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.

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Industry vs. Academia: Which is Right for You?

September 28, 2010

DNA ladderMany of you may have asked yourselves this question at some point in your academic careers. Which job would give you the most freedom research-wise? More time with your family or for outside interests? Higher salaries? Job security?

Science Careers held a webinar on this topic just last week. The panel discussion included speakers from academia and industry who took questions from an online audience of postdocs and graduate students. I encourage you to watch the entire webinar as your schedule allows. For today’s post, I have tried to paraphrase what I found to be the most salient points made by the panelists last week.

1. What questions should you ask yourself to determine whether academia or industry is the right fit for you?

  • Do you want to stay in research or move away from the bench?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What do you enjoy doing?
  • What are you most passionate about?

2. What are some essential differences between academia and industry?

  • In academic work, you will be expected to be a self-starter, comfortable with self-promotion, and will largely work independently, developing research questions on your own.
  • In industry, you will also be expected to drive yourself, but with a view toward a common goal, and an understanding of what is expected of you as a member of a research team, based on objectives set at the beginning of your employment.

3. How can I learn more about these two worlds?

  • Conduct research on the web.
  • Talk with people you know in both spheres.
  • Attend university or institute career symposia, career fairs, panels, etc.
  • Talk with people at scientific meetings.
  • Attend any lunches, networking events, etc. after research talks on your campus.
  • Ask scientists you meet about their own career paths.

4. When should I start preparing for either job?

  • It’s never too early! Even by the 2nd year of your postdoc, you should be updating your CV, participating in skills courses, taking on a summer student – basically doing things that will set you apart from the crowd on the job market.

5. Are there jobs available in industry or academia in this bleak economic climate?

  • Yes! There’s never a total hiring freeze in industry, so there are always opportunities for people who are smart, well-trained, and have good ideas.
  • In academia, positions may be slightly easier to come by in private institutions, if endowments have rebounded.
  • Universities need to maintain research vitality, so hiring will always be a priority.
  • One way of uncovering opportunities is to find out which universities are building new science facilities. These institutions will typically need new science faculty to fill new lab space!

6. Which path allows for greater work/life balance?

  • This depends on the particular company/institution, particular department, particular job.
  • While some may think that schedules are tougher on the academic side, some industry jobs also require a great number of hours during the work week.
  • Some may feel a greater sense of freedom and therefore balance on the academic side because the hours are flexible, while others may feel more balance in industry because the hours are more structured.
  • This depends largely on the person and the work situation.

7. Does compensation vary greatly from one to the other?

  • No, compensation levels are surprisingly similar based on level of experience, promotion, etc.

8. What skills are most important for me to develop before going on the job market?

  • Networking is #1, followed by teamwork, and being a thoughtful leader.

9. What are the pros and cons in academia vs. industry?

  • Benefits in academia: a sense of autonomy, an excitement around novel discoveries, intrinsic motivators, travel, getting to know people all over the world, collegial environment. Downsides: grant renewal, feeling pressure to publish or perish.
  • Benefits in industry: potential benefit to patients of what you’re working on, fairly immediate application of science, access to resources, connections to other scientists around you. Downsides: cannot always investigate areas of personal interest.

10. Any final thoughts, words of wisdom?

  • Stay true to yourself, know yourself well before going out on the market.
  • Practice what you’re going to say so you do the best job of selling yourself.
  • Start early and practice often.

Continue this conversation with professionals you meet in both academia and industry. These interactions will help you to determine what is best for YOU!