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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Re-Applying to Graduate Programs

May 7, 2018

As noted in last week’s blog about reapplying to medical school, deciding to reapply for graduate programs naturally brings mixed feelings.  You should be congratulated for the investment of time, effort, and expense that all applicants invest during the application process.  For those of you who are on waitlists for admission this cycle, there is still a possibility for matriculation this year.  Simultaneously, it is time for you to consider re-applying.
Here are some things to consider:

There are things beyond your control.

It is common for applicants to reapply.  It is important to realize that each year, the number of students accepted to graduate programs may vary depending on a variety of matters.  In some departments a loss of funding from the department, school or institution can result in a reduction in the number of applicants who they can support in a PhD program.  Also, in any given year, the number of faculty who are available to take on new doctoral students may fluctuate.  Some faculty may have sabbaticals, take family or health leaves of absence, or even simply be overloaded with students.

Ask Yourself:  What are the strengths and deficits in my application?

Never reapply without addressing the problems within your previous application and interview.   Take ownership of the process and ask, “How can I improve my application in the future?”.  Often, admissions officers can give you one or two tidbits of information that can help you.  Dr. Bill Higgins, OITE’s Preprofessional Advisor, provided these additional tips to graduate school re-applicants:

  • Talk to Graduate Program Directors who have seen your application and ask for suggestions for improvement
  • Obtain suggestions from your PI about how to improve your application
  • Apply to a broader range of graduate programs that range in competitiveness and prestige
  • Obtain new letters of recommendation from PIs who know about your work and science
  • Address any grade or GRE scores
  • Make sure your stated research interests match the program’s foci
  • Get help with your personal statement from the OITE staff

Act to improve upon your application.

Now that you have gathered feedback, honestly ask, “Can these problems be remedied effectively prior to reapplying or will I need more time?  Next set out to make any necessary improvements to your application.  Plan to attend the NIH Graduate and Professional School Fair on Wednesday July 18, 2018 and speak with representatives of over 160 graduate programs seeking applicants form NIH.  Feel free to make an appointment with a OITE career counselor and attend the workshops on applying to graduate school workshops and programs during the Fall and Winter of each application season.

 


How to Write a Persuasive Personal Statement

March 19, 2018

It that time of year when applicants to medical schools are feverishly writing and re-writing drafts of their personal statements for medical school in anticipation of applying in June. To help our readers with this awesome task, Dr. William Higgins, Pre-professional Advisor with the OITE, has provided some suggestions that will help you to make a stronger case in favor of your admission to schools.

Persuade

To write a persuasive statement, Dr. Higgins encourages applicants to think about two main questions, “Why do I want to go into medicine?” and “How have I prepared myself to be successful?” In other words, applicants need to know that admissions committees are reading through thousands of essays looking for experiences that enabled you test the various roles (direct patient care, research, science, leadership, teamwork, service,) that a medical student and future physician will take on. Then you can select your key experiences that will persuade the admissions committee members that you have a strong foundation that has prepare you to succeed in medical school and as a physician.

When you are sitting down to begin writing your statement, Dr. Higgins urges you to stop and recognize that “generation of the content is a separate process from generating the actual text and words. Do not do them at the same time.”   Spend some time writing down and organizing your ideas and insight first. Then and only then, begin composing the text. Forego the writing strategies that are used in creative writing where you were “encouraged to use free writing, flowery language, complex sentence structures, and unfamiliar and artificial style.” For example, instead of writing write, “McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup” you would simply and directly write that, “McBride fell 12 stories…” Higgins suggests that a using logic and clearly worded statements to persuade your reader is appropriate because “medical or professional school essays must flow but don’t have to be a story.”

Dr. Higgins provides the following strategy to create a flowing and persuasive personal statement:

Step One: Do not write! Schedule time to generate the content.

  • DO NOT attempt to simultaneously brainstorm and start to write!
  • Find time when you are not under stress
  • Jot down your various ideas/experiences on notes (post-it notes) and place them on the wall or a large white board.
  • Use concrete examples from your life experiences that excite you

Step Two Choose key experiences and place them order that will create your argument

  • Organize your post-it notes on the wall
  • Select 1-2 themes of your essay
  • Then re-organize them determine the flow to persuade your audience
  • Start with the most important points (those that the admissions committees want to hear)
  • Note key phrases and catch words

Step Three: Start Writing Your Essay

  • Write an opening paragraph that forecasts what you are going to tell the reader during the statement.
  • Focus on key experiences. You don’t have to include everything. Do not rewrite your activities list.
  • Be clear and direct (i.e.: Tell them what you want them to know) No need for flowery language or many adjectives
  • Use the active voice and strong verbs.
  • Write often during scheduled times
  • Write positive statements and avoid negative ones. For example, don’t write, “I didn’t want to attend medical school or be a medical doctor initially…”
  • Eliminate unnecessary words such as, “Based on, In terms of, Studies have shown, Doctors are, It is thought to be, what happened was…”
  • Use correct punctuation
  • In the conclusion link back to your opening argument or thesis

Step 4  Proof Read and Edit

  • Put the essay away for 2 days before re-reading and editing
  • Read it aloud. TRUST YOUR EARS
  • Check for linearity
  • Underline the subject and verb in each sentence. Is the verb in the active voice, strong, appropriate for the subject?
  • Check each paragraph for structure, transitions, etc.
  • Check for continuity
  • Use spell check.
  • Schedule an appointment with a OITE advisor or counselor review your essay. Ask a peer.

Visit the OITE for all workshops and programs related to applying to professional schools. Seek similar services in your region or from your primary institution if you are part of our extended reading audience.


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!


Applying to PhD Programs

April 5, 2017

It is that time of year when many of you are preparing to apply to doctoral programs in the sciences.  You may be asking yourself:

  • Where do I apply?
  • What strategies will I use to decide between programs?
  • What are the best programs for me?

Here are several suggestions to simplify the process provided by Dr. Bill Higgins, Pre-Professional Consultant in NIH’s Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE).

Define Your Research Interests

Defining your research interests is the first step in identifying Ph.D. graduate programs.  Your definition may be relatively broad or quite narrow, but you should spend time thinking about the types of research questions that interest you.  If your interests are broad, e.g., metabolic regulation, neural networks, gene expression in cancerous cells, etc., you may gravitate toward more diverse umbrella programs that include investigators in many loosely related disciplines.   Frequently such programs offer laboratory rotations during the first year to help you discover a focus for the dissertation research.   A narrower, more focused interest often leads an applicant to specific laboratories or a small group of laboratories.  Many applicants have more than one area of interest and thus apply to graduate programs that reflect these different interests.  Remember that the dissertation topic is just the first of many research projects in the career of a successful investigator.  Few P.I.s pursue the same research thread for their entire research career.   Proper training prepares a Ph.D. to approach questions in any area of the discipline.

Find the PhD Programs in Your Chosen Field of Study

For those of you seeking programs in the United States, there are rankings posted in the US News and World Report annually.   For some PhD programs, however, the graduate school rankings may not apply to the part/sub-discipline of the program you are interested in.  In this case, Dr. Higgins recommended networking with researchers and attending meetings to discover these programs.

Identify and Interview NIH Researchers

Find NIH investigators conducting research in the area of your interest.  You can conduct an informational interviews and ask them for names of respected and productive colleagues at other institutions.  Start a list of such people and of their institutions and programs.  Always look at the References Cited sections of these investigators’ recent publications for the names and locations of other investigators in the field.  Add these to your list!

Attend Professional Meeting Gatherings

The investigators in your field are usually attend the same national scientific meetings every year.  Identify these organizations, find the on-line site, and then peruse the Abstracts from the recent conferences and write down the investigator’s names.  They also attend NIH Scientific Interest Group (SIG) programs.  Also, these are excellent places to identify prospective dissertation mentors, e.g., contact them at meetings you may attend, use NIH PI’s to help establish contact, emails after you apply to call attention to your application, etc. Now that you have a list of productive people and their programs and what academic institutions and departments where they work, you are ready to explore the relevant web sites and narrow down your list.

To keep track of your information, we suggest that you create a spreadsheet with key dates and information for each university using the following column headings, PhD Program, School, Entrance Exams, Where to Apply (school or on-line application service), Personal Statements, number of references needed, Application Deadlines, and any other criteria you choose.  This strategy will also enable you to make additions and corrections as well as track your application process.

Feel free to visit the OITE Career Services Center and schedule an appointment to meet with pre-professional advisors, wellness, and career counselors who can further support you during this process.  Click the following link for general information about how to apply to graduate programs and visit the OITE Calendar of Events page for related programs. We also encourage you to view the additional resources on our webpage that include the Career Services Blog, Alumni Network, and OITE Video-casts.

OITE services are available to NIH intramural trainees only. Check with your home university or college and utilize the personal, career, and professional school advising resources they offer to you.

 


Interviewing with Confidence

January 9, 2017

At last, all that you have worked for has led to the highly desired interview. Congratulations! The interview process can feel daunting, but don’t let it.  At the heart of all interviews is an exchange between two or more parties about shared interests and desires to determine “best fit”. Hopefully, by this point you have done some self-assessment and know yourself well enough to effectively communicate your fit for the program, school or organization.  If not, now is the time to reflect. Consider clarifying your strengths, areas of expertise and desires for your future. Re-evaluating your interests, values, and skills helps to enhance confidence that you are on the right track in applying for specific programs or positions. Ask yourself:

  • Why do I want this job?
  • How am I prepared to take on the responsibilities being asked of me?
  • What do I have to offer them?
  • What do they have to offer me?

Answers to these and other questions help you prepare to respond confidently to the interviewer in ways that show your fit for the position or program.

Preparation is the key to successful interviews. Interview candidates who fall short of receiving offers are often ineffectively conveying confidence in their skills and expertise as related to the position they are interviewing for. The more knowledge you have about the organization you are interviewing with, the individuals interviewing you, the mission and vision of the department or program, and/or specific duties and responsibilities involved, the better able you are to connect your strengths to their needs. Often individuals engaged in an employment or educational search believe their skill set will win them the job or offer.  Although indeed that may look great on paper, it doesn’t always lead to an offer.

Not long ago, a trainee shared their interviewing experience that reflected success in obtaining interviews, however, they had not yet gotten an offer. In this case, the interviewee found themselves problem solving for the interviewer – asking questions that may have laid seeds of doubt in the interviewers’ minds. As an individual skilled in analysis and problem solving, it was easy for them to do so. However, it wasn’t the candidate’s job to figure out solutions to potential problems they saw in their being hired, simply to convey confidently how they could help. Reflecting on their interviewing experiences and brainstorming alternative strategies for responding to interview questions allowed the candidate to more effectively convey their fit at the next interview.  Soon after the candidate received an offer which they accepted.  Success!

You too can come across confidently in the interview. Consider this as you prepare:

Know Yourself – Re-clarify your interests in the position, as well as your values and skills to allow for connections between yourself and the employer or program.  An OITE Career Counselor or Graduate School and Pre-Professional Advisor can help in this process:  https://www.training.nih.gov.

Prepare for the interview – Research information about the organization, institution, or program so that you are confident about your fit and can effectively communicate this as related to their core values, mission and needed skills and expertise.  We also suggest that you watch the OITE Interviewing Techniques workshop to learn and practice your skills.

Interview the Employer – Be prepared to ask questions in an interview if time allows.  Choose questions that help you determine whether there will be a good fit for you such as: “What opportunities for advancement are in place?”, “What type of mentorship is available for new hires?” or “What resources are available to help students engage in career planning?”  Knowing what is important to you will help you generate questions to ask.

Breathe, Relax, and Enjoy – Most interviews offer you the chance to meet new people, see different places and experience new things.  Take the opportunity to do so.  Whatever happens, this kind of mindset will help relieve worry and nervousness about the interview, allow you to stay focused on the big picture, and encourage confident communication in the interview.

Interviewing can be difficult, especially if you feel unprepared. Preparation will help you feel more confident about the unique things you offer and encourage a focus on where you fit with the employer, institution or program.  Remember, the absence of an offer after an interview doesn’t mean you were not qualified, simply that you were not the fit that the employer was looking for.  Keep in mind that getting an interview is evidence of success in the search or application process.  Be sure to give yourself credit and acknowledge your successes along the way.  Before you know it, you’ll have an offer too!


MD/PhD: Is it Right for You?

August 4, 2015

A few weeks ago, OITE hosted NIH’s Graduate & Professional School Fair. One of the sessions focused on MD/PhD programs and how to decide whether it is the right program for you. If you missed it, the presentation can be found online.

The goal of most MD/PhD programs is to create physician-scientists who aim to spend about 80% of their time on research and 20% of their time on clinical care. Most MD/PhD programs are training you to enter research-oriented careers. If you have no interest in research, an MD/PhD might not be the best fit for you. Remember also that MD physicians can conduct research and many MDs pursue research fellowships during their training. Many MD/PhD applicants falsely believe that they will spend about half of their time in the lab and half of their time in the clinic. This is not true until maybe fifteen or so years into your career.

So, how can you decide? First and foremost, allow yourself ample time to gather information in order to make this decision. Before undertaking any further education, it is extremely important for you to consider your own interests and career plans.

Is doing translational research and making discoveries really important to you? If yes, perhaps you are leaning toward an MD/PhD. Are you more drawn to basic research and the idea of running a lab within the biological science field? If yes, perhaps you are leaning toward a PhD. Or maybe you are most interested in working with people in a clinical setting? If so, an MD or other medical training program might be the best fit for your long-term career plans.

Many prospective applicants wonder whether an MD/PhD is worth it for them. Some big considerations are the financial and time commitments. On one hand, an MD/PhD program is longer and generally takes seven to eight years to complete. However, on the upside, they are generally pretty well-funded. Another consideration is the level of competition. Medical school is difficult to get into and MD/PhD programs are even tougher. There are approximately 20,000 MD students and 600 MD/PhD students. These statistics aren’t meant to deter, but rather to highlight that MD/PhD students are a unique group. It is important to be focused yet realistic. Ultimately, your path will be decided through a mix of your interests, motivations and aptitudes.

The AAMC has a lot of resources about MD/PhD programs and they have even compiled a list of frequently asked questions. It is definitely worth checking out here. However, it can often be helpful to talk through your options with mentors or advisors. Do informational interviews with people who have an MD/PhD to see if this would be the right fit for you. If you are at the NIH, you can also meet with medical/graduate school advisors or career counselors within OITE.