Columns Opinion

How/​When/​Whom to ask for a recommendation letter?

Shubha Tole

In this blog I’d like to share some advice I’ve had to give people in the past that might be useful for postdocs when asking for a letter of reference when applying for faculty positions. 

1) Whom to ask (besides your thesis advisor and postdoc mentor):
What does a faculty position letter of reference entail? It requires that the referee make a detailed appraisal of your work, your contributions, your independence, your ability to design novel strategies, your vision for the future, your abilities of training/​teaching younger colleagues, and so on. So its not a good idea to ask someone with whom you might have barely had a conversation during the duration of your postdoc, merely because they are senior” faculty in the department where you worked. If referee does not know you well enough professionally to write a letter, then that letter is not going to do your case any good… Anyone who writes you a real” letter puts their own reputation on the line. So you will be assessed in comparison with other postdocs both your mentors have trained; other postdocs they have seen; other faculty applicants they have interviewed. If they don’t, their letter will sound as if they don’t really know you well enough to write a letter, but you asked them anyways- so that will reveal that you didn’t know whom to ask or that you didn’t have anyone else to ask. Neither is good…. If you haven’t already started to create a network of colleagues (faculty and postdoc) who will write letters for you in the future, please start to do so NOW. Don’t spend all your time at your bench- have wide-ranging scientific discussions with people outside your lab, at journal clubs, ask questions in seminars. That is how someone will form a picture” of you that is good enough for a faculty position letter.

2) Timing: when are you ready” for a faculty position? First, you need to be truly ready to start out on your own in terms of your training. But equally important, your CV needs to reflect that too. A CV that shows no first author papers from your current lab would seem premature- as if you are trying to leave something that is not working out perhaps. Do you think your referees will be able to write you the strongest possible letter NOW? If not, then you should discuss with your mentors as to when is a good time. Once they write you a less-than-strong letter, it is hard to change their impression of you even after a couple of publications. That is because you display immaturity in asking for a letter too early, and that impression is hard to erase. Also, you risk a lot if you apply too soon to your institution of choice and get rejected. They may never give you a second chance. Even if they do, they will recall that you had applied before and got rejected”. That impression is impossible to erase. ONE real chance is all you get- use it wisely.

Finally, what does applying early with a less than adequate CV communicate? Usually, either immaturity or arrogance. You may be a wonderfully nice person, yet that doesn’t matter at all- what matters is what you communicate with your application- which is either immaturity or arrogance. Is that what you want to communicate to institutions that don’t know you?

3) How to ask: provide your referee with all the information they might need. A full” CV with some information about your engagement with academic activites not directly related to your research would be useful. Have you mentored undergraduates? Where have they gone on to after their work with you? Did their work under your guidance contribute to publications? Have you started journal clubs, discussion groups, invited speakers, or shown other forms of leadership? Have you done any outreach of any kind- to lay public audiences, schools, underprivileged groups? All of this provides information for a more complete picture of your scientific persona. (these are also some of the elements of a good tenure package- which will be the subject of a whole new blog – perhaps someone will write one with the Indian context in mind?).

In closing: though this advice is meant for people at the postdoc-to-PI transition, it appears to me that recommendation letters are something of a mysterious affair to the Indian community. Students seem to have no idea that their advisors’ letters will shape their careers long, long after they get their PhDs; some referees seem to think that a letter necessarily contains a balance” of strengths as well as weaknesses and to achieve this, will detail things that should really not appear in a letter. Many faculty seem to be inexperienced in the art of letter writing- how does one help one’s students/​postdocs find positions they deserve while still giving an honest assessment of their abilities?

Written By

Shubha Tole is a neuroscientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. Her seminal contributions to understanding how the brain develops in the early embryo have been recognised by prestigious awards such as the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award and the Infosys Prize. Prof. Tole leverages her experience as a mentor, policy-maker and senior scientist to actively engage in science outreach that inspires younger scientists and is a vocal advocate for women in science and of mental health awareness in academia.