Letters of Recommendation

Candid Engineer requested a post on writing letters of recommendation, I have requested a few, I have read a few, and I have written a few. So I’ve become familiar with this topic from all perspectives.

Let’s start with the side of the requestor. I have requested far more letters of recommendation than I have written. These have primarily been for fellowships, grants and job applications in my case. I have a short list of about 5 people that I feel comfortable asking for letters of recommendation and using as professional references- these include both of my former advisors (who, fortunately for me, remain mentors), members of my thesis committee, and a few faculty from my veterinary school years who I felt got to know me and my training well enough to write such letters. I also have a couple of trusted collaborators/colleagues that I would also ask if I should ever need a recommendation again. You should choose these people very, very carefully- their recommendations can make or break you, and I’ve seen some very weird stuff said in these letters. If 3 letters of reference/recommendation are requested, I ask four people to write for me…. Because I am paranoid that someone will forget, have an emergency, or or be unable to finish this for some other reason.

When I ask someone to write me a letter of recommendation I usually try to do this in person, in PLENTY of time (weeks ahead), and that I give them all the relevant background information about me and whatever I need the letter for. I ALWAYS make sure that the person I ask feels comfortable writing a great letter. Using something like these words, ‘I would like to ask you if you would write me a letter of recommendation, – if you feel you could write me a good one (great/outstanding etc., choose your favorite, they usually get my meaning with the word good though- and I always think the other language sounds like bragging). If not, no problem I will ask someone else. This may seem like an odd sort of forward approach when asking for such a favor, but I don’t want any surprises in those letters- if someone can look me in the eye and tell me that they will give me a great recommendation I usually feel I can trust my gut feeling on that look. My references have taken two approaches to writing these letters for me. Sometimes they write them, and sometimes they ask me to write them a draft that they will edit. I have no problem doing either of these- in practice though I always have a hard time writing letters about myself.

When I am asked to write letters of recommendation for my own students, I NEVER ask them to write their own letter. I ask them for all the background information, transcripts, a copy of a resume or CV, a little bit about their goals and reasons for applying for whatever it is that they are seeking a letter for. We usually sit down and talk for a few minutes about the position that the letter is for, and about the student’s goals etc. If someone comes to me two days before the letter is due, I may or may not agree to write for them- as a result this doesn’t happen too often.

My letters of recommendation usually follow a kind of standard format.
In the first paragraph- I state my enthusiasm for the candidate, and describe the context in which I know the candidate and how long I have known the candidate. At the end of this paragraph, I generally include a sentence about the candidate along the lines of: ‘I would rate Ms. Excellent Student in the top 5% of graduate students that I have observed in the Department of XYZ (of 30 students I have observed). You get the drift- where does that person fit along the continuum of people I have had contact with.

In the next couple of paragraphs I become very specific about the fine qualities of the recommendee- in the context of the science they have done with me, what they have discovered, and what all this led to in terms of publications etc. Being very specific here is important, as overtly negative letters of recommendation are rare- and vague or generic statements in this section (or in any section) of the letter can be interpreted as negative statements. Then I usually write a short paragraph that covers particular qualities of an individual, important for the job, that aren’t summarized or tallied by publications. These include things like lab citizenship, teaching experience or ability, writing and oral presentation skills. And I end the letter on a strong note…with a very enthusiastic recommendation.

Do I always write great recommendations for people? Mostly, yes. But it is also important to be truthful. I’ve had people ask me for letters for advanced training programs – and my experience with the particular individuals showed me that they were not ready/ didn’t have the skill set/ didn’t apply themselves to reach certain goals… etc (insert your favorite drawback here)… that would be required for the program they were interested in. In these cases I am quite honest in my letter about particular weaknesses of a candidate that I have directly observed. Sometimes these are weaknesses that can be overcome, and if so- I usually say so. I find these letters difficult to write.

Anyway- I’m sure you all will have some suggestions about this or stories about interesting LOR that you have seen or written…


14 thoughts on “Letters of Recommendation

  1. You should already be cultivating a broader array of senior faculty in your field who you will feel comfortable being asked to provide letters for you for promotion and tenure. Note that promotion and tenure committees will also be asking people for letters that you do not recommend, and whom you will be unable to prescreen for positive enthusiasm.

    In relation to your practice of explicitly taking the temperature of a prospective letter writer, I would indeed find that a little off-putting. If someone whom I agreed to write a letter for asked me how enthusiastic it would be, I would not tell them. If it would not be an unqualifiedly enthusiastic letter, I would not agree to write it, except in the case of a trainee or former trainee, for whom I would have no choice.

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  3. PP-

    ‘You should already be cultivating a broader array of senior faculty in your field who you will feel comfortable being asked to provide letters for you for promotion and tenure.’

    Hence meeting at New England boarding school.

    ‘would not agree to write it, except in the case of a trainee or former trainee, for whom I would have no choice’

    Uh huh. This is what I’m referring to. I have had this experience.


    I haven’t had this happen very often- and as PP points out it is easy to refuse to provide a letter if you can’t be enthusiastic except under a defined set of circumstances where you have no choice. When I have had to do this said person knows what I think of them because we have talked about it- if they STILL ask me for a letter- then they know what is going to be in it.

  4. In many cases, (former) trainees do not have a choice whether to ask a (former) mentor for a letter. Most fellowship applications require a mentor letter, and absence of a mentor letter in circumstances that do not explicitly require one can raise a flag by implication.

  5. Very nice summary of both sides of the equation. One thing I would add. Always, always ask for a LOR. Don’t assume one will be provided. I once had a participant from an NSF REU site I run give my name as a reference without asking me. She applied for a position in a company that subsequently called me for a reference. I declined to give one. Obviously that didn’t help her get the job. Why did I decline? Her behavior during the program was such that if I had provided my honest assessment of her it would have absolutely guaranteed she would not get the job. If she had asked me in advance I would have told her that I could not provide a good reference and that she would be better asking someone else.

    I’ve wondered at times whether I am really doing anyone a favor by refusing to provide a reference. Shouldn’t the potential employer/grantmaker be informed of relevant negative aspects of the candidate?

  6. Odyssey-

    Yes, oh gosh. Forgot to emphasize… make sure you ASK a potential reference PRIOR to giving out their name!!!

  7. My postdoc supervisor helped persuade me to apply for my current job, despite the lousy timing (I interviewed 2 days before my wedding). I’d already been out of her lab for a couple of years by that time, but when I told her that I had in fact applied for the job, she wrote up a reference letter and hand-delivered it to my current supervisor that very day (she works in the same building), without even being asked by me, or by him… I’m sure her actions went a long way to getting my CV towards the top of the pile!

    With that one exception, whenever I’ve asked someone for a reference, I’ve always included a link to the job ad I responded to, the CV I used in my application, and a little “reminder” of aspects to focus on, e.g. writing skills.

  8. VWXYNot?

    Uh huh. I’ve got some stories about incidents like this too. Maybe I’ll write a post about knowing when people are actively trying to help you!

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  10. Hey drdrA- Thanks for your take on this one. My recent experience threw me for a bit of a loop. I wonder if you will get as many google hits as I have on letters of recommendation. Too bad my post didn’t have any real advice. I’ll link to your post in my comments. Cheers!

  11. Thanks for the hints on the LOR. I will use them. I wish I find some some good examples.

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