crawlsaround insists, and you feel obligated (this time). Ask yourself: why do you think she's so good? And put that in your letter. Don't spend lots of time justifying the weaknesses and holes. It's usually not a good idea to say "Dr. Crawlsaround's mentor, Dr. Underthearth, was a firstorder jackass who bulled her, and that's why she didn't publish". You never know if Dr. Underthearth has a good buddy on the search committee, and that you have just screwed your next grant submission. Beyond this, it doesn't make for a strong letter to be whinging about why Dr. Crawlsaround didn't achieve, when the reasons are fuzzy or political or subjective issues. Stick to what is positive, and why you think she's good for the job.
When writing these letters, its a always a good writing strategy to put yourself in the position of the search committee. You wouldn't want to hire someone who is going to come in and fail. And you're not going to hire Dr. Hopping if you are building a group of fish/aquatic ecology and locomotion types. Don't include negative stuff, it can leave a bad taste in the mouth of the search committee reading the letters. If you want to recommend someone, try to put forward why you would want to hire this person. In fact, I often include that line in my letters:
If I had a position available in my department, that required both teaching and research, I would hire Dr. Slithering in a heartbeat. She is hardworking, and shown that she can rise to the challenge and be a success even in a less than optimal situation.