Writing a Letter of Recommendation – Tips for Mentors

October 9, 2018

al-nik-382503-unsplashAs postbacs prepare to apply for graduate school, many might be coming to you to ask for a letter of recommendation. It can be hard to know how to start these all-important letters, so here are some things to keep in mind as you draft your reference letter.

First and foremost, you should only agree to write a letter if you feel you know the person well and if you can write positively about your working experience with them. If not, you might want to mention that the requestor should contact others who could better speak to their work. Don’t feel compelled to write a letter out of obligation, especially if you feel uncomfortable writing favorably or if you think your assessment could hinder their chances of acceptance.

What You Need to Write a Letter

If you feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation, then make sure the requestor provides you some background information. If it is for a job, they should give you their CV/resume and a copy of the job description. If it is for graduate/medical school, they should give you their CV/resume, a list of the schools they are applying to, and a copy of their personal statement. This information will be helpful background as you write your letter on their behalf. It would also be a good idea to check in with the person about the top three things they would like you to address in reference to the position or institution. For example, for graduate school, you will most likely want to speak to not only their analytical abilities but their work ethic as well. If you are writing a letter for a medical school applicant, you will want to check out the AAMC website where they offer detailed instructions for letter writers. Writers are encouraged to touch on the applicant’s competencies along four dimensions: thinking/reasoning, science, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

 

Formatting

In terms of format, letters of recommendation are generally one page and one to three paragraphs long. They must be signed and dated; ideally, it will be on official letterhead. You should start by noting how long you have known this person and in what capacity. Be sure to clarify your role/title and relationship (supervisor, colleague, etc) to the applicant.

Then, you will want to move on to your endorsement of the candidate. Keep in mind the three points they wanted you to address but be specific when doing so. General statements like, “Bailey is a hard worker” tend to fall flat unless supported with examples. You could rephrase it to say, “Bailey has demonstrated an excellent work ethic and commitment to the team. One of our projects required somebody from the lab to come in each weekend day to harvest cells. Bailey volunteered every time to help out and was a pivotal member of our team during busy work times.” It also helps admissions committees if you favorably compare the student to others you have known. As an example: “In terms of analytical abilities, Bailey is in the top 10% of undergraduate students that I have worked with in the past ten years.” Speaking to both their skill sets and personal characteristics is usually the winning combination. Try to address and conclude with one or two traits that make them especially suitable for where they are applying.

Be Aware of Gender Bias

We wrote about gender bias in letters of recommendation a few years ago. A study by Trix and Psenka (2003) examined 300 letters of recommendation for medical faculty positions and determined that recommenders unconsciously described candidates in stereotypically gendered ways:

  • Men were described as “successful” and “accomplished” and letters for male applicants contained more repetitions of superlatives such as “outstanding” or “exceptional.”
  • Women were described as “nurturing” and “compassionate” and letters for female applicants often include doubt raisers, statements like: “It appears that her health and personal life are stable.”

Letters for female applicants were shorter and lacked basic features like a description of the writer’s relationship with the applicant, comments on the applicant’s academic traits and achievements, and/or evaluative comments. Letters for males were more aligned with critical job requirements and used stronger language like “excellent research record” and “ability”.

Make sure you aren’t falling prey to gender bias when writing your letter. You can copy and paste your letter into a Gender Bias Calculator here.

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Basic Overview: The US Academic System

October 2, 2018

nathan-dumlao-572049-unsplashMany trainees interested in pursuing an academic career path don’t have a clear idea about the hiring landscape in the United States.  This quick overview will discuss a few topics: the kinds of institutions, the types of jobs available, and last but not least definitions for funding.

What kinds of educational institutions are there in the US?

There is an official listing which is referred to as the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.  Here you can look up institutions by a variety of different classifications, including: undergraduate programs, graduate programs, enrollment profile, size and setting, as well as community engagement.  These listings have been updated every few years since 1970 and the most recent version is expected to be released later this year (2018).

The most basic classifications are based on the type of degree conferred; categories include: doctoral universities, master’s college and universities, baccalaureate colleges, baccalaureate/associate’s colleges, associate’s colleges, special focus institutions (including medical schools), and tribal colleges.

Each of these classifications is further subdivided. One example you might be familiar with is how doctoral universities are categorized:

R1: Highest Research Activity
R2: Higher Research Activity
R3: Limited Research Activity

What types of jobs are available within these institutions?

Generally, academic jobs progress in level from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor to Full Professor. All faculty positions include three main components: 1. Research 2. Teaching 3. Service. However, the amount of time the faculty member is expected to devote to each of these components varies widely by the type of institution.  At R1 doctoral or medical institutions, for example, the research component will be the primary function of the role and the teaching component could be as little as a handful of lectures a year.

Fewer and fewer professors are receiving tenure now. Historically, tenure has meant a lifetime placement at an institution and a job/salary until retirement.  The trends in the academic labor force show that tenure and tenure-track positions are decreasing while part-time faculty and full-time/non-tenure track positions have been increasing.

What about funding?

You have probably heard the terms hard money and soft money, but what do these mean? Hard money denotes an institutionally guaranteed salary. Often times the salaries are for teaching and cover the nine-month academic year (even though they can be paid out over a period of 12 months). Soft money, on the other hand, is money the academic finds on his/her own to supplement a partial salary provided by the institution and covers research costs. This money often comes from grants, which can be one-time funding sources or time-limited, meaning the academic will have to reapply for funding throughout their career.

While the academic career path has been changing dramatically, many scientists and trainees still pursue this option successfully. If you are interested in learning more, the OITE offers a number of in-depth workshops every year about academic jobs and many of these are available for you online. Please check out our videocast on “Academic Job Search – Applying and Interviewing” as well as “Understanding the US Academic System” which is the second presentation in the document.


Waiting is Hard to Do

December 18, 2017

Blog written by Michael J. Sheridan, MSW, PhD, Special Advisor for Diversity and Wellness Programs, Michael.sheridan@nih.gov

It is December 2017, and while many are preparing for holidays, if you are trainee, you are probably asking yourself, “I haven’t heard back from a number of medical schools, is there something I can do to move them along? Should I assume I won’t get in?  Will I get an interview at the graduate programs that I applied to?  I am waiting to hear from academic positions …is there anything I can do?  The good news is that, if you haven’t heard anything yet, you are still being considered. With the holidays fast approaching, it is probable that most communication will resume in the new year.  The reality is that waiting for a response is hard thing to do.

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Dr. Michael Sheridan, Special Advisor for Diversity and Wellness Programs offers some strategies to help and writes that an area to be aware of while you wait is what is going on in your mind – specifically, the “inner chatter” that is present. It’s important to realize that you “talk” to yourself more than anyone else and thus, what you are saying makes a difference.  There are two particular qualities of this inner chatter to be mindful of – the “when” and the “what.”

The “when” of your inner dialogue refers to how much the mind is focused on either the past (“I wish I had remembered to put X in my application.” “I should have had so and so critique my letter before I sent it.”) or the future (“What will I do if I don’t get any interviews?” “If I don’t hear back from them by the end of this week, it means I didn’t get in”).  The reality of both past and future musings (or let’s face it, worrying) is that it is truly wasted effort as you can’t change something that’s already happened and you can’t predict what is going to happen in the future!  The only moment you have any control of is the current moment – and even then, I’m talking about control of your own thoughts and behaviors – not the actions of others or the eventual outcome.  Focusing on what you can do versus what you can’t lowers anxiety and builds confidence.

The “what” of your inner chatter has to do with the overall message or tone of what you are saying to yourself.  Are your thoughts harshly self-critical? (“I know I did a terrible job on that personal essay – I probably sounded really stupid”) Do they have a doomsday or “catastrophizing” flavor to them? (“I didn’t get this position, which means I won’t get any of the others I applied for either”)  Or are they balanced and positive? (“I know I won’t get accepted by everyone, but I probably won’t get rejected by everyone either” -“I’ve done the best I can and I can handle whatever the next step needs to be”).  A good thing to cultivate during the waiting is compassionate self-talk, or treating yourself with “the same kindness, care, and concern that you would treat a good friend” (Dr. Kristen Neff, www.self-compassion.com). So notice what you’re saying to yourself and if it is not supportive, ask yourself if you would say this to a good friend.  Chances are, you would offer something more encouraging, so try being your own good friend!

In addition to Dr. Sheridan’s suggestions above, we invite you to visit our most recent blog, where we suggested some activities to engage in during the holidays that will help you prepare to continue pursuing your career goals in 2018.  Also, be sure to visit our OITE web page as well to attend workshops and schedule an appointment with a career counselor.  If you are one of our extended community readers, please check with your home institution and local resources for career services. We will see you in 2018!


Academic Job Search: Telephone Interviews

October 23, 2017

This is the time of year to prepare for telephone interviews.  For many of you, this will be the first step in the academic interviewing process.  This is a cost-effective and time efficient method for many search committees and enables them to narrow down the list of applicants that are invited for campus interviews.  In the OITE academic interview video cast, Sharon Milgram, Director of the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE), for the NIH suggests that candidates prepare to practice the following suggestions for managing the process:

  • Use a land-line
  • Find a quiet place free of distractions
  • Prepare for a 30-45-minute telephone interview. Expect up to three interviewers on the line
  • Jot down the names of interviewers and refer to each by name when answering the questions
  • Loss of facial and body-language (non-verbal) cues make it difficult at first
  • Be sure to have questions prepared in advance as this conversation will likely end with them asking if you have questions

Here are some potential questions to help you prepare for telephone interviews

  • Why are you interested in this position?
  • Tell us about your research. How will you involve students in your research?
  • What courses could you teach here?
  • What research projects/topics could you pursue here?
  • How would you describe your interactions with students?
  • What questions do you have for us?

Of course, after this  step,  you will prepare for campus interviews, job talks, chalk talks and negotiating a job package. We encourage you to visit the OITE website to register for workshops and career counseling appointments that may assist you with your search.  Also view our video casts and blogs related to the academic and industry job search. We encourage our readers beyond NIH to utilize resources at their home academic institutions as well.


Writing the Research Statement

October 6, 2017

One of the documents that applicants are asked to submit as part of the complete academic job packet is the research statement. In general, this is a two to three-page document that describes your pathway into research in your discipline, pre-doctoral and postdoctoral research, and future directions for your research in the professorship.  This is an opportunity for you to help the search committee envision you fitting nicely into their department and achieving tenure in their department.

We encourage postdocs and graduate students in the sciences to visit the OITE website and watch the Academic Job Search: Applying and Interviewing video cast  in which Sharon Milgram, PhD Director of the Office of Intramural Training and Education discusses the essentials of the process for scientists. In addition, view the  Academic Job Search: Preparing Your Job Package presentation slides where you will find more information on preparing Research Statement.

For those of you who need additional help getting started, The University of Pennsylvania discusses the research statement and suggests applicants consider the following questions to help you to begin to craft your research statement.

  • What got you interested in this research?
  • What was the burning question that you set out to answer?
  • What challenges did you encounter along the way, and how did you overcome these challenges?
  • How can your research be applied?
  • Why is your research important within your field?
  • What direction will your research take you in next, and what new questions do you have

We invite you to visit the OITE career counselors to discuss your job search needs.  If you are one of our readers beyond NIH we encourage you to visit our website resources and work with your academic department and other institutional resources to help you prepare.


Writing the Teaching Statement

September 28, 2017

As you prepare a your written application materials to use when entering the Academic Job Market, in addition to the standard Curriculum Vitae (CV), Cover Letter,  and a diversity statements, you may be asked submit a Teaching Statement .  In general, teaching statements help search committees gain an understanding about how you approach teaching courses in your academic discipline.  This statement, that will include your philosophy towards teaching science,  will give the reader a concise synopsis of the underpinnings and origins to your approach to teaching followed by the strategies you plan to use, and examples and evidence of your success. The authors of,  The Academic Job Search Handbook (5th Edition), write that the Teaching Statement can be described as, “…a brief essay that will give a hiring committee an idea of what you actually do in the classroom. You will need to make some general statements but be sure to give some examples of things you have already done, or at least seen in practice, rather than give examples that are entirely hypothetical.”.

The NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) recommends that you watch our video casts on the Academic Job Search Process  before writing your statement.  Strong teaching statements will:

  • show clear evidence that you can “walk the walk”.
  • communicate that you are student-centered.
  • showcase your ability to teach to diverse learning styles
  • demonstrate your ability to reflect about your role as a teacher.
  • convey your enthusiasm for teaching.

For beginning instructors, Science Magazine provides some specific tips to the academic scientist who is starting the job market. The AAAS makes several suggestions to impress the search committee that include tailoring it to the institution, drawing form your personal experience learning science, and discussing what courses you would like to teach.  To help you get started, jot down your responses to the following reflective questions as you begin or re-evaluate your teaching statement:

  • Think back …Who or what experiences have influenced your approach to teaching?
  • How do you teach science? How do you motivate students to learn?
  • Do you teach differently to undergraduates, graduate, professionals?
  • What methods, materials, techniques, technology will you use to support your teaching goals
  • How will you teach to diverse audiences?
  • Describe creative methods to teach in your field?

If you are new to teaching or need more experience teaching, the OITE offers the course Scientists Teaching Science  that is an excellent program to help you begin to strategize and develop the skills for teaching in the profession including developing a teaching philosophy.  If taken, this can be included as training in your teaching statement and on your CV.


Getting a Faculty Job – Revisited

August 14, 2017

We are reaching into the archives to update the August 2013 blog post, “Getting a Faculty Job.”   Starting in August, a large share of faculty jobs will begin accepting applications to fill positions that begin in the fall of the following year.  Here are some key elements of the academic job search to consider before you apply:

  1. What type of educational institution is appealing to you?
    Do you want to be at a large research university (like Columbia University in NYC), a state school that terminates in a master’s program (like Eastern Michigan University), or a four-year liberal arts environment, (like Swarthmore College) or community college.  Each of these types of institutions has different expectations regarding the amount of teaching and research expected from faculty.  Different institutions/schools have different expectations for grant funding, teaching, and service and obtaining tenure. Be sure to consider the type of position you are looking for so you can prepare the strongest possible package.  Another question to consider: does the location and setting (urban/suburban) matter to you? To research schools, look at the Carnegie Classifications.
  2. Find positions that interest you.
    Many schools post their domestic and international academic openings on-line at sites including:  Science Careers, New Scientist Jobs, Academic 360, Nature, Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), Cell Careers, Higher Education Recruitment Consortium, The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Identify universities that have strong research programs in your field who may have positions open.  Utilize your professional network with faculty at professional meetings, conferences, and visit their websites to learn about future position openings.
  3. Start to prepare your job application package that will include several elements.
    a.   Curriculum Vitae (CV )– a record of your academic career.  Your CV, as described in the OITE Resume and CV Guide, will be tailored differently if it is a research-intensive position or if it is a teaching-intensive position.
  1. b.   Cover Letter – This is a document that is tailored to the job for which you are applying.  The OITE also publishes a Cover Letter guide document that shows several examples to explain why you are interested in establishing your career at that university, and how you see your research goals fitting into their overall department.
  2. c.   Research Statement/Plan – The goal here is to get your future colleagues to be excited about you and your science.  This document typically includes some discussion of prior research accomplishments, but you should specifically highlight the work most relevant to your proposed work.  You need to lay out a do-able research plan for the next 5+ years that is similar in format to what you would use for a grant submission with a focus on explaining how the work you are currently proposing fits into your broader long-term goals. Depending on the position, you may want to explain how you will tailor your research for students at the institution; this is especially important if the expectation is that you will engage large numbers of undergrads in your research.
  3. d.   Teaching Philosophy/Plan – If you will have a teaching component of your job, this part of your application tells them about your personal beliefs on teaching and gives a hiring committee a visual of your approach (philosophy, learning outcomes, methods, skills, texts etc.) to teaching students in that subject matter. Include specific examples and reflect that you understand the student population at that specific institution.
  4. Diversity Statement – In recent years, several universities request a written statement that addresses such questions your past and future contributions to diversity through research, teaching, and service. You may be asked to link this to the mission of the college and university as well. Go ahead and consult the diversity statement blog from 2016.
  5. Letters of recommendation – You should start to line your letters up early.  They need to be very strong.
  6. Practice Academic InterviewsIt is important to practice answering questions for academic interviews. Most often these interviews will be on campus, however, in some instances they may be conference interviews. The key to this is to research the university/college before you interview to avoid any interview gaffes. This also involves preparing and rehearsing for your job talk presentation and addressing any challenging questions.  We recommend practicing with scientists in your field who can provide helpful suggestions and pose questions that you may encounter during your interview.

Creating strong application documents and active preparation are keys to success in the academic job search market.  We encourage you to attend academic job search workshops and programs offered by the OITE.  In addition, the counselors can help you with preparation and encourage you watch our OITE video casts online including the Academic Job Search Overview prior to scheduling appointments. For those of you beyond NIH, consider setting up a practice interviews with your home institution’s academic department or career center.