Tips for Writing Letters of Recommendation

March 31, 2014

One of the things I like best about teaching is seeing my students succeed and move onto new challenges. When they are in the process of doing that, they often need references and letters of recommendation. I am happy to be asked and want to help. However, when I sit down to write a letter of recommendation and am facing a blank page, I start to wonder where to start. It’s something I didn’t really consider when I asked professors, and managers to write reference letters for me for school and job applications.

Here are some tips I have put together for myself when I need to write a letter of reference:

  • Make sure I know enough about the person and about the job, school, or scholarship the person is applying for. What information is the person who is reading the letter going to want? Does he or she want to know about academic performance? Attendance? Leadership qualities? Extracurricular activities?
  • State that I am recommending them in clear, strong language in the opening paragraph.

“I believe that Jane Doe would be an asset to your company as she has been here.”

  • Introduce myself towards the beginning of the letter-maybe even the first paragraph. The reader should know your relationship to the applicant, how long you have known him or her, and how you are qualified to evaluate the applicant.

“I met Jane Doe when she was a student in my Fall 2012 Chemistry 101 class at Blank College where I am a professor of chemistry.”

“As John Doe’s supervisor, I have worked with him for the last 5 years at Blank Chemical Company.”

  • Explore the reasons why you recommend the applicant in the following paragraphs. Try to give concrete examples of the applicant performing well to support your recommendation.

“John has strong leadership qualities. As part of the Chemistry Club, he organized a volunteer tutoring program for chemistry students.”

  • Compare the applicant to his or her peers. Where does her grade fall compared to the rest of the class? How did his performance review stack up among other chemists in the department?

“Jane has consistently exceeded our expectations for level 2 chemists in each of her performance reviews, making her one of our top chemists in the company.”

  • I like to finish the letter by once again recommending the applicant and briefly restating the reasons.

“John is one of the top students in his class who has shown himself to be a leader through his volunteer work.”

  • Most importantly, I make sure to know the deadline for the letter and to meet it!

Being able to assist people when they are moving onto the next stage of their lives-starting new jobs or starting a new school program-is a great feeling. It’s exciting to see people changing jobs or even careers, transferring to a new school or program, or going back to school. It’s even better when you have a plan on how to write the letter.

This article was written by Sara Stellfox. After working in contract and pharmaceutical laboratories, Sara changed her career path and is now a free lance writer and chemistry instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago.

What is Your Story?

March 24, 2014

Whether meeting someone new at a conference, or explaining to a potential employer exactly how your background prepares you to meet their needs, scientists are often asked to tell their professional history.  While it is hard to condense a lifetime of professional experience into a few minutes, it can be even harder to do it in a coherent way that makes sense to the listener.

When you stop to reflect on your career history (which you should do on a regular basis), do you see that your career followed a straight trajectory, with each job leading logically to the next one, until you retire exactly when and how you had planned?  I didn’t think so.

Most people’s careers take many twists and turns, as they take advantage of unexpected opportunities, and deal with unplanned disasters.  The problem comes when you try to turn that succession of steps, each of which made sense at the time, into a single, coherent story that others can understand.

When you start thinking about how to tell your professional story, start with the easy part.  What elements have remained consistent throughout the majority of your career?  Have you always used the same techniques, worked in the same subject area, or worked for the same type of company?  Have all of your jobs involved seeing things in terms of how they relate to the big picture, or were they more making sure the details were correct? Finding a common theme that runs through your entire work history will make your story “hang together” when you tell it, and convey a sense of continuity and stability to your background.

Next, think about what changed at the major transition points in your career.  Did you take the same skills but start applying them in a new field?  Did you expand your skills and learn new techniques, while remaining in the same field?  Or did you take the lessons you’d learned at a large company and bring them down to implement in a small start-up? Can you divide your history into a few major transitions, and other more minor transitions?

Think about what you have learned and how you have grown in each of your career segments. What did you learn about yourself, or your field?  How have your interests and abilities grown and changed over time?  What situations trigger your career changes?  Can you use those insights to frame your career transitions?  Being able to talk about you why you made the changes you did, and how you grew with each transition, will emphasize your flexibility and broad background.

Finally, think about where you want to go next in your career.  Whether you are happy in your current position or are actively looking for something new, you should have an idea of where you would like to go next.  Whether it’s a new type of project in your current job, or an entirely new career, you need to tell people where you want to go, so they can help you get there.

Summarizing your entire career path in a succinct way, that connects the dots in a logical manner for your listener, is not a trivial exercise.  While it may not have felt logical while you were living it, in hindsight you may be able to see how you were preparing for the change, even if you didn’t know it at the time.

Once the whole story makes sense to you, you can tell it to others in a way that will make sense to them.  While it won’t start with “one upon a time”, it will hopefully end with “happily ever after.


This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

Casually Job Hunting

March 17, 2014

People rarely stay at the same company for the length of their career anymore.  According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of January 2012 college graduates 25-34 yrs old spend a median of 3.1 years at an employer. Workers are changing jobs every few years and sites such as linkedin make it even easier to always be casually job hunting. It seems like we are always, at least casually, job hunting. To keep your options open without doing a full job hunt, you can keep your professional contacts and keep your online presence current.

Often, you can hear about good opportunities in your field from a colleague. Make sure to keep in contact with previous coworkers and managers. Sending an email to catch up every few months or once a year is a good idea. It’s better to keep the lines of communication open and not only contact people when you are actively job hunting and want something from them. When using social media, you should make a point to send a personal message to people. General updates to your account do not make quite the same impact as sending a direct, personal message. If you have left coworkers at a previous company, chances are in a year or two they will have moved on too and may hear of openings at their new company. Former coworkers may also be able pass along job prospects they have heard about it from their other contacts as well.

Having a professional online presence with your social media accounts can allow headhunters and HR departments to get in touch with you easily without you pursuing a specific job or company.

Make sure to keep any information about your career up to date-do not keep your job title from 2 promotions ago as your current title and add any skills or training as you gain them. Any updates or comments should be kept professional-do not give anyone a reason not to take a second look at you. Keep in mind that your current manager and coworkers may be looking at you online as well, so if your plan is to quietly or casually job hunt make sure to not be too obvious about looking with your social media accounts. Do not make updates on job hunting or listing reasons why to leave your current position.

If you are contacted by a headhunter or recruiter, check on either that person or the company before responding. How did they hear of you? Were you recommended by a former coworker or friend? Did they just find you by searching key words on a site? Most importantly, make sure you are genuinely interested in the opportunity before pursuing it. Take stock of how you feel about your current position and compensation and your possible future at your current company.

With most people changing companies every years, and most people keeping their eyes open for new opportunities, if not outright job hunting, you should make it easy to hear about interesting job prospects.

This article was written by Sara Stellfox. After working in contract and pharmaceutical laboratories, Sara changed her career path and is now a free lance writer and chemistry instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago.

Getting Along with Coworkers

March 10, 2014

People spend a lot of time and money on education to gain knowledge and skills in a specific area. We take these skills into the work force and use them to perform well on the job. However, a large part of our performance at work has nothing to do with our ability to do the job well ­– it is based on our ability to get along with coworkers. Few people seek out training on how to get along with others at work. It may seem that we should acquire these skills through life experience, but time and time again managers report that the ability to get along with coworkers is a difficult skill to find in an employee.

Why? There are two main reasons: (1) When people get emotional, whether it’s anger, humiliation, jealousy, frustration, etc., they resort to instinctive behaviors. Some people get defensive and treat coworkers with disrespect; others avoid conflict rather than dealing with the issue. Neither approach is productive. (2) While these behaviors may have been accepted by others in our personal lives, they are not tolerated in the work place. Family members and close friends re-enforce negative behaviors by tolerating them, and thus people have not been challenged to use self-control in emotional situations. In our personal lives, if we don’t like others, we simply don’t hang out with them or minimize our interactions. This is not an option at work. We are required to work closely with all varieties of personalities, and we are expected to be respectful and resolve differences.

Everyone knows this, but many still struggle with how to control themselves or confront others in the heat of the moment. There are numerous resources devoted to advising people on this issue, including articles, seminars, coaching sessions, and quizzes to help you determine your ability to work well with others. I have found one simple trick that can work well, if you implement it at the right time: pretend that your boss or your HR rep is standing beside you. How would you speak to your coworkers if you knew that your boss or HR would hear everything you say and the tone of voice you use, as well as see that smirk on your face. The reality is that other coworkers may hear or see your interactions, and anything you say may very well get back to HR. Therefore, make sure you are able to stand behind all your words and actions at work if you have to explain yourself.

Keep in mind that “interactions” extend beyond face-to-face encounters. Emails and gossip can spread rapidly, and these can also reflect poorly on your ability to get along with coworkers. We all know those people who complain about others or talk behind people’s backs. I naturally assume that those people speak the same way about me when I’m not around. It can be tempting to “vent” about things that annoy or frustrate you, but at least try to wait until you get home. Or better yet, confront the issue to resolve it, while pretending that your boss and HR are standing beside you, of course.


This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions. 

Career Preparation for Conferences

March 3, 2014

Attending professional conferences is both a benefit and a duty for most scientists.  You get to catch up on the latest developments in your field, seek input from your colleagues on your own professional projects, and get a break from the daily routine of the lab.  However, with a little preparation, conferences can also be a great place to advance your professional career and increase your standing in the scientific community.   Here are a few things you should do before leave for the airport, to make sure you get the take advantage of every opportunity the event has to offer.

Study the Program – Technical and Social

Read through the conference program before your leave, and determine which technical sessions, and which social events, you want to attend.  Some may require early registration and payment, but others will be more flexible.  Add the drop-in sessions to your calendar, so you will have the information handy when the time comes to choose what you are going to do for the evening.

Set Your Schedule

Search your address book for friends who live in the area of the conference, or other colleagues who might be attending.  Contact them in advance and arrange to get together for dinner, drinks or coffee.  While you want to leave some free time for spontaneous activities, you also want to take advantage of temporary geographic proximity to catch up with old friends and reconnect.  A few minutes spent chatting with a colleague in person can provide more information, and a stronger connection, than many months of emails or phone calls.

Update Your Social Media Profiles

You will be meeting and connecting electronically with many new people at the conference, so you want to make a good first impression.  Freshen up your social media profiles on and the ACS Network.  Read them as if you knew nothing about yourself, and see if they describe the professional you currently are, including your technical and nontechnical skills and interests.

Prepare Business Cards

When you meet those new people, you want to give them a quality business card, so they have your contact information in a tangible form.  Make sure you have enough cards to last through the entire meeting, and make sure the content is still accurate and complete.  In addition to addresses, many business cards now include bullet points listing areas of expertise, and they often include information on both sides.

Practice Your Elevator Speech

When you meet someone new, one of the first questions they probably ask is “Who are you?” or “Tell me about yourself”.  While your nametag will display your name and institution, you need to prepare an answer that goes beyond your job title, to sum up who you are and what you can do and a couple of sentences.  It should be both succinct and memorable.

Conferences are a great way to not only learn about the latest scientific developments, but also to strengthen connections with existing colleagues and make new connections.  By preparing ahead of time, and actively seeking opportunities, you can greatly enhance your personal and professional outcomes.

Get involved in the discussion

The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (—brought to you by ACS Careers.

Fail Early, Fail Often

March 3, 2014

Anyone who has worked in the pharmaceutical industry is familiar with the title saying.  The idea behind “fail early” is that if your product is going to fail, you’d rather it fail early in the development process, before you have invested huge amounts of time and money.  “Fail often” refers to the huge number of compounds that must be tested and discarded, in order to find the one that will make it all the way through clinical trials and approvals to become a marketed drug.

This strategy of trying many things and discarding some works in a lot of ways.  If a project is going to fail (or even just have problems), you want to know as early as possible so you can develop contingency plans to mitigate the damages.  So too with your career.  If you are going to fail at a task – whether because you can’t do it, or because you don’t like to do it – it is much better to find out early in your career, and on a low profile project.

Many things seem like they will be easy, fun, or both – until you actually start doing them and figure out what is really involved.  If you are thinking about moving your career in a more business-oriented direction, for example, you may know it will require you to create and manage a budget.  If that is not part of your current responsibilities, wouldn’t it be great to be able to get some experience in a low-risk way?  If you are proactively managing your career, you will find a way to do this as a volunteer.  For example, serve as treasurer for your local ACS section, or for a large event.

Perhaps the next logical step in your career path would be a more supervisory role, where you would be responsible for managing several other chemists.  You can make a list of all the additional skills this type of work will require (setting a vision, clearly communicating expectations, setting deadlines, monitoring progress, providing constructive feedback, …), and then look for ways to get practical experience in doing those types of tasks.  Again, volunteer work is a great way to test the waters – offer to coordinate an event big enough to require a committee, and see if you can get them to successfully execute your vision.  You may find it is harder than you think to get other people to do something just because you tell (or ask) them to – and in many cases it won’t make a difference if they are being paid or not.

If you don’t get to do a lot of public speaking in your current position, offer to give a presentation on your research at a local university, or to give a presentation on a current topic in science at a local science museum.  Presenting technical information to scientific colleagues is a much different skill than presenting it to members of the general public, and you may find you’re not as good with at one.

If your current job doesn’t require you to do a lot of writing, start a blog on a topic you’re interested in, and try to keep a regular publication schedule.  If you find you aren’t good at it, or don’t enjoy it, you can just stop.

In addition to seeing out opportunities to practice skills that you will need in the near future, you should try to get as much hands-on experience as possible in all sorts of professional skills (technical and nontechnical) – to improve your existing abilities, and to try out new abilities that you may enjoy.  At the very least you will have learned what you don’t like, and can make sure to steer your career in a direction that will not require a significant amount of that particular skill.

Eventually, you will fail at failing, and find something you’re really good at – and that’s what we call success.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.