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How I Write a Recommendation Letter

Well, it’s been a year, so it’s about time to write another blog post, I guess. This one is about a common task for fall-time: writing recommendation letters for students on the job market.

recommendedThis post is musings about my process in writing letters of recommendation for students on the academic and other job markets. It might help those of you who will eventually ask for a letter from me (or from someone else) get a sense of what really matters as you slog your way through school.

The first thing you should know is that by-and-large, I won’t write a letter of recommendation for someone I can’t actually recommend. If I’m writing you a letter, I believe in you and want you to get that job. I follow best practices as much as I can. Then I do this stuff:

What do I look at?

  • Your transcript – But not for grades. I look at classes, think about themes, and consider what you’re trained in. But I basically ignore your grades.
  • Your  C.V. / resume. I have to match what you say about yourself, and I get all those vital details about what you’ve done from your C.V.
  • Your own letter. Cover or statement of purpose letters tell me why  you should get the job.
  • Your work. Papers, projects, assignments all help me know what you do and how well.

What do I write?

Intro. I start with how long I’ve known you, a summary sentence about you that frames the rest of the letter, and why I recommend you for that specific position. If I can’t see a reason to recommend you for that specific job, I can’t explain in my letter.

Your interests. I explain what you’re interested in and how I believe that fits the job you want from my perspective. If your interests are too vague, I can’t make solid claims about them.

Your big project. Your thesis, some big project, your dissertation: I explain with some detail why that project is great, and, crucially, why it’s important in the field. Here the heart is theory. It’s a good recommendation if I can say your theoretical thinking is solid. Otherwise I’m just saying, “he did this one thing this one time.” If I can’t expand that into why it matters to later projects, research, and/or jobs, then the Big Thing isn’t really helpful for anyone but you.

Other projects. I add details about things you’ve done to fill in a clear picture of you as a [scholar/student/professional]. Good rec letters have specifics, and I use other activities and accomplishments (from your C.V.) to talk about them. If your C.V. is too thin on specifics including software, who you worked with, how big or small the tasks were, and what resulted from your work, then I don’t have enough to say.

Contributions to the field. I am on the hook, especially with grad school and academic job apps, to explain how you matter in the field/industry. I make claims from my position in the field about your potential in the field. Your letter and C.V. help me with that, but I also have to analyze your work to assess you professionally. Almost like a paper reviewer, I have to make claims based on my own knowledge and reputation about why you will make significant contributions. I use evidence, citing specific papers or projects, to make these claims. If I don’t see your best work, I won’t give you the credit you’re due. If your work isn’t good enough, I won’t write you a letter in the first place.

Your training. I talk about classes, certificates, our program, and what you’ve been trained to do. From your transcript I paint a picture of how what you can do fits what they need. I also talk about if and how you’re a hard worker, which shows mostly in how responsive you are to things you do with me (not grades, see above). If I’ve never worked with (or taught) you, I probably won’t write a letter.

Your skills. I explain what you can do and how I know that. I mention how many classes you’ve taught, what your evaluations were, what internships you’ve had, what jobs you’ve had, and how well you did in them.  I don’t just say, “she can use Photoshop,” I say, “She is accomplished at Photoshop. She completed 15 complex projects using that software and taught other students how to use some of its more difficult tools.” That C.V. has to fill me in, here, or else I won’t be specific enough. (And lack of specifics is a sure sign of a polite but poor recommendation.)

Your teamwork. Yeah, I’m on the hook to say something about what it’s like to work and interact with you. If you’re an unpleasant but brilliant person I’ve decided to write a letter about, I find a way to gently suggest you work best alone. But if you work well with other students and help people out, that will be my go-to claim. If I don’t know how you interact with other people, I’m left with only my own impressions, and can’t say as much.

That’s my process. And my main recommendation to you? Make sure you have thought about each of these areas carefully, and find a way to communicate that to me. I want you to get the job! It looks good on me to have my people doing well. If you can find ways to help me help you, we’ll rock that job market together.



Turncoat Transformation – A New WoW Expansion

CalliopiaSo, yeah, I’ve gone Alliance for WoW’s latest and greatest expansion. Why? Well, it’s complicated, but has to do with guilds and friendlies and that sort of thing. My heart is still Horde, I swear it!

I’ve gone as transformative as you can in this game: race is the transforming human/wolf Worgen, class is the transforming Druid, and a glyph allows me to transform my Boomkin (big owl thing) into a gauzy version of my Worgen self.

Never, fear, I’m still leveling my dear Troll Shaman Lan, but she’ll wait patiently for more consistent play.

There, don’t you feel better? I promise, not a traitor. We’re all in this against the Iron Horde, after all! (I guess we’re the Good Horde).

This expansion is especially fun for me: we get our own private garrison! Outfitted as we see…. fit! No, not quite full on Sims home-decoration mechanic, but it’s home, and it’s mine. Well, Calliopia’s. And Lan’s.

Blogging Whatfor

I have been talking a lot about blogging recently, not just because I teach it in my classes, but also because I have been singing its praises in helping stuffy academics like me get more practice writing. Not everything is good fodder for a journal. But at the end of the day, academics are Writers, with all the concomitant foibles and joys. So more writing, specifically more blogging, is good for us.

Blogging for me started as a way to keep track of my thoughts and reactions to entering a new world (of Warcraft, specifically), which felt a lot more appealing than keeping files of field notes. My blog later became a place where I could put down ideas that might someday become the basis for research – or not – as well as keep myself writing on a regular basis.

If you follow my blog at all, though, you’ll know that sometimes I post quite regularly, and sometimes… well, let’s just say it’s been a year since my last post, and that’s not the first time I’ve lapsed so substantially. So although this blog makes for a good motivator to continue honing my mad writing skillz, it is not always…. consistent.

But there’s another aspect of blogging that has been on my mind of late, prompted by a book chapter that I have to have to have to finish, like, yesterday. That aspect of blogging is its ability to help me find my voice – my writing voice. Book chapters are more flexible in terms of expected writing style, and the chapter I’m finishing up uses a voice closer to my blog writing than my journal writing.

I do a lot of report writing and formal journal article writing, which tends to get me thinking mostly about results, existing literature, arguments, and the like. But dammit, Jim, I’m a writer! And writers need a voice. That’s not from me, that’s from this terrific article. The wise advice that hit me hard from that piece was, “Find a voice; don’t just ‘get published.'”

For me, journal articles and reports don’t bring out that voice. Maybe that’s because I’m writing more quantitative pieces which really do have a sort of formula I’m supposed to follow; maybe it’s because those pieces are so formal that I remove all personality to fit the standard form; maybe it’s because I just don’t have the nerve to write in anything but bland academic-speak. But whatever the reason, I haven’t invested as much in developing a true Voice of My Own.

So back I trot to my WoW Musings, mindful of my voice, and dedicated to findings ways to bring that voice into more than just this cozy little corner of the blogosphere. Maybe I’ll even get some of that voice published one of these days.

Being Naughty from Being Good

The danger of walking a few hours a day is you can get a wee bit complacent with  the other part of getting healthy: eating well. Last night I had popcorn for dinner, which is so not healthy. Today, I had chocolate mint chip ice cream for lunch. Even worse.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’re doing really well using that hard earned will-power to do work, walk, feed the kid, keep the dishes clean…. and so you deserve – deserve, dammit! – ice cream, or a burger, or truffle cheese fries. Sometimes it feels more like using up will-power reserves, and at the end of the day we just don’t have any left for choosing a salad, or going Paleo, or skipping dessert.

But that’s the trap of modern American body image and diet crap. It’s a killer. No, instead we must re-frame and think of all these things as making the salad or the skipped dessert easier because they all move us that much farther down a healthy path. It’s not that avoiding bread is depriving ourselves. It’s that picking almonds instead is giving ourselves a gift, treating ourselves to something wonderful for our health.

Workin’ on it.

Up and down, back and forth

Having a treadmill desk takes a lot of adjustment moments, as I am thinking of them. Work adjustments – mostly, work thinking adjustments – take some little-by-little movements, from associating thinking with sitting, to letting myself think in complex ways while walking. This is harder than it sounds, really. Hey, even smart Italian guys sat while they thought (although I’ll leave the rest of Dante’s trip to him, thanks).

Then there are other adjustments in walking at moments when I just feel as though I should be sitting: Skype IMing, Google searches, shopping online. I still have some trouble really thinking Difficult Thoughts while walking, but I’m getting there.

This past week was a bear for really tough stuff that kept me away from the treadmill more than I would have liked. I definitely haven’t figured out to walk while doing statistical analyses. I really should, though. I’d have logged 40 hours this week already if I could.

But…. but. Yesterday was The big patch day for the upcoming WoW expansion, Mists of Pandaria. And I did manage to sneak in a wee bit of jumping around cities and reading trade chat as the flood of mechanics and avatar changes came through. Sadly, I was not walking. THAT has got to happen: WoW while walking.

Return of my girl

A few months ago, a Wise Decision was made by my girl Shaux. She changed her look, her name, and her play patterns because she was launching a research project using her main avatar. She changed those things because she wanted to protect her personal play from her work play. Mixing business and pleasure… you know.

Well, as one of the folks she played with, I sure missed that Shaux., even though her replacement was still driven by my friend.

Why would I miss the avatar, you wonder? Well, honestly, I’m not sure.

This has happened to me before. A close friend L. put his main aside for some alts, and even though I still played with my friend, I missed L. terribly.

Now that my friend’s research is done, Shaux is back! And always a thrill to play with.

Luddite Yearnings

Although I really do love being connected on these internets – spending endless hours on email, Facebook, blogging, and, of course, WoWing – I occasionally have this tremendous yearning to toss it all and be a complete and utter Luddite. Yes, even though I love my job of studying digital technologies, I do at times want to refuse all things technological.

It’s odd, really,  because those feelings don’t generally come with a determination to spend less time online, or take more breaks from the computer, or disconnect various and sundry electronic devices in my life. No, they’re usually felt as a kind of nostalgia, or a wish for a different life that feels almost like wishes I had as a child to live in fairyland, or in The Future, or in E. Nesbit’s amazing world of children and magic carpets of the turn of the last century.

I sometimes vow that when I retire from being a professor I’ll swear off all modern technologies and live like my great-grandmother did. I ignore my mother’s reminders that my great-grandmother churned her own butter, grew her own crops, sewed her own clothes, cooked over a wood stove…. well you get the picture. Sometimes even those things appeal to me.

I’m probably kidding with that vow. But it sure sounds good once in a while.

What I’m not sure about is why I get these yearnings in particular. Sure, I get burned out answering emails and doing all this work on Teh Electronic Box sometimes, so I guess it makes sense. But given that a good chunk of my job is play and games, you’d think that I’d embrace the fun side of electronics.  Or maybe I’m answering my own question here. When your job is play, sometimes you kind of wish that you couldn’t play. No matter how fun it is.

More than that, I sometimes get freaked out by what technologies can do. Part of that is fun, actually: allowing myself to be amazed by technological innovations helps me appreciate where and when I am. But I also kind of shudder at times at certain things: ways to be ever more connected to other people, ways to tell people where you are and what you’re doing at every moment, computers that beat me at Rock-Scissors-Paper, high-powered computers I can carry in my pocket, cars that that give me directions in an only-marginally computer-y voice…

Yes, some of that stuff is a bit too much, really. Or maybe I’m just getting old. Kids today. I tell ya.

Joyous reunions

WoW is fun. And do you know why? Not because you get to kill things, although that’s fun. Not because you fly around gorgeous landscapes, although that’s fun. Not because you make cool things like magical panties, although that’s fun.

No, WoW is fun because sometimes you have the right combination of people together on voice chat, cracking jokes, causing chaos, running around instances and doing wrong things, jumping off cliffs, getting lost, pulling agro, and playing with wild pets.

WoW is fun when your peeps are back on, in the mood for making a ruckus.

Thanks peeps. Theeps.


Back off the Wagon

I know. It’s been forever.

But I’m back leveling my Alliance human (warlock) in WoW, and continuing with the quest development and playing in Second Life.

All fun and games until someone forgets to go pee.

I promise I’ll be musing here again. Meanwhile, still hanging out with the WoW bloggers guild.


And back to school….

school_suppliesAh, back to school. My blogging will necessarily be erratic now, but at least this time I have an excuse.

Starting an intensive work activity sure does cut into WoW time. Last year, WoW was my work cooldown, and I would hop on just about every evening to let the day go. These days, though, that’s somehow more difficult. Early on, while leveling, there was a nice soothing pattern to my play that suited my chill-out needs well.

These days, though, it’s raiding, and somehow, that’s a lot less relaxing. It’s not quite like a second job, as some raiding guilds can be, because my guild is flexible and relaxed. But still, the pressure is a lot higher when you’re working with 24 other people to kill big bads. When I was leveling, the only one who suffered when my bleary eyes couldn’t focus on the screen was me; in a raid, I have to stay on point. After all, I don’t want to doze off right when the decimate flattens my tank or dash into mobs because I was too tired to move my finger off the run button.

So raiding after work isn’t so relaxing.

But I do love my WoW. I’ll be scheduling in my raid times like appointments now, which is also a slightly strange thing for me. It’s not exactly another work-type obligation (after all, it is fun), but it’s not the mindless, space-out, unwind type thing of old.