Thursday, April 16, 2009

Learning to Write Recommendation Letters

My advisor tries to remain very supportive of her undergraduate students, even when she barely knows them. They may only see her in lab meetings, and she may not recognize them if she passes them in the hall, but she has grad students and the lab coordinator to be her eyes and ears. Every year she looks for a rising senior to nominate for a prestigious (if small) departmental research award. This year, there were two rising seniors in our lab, both planning to do a senior thesis, and she picked the one who is working with me.

He is an exceptional student, and not just "exceptional" in the sense that he is one of two males in a female-dominated lab. I waxed enthusiastic about his funding proposal draft, when I saw thesis-quality writing without any assistance from me. I am completely behind arguing that he should receive any kudos we can get from him. I just wish my advisor were doing more of the work than picking who she would nominate.

All that is required of the advisor is a letter of recommendation; the rest of the burden of application is on the student's shoulders. But my advisor has only met with this student once, so she asked me to draft the letter. I was happy to do this, since I was in the best position to do so. It was a challenge, and a useful experience. The frustration started when I received her comments. Not changes she had made to the letter to improve it, but the things I should do to improve it.

As I told our lab coordinator, who has been helping me with the writing, I can't tell if the point is to write a great recommendation for the student or to train me in the writing of recommendations. If it were to get him the award, it would make a lot more sense if she put some of her expertise in writing such letters to use, instead of having me fumbling around in my first-ever attempt to "sell" a student's accomplishments.

Yes, this will be incredibly helpful in my chosen career, when I will be asked to write any number of similar recommendations. It's great training, if something difficult to include in my vita ("ghost-wrote recommendation letters"). But still, it's incredibly frustrating to realize that she will sign her name to a letter when her contribution was "talk more about this" and "move these sentences here".

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