Carpe Diem: Asking for Letters of Recommendation

August 2, 2017

It is that time of the year when NIH summer interns are returning to their home institutions and the application season for graduate and professional school and academic/post doc positions are right around the corner. It is also time to request letters of recommendation (LOR) to document your NIH training experiences.   The PIs or program directors are the perfect candidates to offer their written appraisal of your work and development that they have observed and recommend you for further opportunities.

Who do I ask?  Ask someone who knows you very well!   Many fellows are lured by the appeal of having a well-known scientist write a recommendation. While this can be advantageous, it is equally important to ask someone who is exceptionally familiar with your work and who can clearly speak to your strengths for the opportunity.  Usually, you will usually need at least three LORs to support your application. Be sure to check if there are specifications about the types of letters you will need for each opportunity that you consider.  Here a few examples of potential reference writers that scientists often use:

  • Principal Investigators (PI)s and Supervisors
  • Summer research experience mentors and program directors regarding your research skills
  • Preceptors (those who you have shadowed) and who can speak to your direct patient contact (health professions)
  • Dissertation/thesis/academic advisers at your home school
  • Observers of your teaching abilities
  • Industry or non-bench managers
  • References who have observed leadership and teamwork abilities
  • Faculty member who taught a hard science course

Will I be bothering them? They are busy.  They expect you to ! Most recommenders have a process and set time aside to write letters because this is how they launch the next generation of leaders.  Request your letter now. In a few months or years, they may forget exactly what you did but won’t forget you personally.   They can always update the letter later.

How to ask?  Ask personally!  Reach out by requesting a meeting by telephone or email.  Use a professional tone and address them using their title.  It is to your advantage to ask for an in-person meeting so that you can explain your long-term career plans and next-steps (post doc, graduate school, employment etc.). You can also have a thoughtful conversation about your competitive edge during the application process. This is also your opportunity to candidly ask for a positive recommendation. This will ensure that they don’t have any reservations about your candidacy. While an awkward conversation to have, it is in your best interest to ensure that you are getting the best endorsement possible. If it is not in your favor, thank them and ask another writer.

When do I ask? Ask now…Ask early! Even though you may not use the letter right away, it can be helpful to ask while your work is still fresh in their minds. You can store letters in a recommendation file service for later use through your college and university.  You can also set up an account with a reputable on-line file service where you can store a variety of references for later use.

What should I send to my reference writer?  Help them write your letter! Provide your letter writer with everything they need to complete the letter.  This can include your updated CV/resume, where, how, and to whom to send the letter, deadline date, and any specific information to include (i.e.: comments about your clinical work, research, etc.).  Some organizations will send an email or regular mail directly to your reference with specific details for completion.  This is typical with centralized application systems for graduate and professional school and fellowships. For industry jobs and some fellowships, you will only need to send contact information for references including how you know the person. Be sure to inform your reference about this because they will not have to write a letter but still prepare for a verbal reference.

Help! Why was I asked to write the letter?   Awkward!  A common reply to many reference requests, this request saves the writer time.   Look at this as your opportunity for you to refresh the writer’s memory about your accomplishments.  You will also have an idea of what he or she will write in your letter. Try creating several bullet points highlighting the areas you wish to have highlighted.  The recommender will then transpose these comments into a letter.

How should I thank my reference writer?  Send a thank you note.  In your letter, be sure to acknowledge your appreciation to your reference in writing via email or regular mail.  Also inform them if you were successful or if you need to request additional letters.

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Gender Bias in Letters of Recommendation

September 22, 2014

The time has arrived – you are in search of a new position! Besides getting your CV/resume in shape, working on those cover letters, and looking at position postings, you are also sending out requests for letters of recommendation. Hold that thought though – especially if you are a woman!

Research has uncovered “unintended gender bias in letters of recommendation.” 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”. The language used was full of nuanced and hidden biases resulting in diminished support for female applicants. Even the descriptions of positive qualities portrayed men in their role as researchers and professionals, while women were portrayed as teachers. Adjectives used in female letters as a constructive description (e.g. ‘hardworking’, ‘conscientious’, ‘dependable’, ‘meticulous’, ‘thorough’, ‘diligent’, ‘dedicated’, and ‘careful’) often ended up having the reverse effect. In many ways it denoted a sentiment that she is hardworking because she has to compensate for lack of ability.

Letters of recommendation are critical to your career advancement. So, based on this report, it might not be a bad idea to give your advisor or mentor an overview of this research and follow up with a proposed checklist of your own. Here are some guidelines to consider:

  1. Use titles and surnames for both women and men.
  2. Discuss applicants only in terms of the job requirements (provide a detailed list to your advisor in advance).
  3. Limit discussions of personality and interpersonal skills to avoid hidden gender bias!
  4. Avoid mentioning stereotypically female traits or professions if they are not relevant to the job.

Generally, advisors aren’t intentionally biased when writing letters and you can’t fully control what is written; what you can control is how well you prepare your letter writer. Provide your advisor with a list of the job requirements and a list of the skills and achievements you want him/her to include in the letter. Another tool you both can use is an online gender bias calculator. You can copy and paste your recommendation and see a listing of all the male or female-associated words that are listed in your letter. Talk to your advisor about these possible pitfalls in letters of recommendation (show them the data!) and prime him/her to be more conscientious while writing yours.


Letters of Recommendation – Our Recommendations for Getting Them

August 7, 2013

References are an extremely important part of any application.  However, many people struggle with knowing what is the best way, and whom do you ask, for great letters of recommendation.

Generally speaking, you should aim to get at least three letters of recommendation. Although the common thread throughout these should be you, each letter should be unique, helping elucidate a different aspect of your candidacy—whether that is your education, technical and research skills, leadership abilities or beyond.

Whom to ask?
Ask someone who knows you very well! Although this might sound obvious, many individuals are lured by the appeal of having a well-known scientist write a recommendation.  It is much better to ask someone who is exceptionally familiar with your work, and who can clearly speak to your strengths.

Your recommenders will vary depending on your specific career plans and focus, but may include:

  • Dissertation/academic advisers
  • Supervisors if you are a postdoc
  • Someone who can speak to your teaching abilities and/or your experience in industry or non-bench activities
  • If you are looking for a letter for medical school or graduate school:
    — Summer research experience mentor
    — Faculty member who taught a hard science course

When to ask?
Ask early! A surefire way to receive a lukewarm, or worse—a negative, letter of recommendation is to not give enough advanced notice to your recommender. Four to six weeks of advance notice is standard; however, as an added courtesy, you could ask earlier and see what would be a feasible timeline for your recommender. It is always better to ask in advance and then as the deadline approaches, you can send friendly reminders of the impending due date. Periodic reminders will not be resented and will reflect favorably on your organizational skills.

You can also ask for letters of recommendation as you are wrapping up an experience.  If you are graduating, finishing an internship or completing your postdoc, it is a good idea to ask for a recommendation now. Even if these letters aren’t immediately used, it can be helpful to ask while your work is still fresh in their minds. If needed and/or appropriate, you can always ask for updates at a later time.

How to ask?
Ask personally! It is to your advantage to ask face-to-face. By having an in-person meeting, you can explain your career plans and have a thoughtful conversation about what could give you a competitive edge during the application process. This is also your opportunity to candidly ask if they are willing to write a positive letter for you and to ensure that they don’t have any reservations about your candidacy. In the moment, this can be a difficult conversation to have; however, in the long run, this is a necessary starting point to ensure your work is getting the best endorsement possible.