Writing your own letter of recommendation

In response to a recent post, a reader asked for advice on writing a letter of recommendation – specifically for oneself! Yes, for better or worse, “minor fraud” and ethics aside for this post, this is very common and important so let’s discuss the logistics. For general recommendation letter writing guides and advice, see other sources such as this addendum to Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, a valuable resource for this transitional time in your career. This post will focus on writing a letter for/about yourself. I know many people feel it is simply wrong for a mentor to ask a trainee to write their own letter, but for the trainees who find themselves in this uncomfortable situation without other options, I hope this advice is useful.

First, it is a good idea to at least offer some version of this option to outline or draft your own letter to anyone you ask to submit a recommendation for you. It’s obviously helpful for them because they probably have many letters to write for you and others, and the submission process alone can be time consuming, so you’ll make their lives easier and make them happier to do this for you – and potentially keep doing it for (hopefully not too many) other applications in the future. However, it’s an opportunity for you as well, to make sure your letter addresses all the important aspects of your capabilities, and wonderful accomplishments you want to highlight. Even when recommenders don’t take you up on your offer to draft the letter, you would be wise to outline the specific points you wish them to address in the letter.

Basics: content

1) Accomplishments

First and foremost, the goal of the letter is to bring to life your many brilliant accomplishments and how wonderful it is to work with you. You should describe, in a coherent and succinct narrative, how the author came to know you, what impressed them about you, what you achieved while working with them, and where they see this work taking you in the future. Be sure to use concrete examples and the “show, don’t tell” principle.

2) Drive and ability

Throughout this narrative, and perhaps in a separate paragraph at the end, the letter should address how the writer has come to know your capabilities that make you well suited for the particular job you are applying for. Also include notes on your ambition/passion and how pleasant you are to work with.

3) Justifications

In your application package, there is no great way for you to explain difficulties you’ve encountered that might show up as gaps or deficits in your CV. Your recommender, however, is in the perfect position to explain such issues, so take advantage of this. Just remember to turn the negative into a positive. It could be as succinct as a sentence, “Despite Trainee’s year-long battle with a serious illness, Trainee managed to finish the research project, and published 2 first-author papers over the following two years, while also teaching an undergraduate course, showing Trainee’s commitment and determination.” Or it could go into detail on why a project didn’t work out and what outstanding qualities you applied to push it forward or move on to a winning project.

Fine points: writing

1) If you know your recommender’s voice/writing style, use it. This can be especially important and difficult if you have to write your own letter for multiple recommenders. Get a friend to help you rephrase things in one letter.

2) Be positive! Everything in this letter should be about how wonderful you are. Resist the urge to be modest or talk yourself out of boasting. If your recommender chooses to scale back anything you’ve said, or insert some more reserved comments, that is their right to do after you’ve given them the draft.

3) Tailor each letter to the institution/position you are applying to. This could just be a fillable spot in the salutation/introduction/ending sentences, i.e. (“…and so I am confident that Trainee will be a good fit for the X position at Y institution.”), but ideally you will have a specific reason you fit in or want this position, i.e. (“Trainee’s passion and experience uniting clinical and basic science research programs will be a unique addition to your department’s strengths in translational medicine.”)

Details:

Your recommenders should address the details such as putting the letter on letterhead paper and formatting when they do their own final edits. However, just in case they do copy, paste and send, you will want to make sure the draft is all set in terms of perfect grammar, etc., and point out if there’s anything in particular that needs to be changed, such as the fillable phrases mentioned above.

 

Finally, when asking for letters of recommendation, remember to make it as easy as possible on your recommenders: ask them far in advance (3-6 weeks) if they’d be willing to write you a good letter; at least 2 weeks in advance, give them a list of each place you’re applying, anything notable about your fit or excitement for that position, the name of the person or committee to address the letter to if known, the deadline for the letter, and the way in which it should be submitted.

All this is based on my experience writing letters for myself for/with mentors, and writing letters of recommendation for my own students, and advice I’ve read and received over the years. But I must say I’m a post-doc, not a professor, and so any advice from PIs and professors or other who have more experience writing letters, especially for scientific positions in academia, would be appreciated in the comments.

Good luck!

 

 


7 responses so far

  • Anon says:

    "I know many people feel it is simply wrong for a mentor to ask a trainee to write their own letter, but for the trainees who find themselves in this uncomfortable situation without other options...."

    You can create other options for yourself by making a point of getting to know multiple people during your academic training. Make it a priority. Hopefully, not all of these people will be a$$holes, and some will be willing to go to bat for you.

    Writing recommendation letters for those you train/educate/mentor/whatever is part of the job. It's not a favor -- it's your *job.* When you, the trainee, try to do this for yourself, you will wind up with a suboptimal letter, at best. Worst case scenario, it's often obvious to those reading it who really wrote the letter.

    To the OP: I know you think you're helping with this advice, but you're really not. Folks in this situation need to think creatively and find others that can write a letter for them. There is no substitute.

    Giving your recommender a list of bullet points to help them remember what you accomplished in their lab/class/etc., especially if it's been a while, is one thing. But when someone asks you to draft the letter for them, the best thing to do is to go ask someone else for a letter.

    • sweetscience says:

      Thanks for your input. I completely agree that it is part of your job as a mentor to write a letter. But there are many people (yes, a\(holes) who more or less force their trainees into this position of contributing to their own letter. One thing that there truly is no substitute for is a letter of recommendation from a primary research mentor. You simply can't get around this with a letter from another person, as it would be a red flag for a reviewer/search committee. So for the people who find themselves in this position, (and also note that some people have more trouble fighting back against an a\)hole mentor, for personal, logistical or cultural reasons), let's do what we can to help. And yes, more letters from more people you've developed positive relationships with is definitely one way to help!

      • wally says:

        It's not only dillweed mentors who do this. I have an amazing postdoc mentor - and she has me write my own letters. For my NIH fellowship app, I had to write all of my own letters of support and letters of rec - that was over 10 letters. It was a HUGE challenge, and a huge challenge to make them all different sounding. This is, unfortunately, the culture. I am *extremely* worried that the letters I have written are suboptimal because I really lack the sky-high perspective my mentors have. Luckily my primary mentor edits the letters I write for her heavily - but still.

        • Anon says:

          Seriously?! All of the people you asked told you to write it for them?

          Also, by definition, your mentor is not "amazing." She may be excellent or amazing in other areas, but the fact that she is offloading this work on you is a clear sign that she is falling down on some aspects of the job. How do you know that she edits your letters "heavily"?

          As for "the culture" -- yes, too many grad students and trainees are abused by their mentors. Sometimes, as the less powerful member of that dyad, you have no choice but to acquiesce.

          Just curious, how many people have gotten NIH fellowships from her lab?

      • Anon says:

        "One thing that there truly is no substitute for is a letter of recommendation from a primary research mentor...."

        I disagree. My partner had a falling out with his PhD mentor. But he had built solid relationships with his postdoc mentor, MS mentor, other members of his PhD committee, and other profs along the way. These people wrote letters for him when he went on the (academic) job market. (Apparently, no one said anything about the PhD mentor in the letters; they just wrote about him.) My partner had his pick of 2 really good offers.

        It's not easy *but also not impossible* to get by without a letter from one of your primary research mentors. The key is having others that can vouch for you. Believe it or not, people on the hiring committees understand that not everyone will get along with everyone else, and that sometimes, people are a$$holes.

        Often, trainees/students put up with so much abuse just because they think they need that letter. What kind of letter do you think an abusive mentor will write you, anyway? This myth has to end.

        Of course, every situation is different. But one should heavily weigh the pros and cons of doing things like writing your own letters instead of just assuming that everyone does it, so what can you do? I assure the most successful people are those that have genuine letters from people who care (like my partner did).

  • wally says:

    Thank you for writing about this! For me one of the hard parts is the evaluation piece. From my understanding, letters should include something where they evaluate you in relation to your peers (or to others your mentor has mentored at your same stage). What's also challenging is that I do not yet have a global view of things to have a sense as to how my work may impact the field (particularly since I am pretty new to the research area of my postdoc). I think I need to ask some faculty I know if they'd be willing to share letters they've written for postdocs/junior faculty. That might help as well, as my exposure to those kinds of letters is really really low.

    • sweetscience says:

      Good points! Many submission systems for graduate school in particular ask the recommender to evaluate the trainee relative to others. This is often a separate part of the process, i.e. a poll in addition to the letter submission. In this case it is up to the recommender alone. If you need or want to include this in the letter, definitely work on that with the recommender - and they may want to fill that in for the final version, keeping it confidential from you. Hopefully you will work with them throughout the writing process and have open communication about these things!

Leave a Reply