Writing a Letter of Recommendation

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Writing a Letter of Recommendation
Addendum to

Making the Right Moves:
A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty second edition

Burroughs Wellcome Fund Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, second edition © 2006 by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Burroughs Wellcome Fund All rights reserved. “Writing a Letter of Recommendation”: Electronic addendum published 2009 Writer: Laura Bonetta, Ph.D. Production: Martine Bernard Design Permission to use, copy, and distribute this publication or excerpts is granted provided that (1) the copyright notice above appears in all reproductions; (2) use is for noncommercial educational purposes only; and (3) the publication or excerpts are not modified in any way (except when used for noncommercial educational purposes). Requests beyond that scope should be directed to labmgmt@hhmi.org. The views expressed in this publication are those of its contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute or the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. This publication is available online at http://www.hhmi.org/labmanagement.

Burroughs Wellcome Fund 21 T.W. Alexander Drive P.O. Box 13901 Research Triangle Park, North Carolina 27709-3901

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As a beginning independent investigator, chances are you will soon have to write

a letter of recommendation on behalf of a student, a postdoc, or even a colleague. Your job as letter writer will be to describe the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses as they relate to the position or program in a way that is both thoughtful and personal. A letter that falls short of this goal will be of little value to those evaluating applications and will not help the candidate get what he or she is after. So, it pays to put in the necessary effort and time to write a “good” letter. This chapter provides insights and advice from experienced investigators on how to do so. It is not meant to be prescriptive but rather to offer some suggestions from which you can pick and choose.


Letters of recommendation are ubiquitous in an academic research career. If

you teach one or more senior-level undergraduate courses or have undergraduate students in your laboratory, you might have to write dozens of letters a year as students become graduate-school bound or look for employment. If you do not teach undergraduates and have primarily graduate students and postdocs in your lab, you will have significantly fewer letters to write—maybe for only one or two people each year. In addition to the people in your own lab, graduate students and postdocs in your department may ask you to write letters for them when they apply for fellowships or seek new positions. Colleagues might also ask you to write letters of recommendation on their behalf for various promotions or awards, but that may not happen too often until you are more established.

For Whom Should You Write?
As a mentor, you have an obligation to support students and postdocs in your lab in their job search and to help them find a good match for their abilities and aspirations. If they ask you to write a recommendation letter, it is customary to support them in this way. The best thing to do is to sit down with them and discuss their plans before they start applying for jobs. If their career goals are unrealistic, talk about what they need to do to become more competitive or help steer them


Making the Right Moves A Practical Guide to Scientific Management

in a different direction. If you do end up writing a letter for someone in your lab for a job you don’t think is a good fit, there are ways to put a positive spin on the negative (see...
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