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How should one "address" the person for whom I am writing a recommendation letter in the letter?

Scenario:

  • I have known John Doe for many years and am familiar with his work. We address each other on a first name basis. I've been asked to write a letter supporting John's application. When I write about him, should I write

    Dr [or Mr, in case of undergraduates] Doe's works are well-written ...

    or can I get away with

    John's works are well-written ...

Personally I feel a bit strange writing Dr Doe for someone I know so well, but I wonder if it is better to err on the more formal side?


For what it is worth, the field is Mathematics. And for future reference, I do not want to limit the question to a particular level of application (for graduate school, fellowships, or for jobs); I suspect that shouldn't make a difference in the answer, but if it does, feel free to indicate.

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2 Answers 2

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I have seen both used in recommendation letters, regardless of the strength of the recommendation letter itself. I would, myself, recommend Dr. John Doe / Dr. Doe for most professional relationships, except when it is clear that you have formed a close professional relationship (PhD student, or long-term collaborator or post-doc). In case you go for the surname, I would still use the full name at the first mention:

Dr. John Doe was a student of mine at the University of X, where I teach Y, …. He later joined my research group as a Masters, then PhD student. John is an extremely bright student, …

(Of course, that's merely an example and not a good letter wording, so do not look at the wording itself, only the use of names…)

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+1 the student is now a professional researcher with a PhD. Using the more serious approach and writing Dr Doe makes this more clear imo. –  Paul Hiemstra Nov 22 '12 at 18:43
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Formality is particularly important in letters for female students/colleagues. –  JeffE Nov 23 '12 at 5:33
    
Thanks. Given the number of upvotes, I'll accept this as the answer. –  Willie Wong Nov 23 '12 at 9:06
    
@JeffE “Formality is particularly important in letters for female students/colleagues” — WTF? –  F'x Nov 23 '12 at 11:10
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@F'X: Yep. At least in fields like CS where sexism is still rampant, if subtle. See also: Female authors publishing with only first initials instead of full first names. –  JeffE Nov 23 '12 at 12:44
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Since you specifically asked about math, let me say that in my experience (as a mathematician, reading recommendation letters written by other mathematicians), the pattern of

  • use the applicant's full name once.
  • use their first name (generally what you would call them in person) after that.

is close to universal amongst mathematicians in the US. One does find exceptions, usually replacing the applicant's first name with their last name (so, writing "Doe's work has been..."), but they are actually quite rare.

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I agree that firstname is most common, but I think "near universal" is overstating it. Semirandomly looking at a dozen or so letters gave a few lastnames and a couple Dr. lastnames. –  Noah Snyder Jan 6 '13 at 3:06
    
Hmm, I also looked semi-randomly at a selection of letters before writing the post and had my impression was reinforced. In particular, I didn't see any Dr. lastnames. –  Ben Webster Jan 6 '13 at 5:59
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