In the fourteen years since I joined the Physics Department of ________ I have written several hundred letters of recommendation – to Indian and foreign research institutions and to foundations providing scholarships. The most substantial ones are those written in support of applications to graduate programmes. I would like to share in this note the process of writing one.
What an institution seeks from you, in addition to your marks etc, is a statement of purpose, which is your perception, given your past and present, of the direction your life could take. What they seek from me, the recommender, is the perception of an expert who, knowing you and others like you, can discover your potential and place you in the spectrum of possibilities. There are a hundred questions they might have about you. Some are posed explicitly, but there are many others to which I imagine they might want answers. I try to answer at least a few of them.
Are you eager, attentive, interested? – even when the teacher isn’t observing you? Can you see past the exams? Do you always put in your best, or only when your enthusiasm is aroused? Can you sustain your enthusiasm? Will it survive the rigours of undependent physics? Are you a classroom star or a proto-scientist? Are you capable, resourceful, cooperative, flexible? – independent, open-minded, alert, observant, curious, playful? Do you find possibilities in confusion, or are you afraid of it? Do you face difficulty with courage and humour? Do you have an unusual take on things? – make interesting observations, ask probing questions? Do you follow up on the questions you pose? Do you have the confidence and ability to try out things on your own? (“Thus Wallis doth it, but it may be done thus…”, said Newton, as an undergraduate at Trinity.) Do you stay with a problem until it opens itself to you? Do you enjoy solving problems at all? – even when the answers aren’t given? Do you try to make sense of what you did and what you got? Can you catch a hint and take it further? Can you make connections between different areas of physics? – between physics and the world around you? Can you estimate the number of barbers in the city of Delhi? Do you know why you’re doing the experiment you’re doing, or do you just want to finish the damned thing? Do you ever make discoveries when doing experiments or is your work always perfect? Do you like trouble-shooting, or do you run for help when the BG shows no deflection? Are you interested in instruments and electronics? Do you like taking things apart and putting them together again? How about ideas – do you like taking them apart? Are you comfortable with abstraction? Do you think mathematically or physically? Can you describe a physical situation mathematically and then find physics in the mathematics? Are you quick, or slow but interesting? Do you find different solutions to the same problem and the same solution to different problems? Do you know the thousand names of the simple harmonic oscillator? What if it isn’t simple? Can you solve it on the computer? Do you know enough physics and mathematics for the programme you’re applying to? Are you versatile, drawn in different directions by your many talents? What turns you on? What do you do best? Do your inclinations meet your abilities? Do you manage your time well? Are you ambitious? Do you have any idea what it means to do research? Have you done any interesting projects in college? – summer projects elsewhere? Do you work well with others? – and alone? Do I have any feedback, from you and from your guides? Have you given talks on them? Did your talks seem well-prepared, clear, insightful? Do you like discussing physics? Would you make a good teacher? Are you helpful? – humble enough to admit your mistakes? – honest, intellectually and otherwise? Do you add to the classroom? Anything else? – Do you have any special qualities? Are you disconcertingly direct? Are you unusually logical? Do you always spot my mistakes? What about your mistakes – are they enlightening? Do you jump to the right conclusions?
You may wonder how on earth I can answer all these questions about you (though at other times you’re furious with me for not acknowledging your subtlest abilities and fathoming your deepest desires). For most of you, I would be able to answer no more than two or three of these questions. For some rare students I might be able answer more than two-thirds of them. With even a few significant answers I may be able to make a recommendation that counts. Where do I find my answers? In tests: If your written answers are uncharacteristically lucid, get straight to the point, show a different way of thinking, explain what you’re doing instead of brandishing formulas; if you always attempt the challenging questions and not just the standard ones; if I say to myself, “She can read my mind!” or “Wow, I never thought of that!” – I will remember. In the classroom: If you are always attentive, participate in discussions, make unusual observations, are willing to take risks, ask thoughtful or startling or deep questions, make a presentation that takes my breath away – I will remember. In the lab: If I ask you about your potential divider, or your error calculations, or whether you know your result’s in the right ball park, and I see you thinking; if your circuits are beautiful; if you get caught up in trying to figure something out; if I see you trouble-shooting or handling equipment joyfully; if you’re unusually regular in submitting your file – I will remember. In the Physics Society: If you show initiative, get others excited, take the lead, keep your commitments, organize something well, give a good talk – I will remember. Elsewhere: If we meet and you tell me that you’re really enjoying the maths, or that electronics is, really, fun, or that you’re writing this intricate programme; if I see you following a trail like a bloodhound; if your summer project made a big impact on you; if another teacher says something that makes me change my mind about you; if I am taken aback by your integrity; if I see you helping your classmates – I will remember. If your summer-project adviser says to me, “______, that guy was amazing: I just outlined what needed to be done, and he did the whole thing and came back. He was better than my PhD students” – I will remember. Hell, if I see you take one step off the straight and narrow path, one chance in the wilderness, I will remember. But if you always hold back, lest you make a fool of yourself and earn my scorn, I won’t know very much about you. And if you approach me for a letter of recommendation, I may not have the heart to refuse, because I don’t want you to feel rejected, but what I write will not win anyone over.
One question you probably ask yourself is – “Does Dr _________ like me?” My affection for you, real or imagined, is not as important as you think. It is true that on very rare occasions I have been swayed into writing a stronger recommendation than, in retrospect, I think the student deserved, but this happens very rarely indeed – and to the extent that it happens my recommendation is compromised. It may be difficult for you to accept this – but my recommendation is credible to the extent that it is not swayed by the ease with which you and I converse. Nor must it be swayed easily by your self-perception. What is asked of me is a kind of doctor’s view of a patient he knows well. I must know what you think and say of yourself, which is why I listen to you and ask you for your statement of purpose, but I must be able to see you not just as the unduplicable person you know yourself to be but also as one of many who have gone through this process – this suffering! – before and will go through it again in future. So it’s more important that I know you well than that I like you well. That said, I must add that I do not appreciate requests for recommendation from students who have made it amply clear that my teaching – in its broadest sense – has meant little or nothing to them, or from former students who, having snapped all links, reappear only to seek a recommendation, and then plunge back into the darkness from which they emerged. I usually agree even in these cases, and write fairly and perhaps knowledgeably, but I do so with a feeling of being used.
I like to write a letter of recommendation with goodwill and enthusiasm, at least the former. I was on one occasion asked by a student whether I would write him a good recommendation, and if not would I please tell him in advance. I explained that a recommender was not bound to write a good recommendation, only an honest one. However, as a personal policy – probably the policy of many other referees as well –, if I feel I cannot write a recommendation that is on the whole positive, I try to let the student know in advance. This I do especially if the student happens to be someone who, on the basis of his academic standing or for other reasons, would automatically expect a strong recommendation. Most of my letters, however, will, explicitly or through silence, convey not just your strengths but also your weaknesses. Here is how I organize a typical letter of recommendation.
In the first paragraph I establish my credentials, by specifying how I know you – what classes and labs I have taught you, whether I have interviewed you, talked to you outside the classroom, talked to others about you, observed you giving talks, etc. Then I write about your strengths as an undergraduate student. If I am writing to an institution that is unfamiliar with St Stephen’s College, I describe what makes a physics degree from Delhi University, and especially from St Stephen’s, stronger than degrees from other places; I also inform them about the weaknesses of our programme – lack of problem solving and of computational physics. If you have done anything to overcome the weaknesses of the curriculum, e.g. if you are an expert at programming or love problem solving, I mention that. If you have gone on to another institution after St Stephen’s, say IIT or Cambridge, I add a line or two about the ways in which your education there is likely to have complemented what you learnt at College. Then I go on to those of your characteristics that are less student-like and more scientist-like, e.g. the way you do projects or other independent work. I give them my perception of your maturity, self-confidence, ability to do a sustained piece of work, ability to work alone or in a group, and so on. If you are applying to a course outside physics, and I know something of what it requires, I say a word about how your training in physics may lead to it. If there are lacunae in your training, e.g. if you know little programming and are not used to problem solving, I may be quite explicit about them. If you’re easily distracted, a last-minute crammer, I may mention that, but I will normally put it in the the context of a system that encourages such qualities, if I think that you’re capable of focussed hard work in the right circumstances. If I don’t see in you certain other traits of character and mind that graduate study requires, I usually convey that through silence or by pointing to the possibility of growth. However, there are certain character traits that I may try to forewarn them about; e.g. if you are someone who needs to be handled delicately, I may let them know. If you are someone who I think is very capable but who has so far been resolutely unadventurous, I may state that as well. On the whole, though, I am far more gentle about your weaknesses than you might imagine. I try to see you as you might be. If it is a letter to a foreign university, I add a line about your fluency in English. If I know someone who is already in the programme to which you are applying, I compare you with him or her. I do not usually write about your achievements outside physics, but if you are unusually gifted at something and I feel that it says something essential about you, I add that a word about that, and how it connects with, adds or takes away from your commitment to physics; if you are applying for the Rhodes Scholarship, then of course I write a little more about your extra-curricular activities. I finish with an overall recommendation – strong, very strong, etc. In addition to information I try to communicate through tone, emphasis and example a picture of you as a whole person; I may tell a story or two to show how I discovered something about you. Sometimes I go a little overboard. (“_______, on the basis of your recommendation, we could get her married.”) But on the whole I think I do a pretty good job. I may be tempted to tell you what I wrote about you, but, though I may discuss your strengths and weaknesses with you in another setting, I desist from revealing the contents of my letter to you.
I believe strongly that a letter or recommendation to be effective must be confidential. I am required in it to express opinions about you that in normal circumstances would not be explicit. There is no reason, for example, for you to know in what respect I think you are superior or inferior to X or Y, but such information is essential to the institutions to which you are applying; in fact openly bandying such knowledge would destroy or seriously endanger the relationship of which this act of recommendation is a part. Asking for a letter of recommendation is ultimately an act of trust.
There are certain protocols that go with the act of asking for a letter of recommendation. First, ask yourself whether I have had the chance to get to know you well enough to write a convincing letter. If you think so, approach me in person if you are in College, or write to me or call me if you are elsewhere. Do not provide my name as a referee without my explicit permission, no matter how sure you may be that I will agree. Provide me with the information I seek, usually your statement of purpose, your CV, etc. I will usually want to talk to you about your application, and may want to interview you. If you are handing me a printed form, make sure your details are complete, and that you provide, as a courtesy, an envelope with your name and the name of the programme written clearly on it. Do not wait until the last moment to ask me for the reco: I do not appreciate being asked to provide a letter tomorrow; I recommend that you let me know month or so in advance that you intend to ask me for a letter, and then forewarn me and hand me the required material at least two weeks in advance. (For summer programmes I can fill a form at short notice, but even there I prefer to have some time.) After the letter is complete I will inform you, and if you are in College I expect you to come personally and collect it. If the letter is to be sent online, I will let you know after I have submitted it. Have the courtesy, in either case, to acknowledge my letter with a word of thanks (if you can’t resist giving me a blinding smile, that will quite in order, but nothing more is needed); remember, I don’t like being taken for granted any more than you do. When you hear back from the institutions to which you have applied, once again be so kind as to let me know what happened; I am interested. I do not expect you to write back to me from Cambridge or Cornell, but if you do, I’ll be happy to know how you’re faring in the programme to which I have recommended you. Besides, the information you provide will prove useful to other students who will, after you, come to me for counsel and recommendations.