Tips for Asking for and Writing Professional Letters of Recommendation
From the New Professional Subcommittee and the Professional Mentorship Working Group
This article can serve as advice to both those who need to request letters of recommendation and also to those who need to write letters of recommendation. These are professional letters of recommendation (school, residency, postdoc, job), which are different than the character references often requested by a potential landlord.
Why does a potential employer want a professional letter of recommendation?
- Your credentials look great, but what are you like in person? A reference letter can fill in the more human side of your application.
- Your qualifications on paper are thin, but maybe you have something unconventional to offer? A reference letter can show how the candidate has exceptional drive/ambition/skill.
- You are just starting out in the field, should the employer take a chance on you? A reference letter from someone who is trusted by the employer may vouch for the candidate as having a lot of potential.
- Your supervisor might explain why you have a great research career but are now interested in a clinical career.
Who should I ask to write a professional letter of recommendation for me?
- Your direct supervisor.
- Your professor/teacher.
- It's okay to ask someone you trust who they think you should ask for letters of recommendation.
- A professional who is senior to you and familiar with your work in medical physics (or science, technology, or math).
- Someone you have worked closely with and knows your work ethic, reliability, and competence, like a co-investigator.
- If applying to graduate school, current teachers/employers; it is okay to use any current and past employer since you will have relatively little experience within the medical physics field.
- When applying to residency, you will likely want to have more references from within the medical physics community (i.e. if you are still using many of your old references from undergraduate, this may be noticed as a negative). Supervisors and mentors from graduate school are fine.
- When asking for letters outside of medical physics, explain The Match, deadlines, and what can usefully be put in the letter.
- When applying to first job out of residency, it will help to have recommendation letters from individuals working in the field, preferably medical physicists you worked with during residency.
- It may be ok to use one or two older employers if you worked very closely with them or they know and will remember you very well.
- If you're applying for a job and you want to maintain confidentiality, you may ask for letters of recommendation from peers who know about your work, who you trust to keep your secret.
Who should I NOT ask to write a professional letter of recommendation for me?
- If the purpose of the letter is to establish professional qualifications, references outside the field will not be able to contribute to that purpose, for example;
- Your friend.
- Your family.
- If the purpose of the letter is to show how you will contribute to the future employer or program, references who are unfamiliar with your work or skills will not be able to contribute to that purpose, for example:
- A professor who doesn't know you.
- Someone you worked with a long time ago.
- Someone who barely knows you .
- Current supervisor, fellow student, or co-resident, if you need to maintain confidentiality — unless you feel you can trust them.
People who do not know you well will likely write a generic letter which will stand out as a red flag to future employers. Be cautious of directors of programs who may know your name but have little specific information about graduate students, since they often only meet them outside of the classroom. It may be difficult for them to write a strong letter affirming your experience.
When should I ask someone to write a professional letter of recommendation for me?
- As soon as you have an address/website for them to upload it to — or even sooner. They could start writing before you know where the letter will be sent.
- Be sure to tell them the deadline; if there are several deadlines, let them know in writing which jobs have which deadlines.
- It's okay to check the writing progress with them, but don't ask too often. Some people are very busy and others might be forgetful — if you know this person well, you can gauge when/if they'll need a reminder.
- If you're asking just a couple weeks before the deadline, then ask them if they can write a letter in time.
How should I ask someone to write a professional letter of recommendation for me?
- Do not ask over text message/instant messaging, even if you know the person very well. This looks unprofessional.
- Asking in person or on the phone might allow you insight into how confident the letter writer feels about being able to write a letter for you.
- Asking, "Could you write an effective recommendation letter for me for [graduate school/residency/job]?" encourages the person you're asking to think about how familiar they are with your work and whether that's relevant to the type of letter you need. It's important to make sure that the writer will write a positive letter on your behalf; confirm beforehand!
- Offer a copy of your resume or CV to the person you're asking to write a letter of recommendation for you.
- Offer a copy of the ad to the person you're asking to write a letter of recommendation for you, so they know specifically what's required for the job.
- Prepare a list of points you want the individual to cover (that may help customize the application) to aid in the process of writing the letter.
- It's okay to discuss your career plans and the skills/strengths you have, as well as projects you worked on with the person you're asking to write a recommendation for you.
- Be prepared in case your reference wants you to write a first draft of his/her reference letter.
- If three letters of recommendation are requested, it's (usually) okay to ask more than three people to write letters for you. Note that The Match will only allow three letters.
Should I waive my right to review professional letters of recommendation?
- In a small community like medical physics, we want to establish trust.
- You want the recommender to feel free to be candid.
- If you don't trust your recommender, maybe you shouldn't ask that person to recommend you.
What if someone refuses to write a professional letter of recommendation for me?
- That usually means they don't feel they know you well enough to write the kind of letter you need.
- Think of someone who knows you better and/or more recently who you could ask.
- They may not have time to prepare a good letter for you.
- Usually a person who doesn't feel they can give you a good recommendation will try to gently refuse.
- Accept a refusal. Do not insist that someone who gently says no must write a letter for you.
What should be in a professional letter of recommendation?
- It should open with a description of how the letter writer knows the candidate.
- If a graduate student is applying for both diagnostic and therapy residencies, try to keep the letters open-ended and not tailored to one specific area.
- It depends upon what type of school/residency/job the recommendation is for. Some examples include your honest assessment of the candidate's:
- Match for the position
- Knowledge of medical physics (or physics, chemistry, engineering, math, etc.)
- Willingness to learn
- Responsibility - do they show up on time to meetings, do they accomplish what they need to, do they look ahead and proactively get things done, etc.
- Ability to solve problems
- Ability to work professionally
- Ability to work independently and follow through on projects
- Ability to communicate (spoken and written) with a variety of kinds of people
- Attitude, particularly in professional situations
- Flexibility to adapt to change
- Flexibility to work with the clinic's schedule
- Ability to work ethically
- Ability to organize information
- Research abilities
- Ability to works as a team player
- Ability to work under stress
- Brief anecdotes that will support any of your assessments above can strengthen the letter.
- If a candidate has a significant weakness, a brief mention of that weakness and how they're able to compensate for it can be useful to the search committee.
- Close with a statement of why you think this candidate will be good for this job, stressing the candidate's strengths that are relevant to this job.
What should NOT be in a professional letter of recommendation?
- Any information that your professional responsibilities (e.g. doctor, pastor) require you to keep confidential.
- Intricacies of the candidate's work, unless they specifically illustrate how the candidate works/thinks or unless they're directly applicable to the school/residency/job the candidate is applying for.
- Personal details about the candidate (e.g. family, marital status, demographics).
- Unprofessional hobbies (e.g. drinking tendencies).
- It should not be a very brief statement lacking details. For example, "Jane Doe was a good student," may not add anything to the application.