Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘letters of recommendation’

Applying for a Postdoc – Take 2

Work for foodI am teaching at a short course and I spent dinner mentoring some senior graduate students in the course about how best to apply for postdocs. I wrote about this a while ago, but I like this advice better, so read this one!!

The students I was talking to are at just the right time to really plan for the next step – about a year out from getting their PhD. While I was talking, I realized this would make a pretty good blog post full of advice. Of course, this is just one WomanOfScience’s idea of what works. It is certainly from my position as a hirer of postdocs. These are the things I do and do not want to see when you approach me for a position. If anyone else has things they want to add or other strategies that work, please post of comment.

  1. How do you find a postdoc? Unlike applying for grad school, there is no one place to particularly apply. There is no clear application process. Being a postdoc is like being a gun for hire. You just have to go where the job is. But, how does one find that job? You have to approach people individually. When reading papers or at conferences, find stuff you like and see who the PI is. Be systematic about it. Make a list and see what is in common about those then maybe look for more working on those problems or with those techniques that interest you. Think to yourself: “How does this position fit into my life goals? Will this position help me to achieve my goals?” You should be able to answer that question should the PI ask when interviewed. You should also be able to answer the question, “What do you want to do for your career? (Or as I say, “What do you want to do when you grow up?) Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” If you cannot answer these questions, then perhaps a postdoc is not right for you. If you can, double check that you need a postdoc to achieve your goals.
  2. Now that you have a list of people to approach, you need to reach out to those people. The best way to do this is via an email. What should be in your email?
    • First, make sure you address the person personally. Do not write “Dear Sir.” This is for two reasons: 1. The person you are writing to might be a woman, and she will be mad if you say “dear sir” (don’t believe me, see this post). 2. “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” is impersonal. It sounds like you are writing a form letter and have no idea who you are writing to. If you are applying to a postdoc, you should not spam (send a million emails to a million people)  nor should you sound like you are spamming. I will not read your email if it sounds impersonal.  You should always write, “Dear Dr. SoAndSo,” or “Dear Prof. WomanOfScience.” This is formal because you are using my title, but it is also personal, because you used my name.
    • Next, write something that identifies you, “My name is Wendy Scientist, and I am a 5th year graduate student at BigStateU working in the lab of Dr. BigName.” Now add a sentence or two about how you know of the PI you are writing to, “I saw your work at the ScienceOfImportantStuff Conference last March and was very excited about it.” Or, even better, “We talked at the ScienceOfImportantStuff Conference about my work on ReallyCoolScience.” The second is better because you actually talked to the person. Will the PI you are applying to remember you? Who knows, but if he/she should, he/she will try to remember and continue reading to hear what you have to say. Of course, only say you talked to the person if you actually talked to them. Don’t lie. Scientists are not supposed to be liars.
    • Now write something about your work and their work and how you are excited about the opportunity to do a postdoc with them. This should be brief – not more than 1-2 sentences. They get the point that you are asking about postdoc opportunities.
    • Thank them for their time and sign off. Don’t write a long email because professors get 100s – 1000s of emails every day. You don’t want to waste their time. If they are not interested, they will let you know. If they are, make sure you include some information for them to read more about you.
    • Give them your information. What should you give them?
      • Your full CV. See this post for a lot of information about CVs. In a postdoc application, you need your contact information, your education, research, and work experience, any awards or honors you have won, and your publications in that order. After that, you can add anything else you want. A full CV can be long – it is full. Do not put a picture of yourself on your CV.
      • A one-page summary of your work. The PI you are applying to is not going to read your papers. Besides, they are listed on your CV, so he/she can look them up. Better to give a one-page summary of your thesis work and any technical skills you have. Yes, you can include a picture.
      • A list of references. These are people who can write you a recommendation. You should have at least three references. You can list them at the end of your CV or in a separate document. My university requires three letters for hiring. I will not only ask for the letters, I will also call at least a couple of them to ask about your abilities, skill set, and mentality in the lab.
  3. What to do if you do not hear back? If you don’t hear back in a week and you didn’t get an away message that they were out of the country for a month, send a short email to ping them. This should be very brief and remind them that you applied. Sometimes people won’t write back ever. That’s OK. They are busy or jerks, to whatever. You don’t want to work for someone who doesn’t have time for you, and we are all guilty of this at some point.
  4. What to do it they reject you? Accept it and move on. Sometimes people do not have money. Sometimes they need different skills? Sometimes it just isn’t a good fit. The relationship is about both of you, and it has to work for you both. If the PI senses something isn’t going to work, it isn’t going to work, and you should not push it. Try, try, try again. Just remember that this job is full of ups and downs (see this post) and that criticism is part of the game (see this post), but you have to push forward and keep applying.

So, what do you think? I think this advice is more concrete than the last set about applying for postdocs. I hope you find it helpful. Please feel free to add comments or other suggestions – especially those professors who have been doing this a long time. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

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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