Writing Letters of Recommendation

One of the things I greatly enjoy and also find really challenging as a grad student is serving as a mentor to others, both undergraduates and the technicians that work for me during my field seasons. I love getting to know people, offering up my experiences and things that I’ve done and helping them understand the many many confusing paths that they might be able to take through their professional careers. After my techs work for me they of course go on to other jobs and opportunities and I get calls for references for them. I’ve been really lucky and had some fantastic techs so I am more then happy to pass that along to whatever their up to next, be that grad school or more field jobs. I’m just finishing up my third round of writing a letter of recommendation for one of my techs for graduate school. I find this a lot more challenging then just talking to someone on the phone. On the phone I know that I can better communicate the excitement that I feel about my techs and can give the person as much or as little detail as they want, a letter is totally one sided and I don’t’ want to come across and unenthusiastic. I want to communicate the strengths of each one of them, the reasons that they were such valuable members of my team and why I think they would be fantastic grad students. And that is hard.

I know that graduate school is competitive and that just saying ‘She is the best thing since sliced bread’ isn’t going to get them very far. The people reading these letters want examples of their skills, be those field skills, analytic skills, leadership skills. They want to know how they went above and beyond, how they impressed me, how they worked as a team. After living with someone for two+ months and working with them day in and day out you would think that would be easy to articulate but I always find it challenging, especially because I don’t’ want to let them down.

Luckily I have been able to once again lean back on my fantastic mentors from undergrad. One of them sent me a copy of the letter of support that he wrote for me. At the time (and even now) it’s a very humbling letter to read, to know how highly this professor thought of me but I feel additionally lucky to be able to study that letter and see how he structured it. How he communicated each point he was making and the language that he used. He used specific examples, from classes I had taken with him, to the work I had done for his lab, to the reasons that he kept hiring me back on. He bolded certain lines of text and then wrapped things up with a short paragraph summarizing why he thought I would be a strong student.

So I’ve spent a lot of time putting together this letter together for one of my techs because I know that they’ll be a fantastic grad student, a marvelous scientist and is totally deserving of this position, and hopefully my letter will do them justice. If only i could get some feedback back after this letter is read, to figure out what parts of it worked, and what parts didn’t. Sadly I’ll never get that feedback but as my career progresses I’ll probably get to read more letters of recommendation and learn what to do and what not to do, but for now I just try to give as many specific examples as possible and wish my techs the best. After going through my crazy project they definitely deserve it.

Written on November 13, 2013