How To Write a Reference Letter

One of the side-effects of being a big-shot is that you will often be asked to write reference letters for big-shot wannabes. Writing a reference letter is an art and the following points will help your letter have the impact it deserves:

  1. More important that what you write is who you are. It is imperative you make it clear. Recall reference letters are often read by lab directors and the like who are so out of touch with research they might have temporarily forgotten your big-shot status. So, spend at least the first page giving the highlights of your career. You should spell out:
    • The number of papers you are an author on (not necessarily the same as the number of papers you have written, which is often less)
    • The number of researchers that report to you (in some organisations referred to as your headcount)
    • The amount of money you have received in grants
    • The program committees you have been on
    • The prizes you have won
    • The workshops you have organised.
  2. To be on the safe side, you should simply assert you are one of the most important figures in your field.
  3. You should avoid being specific. The mere fact you are writing the letter should suffice. So just say the researcher in question is “good”. Do not bother to explain what they have actually done as this may devalue your status. Do not bother to compare them to others in the field as this may devalue their status. Do not bother to explain the impact of their research.
  4. Sometimes you will be asked to write a reference letter for someone you do not really know. People will ask you to do this because you are such a big shot. You must not refuse to write such letters simply on the grounds you do not know the person – that would send a clear signal that you are not a real big shot; your job as a big shot is to be a king maker. Some specific hints are:
    • Be vaguer than normal
    • Reuse old reference letters
    • Try to avoid referring to the candidate by name in any reference letter as this allows more efficient reuse
  5. Be concrete, comparative, and explicit. Remember it is what you do not say that will be paid most attention to by sophisticated readers. Finally, remember that in English “good” is perhaps the weakest adjective you can use in a reference letter; reserve it for candidates you want to be sure do not get the position.