Reference Letters: Thoughts on how to interpret and to write them

Letters of reference are a must for appointments, fellowship applications, and for promotions. I’ve now read hundreds and written hundreds. Nearly all of them have been kind. I’ve read a couple of mean letters but usually I, and the committee, have concluded that the meanness says more about the author than the subject of the reference. Given that nearly all letters are supportive the qualitative value of the letters is low but their importance in vouching for someone and providing independent evidence of their achievements remains high.

It is often said that people from different cultural backgrounds tend to adopt different styles when writing letters of reference. Typically it is said that North American referees describe everyone as ‘talented’ and ‘insightful’ at the very least and often pile superlatives so high that it is impossible for the subject of the letter to ever live up to the claims. The English on the other hand have a reputation for understatement – ‘he used to play a bit of cricket in his day and was quite handy with the bat on occasion’ might well be said of England’s Test Captain and leading run scorer.

On top of this some English referees will use subtle, almost undetectable humour, rather than ever damning someone outright. Thus one of my cleverest friends would say ‘when in the lab he worked independently’, which in America would be praise, but actually translates to ‘he seldom came to the lab and when he did he didn’t do the experiments that we’d agreed upon’.

Another good one from the same author went something like ‘If you want your lab to remain cohesive and productive then no one would be preferable for this position’. This translates to ‘the person is so disruptive you would be much better off appointing nobody to the role’.

I’ve been trying to find the reference to one attributed to a leading biologist who has now passed on. He was presented with a request from a new institution for a reference that said ‘we aspire to be a world leading university with top researchers pushing the frontiers and are seeking exceptional talent to head up our new molecular biology department, could you please comment on Dr Smith’s suitability’. To which the luminary, who felt the institution, despite its aspirations, was middling, wrote back that ‘Dr Smith was a solid, dependable person, who was competent but little more, though he had high ambitions, and therefore would be a perfect match for the new institution’.

Australian letters are a little different again. We tend to be very supportive of our people and I don’t think I have ever read a negative letter. The thing about Australian science though is that it’s a pretty small world. Thus the chances are that you will know the person you are writing to and you will probably see them soon at one of the major national meetings. You’ll have this in mind and will tend to say in your letters what you would say face to face, that is the facts with only the slightest positive spin.

Of course it’s a bit different when one is writing for students who are going overseas. Then one can be more effusive. I once wrote a letter for someone applying for one of the scholarships available at Trinity College, Cambridge. The request for a reference was a bit intimidating and mentioned, with some understatement, that the scholarships were prestigious and had previously been held by people such as Dr A and Dr B, and by Sir Isaac Newton. The last question on the form asked me to confirm whether the applicant spoke English. I wrote that I had no idea since while he was in my lab he had only spoken Australian, which I believed was his only dialect. Fortunately, despite my recklessness he did get one of the scholarships.

As you can see from the above, reference letters are very difficult to interpret and thus these days one looks more and more beyond the letters to the dreaded ‘metrics’ – what and where people have published, and of course one considers other things, lists of achievements in mentoring, leadership, outreach, and general fit and team work etc.

When writing letters it is useful to highlight and detail important achievements – to verify them and their significance – and it is also good to provide some numbers if possible. It is worth saying for instance that this person: established a new methodology, taught five other people in the lab, presented the work at a conference, published it and wrote a review of the field, and that they were in the top 5 out of 20 students supervised in the last 15 years.

Providing details in reference letters can be very useful to the committees who are generally overwhelmed and swimming in piles of papers. In general, details and putting achievements in perspective are more effective than bombing committees with superlatives. But do remember to put something personal in your references too – a wry observation or piece of ambiguity or something that demonstrates balance. This is a risk but it may help your reference and the person you are supporting to stand out.

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