The Art of the Recommendation Letter

I recently went back to Caltech, where I was a postdoc, for a celebration of Harry Gray’s 80th birthday. Harry was my advisor when I was there, and I’ve learned a great deal about chemistry and about mentorship since I’ve known him. During the course of the symposium that was held in his honor, there were many stories that people were telling about Harry: Harry dressed as a horse while lecturing; Harry learning how to speak Danish; Harry travelling all over the globe with his children. But, the stories that stuck with me the most were two stories about starting on a career path.

The first story I have heard a hundred times. When Harry was a postdoc in Copenhagen, developing his description of metal oxygen multiple bonds and what was to become ligand field theory, he hosted a random visiting scientist for an afternoon. Harry, not necessarily sure who the visitor was, just chatted about his theories and about metal-ligand bonding, in general. The visitor talked with Harry for four hours and then asked, “Would you like a faculty job at Columbia?” Harry responded with, “Sure! But who are you?” Turned out that the visitor was Martin Karplus who himself was a young faculty at Columbia, 50 years prior to being awarded a Nobel. But he had enough power to make Harry an offer on the spot.

The second story came from Mark Wrighton. Mark, who is currently the chancellor at Washington University in St. Louis, was one of Harry’s graduate students at Caltech. As Mark was finishing his PhD, Harry told him, “You should apply for this position at MIT.” Of course, as simple as that, Mark got it.

These stories stayed with me because I am currently in the middle of writing recommendation letters for my students: for jobs, for graduate school, for fellowships, for internships. I really think that writing the right letter for the right job for each student is one of the most important jobs that I have. Now, this activity is certainly not in my defined job description. Nor is it reflected in how I am evaluated by my peers. But, one of our most important missions at a university is to set our students off on the right career paths. And, in that respect, writing a considered and appropriate letters is one of the most concrete things that I can do to help my students in their transition into the real world.

So, how do I do this? I don’t know! Perhaps it’s my anxiety speaking, but I really do wrack my brain over each letter that I write. Of course all of my students are unique and special. But I do try to put myself in their shoes (to understand what they want out of life) as well as the prospective employers (to best understand how my student may ultimately be useful to them). And, while I love the my students have diverse options upon leaving with a degree in chemistry, I am nostalgic for and envious of the time when advisors would just put a phone call in to the hiring manager!

Speaking of which, I would love to hear from any hiring managers out there! What do you need to see in a letter of recommendation? What types of things stand out the most? How do you get a student resume off of the big pile and on to the little pile?

Have a story of your own about recommendation letters? Participate in the conversation! Reach out to Matt on Twitter at @sciencegeist.


Photo credit: calliopeCC BY 2.0

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