Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

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Applications: Your CV and cover letter

TypingWell, it’s application season again – well, it’s application-reading season, anyway. The majority of my department, myself included, are currently serving on some sort of hiring committee. This means going through hundreds of applications. We are being very careful this year. The applicant pool is outstanding, and we don’t want to miss anyone. I am not sure how all committees are run, but the one I am on is going through a series of “cut-offs” to weed down to a set of applicants we will interview online and then fewer to bring to campus.

The first cut-off is to check that the the minimum requirements are satisfied. For instance, if the advertisement requires a Ph.D., we have to check that they all have Ph.D.s. A few people were cut out at that round.

The second cut-off was to read the cover letter and CV of each applicant and look for some set of preferred attributes. For instance, if we prefer that the applicant have taught for at least one year at the college level, but it isn’t a requirement, we might rate all the applicants on teaching experience. Then, we could have a cut-off based on that score from multiple people (we have 3 readers per packet for the first two cuts).

As I was going through the first and second cuts for the search committee I am on, I am surprised at people’s CVs. I have had a post on your CV in the past (here). This prior post is about getting your CV together for tenure. I think the same basic principles apply for getting your CV together for a job application, but I am surprised that people don’t spruce up their CVs as I would have expected. I have assembled some tips for your academic job application.

1. What are you applying for? Your CV should play up the aspects of your career that directly pertain to the position you are applying to. Does that seem obvious? Not to many of the applicants I have seen. If you are applying for a faculty job that will be research-intensive and require significant teaching, don’t discuss superfluous stuff up front. For a research-based faculty job, I want to see your research accomplishments up front. Don’t hide your publications at the end! Make it clear if you already earned some fellowships or grants. Showcase your invited talks at conferences or departments. If you are applying for a lectureship where you will be teaching and not doing research, don’t talk about your passion for research. Put your research accomplishments, but after your teaching experience and accomplishments.

2. Your CV should be well-organized.  It should be easy for people to find what they are looking for in your CV. You should use headers that distinguish different parts of your CV. The font should be clear and large enough to read. CVs can be longer, so just let it be long, if you have a lot going on with your work.

3. The cover letter and extras. In prior posts, I thought that cover letters weren’t as important, but I want to revise that. If you are applying for a position and there is no requested statements, the cover letter may be your only time to actually convey your desire and passion for the position to which you are applying. Also, almost all application systems allow you to upload extra documents. So, if an advertisement for a job does not ask for a research statement or a teaching statement, you should still provide one. If they don’t want to read it, they won’t. But, they might read it and want it. Now, if the hiring committee get a few of these and want them from all, they may come back to ask for it from all applicants. If you already have it in, you will have a leg up. If you get it in, they will likely look at it. Even if you don’t put in an extra document, you can always get your enthusiasm and excitement across in your cover letter, so use it.

On a similar note, I am also reading postdoc applications. Many of these same issues are important for cover letters, CVs, and extra documents are true for postdoc applications, too. Most importantly, putting your publications up front is essential! A postdoc position is (typically) a research only job, so you need to emphasize the research you did. Don’t hide your research accomplishments.

Anything that you have noticed that can be weird or awkward about job applications? These are my impressions from my limited view of this year’s applications, but perhaps others have advice from many other application seasons. Post or comment here. To receive an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

They’re Just Not That Into You

2475011402_bf70c92575_oOver the past year, I have had to have a similar conversation with two different MenOfScience. These MenOfScience are relatively young. Both of these men are in tenure-track jobs at decent places. Both of these men are in male dominated fields of science. Further, both of these men are not overtly sexist, but both men had the same very strange notion which I tried to disabuse them of.

See, it turned out that when these guys were up for tenure track jobs, in the same year there was a super-star candidate. This super-star candidate got many, many interviews and several offers. In fact, this super-star person got almost all the offers in the field. And guess, what? This superstar person just happened to be a woman.

So what conclusion did these guys draw? Just guess…

Did they conclude that this woman had worked her ass off? Did they conclude that this woman was clearly the smartest, best, cleverest scientist of the field on the market that year? Did they conclude that because the bar was so much higher for the women of their field that this woman was truly the most excellent? Did they conclude that not only was this woman so amazing as to surpass all other candidates that year (men and women), but probably also ended up as the only woman on the market in that field in the entire year?

No, of course, they concluded that, this woman (each was a different woman in each of their different fields in different years) only got all those offers because she was a woman. And, of course, they felt slighted. They felt that this woman did not deserve the accolades and offers that she received. If not her, than who? Should they have been given all those offers? Would they have been so resentful if there was a man receiving many interviews and offers? Surely that must happen often in these male-dominated fields. Yet, somehow I doubt that anyone would say, “He only got those offers because he was a man.”

During these conversations, I strove to set their attitudes correct. I made it clear that the outstanding woman must have been truly outstanding because the bar is much higher for women than men. I do not think they bought that. I let them know that there is still a lot of bias against women, notice how few their are in their own departments and in their own fields, so that if this woman was getting so many offers, she must have been truly amazing. I do not think they bought that. They were still very focused on the fact that a woman had somehow beaten them. Like it was a personal offense.

And here is the kicker – these dudes have jobs! Because at the end of the day – no matter how many offers that one outstanding woman got, she is still only one person who will only be able to take one offer. So, it doesn’t really matter how many offers she got, because it did not inhibit them from getting jobs. So, why are they so resentful? It must be that they really feel that they are as good as this woman. Maybe they are, maybe they are not, either way, they still got jobs! They are still around, doing science, getting tenure.

So, what is the best way to convince them? I do not think my method of trying to offer facts and statistics about women in science worked. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, they will never be convinced because the true answer was that this woman was probably better than them. And no one likes to hear that someone else is better than they are. They do not want to hear the truth: “they’re just not that into you.” Nobody wants to hear that.

It is especially important to get these young men who will we need as our advocates and cooperative partners in change to understand women’s issues and help to support us. Do you have any idea how to help these guys to see that just because a woman was successful does not detract from them and ultimately did not do them any harm? We need them on our side, and if they continue to hold a grudge about one amazing woman that got lots of offers 4 years ago, we could lose them to the dark side of sexism.

Any ideas, comments, or suggestions? Post of comment. Push the +Follow button to get an email whenever a new post goes up.

Industrial Story – Part 2

GoodSenseCorsetWaists1886page153And now the thrilling conclusion to the previous story…

A female Ph.D. friend in the company told me that if I wanted to escape from the anger (which was getting to be a regular experience) and the permanently low pay, I needed to switch managers.  She also explained that Dr. Jekyll had been removed from management roles in multiple companies because of his poor performance.  The fact that his only report (me) was trying to leave would be particularly upsetting to him.

It took me more than six months to act on my friend’s advice.  Leaving Dr. Jekyll’s team meant leaving research and development.  Opportunities for first-authoring a paper with exciting new results would pretty much disappear.  Returning to academia would be much harder.

On the other hand, the economy wasn’t in great shape at the time.  I didn’t know of any opportunities outside the company.  Plus, my field is quite small.  I wanted to “clear” my good name.

Note: I’ve since switched subfields.  I use the my science and knowledge from my “Dr. Jekyll” period but no longer interact with any of the people from this period in my career.  It would probably have been wiser to start fresh with a new team rather than sticking around to prove myself.

One day, Dr. Jekyll flat-out accused me of having a male colleague generate for me all of my results from the prior two weeks. I had worked long hours and weekends to get these results for an external deadline.

I finally relented to my friend’s recommendation that I go to Dr. Jekyll’s boss and request a transfer.   She also recommended I ask that Dr. Jekyll not be told of the transfer until right before.

Dr. Jekyll’s boss was understanding, but said that Dr. Jekyll should know about my request to leave his team.  “We’re all adults,” I thought, “Why not tell him I’ve asked for a transfer?”

I will never forget the next meeting with Dr. Jekyll. He said:

  1. I don’t think you belong at this company, but I can help you find another job elsewhere as your friend.
  2. You don’t belong in science and engineering as a career choice
  3. Have you just stuck with this engineering thing because your father is an engineer?

Unfortunately, this meeting was also my annual merit review.  I was told that because so many of our projects had been cancelled, I didn’t really “get anything done” that year.  What’s really crazy is that after this nasty meeting, he fought to keep me from transferring out of his team for months.  Yet he also continued to repeat to me that I didn’t belong in science and engineering as a career choice.  I was wise enough not to respond to most of his remarks.  I did, however, ask him point-blank to stop saying such unprofessional things to me.  He said no, that I needed to hear “the truth.”  I had to go above his head again and tell his peers and boss about his abusive words to get out of his team.

The worst part about all this was that I was so alone.  When I talked with other engineers about my work, Dr. Jekyll accused me of wasting their time “getting help.”  When I actually asked them for help, he said they were “doing my work for me.”  As a result of this and the lack of female peers, I had cultivated little in the way of a social network within my department.

Note: Gender is a stronger determinant of friendships in the corporate world than age, race, or ethnicity.  Having guy friends wasn’t as effortless as it was in grad school.  I’ve since taken initiative to develop friendships with my mostly older, married male colleagues, but I usually have to work harder at them.

It didn’t help that Dr. Jekyll was strikingly kind, witty, and personable in public.

I once stopped to chat with the head of HR moments after leaving a particularly unpleasant one-on-one with Dr. Jekyll.  “You work for the nicest man in the company!” she said to me as I blinked back tears.

I’ll never know how much my gender had to do with this experience.  Dr. Jekyll occasionally made sexist remarks.  He told me I was “no good with mechanical things” despite the fact that I had successes in projects involving complicated “mechanical things.”  One of the only times Dr. Jekyll praised me was with “women are such great communicators!”  He also tried to give me social event planning tasks I associated more with administrative assistant than engineering responsibilities.  But the sexism was never more overt than this.

Note: My next manager told me that my communication style was my greatest weakness, which seemed like a fair assessment.  To date, I’ve heard Dr. Jekyll utter more sexist remarks than all the other people I’ve met in corporate settings combined.

After my transfer, I suffered for a couple more years. My new team was very pleasantly surprised at how productive I was given what Dr. Jekyll had said about me.  However, because of the way the ranking and raise system worked, I continued to be paid and ranked less than what my new managers thought was fair.  I eventually had to get an external offer to get to salary parity.

Dr. Jekyll never got another direct report after I left his team.  Two years after I left, I finally got the top ranking in a department-wide performance review.  I started hearing Dr. Jekyll say to other managers around this time what a great engineer I’d always been.  I was stunned the first time I heard it – this was most certainly not what he had been saying about me when I reported to him.  It sounded to me like his mis-representing of my work may have become uncomfortably transparent to the rest of the department.

I later met another person who had worked for Dr. Jekyll before me.  I found out that this person, too, had been isolated from colleagues and then “sold up the river” by Dr. Jekyll to make himself look less bad.  Apparently Dr. Jekyll had told outright lies about this individual that could have lead to a termination.  I was relieved to  hear that I wasn’t alone, and it all really wasn’t my fault.

I’m now at a new company making over three times what I made as a new hire into industry.  I’m being paid well more than the average male Ph.D. with my level of experience.  I got the job mostly through studying material from grad school and rehearsing for months, and in small part through recommendations by college friends.

Conclusions:

    • Build your network:
      • I got my first industry job offer through a connection.
      • I thought I was trapped working for a bad boss because I didn’t know of other opportunities outside my company.
      • I got out of the bad boss situation through advice from a colleague.
      • I got a new job with a kick-ass salary mostly though hard work but partly through friends.
    • If you find out your boss is blaming you for big things that aren’t your fault, start looking for a new job ASAP.
    • If you encounter anger when asking for a raise, think about whether there isn’t some lower-hanging fruit elsewhere.
    • Don’t directly criticize your boss’ pet project, even if it’s doomed.
    • Be very cautious about publicizing plans to leave before the move is final.
    • Fantastic career advice on handling bad bosses and navigating the professional world in general can be found at manager-tools.com

Thanks so much for the story! I think I speak for everyone when I say, I am happy the ending was positive, because the last post was very sad and scary. So glad that this WomanOfScience got out of that horrible situation and was able to get the credit and pay she deserved! Post or comment! You can get an email every time there is a new post by pushing the +Follow button.

Industrial Story – Part 1

3514668147_061a386342_zThis story comes from a fellow WomanOfScience who is in Industry. This is a two-part story, and should be read as an anecdote to help those of you interested in going into industrial science, and what you should watch out for in that route. Some of these characters and situations are quite similar to the academic track, which is sad. I hope you enjoy the story and learn from it, as I have. Part 2 will come online shortly.

Part 1:

I graduated from one of the nation’s most exclusive tech universities with what was considered a very “hard” major and nearly straight A’s at age 19.  I got my Ph.D. at 24, again with near-perfect grades.  I thought my math and science abilities would always allow me to overcome the occasional unprofessional encounter.

Then I entered the corporate world.

I had wanted to be a professor.  I found out a week before my planned start date of my second post-doc that there were some serious problems with the position.  Fortunately, a grad school connection asked me to interview at the only company in the world with commercial success at what I had studied in grad school.  I decided to accept a job at this company.  I thought I’d be able to prioritize my work and benefits to eventually re-enter academia.  Many departments in my FieldOfEngineering value a couple years of industry experience.  Some even require it.  Things looked bright.  My new manager “Dr. Jekyll” was world-famous in my scientific niche.  The two of us would be the only ones in the department doing research.

At the time of the job offer, I knew I should try to negotiate something more.  My father, who has a background in Science and Engineering Management, warned me that it’s much easier to negotiate options or stock, followed by salary.  Conference attendance would be very hard to negotiate.  As the company was still a start-up, I was willing to accept the low pay.  Low salary with the expectation of a big reward from stock options is the norm at many startups.  It had been drilled into me that women often wind up with lower salaries and benefits because they don’t ask for as much.  Because I still hoped to return to academia someday, I naively asked for more conference attendance (3 conferences/yr , thinking that would keep in touch with academia).   Indeed, I was told that I could go to the conferences  already in the pipeline (those at which I already had papers/abstracts accepted), but after that no more than one conference per year.

Note: In reality the only way that I was able to manage even the one conference per year that I did was because I was a member of the technical committees at those conferences.  Most other industrial scientists/engineers didn’t go to conferences every year. The lesson: be skeptical of all promises that aren’t in writing.

 

So now I was yet another female engineer with low pay.  Six months later, when I checked on Glassdoor to see how my salary stacked up against my peers, I was shocked that I was being paid 30% less than my peers.  I had thought the low pay applied to everybody, not just me.

Earlier, I had read “Women Don’t Ask”, about women, salaries, and negotiation.  Based on this, I put together some slides on why I should be paid more. Now, to be clear, the book had emphasized that women sometimes get penalized for asking for raises.  In spite of this, I thought that the fact that I was being paid so much less than my peers meant that I couldn’t possibly be penalized much for asking.  Here I was, working nearly every weekend while the other engineers were not.  Meanwhile, it was just a coincidence that Dr. Jekyll’s projects kept getting canceled, right?  I was still doing good work and deserved commensurate compensation, didn’t I?

The first time I made my case for a raise, Dr. Jekyll seemed taken aback.  He said he didn’t think there was much he could do.  He said our company didn’t value the research-y work he and I were doing, and that both our jobs were at risk.  Indeed, the answer he claimed to have received from above was “no.”

At this point, I was spending about a third of my time on Dr. Jekyll’s pet project, “Frankenstein.”  It became clear to me that Frankenstein would never succeed.   In private I started to mention to Dr. Jekyll the reasons we should drop this project.  He kept saying things like “It has to succeed.”  Near the bitter end, he even yelled at me for my “negativity.”

Note: the project was eventually handed off to another team.  The new team quickly realized the project was hopeless and cancelled it.  The new team couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been killed years earlier, around the time I started vocalizing my concerns…

I asked for a raise about 6 months after my first request.  Dr. Jekyll got visibly angry and said no.  I didn’t understand how he could possibly be angry at me.  I was getting more done than most engineers in my department and being paid much less.  I assumed his anger wasn’t directed at me personally.  Big mistake.
I heard about an opportunity to join another team in need.  I thought, if my current team’s work isn’t being valued and I’m at risk of losing my job, why not join another team?  The hiring manager of the other team was optimistic about my potential contribution.  However, when I next met with Dr. Jekyll, his demeanor was that of an adult who had just caught a kid with her hand in the cookie jar.  “Didn’t you know I’d find out you’ve been looking at other teams?”, he said in fury, before I could say a word.  I didn’t understand what he was so angry about.  If we were at risk of losing our jobs, wouldn’t it be better for all of us if I left for a more stable team?  A few months later, another inquiry into another internal opening yielded a similar result.

So, what do you think? Comment or post! Follow the blog by pushing the +Follow button! Part 2 will be online soon.

Conference Thoughts

2475011402_bf70c92575_oAs I am sitting in a session at the world’s largest conference in MyFieldOfScience, I am thinking about conferences. I am thinking about how important they are for your career in a lot of ways. For those of you who recently joined the blog (thanks for following!), you may have missed some previous posts about networking. I had one about general networking and another on networking on campus, which are both super important for getting tenure, getting jobs and just good for your career. Conferences are key for networking, being seen, and building your mentoring and scientific connections vertically and horizontally. I have come to the realization that networking is basically “professional flirting.” You can chat about science, but most convos are about family, travel, weather, grants, clothes, students, jobs, or whatever. Academic life has other aspects that we can talk about too. I had a great conversation about teaching and how to teach 400+ effectively with a colleague from another university.

Another thing conferences are great for is energizing your science. When I was young, and I think this is the case for my students, I loved going to conferences because it gave me confidence that people were actually *interested* in my science. I was able to talk about my work, have some people listen, and get validation that what I was doing was of worth. Further, seeing the work of other people that was similar to my own made me feel like I had a community of scientists who were interested in the science. Conferences re-energized me and made me look forward to working on more science and getting my work published.

Now, my science gets energized, but in a different way. Now, I look around and say, “Oh crap, we are more behind than I thought! Everyone is doing the cool experiments I thought of but haven’t gotten off the ground yet!” This is both bad and good. First the bad. It is scary to compete with your science against other groups that are better funded, have more students, and might be ahead on the same ideas you have. Also, I am so so crappy at hiding my science. I cannot keep secrets about the cool stuff we are doing. In some fields, telling people what you are doing helps to mark your territory. In others, it can be giving them the keys to all your best ideas. I have to be careful, but I can’t help but be communicative, open, and excited about our newest stuff. It might hurt me sometimes, but in the long run, I would rather collaborate than compete.

Now the good. Much like when I was young, seeing all the great stuff my colleagues are doing that is similar to my own work can be energizing and maybe even light a fire under your ass to get going. Further, it helps you to focus. If you had an idea to do X experiment and you see it done (probably slightly differently) at a conference, you can refocus your idea to probe the still open questions. Another good thing about people working on similar stuff – it shows your work is hot, important, and in fashion. As in other realms (like fashion) styles change, but if you are hitting hot you have a better chance of getting high profile publications and getting noticed.

So, those were my thoughts about conferences. What do you think? Post or comment here!

Advice for International Students

chemistryTis the season for graduate admissions. Many of the applicants at UniversityofState (UState) where I am a faculty member are foreign. Some of these clearly have a lot of coaching and help, but others are clearly lacking. So, I have asked an International WomanOfScience for some advice on getting to US schools and ultimately an academic position from your CountryOfOrigin. Enjoy! (Remember, you can get email updates by pushing the +Follow button).

About me: I got my B.S. in Physics at a small-ish university in a warm foreign country. While an undergraduate, I participated in two summer research programs in the U.S., and I spent one year as an exchange student at a prestigious university in the midwest where I was also involved in undergraduate research. I attended graduate school in a very cold state, and I am now an Assistant Professor at a primarily undergraduate institution in the U.S.

As an international Science student, you should follow the same advice given to all students: keep up your grades and get involved in undergraduate research.

Two of the main challenges international students have in being admitted to graduate school in the U.S. are that the admissions committee may have a hard time judging the quality of the undergraduate institution you attended, and grades may be reported differently on transcripts. The best way to show the admissions committee that you can be a successful graduate student in the U.S. is to prove that you can be a successful undergraduate student in the U.S. Look for opportunities to come to the U.S. as an undergraduate for a summer or a semester. There are few summer research experiences open to non-U.S. citizens or residents, but they do exist. For example, there is the Internship for Physics Majors at Fermilab. Your home university may also have exchange programs, where you can spend a summer, a semester, or a year abroad. Even if you are part of a language program (like an ESL program) it may be possible to take a Science or Math class (it never hurts to ask!). If you do well in this class you will have demonstrated you are a capable student, and you could then ask the instructor for a letter of recommendation. A program like this has the added benefit of allowing you to figure out if you would enjoy living in the U.S. before you commit to coming here for 5 or more years.

PLAN AHEAD. It may take longer to gather all of the necessary materials for your application:

TranscriptsSome (most?) U.S. institutions will require an official translation of your transcript. At the university I attended, this took quite a long time (4 – 6 weeks).

The TOEFL, GRE and GRE subject tests: Depending on where you live, you may have to travel to a major city to take these tests, and they may not be offered very often. Thus, it is very important that you register early and plan your trip so that you can take the tests before the deadline for graduate school applications.

Paying for Application Processing:Some institutions in the U.S. charge an application fee and some do not. Most of the institutions that charge an application fee accept major credit cards. It is worth calling your bank and inquiring about the currency exchange rate and any extra fees for foreign transactions.

Other costs:In Science, most graduate schools will offer you a teaching assistantship, research assistantship, or fellowship, that will cover your tuition, health insurance, and provide a (small) salary. Make sure you understand exactly what each university is offering and how your salary compares to the cost of living. In addition to moving costs, you will probably have to put one or two month’s deposit down to rent an apartment, there might be university fees that are not covered as part of your “tuition,” and co-pays or a deductible on your health insurance. Also, some U.S. cities have very good public transportation, but others do not, which makes it difficult to live without a car.

VISA issues:These have been numerous in my case. It is probably best to contact the university’s International Student office and/or your local U.S. embassy. You should also try to understand as much about the system and the laws as possible – don’t trust that all of the advice you get is good, or even correct. Once you are in the U.S. make sure you take originals and copies of all relevant documents with you when you travel abroad.

The hidden curriculum:Your goal in graduate school should be not only to master a particular sub-field and conduct original research, but also to become a professional in your field. You need to think ahead to what you want to do after graduate school and look for opportunities that will help get you there. For example, if you want to go into industry, an internship could give you valuable experience and contacts. If you want to go into academia, your university might have a program that helps graduate students and post-docs explore and prepare for possible career paths (research institution vs. liberal arts vs. community college). You should try to regularly attend conferences, both locally (like your state’s Association of Science Teachers) and nationally. In any case, you will need letters of recommendation from several faculty members, so be well-prepared when it is your turn to present a seminar, be on-time for meetings and classes, and when you say you are going to do something, DO IT! In other words, treat graduate school like you would a job and behave professionally.

Culture Shock: There will certainly be differences between your own culture and american culture that you will need to be aware of, but there is also a culture to your particular field. What I found most helpful in graduate school in this regard was mentoring from other graduate students that were a few years ahead of me. If there is a graduate student group at your institution, make time to go to events and meetings, talk to the other students there about their experiences, and ask for advice.

What did I miss? Feel free to post questions in the comments.

I hope you found that post helpful! I am sure this WomenOfScience would be happy to answer questions in posts, so feel free to ask here. Thanks again for that insightful post.

Writing Letters of Recommendation

Power of WordsSorry for the delay in posting, but grading, the holiday, and trying to get a paper submitted caught up with me. I just had an email asking for mentoring on how to write letters of recommendation for graduate admissions and REUs and even a few for faculty jobs. After answering that email, I had a lot of fodder for a post, so here it is. Think of this as a possible outline for how to write a letter of recommendation. Hopefully it will help make sure we are including everything we should to give a complete picture of the student for the recommender. I am sure I am missing something from here, so please add any other suggestions for important parts or items by comment or post!

1. Use letterhead. Is this obvious? Maybe, but it is probably still worth mentioning. Best to make up a letterhead in Word or LaTex with the school seal and your information instead of trying to print onto letterhead. Also, it is good to have a scan of your signature to add to the bottom.

2. Introduction. Like other forms of writing letted of recommendation need an introduction. An obvious way to write is to introduce yourself and say you are excited to write this letter of recommendation for Student X. Then, you can say in what capacity you know student X: as the research advisor, as the student’s instructor in a course? as some other type of mentor or advisor? You should probably also say how long you have known the student in this capacity. Some of my research students were also students in the courses I have taught, so I  have to describe both.

If the student is from a class you taught, describe the class. Was it required for the major? Was it an advanced elective? Was it a lab course that would showcase research skills? What was the level of difficulty of the course?

If the student was a research student in your group, describe the research of your lab in general.

3. The student’s performance. In the second paragraph, I describe the performance of the student in the capacity that I know them. For a course, I list the student’s ranking in the course (i.e. “this student was in the top 3 of the 53 students in the course, earning 93% of the total points for the course”). For many of my students, I have interacted with them personally in class, in homework sessions (office hours), and outside of class activities. I describe the student’s  hard work, dedication, and scientific ability and intelligence, as I saw it from these interactions. I use specific examples to make my points and as evidence for my opinions. For instance, I might say, “Student Y had exceptional ability in the course, which I noticed during in class small group work and during homework sessions. In particular, Student Y was the first one to complete assignments and was often able to describe the solution clearly to her classmates to enable them to learn the material, as well.”

For a research student, I describe the student’s specific research project in the group in my words. The student should have also described their research in their own words, and these two descriptions should match up, more or less. The student’s description is often less precise than mine, but it is important that the person reading the recommendation has an idea of what the student was meant to accomplish. As for a student from a course, I describe the student’s work ethic, dedication, and scientific ability to do research using specific examples to back up my personal claims about the student. This is easy for a successful student who has a publication or has attended a national meeting and presented there, as there is direct evidence of success in research that is verifiable. For students who are not quite at that level, I use examples from the lab where I interacted with the student to demonstrate the student’s abilities. Why use examples? Our only way to assess future performance is based on past performance, at this point.

Interestingly, recent studies have shown that personality tests or “employment tests” can accurately assess a person’s ability to do a certain job (see recent story from NPR). As far as I know, these tests have not been tested for success in graduate school in science, but it would be an interesting thing to look at – maybe some Discipline Based Education Researcher should test this out? The benefit of these tests is that they remove inherent biases of “knowing someone who knows someone” and biases against certain genders and races. Kind of like when they started doing blind auditions for orchestras and realized that women and minorities can play just as well as white dudes. Also, these don’t have the same issues as Subject GREs, which are terrible for women, minorities, and people from SmallLiberalArtsColleges. Just FYI.

4. Personality and Social Skills. For each student, I try to describe the personality traits of the student that demonstrate an ability of the student for the position being applied for. I also point out the other non-scientific skills the student possess that will make him/her successful at the next level. Some important personality traits include: work ethic, perseverance and determination, follow-through (completing tasks), anxiety, niceness, etc. Some examples of important social skills include: ability to work in groups, ability to learn from mistakes, ability to take direction, ability to express oneself  in oral presentation, ability to write scientifically, ability to represent data graphically, ability to lead and mentor others. I know that some people shy away from discussing personality, or only discuss it for females and not males, but I include it for all because it is an important consideration when hiring or bringing in someone. If their personality is not a good fit, the person may ultimately  fail even if they are the smartest person in the application pool. Fit is important and social skills are important – not just if the person is a genius.

5. Personalization for each school. Some people think this is ultra important. But, if you are like me, and you have 4-5 students applying to 20 graduate schools each, that is way, way too much work. I might personalize a few if I particularly know people at the school, but for the most part, I just make it general. For faculty positions I always personalize every letter, and it takes forever, but you have to do it.

I am sure there is something I usually add, but haven’t included here. So what did I forget? Post or comment to fill in the gaps.

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