Archive for the 'graduate school' category

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!

 

 


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Why I stopped faking it

When I was in grad school I felt like I wasn’t good enough and at the same time that I deserved to have it all – perfect grades, grants, awards, fantastic publications, a great social life and a happy family. My way of trying to achieve this was by acting tough, and it actually kind of worked.

Early on my PI told me that if I needed something from him I should keep “nagging” him (his words) if I wanted it done. He was right, he was a very busy man and I learned to do what I needed to do to get things done and I had a successful and happy grad career. At the intro to my defense he proudly told a story about the lengths to which I went to make sure that he signed paperwork in time for submission (I followed him to the restroom and waited outside until he came out). But acting all the time took its toll. By the time I was looking for a postdoc position I was burnt out (I know, almost everyone is burnt out by the time they defend), and I was so tried of trying to “fake it ’til I make it.”

The way this feeling manifested for me was in my choice not to pursue invitations to interview at top tier labs, and instead to join a good, but not a stretch, lab at a good, but comfortable University. I just wanted to go somewhere where I could do good work, be a good lab-mate and collaborator and be supported in turn, and I thought I had found just the place. It nearly broke my heart when I learned that my new PI had hired another postdoc at the same time as me and had given her the same project as me. I still don’t know if this was the result of a brain fart or if it was a may-the-best-researcher-win type thing, but it sucked! She was a very nice person and once we realized what was going on we were totally open with each other about what we wanted to do with the funding and the project and we made the best of the situation… but it broke me down. I stopped pretending I was strong and acting tough. I let the fact that I was sad about the situation show and completely shifted my research topic (for multiple reasons) – we were already competing with the rest of the research community, I didn’t want to have to compete with my lab-mates.

When my husband and I got the opportunities to move to California I was thrilled. It was a chance to move on! I’d decided that I wanted to leave academia and see if biotech was a better fit, but I’ve still not put back on that mantel of toughness. I’m a lot truer to myself and my feelings now, I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not. It means that my insecurities are more pronounced; I’m suddenly a lot more visibly nervous giving talks. I also push myself less, I’m less focused and for better or worse I’m not trying as hard to have everything right now. I feel like I lost my edge when I gave up pretending that I was perfect and stopped grabbing for “all the things.” On the other hand I’m happier and less tired all the time. I get to prioritize my personal life along with my career. And now that I’m less concerned about credit and what I deserve, I think I’m a better collaborator and team-mate. Things that used to drive me crazy, like when people would co-opt my ideas without credit, don’t affect me the same way. When I realized this change I initially felt terrible, giving up my (righteous?) entitlement seemed so sad, but most of the time now, I don’t see it that way. I think there is a healthy line that I’m still learning to walk between wanting everything and accepting anything. I hope as I become more honestly confident that I’ll find my middle ground.


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Life Lessons from Teenagers

“So, what do you guy think of this?” I asked my students, using all my effort to bite my tongue and let my students express their own opinions. I was discussing the 2014 decision by Facebook and Apple to subsidize egg freezing for female employees as part of their benefits plans. My own initial thoughts on the matter were visceral; the subtext of this “opportunity” is to encourage women to work while we are young and worry about family later.

I was discussing this issue with a group of students interested in future medical careers. They are high achievers and envision themselves as career-motivated, even as teenagers, so I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised by their positive responses to the egg freezing deal. My students thought it was wonderful. They praised the companies for allowing young women to have careers without having to “worry” about their biological limitations. I struggled to keep my own mouth shut as they excitedly envisioned their futures career women then mothers. I wanted to say, “How about supporting women with paid maternity leave?” or “Why don’t we consider more affordable childcare and flexible work schedules?” But I didn’t. I stood by and soaked in their opinions with admitted alarm.

As I reflected on their responses in the coming days, I realized that their responses could easily have been my own, 15 years ago. I was a high achieving student. I wanted to do something that “mattered” with my career—revealing a cure to cancer or discovering a new drug, something that would impact the future of the world. I vividly remember thinking that I didn’t want to get married until I was at least 29, an age much later than that of my own parents who were married at 23. As my own life went on, however, I fell in love and got married (at 23, as luck would have it). By 27, I yearned to have a child with a longing that was overwhelming and fierce.

During my pregnancy, I was finishing graduate school and looking to make a career transition. As I researched opportunities and networked with fervor, I would frequently chat with my own mother about my excitements and anxieties. One afternoon, she said to me, “Your priorities will change when you have your baby.” And I was mad. I was angry at the suggestion that all of my education, preparation and career exploration might be somehow useless or wasted.

In the end, my mother was right. My priorities did change, thought not in the negative way I had perceived. I have found a career I love; It is certainly not of the prestige I had envisioned as an impassioned teenager, but it allows me to make a difference in my small part of the world. And now, as I look forward to by 30th birthday, I hope for a second child. My hope is surrounded by tremendous anxiety regarding the cost of childcare for 2 children and how to prepare for months of lost wages during maternity leave (I’m relatively new to my job and have little accrued vacation time).

So when I mediate this discussion with my students regarding companies paying tens of thousands of dollars for egg freezing, I can’t help but wish I could have that amount of money for childcare and maternity leave. I want to tell my students how they will feel when they have their own children. I want to express to them how it feels to watch your own parents grow old and worry that they will never meet their grandchildren. I want to tell them how hared it is to leave an 8 week old in childcare. I wanted to tell them why my little girl doesn’t yet have a sibling. But instead, I listen to their excitement and say, “that’s so interesting!” because there are some things that only life can teach us, and I too am still learning.

(I certainly know that there are many wonderful outcomes from egg freezing procedures, especially for young women who undergo chemotherapy, etc. The opinions expressed here are only mine.)

More Reading on Egg Freezing:

http://time.com/3835233/sheryl-sandberg-explains-why-facebook-covers-egg-freezing/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-truth-about-egg-freezing_55db6163e4b08cd3359cc4e6


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