Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Recommendation writing

Well, after a rather unproductive weekend, I've written several letters of recommendation for former students and not done much else (read a little and did yet another revision of JL). I was thinking about rec letter writing and remembering the discussions on various blogs of late (Dr. Virago had a very lively discussion, as well as In The Middle) about professionalization. Not to beat the proverbial dead horse, but I was thinking about all the skills needed to professionalize (how to write a publishable essay sooner rather than later, etc.) and one of them that I think wasn't mentioned was recommendation writing. Perhaps this isn't in the same skill set as publishing, presenting at conferences, service, etc. (in that it doesn't go directly on your CV), but I did come across this a lot when I was a grad student and now it's coming along even more.

As a grad student, I was asked several times by students who had taken a couple of my special topics seminars to write letters for grad school. They were thinking of me as their professor (one they'd known in some cases in 2 or 3 classes) not as a graduate TA. And I was their prof in that capacity (in the sense that it was a course of my own making and for which I had total responsibility). But, I had to tell them that, to the outside world, I was still a graduate student and that they had to get "official" professors to write their main recs - in several cases, I wrote a fourth letter for them. I'm not sure that it did much good (it's ironic that in grad school, your name is the one thing that seems to have no weight whatsoever!) - but I wasn't one of their core trinity, so I did no harm either. Most of them went on to great grad schools, etc. and I was proud of them.

During grad school, I also wrote (and still am writing) a gaggle of study abroad recs - these I never hesitated to write because I could discuss how they seemed to deal with new situations, group dynamics and say a little about their scholarship - as long as I didn't think they'd bug out once they got over there, the study abroad programs were pretty happy.

But, as I move on in my career, I'm writing recs for students for competitive grants to do postgraduate work abroad and I want to make sure I'm writing the best recommendation I can. I still haven't written an official "one of the magical three" grad school recs yet and I must admit that I don't know how to do it. I can surmise what the basic components are, but I've never seen a template (if one exists, it would be someone's personal template, I'm sure) or actually read one of my own. How do new faculty members learn to write good recommendations for grad school and the job market? I know they'll get better with time, but I don't want to practice too much when someone's dossier is on the line. Do more senior professors ever share sanitized versions of recommendations with new profs, or is it just sink or swim?

On an entirely unrelated note: the bean recipe is forthcoming!



At 12:53 PM, Blogger Hilaire said...

This is a great post - I have ben thinking about exactly this same question. I don't know how to write a grad school letter recommendation, having only written them for teacher's college and professinoal programs. I'm really interested in people's comments!

At 1:33 PM, Blogger Bardiac said...

At the risk of blowing my own horn, this post may be helpful: http://bardiac.blogspot.com/2006/01/writing-letters-of-recommendation.html

Another idea is to ask a search committee to let you read some random letters of recommendation, or to ask some faculty mentors.

Good luck!

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Pilgrim/Heretic said...

This is a great, great question, because for sure nobody ever taught me how to do a recommendation, and yet we're expected to do them, and in theory they have a pretty significant impact on the school and career paths of others. I don't have any solutions besides Bardiac's, which is a great recommendation. If you see enough letters, you get a pretty good feel for what works. Specifics are always good, if you can talk about a particular project a student has done and what it says about their initiative and preparation. I also often ask students to tell me something they value about themselves that doesn't necessarily come through in the application material and GRE scores and such; letters are a good place to round a person out that way.

At 11:56 PM, Blogger medieval woman said...

Thanks so much for the template, Bardiac! That helps a ton - I was organizing my comments in a similar way, but it's nice to hear that other people are doing roughly the same thing.


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