The recommendation letter conundrum

Should the trainee write their own first draft?

Published April 01 2019

Imagine this: You are well on your way to graduating or nearing the end of your postdoctoral stint, and it’s time for the pivotal transition toward that coveted postdoc or industry position. You’ve done the groundwork by successfully clearing the first two interview rounds. The key factor is now the letter of recommendation. You approach your mentor, who tells you to start by drafting the letter yourself.

What’s your reaction? Are you surprised at the request, or do you readily comply? What are the ethical guidelines surrounding this? Are mentors shirking their responsibilities by having students write their own letters?

A letter of recommendation is an important piece of the application puzzle, and the opinions reflected in this letter can sway the outcome. A well-written letter succinctly highlights and analyzes the candidate’s strengths in an unbiased manner. And a letter with a personal touch provides an added advantage.

Having a student or postdoc write the first draft may provide a platform the mentor can build upon. It gives them the pertinent facts to create the final version. At times, drafting this letter helps candidates rethink their strengths and weaknesses from the employer’s perspective and impels them to evaluate their career path. A mentor’s feedback on a draft letter can help a candidate gain valuable insights into how they should represent themselves to the employer.

Richard Eckert, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, believes that writing a draft letter can be educational. “I prefer to have students and postdocs draft their recommendation letters to help them understand how to encapsulate their achievements,” Eckert said. “I then rewrite them to a final form and share the copy with candidates as an additional part of the learning experience.”

When a mentor has limited contact with a student who was a summer intern or short-term research trainee, a draft letter listing achievements or experiences can provide a more targeted approach than basing the recommendation on a CV.

That’s the view of Rajini Rao, a professor of physiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “When I ask for a draft from trainees I do not directly mentor, it is solely informational,” she said. “I’m looking for data that I can polish, elevate with language and context, and provide my perspective. The labor is not lessened, but the content is enhanced.”

In other instances, the quantity of requests is an issue. Application season for graduate and professional schools brings a surge of recommendation letter requests, and it might not be feasible for the mentor to remember and highlight exact nuances for each trainee’s letter without assistance. A draft from the student makes the process more efficient and helps a professor draft a personalized letter.

Mayuri Rege, faculty at Ramnarain Ruia Autonomous College in India, sees the benefits in this approach but also limitations. “One of the reasons that professors, especially in universities, will ask students to write their own LORs is because they are simply overwhelmed with writing them for almost 20-30 students in one application season,” she said. “However, these impersonal letters written by inexperienced writers make for little impact and show how little the professor cares for the student. A good alternative is to ask the student to provide a list of career highlights and circumstances that were special moments shared with that professor.”

A candidate might be applying for a position outside academia that requires strengths and skills unlike those needed at a university. In such cases, it is useful for the student to provide a template highlighting the job-specific qualities.

Priyanka Subrahmanyam, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford, recognizes this. “The tendency to let students write their own letters stems from the PI wanting to make sure the right qualities are highlighted, especially for jobs outside academia,” she said. “For grant applications or academic jobs, they will almost certainly write the letters themselves, with minimal involvement from the student.” In either case, Priyanka believes it is fair to assume that the mentor has thoroughly reviewed the letter and will stand by its contents. So having a student or postdoc draft a letter may stimulate ideas for the mentor, who can then reword, edit and review the final version before signing off on it.

One professor who asked to remain anonymous believes, however, that mentors are passing off a fundamental responsibility by having students or trainees draft their own letters. “I would personally never ask my trainees to do the job for me and write a grant application in my name,” the professor said. “Although this could be construed as part of the training, it is, in my opinion, way outside of the job description for any research trainees.”

Senthil Arumugam, group leader at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, believes that trainees may not have the bigger picture in mind and are ill-equipped to elaborate honestly on their strengths and weaknesses. “I write every single LOR for my students,” he said. “I deliberately keep it factual and honest so that the reader gets a true picture of the student’s time in my lab. I believe as group leaders, we owe it to the students and future employers who value our words, to put these facts and opinions in our own words rather than entrust it with the students. In cases where the student’s growth has been positive, I believe it matters that the group leaders take the time to do justice to their hard work.”

From a trainee’s perspective, choosing the right person to write a reference is of utmost importance for their career path. Sreemoyee Acharya, a graduate student in the University of Iowa, believes a professor or mentor who has worked closely with them and is familiar with their work ethic is a natural choice. “The recommendation letters should be written by the professor and not by the student/postdoc,” she said. “If the professor asks the applicant to write his or her own LOR, I would believe that either the professor isn’t very keen on spending time on the applicant or he/she could care less.”

The recommendation letter conundrum has multiple solutions. Arguments exist both for and against having students and trainees author a draft of their own letters. A recommendation letter needs to have just the right blend of thoughts and perceptions to propel a trainee to the next rung of the career ladder. Getting some insight from the mentee may aid the process of writing a letter that is factually accurate and has a personal touch. On the other hand, writing a well-crafted letter is an art, and if a mentor readily writes one unassisted, the mentee can’t ask for more.

Kamalika Saha Kamalika Saha is a medical writer at Sanofi.