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…