Archive for the 'mentoring' 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!

 

 


9 responses so far

Feedback on job applications

My partner and I applied separately for a number of Assistant Professor positions last year. We both had varying degrees of success at different institutions that really showed us where we stood in terms of what kinds of institutions were interested in us and also relative to other applicants. One thing that really solidified our understanding of our competitiveness was valuable feedback we each got from one person on a search committee.

Let me start by saying that, at least in this field, it is exceedingly rare to get feedback on your job applications. The couple of times before this I have gotten to any stage in the application process where I can communicate with people on the search committee, i.e. phone or video interview, I asked for feedback when I heard I didn’t get the position/interview, but never heard back on that request. So for each of us to have actually received feedback is amazing.

For me, the feedback came from a thoughtful search/department chair who knew how rare it was to receive feedback in the harrowing and opaque job search process, and made a point to reach out to tell me what happened with the search. In short, I was in the top four candidates after the phone interview, but they later ruled me out because my research methods overlapped more with existing faculty in the department than did other top candidates. This was such a relief for me to hear because it told me that it was essentially beyond my control* and that another similar position/department at another time could very likely lead to a good match, as I was one of the top candidates here.

That information, combined with my phone/video interviews and other non-offers told me that 1) My paper application is good overall – good enough to get phone interviews; 2) My interview skills are probably fine – good enough to potentially get me an offer; 3) It will need to be the right place at the right time, and since I’m picky about geography, it might not happen in a given year; and 4) This is all true for small liberal arts colleges – I didn’t get anywhere with the state schools or a couple more research-focused positions I applied to**.

The feedback my partner got was potentially even more valuable, in that it was thorough constructive criticism. This came from someone on the search committee at a place Partner did not get an interview offer, but the person was a friend and colleague of mine who has always been an amazing resource, going above and beyond to help. Unsolicited, she related some of the concerns that were raised about Partner’s research program and what was missing from a critical recommendation letter. She made the point that these issues may not be concerns at all at other institutions*, but it is still really valuable to know and consider that for future applications. She also noted the huge number of qualified candidates that applied for the job, which is always bittersweet to hear.

So we are both extremely grateful for the candid feedback and advice we received and can take into consideration for the future… and in the meantime, I have already paid it forward, giving feedback to applicants for a position in my lab. I am hopeful that more people will help each other out like this in the future – I know I will whenever I am in the position to do so!


*Although it is important to consider how your research fits in with existing research in the department, it is usually impossible to know exactly what the department is seeking. Typically small departments want a diverse array of research programs, especially if undergraduate research opportunities are an emphasis, while larger departments with a graduate program might be more interested in strengthening existing areas of research with more similar but complementary topics/techniques. It is possible to tailor research plans to fit one of these ideas, but you can’t know for sure which is more appealing for any given department/reviewer, so I usually try to keep my research plan with what I really want to do that fits that institution.

**This is because my experience makes me a good match for a small liberal arts college, not because, as some believe, it is a lower tier than a research-focused university, etc. Each type of position/institution is different, looks for different qualities in candidates, and one shouldn’t be thought of as a ‘backup’ if you can’t land your first choice.


8 responses so far

Your boss can’t always be your mentor

“You shouldn’t be afraid to tell your boss exactly what you want to do for your next step – it’s their job to mentor you,” is the advice I have given many people, particularly grad students and postdocs who decide they want to pursue careers other than strictly academic research but are afraid to tell their bosses. And now under similar circumstances myself, I have become very hesitant about what information to give my boss about my career plans. I see all the reasons that people would not want to be upfront with their bosses.

  1. I don’t want to get fired. If my boss thinks that I’m no longer right for this job, or the kind of person they want to train, they could just let me go.
  2. As far as I can tell, my boss is not interested in mentoring me for a career outside of academic research.
  3. I don’t want to appear flaky or uncertain. Mostly for reason #1, but also because I still want to be able to count on good letters of recommendation if needed.

At the same time though, there are reasons I should talk to my boss about this.

  1. I could use some advice, mentoring, and maybe even connections or referrals, and I still believe it is part of a boss’ job to provide those things.
  2. I don’t want to waste any more of our time or energy applying for research and training grants, if that is not a direction that will help my career.
  3. Doing so may actually push me to move out into the career I want – even if it was because I got fired.

Plus, I just prefer to be open and honest and I’m sure my boss would prefer that as well. So I will try to first get some mentoring outside of my boss, come up with a game plan for my next career steps, ideally a plan that includes a clear reason why my current position is valuable for my future, and then open up to my boss about it.

With this new perspective, I completely understand why people would not want to be completely open with their bosses, and I apologize for acting like it was so clear cut. That said, as many before me have noted, I do think that most PIs need to be more aware that the majority of trainees are not going to end up as PIs like them, and be open to the many career possibilities that appeal to PhDs. And let’s be honest, your PI probably can’t be a great mentor to you when you’re pursuing a career outside of academia, the only path they’ve traveled, an you’ll want to find another more helpful mentor anyway.


2 responses so far

Do the same rules apply to all genders as mentors?

parks-and-rec-nbc
Image source: http://zap2it.com/2015/01/parks-and-recreation-leslie-knope-feminist-goddess/

I have great summer student. She was a student of mine at my previous institution and came to do research in my current lab for her summer internship. On her first day I was really busy and sorry I didn’t have time to do much more than set her up with her training, so I said, “Why don’t I take you out to lunch tomorrow?” I thought it would be a good chance to catch up and get to know her better. So we went out and got to chat about what was going on in her life and she asked me a lot more about my career history. It was great, and exactly what I would hope for from a mentor-mentee relationship.

And then, because I always love over-analyzing things as a gender-based thought experiment, I wondered how this would be different if our genders were different. Could taking a student out to lunch to get to know them better be perceived as inappropriate if my student was male? Probably not, but it would almost certainly be less comfortable for me and probably for the student. What if I was male and my student was female? That gave me pause. Of course this one event was within the bounds of normal mentoring, but I could see the potential for something like this to make a student uncomfortable or to be the beginning of a series of problematic events where the power differential* makes it difficult for the student to say no to increasingly line-crossing interactions.

Should I be okay with behavior that I don’t see a problem with in one gender combination, if I do see it as a potential problem with a different gender? The image above is an extreme example (since everything Leslie Knope does is extreme and awesome), but there are many things that can seem not noteworthy coming from women that would never be acceptable from men.

On the one hand, I think it is even more important for women to get close and mentor other women to help them overcome the obstacles we continue to face. However, when I think about a man mentoring another man [preferentially], it makes me feel like the old boys club is being perpetuated. Is it fair to think that one is essential and the other should be avoided, as long as there is an imbalance in the field?

Further, why should the line be drawn in a different place for me as a female mentor than for a male mentor? Should I hold myself to the same standards and distance that I would expect from a man?

There are certainly ways male and female mentors may have different benefits, for either female or male mentees, and for this among many reasons, it is advisable for a student to try to have several mentors. But what should a mentor take into consideration for his or her interactions with different trainees? How does one give each student the mentoring they need or deserve without favoritism, and is it possible to support stronger relationships between more similar people without perpetuating the existing hierarchy?

I’m really asking! What do you think?

*I’m not factoring sexual orientation into the equation here, mostly because the focus is on gender-based power differentials, and I’m trying not to consider sexual or romantic circumstances; I do recognize that people who are not heterosexual or cisgender may have even greater cause for worry or discomfort when presented with unclear lines in social situations related to the workplace.


6 responses so far