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Advice on asking me for recommendation letters


Since I have had to clarify this on numerous occasions to multiple people who’ve passed through my lab, this is a convenient place to put all these thoughts in one place. Also acknowledgement to the legendary John Eisen (of metagenomics fame) and his blog-post on exactly this topic.

1) Please email me your request atleast 1 week before your deadline to have sent it.

2) I need to see an updated CV (or resume) so that my facts about you are accurate.

3) Mention from when to when you have worked with me, if you are no longer in my lab. If you are still in my lab, please still mention your start date. You should add a brief summary what you did in that period (or are doing).

4) Please clarify what is the name/title and nature of the position that you are applying for. Specify the potential role you will play in it, if you were hired/recruited/placed. If a statement of purpose (SOP) is associated with it, please share the gist (summary) of it.

5) Provide all information I will need. For a brief moment, put yourself in my shoes. To be able to send the letter, you need to assist me- i.e.

  • If it’s by email then provide me the address.
  • If it’s as a hard copy then provide me the address of the recepient and whatever title-details are required.
  • Often these letters need to be in certain formats. Please send me this. In short, make my work simpler, so I can help you more effectively.
  • If the agency/organization/university has an online portal, please provide my name and email address ONLY AFTER you have taken my approval.

6) Providing a letter of recommendation is part of my job. It will be a recommendation and an honest assessment.

7) Your work with me or interactions in my class, depending on whether you worked with me or took my courses, will determine the nature of what I write. Think of it as कर्म

8 ) Should you choose to ask for letters from phd-student/technicians/project assistants/postdocs in the lab, please find out from the agency that has requested them what criteria they use for determining the appropriateness of the letter. Typically for academic/research positions a supervisory role is required, but not essential for obtaining recommendations.

9) Please do not add me as a referee without asking me first.

On choosing a research problem


One of the big questions facing (especially) young researchers, at the anvil of choosing a research career, is finding a problem. There are many ways to go about doing this.

  • Follow the leader: One can find a big and successful lab with a famous scientist and hope good ideas from the lab come to you and inspire you
  • Follow the money: Find a topic that is being funded heavily by Public or Private agencies, since that might be something that is also socially relevant. There are many pitfalls here. But it’s a sense of doing socially useful science. It might therefore be very applied too.
  • Follow the market: Industry has always attracted science. And science has sometimes attracted industry, less so in this country. If you enjoy tight deadline working, and are looking for new goals, new challenges every year,  with a driver of novelty coming from the market.
  • Follow your heart: Find and identify the problem that really does make you curious, for rational reasons or irrational ones. This requires a very curious mind, and might not be a good startpoint for all minds. Yoshinori Oshsumi (Nobel Prize winner 2016 for Physiology and Medicine) however is a shining example of this as highlighted in this 2012 article “Yoshinori Ohsumi: Autophagy from the beginning to the end” in J. Cell. Biol. This is also the hardest.

And adding to all of this is, once you choose a problem to continue pursuing it. C.V. Raman is reported to have said “Science can only flower out when there is an internal urge. It cannot thrive under external pressure.” (21/11/1970) [Barry Masters on C.V. Raman].

Further reading

  • Peter B. Medawar (1979) Advice to a Young Scientist. Classic book, still relevant
  • Alon U. (2009) How to choose a good scientific problem. Molec. Cell. 2009 Sep 24;35(6):726-8. doi: 10.1016/j.molcel.2009.09.013.
  • C.V. Raman and the Raman Effect by Barry R. Masters on the OSA website weblink