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I was asked to compose a recommendation/reference letter for a Computer Engineer that works as a Researcher in the Research Center I am supervisor. I don't know if Academia is the right site to post , but since the nature of the job is Research and people involved "Research Engineers", I believe is the right place.

So, I need to write a great recommendation/reference letter, but the problem is I have never written a letter of this kind before. I've seen many of them, and even more on the web but the problem is that they all look "copy-pasted" and not written in a way that would make me believe that the author of this letter really spent time on it, believing in the skills of his employee and really wanted to recommend them.

I've already written the letter, the best I could and I will like to ask about some parts of it, how they sound and if they could be any better.

  1. As a first paragraph, I wrote who I am, the position I have in the Research Center and what is the purpose of this letter:

    My name is... I am a ...
    The purpose of this letter, is to serve as a reference to my cooperation with Mr ...

  2. In the second paragraph I wrote about the position of the person (Research Engineer) and for how long he worked with us:

    Mr. X joined our team in the X Research Center as a full-time Research Engineer under an ongoing X month contract...

    At this point I don't know how I could point out better the fact the the person was under a normal full-paid contract and not just given a "European Grant" to work with us. I wrote they were full-time, but still there are many people that join programs after studies that work for a few months as Engineers in Research Centers. In this case, I want to stress that they were working as a normal Research Engineer, especially chosen for skills and paid a normal salary for the position as Engineer. Maybe add something like "full paid contract"

  3. In the 3rd paragraph I wrote under what framework the person worked (European project) and a few words where and how they were involved. I didn't want to go into great details here as I believe this stuff could be easily read from their great CV. Is it wise to describe exactly what he did (Names of real-life applications that was part of developing etc). I pointed out that they deeply involved in what they did, how well they integrated with the rest of the people and how motivated they were and that they actively contributed in the project. Anything else I could add here?

  4. As a last line I would like to show that I can't recommend them enough, but without getting "too excited". I want it to be serious, I want it to leave no doubts. Also since the person is young and is interested in continuing with post graduate studies, or working as a Researcher or even getting a computer engineer position in a private company. Is it okay if I mention all of them? Usually we recommend someone for one type of position. But this position, working as computer engineer doing research (aka Research Engineer), leaves no doubt that he would be great as a PhD student, as a researcher or as a software engineer. So I wrote:

    For all the aforementioned reasons I would like to highly recommend X, as a strong candidate for future postgraduate studies, research and employment offers.

What do you think about it? How could I make it better and is there something I should change? If you don't like some part and you give me an alternative please point out why you don't like the part, as some times its a bit of personal taste and not that something is wrong. Would be great, if you could post some examples of letters you composed or parts of them, or an example from the web that you consider great.

  • In astrophysics, the field is narrow enough that it is customary to compare the person you recommend to other past applicants. – chris May 25 '13 at 10:01
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    You could "recommend him without reservation," at the end. – ewormuth Aug 6 '15 at 20:20
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There was a good link that I'd found on this topic, while applying to graduate school:

Advice to Graduate School Recommendation Letter Writers

The above link is a pithy list of points to be kept in mind by new letter writers. As a summary, I'd like to highlight some sections of it that I've found repeated in other such articles as well:

Be Concrete

If you take away just one piece of concrete advice, let it be this.

The single biggest problem with most letters is that they are filled with abstract generalities and infinitives. If we don't know you or your institution, we can't judge what any of these statements mean relative to our standards. Always consider the illustrative anecdote:

Due to deadline pressure, I asked him to grow a pumpkin in just one month. As you know it takes over 100 days to grow a pumpkin, but over the weekend he devised a new method to accelerate their growth. On Monday morning I arrived to find not just a pumpkin but a steaming, flavorful pie. 

Anecdote about acts of raw coding are only so helpful in understanding research potential, but they're better than nothing (see the section on Corporate Letters, below). An extra book or paper they read, and demonstrated understanding of (again, be concrete about why you believe this), goes a long way.

Corporate Letters

An important special case is the corporate letter: when you, the letter-writer, work in industry and have no academic affiliation. Many corporate letters (like many academic letters, but more so) tend to be vapid, clearly written in a different culture and for a different audience. Unless they actually did academic research with you, here are some suggestions for improving them.

A common mistake is to focus on teamwork. This is important even in academia, but often this is the primary focus of the letter, which makes it less valuable. Of course we care about it, but it's secondary to their technical skills.

  1. Tell us if they learned something particularly quickly, mastered a complex technology, or solved a problem others were stuck on. Give us a paragraph of details.
  2. If you have a concrete reason to evaluate research potential, do so concretely. Otherwise, don't bother.
  3. Give us a brief bio-sketch, including educational qualifications. 4.Put the applicant in context, and tell us the context. It's fine to relate it to your own student days, or to your experience hiring students. E.g.
    • Compared to the students I studied with at Cucumber and Melon University, and the ones I now recruit from there, I would put him in the top 10%.
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This is what I would recommend and it is not far off from what you have outlined:

I am assuming your will start the letter cordially to whomever will receive the letter ("Dear so-and-so" or "To whom it may concern"). I also assume you're writing on letter head where your name and contact information and date for the letter is written.

1st part (paragraph)

First state that you write the letter on request by the applicant. Follow up by stating who you are in terms of your professional status (expertise) and your relation to the applicant. The purpose is to make the recipient aware of your standing relative to the applicant, it makes it easier to value your comments. This paragraph should obviously not be very long since it is not you who are to be evaluated, but still long enough to provide a fair picture of your qualifications.

2nd part (one or more paragraphs)

Outline the most important aspect of the applicants merits that are sought for the position, if it is a teaching job then etaching experience, if it is research then research related. It may end up more than one paragraph because you may need to discuss the research done (type of research past and present) in one paragraph and then follow up on the person's ability to attarct funding and colaboration in a second (depending on length). You also need to value the publications briefly in terms of journal impact factors and citations, in other words the quality of the published work.

3rd part (one or more paragraphs)##

You need to write about the personal side of the applicant, starting out with for example ability to collaborate and contribute to the research and work environment. This can be followed up bu more personal aspects and "soft values" that descfibes the persons pesronality at work and elsewhere. You obviously need to focius on aspects that may be relevant for evaluating the applicant as a colleague.

Final Statement

Finish of by summing up the major points above and express your personal support for the person in terms of how the person would fit the announced position. You can for example tie back to your own expoerience and position and value in terms of how you see the applicant relative to others you have worked with and so on.

Final Points to Consider

The length of a letter can vary greatly. Honesty is what everyone expects. I think it is valuable to also mention weaknesses as long s they are done fairly and with insight. The employer will want to know the person, not just the glossy exterior. This part is always trickiest to write and also very personal so additional advice is hard to provide.

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    Just a comment: in my field, one does not write about weaknesses. Anything remotely negative in the letter is a killer. Its unfortunate, but that's the tradition. – chris May 25 '13 at 9:57

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