Some tips for reading letters of reference.
The X factor in personnel evaluation
Today more than ever, letters of evaluation constitute the X factor in personnel evaluation. Fifty years ago, the biochemistry and molecular biology community was still that – a community. You could routinely leaf through the three to four hundred pages of your monthly copy of the Journal of Biological Chemistry from cover to cover and rely on seeing your colleagues every year at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s annual meeting in Atlantic City. At a time when everyone knew or knew of everyone in the profession, new faculty members and postdocs often were hired on the basis of personal contacts rather than bulky committees navigating page upon page of official procedures and policies.
Today, by contrast, there are many institutions, both academic and industrial, where biochemistry and molecular biology PIs, staff and trainees who work in the same building would be unable to recognize many of their neighbors by name or even appearance. Consequently, the letter of evaluation frequently offers the first, and potentially only, opportunity to humanize the evaluation process, to delve into the realms of motivation, character, creativity, perseverance, responsibility, independence, initiative, leadership, respect for others, and integrity. In a world where potential mentors and employers place increasing emphasis on complementary skills such as teamwork and ethics, letters of evaluation offer insights beyond the metrics of the vitae and into personality and character.
The humanizing effect of these letters also can benefit the applicant. The flexibility of the letter format enables the author to bring up qualities and experiences not apparent from one-dimensional metrics such as grades, test scores, papers published, impact factors, and so on. Letters of evaluation offer the author an opportunity to bring to life the candidate who does not test well but has great hands and good instincts, whose personality and behavior help create a positive atmosphere in the laboratory, who relishes a challenge, or who has a knack for explaining difficult concepts in terms students can understand.
Since the people who author these letters of evaluation also serve on search and admission committees, you would expect them to exhibit a good feel for what the reader is looking for as they write. Yet despite the potential benefits to both the candidate and the potential employer or mentor, all too often letters of evaluation can be surprisingly generic in form and uninformative in content. There is information to be gleaned, however, even from a poorly written letter, particularly when multiple letters are available to compare and contrast.
One letter, three agendas
Today’s litigious atmosphere has contributed significantly to the monotonous homogeneity so frequently encountered in contemporary letters of evaluation. Other factors include the increasing sterility of teacher-student interactions that has accompanied the steady growth in class size and the intrusiveness of social media on campus. But in the final analysis, the letter of recommendation has been plagued by an inherent ambiguity since its inception: Whose letter is it? Whose interests take priority?
Certainly the members of the search, admissions or awards committees who request the letters, and to whom the letters are in fact addressed, would appear to have a strong claim as the party whose interests should be paramount. The recipient expects to receive a letter that offers a comprehensive, balanced description of the applicant’s professional accomplishments and ability capped off by an objective overall ranking consistent with the text. The reader would expect to find comments regarding the applicant’s professional potential, command of relevant knowledge and techniques, independence and initiative, communications skills, ability to work with others, and so forth. No one is perfect: In addition to highlighting the applicant’s strongest attributes and most significant accomplishments, a reader-directed letter will contain a few thoughtful and constructive comments on areas where the applicant may lack experience and training or need further work.