Some guidelines and advices
These are general advices for people writing reference letters, in particular in the context of highlighting the contribution from a person working in a large collaboration, such as the LSC. (Some of these suggestions were provided by Beverly Berger & Cole Miller)
- For some jobs (e.g., applications to astronomy faculty positions) it might be useful for the letter writer to have a short paragraph discussing the nature of the collaboration. Specifically, if the writer feels that the receiving department might not have experience with such things, it might help to indicate that by agreement (and as is clear from the full LSC publications) the author list is alphabetical rather than highlighting the key contributors up front. Thus, the letter writer could say: "I will specifically indicate the particular contributions of Dr. X..."
- The most helpful thing for letter writers to provide are specific details of the candidate's contributions. Examples are:
- Rather than just saying "the candidate is a valuable member of the [... group] who always contributes valuably to the discussion," add "the group was stuck for weeks on how to account for [...] when the candidate discovered that using [...] rather than [...] solved the problem."
- "The candidate performed a study of [...] which made us all realize that [...] and formed the basis of the group's further research on [...]"
- "Despite initial lack of interest by the [group], the candidate continued to work on [...] and was eventually able to demonstrate the superiority of the new method/approach/technique."
- Also, examples and discussion of the candidate's leadership, initiative, and creativity are always helpful.
- Of course, any teaching, mentoring, outreach, etc., should be mentioned with specificexamples.
- "The candidate has been unusually effective in working with summer students as shown by ..."
- Especially for faculty positions, it is important to include discussion of writing and speaking abilities. Again, specifics are helpful.
- "The candidate gave a remarkably clear talk on ...to the undergraduate physics majors."
- In particular in the USA (but is now very common also in Europe, surely in the UK), it is expected that the candidate is compared to other people in the field.
Below are examples taken from actual letters received (mainly) for faculty positions in Europe and the USA
Examples from actual letters
These are examples taken from actual reference letters:
- On [Project name], [Applicant name] also serves as [appropriate role] in charge of building [description]. In this role, [Applicant name] is responsible for overseeing design and fabrication of [...] to be housed in [...]. This work is funded by a [amount] grant from the NSF and has taken about a year from start of fabrication to completion in [date]. Overseeing this has involved working with a team of engineers at [Lab] for the design of [....], working with the [university] machine shop for fabrication of the larger components of [....], and working with a team of students here at [lab/university]. It is a big job, which [Applicant name] handled extremely well. She was appointed to this job by [project name]'s Project Manager, [name]. Out of the 14 [appropriate role] that work to build the detector, [applicant name] is the only post-doctoral researcher. There is only one person younger than her on the team and this [lab] employee is responsible only for the photomultiplier array in the detector, a system which has already been purchased and has a budget of about 15k to oversee. The other [appropriate role] are all faculty level and above.
- [Applicant name] played a leading role in the [Project] Higgs programme. As an example, the channel [name] is one of two most sensitive Higgs channels, and [Applicant name] was a leading member of the analysis team working on this channel. She was then appointed to coordinate [description] searches, a very important leadership position. The recent [Project] publication of evidence for the production of [...] is a major milestone, since it provides first evidence for [...]. [Applicant name]s contributions to this milestone result were crucial.
- [Applicant name] is the best, by far, of the dozens of postdocs at [Institution] who have worked on [Project] in its ~11 years of operation. She (with [name]) developed a new off-pointing technique (paper n5 in her publication list) that maximised [project]'s X-ray sensitivity, and obtained the best upper-limit to date on [....] (papers n3 and n15), with important implications for coronal heating by nano flares, and for constraining properties of axions (theorised to be produced in the Sun's core). She (with [name]) then undertook a systematic survey of [....] detect by [Instrument], and showed that they have [properties....]. She was invited to write the definite review of [topic] for the book summarising [instrument]'s result over 10 years, an extremely rare honour for someone only a few years past her PhD.
- [Applicant's name] has presented this work at a number of conferences and workshops including invited presentations at a [Conference/workshop name], which is the main international conference in the field. These invited talks speak to [Applicant's name]'s ability to present work in the field and her recognition in the field as an emerging leader in present and future experiments.
- [Applicant name] is one of the stars of her generation of postdocs on [Project]. Just to name a few of her achievements: [name] prize for best thesis; International Fellow at Fermilab; leader of [...] group; leader of [...] group; lead analyser of [description]; talks at SUSY, HCP, Moriond and other conferences. I will discuss some of these achievements in more detail below.
- In the past two years, [Applicant name] has been responsible for two important advances in showing how gravitational wave observations of such systems will yield new information about [description]. This intellectual leadership has been recognized at the international level: [Applicant name] currently leads [group] within the 900-plus member LIGO-VIRGO Scientific Collaboration.
- [Applicant name] is one of 5 post-docs I have hired since my time here at [University] and I would rank her the best of all of these and one of the best of the junior faculty candidates in the field now.
- This remarkable combination of qualities make [Applicant name] one of the very top candidates for faculty positions in the near future. To put her on a relative scale, in the past decade I have been lucky to know well and/or work closely with a very talented group of prize fellows most of whom have moved on to faculty positions. They include [names], Hubble Fellows and now faculty at [university names]; [names], Royal Society Fellows and now faculty at [university names]. She is at the top of this elite group. For example, [Applicant name] is more creative, broader, and more technically skilled than [name], now faculty at [university]. Compared to [names] who have recently been appointed as tenure track faculty at [university names], she is in my opinion stronger, at comparable stages of career.