Tag Archives: professionalism

Learn to Write an Email Asking for a Recommendation

You may feel this small when you ask for a letter. It’s OK. Photo by Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash

As we’ve discussed before, people seem to have some anxiety around asking a potential mentor for a letter of recommendation.  I used to teach an undergraduate seminar course in clinical research, and one of the assignments was for the students to write an email asking for a letter of recommendation.  I was surprised at the range in quality of these emails, so I think the topic deserves some attention to make sure you all write excellent emails.

Here is the basic structure:

  • Email title
  • Salutation
  • Introduction (if necessary)
  • A description of the position to which you are applying
  • Your ask for help
  • A closer

Email title

This one is pretty simple.  You can’t go wrong with “Letter of Recommendation”.  It is straightforward and tells the reader exactly what the email is about.  “Inquiry” is more vague but could be used if you don’t want to prime the reader about what your ask is.

Salutation

“Dear Dr./Mr./Ms. X,”  That’s it. Keep it simple.

Introduction

If there is a chance the reader does not know you, this is recommended.  If you are a senior veterinary student and you just got off a clinic rotation with the person, this is not necessary.  I would suggest two lines. The first is giving your current professional role and the context of how you know each other.  “My name is John Smith and I am a senior majoring in Biology; I was a student in your research seminar course.”

The second line provides something memorable about you or your interaction.  “I did the research project comparing pricing of men and women’s beauty products.”

A description of the position

Provide enough information that they can write a specific letter.  If this is “vet school”, that’s fine. If it’s an aquarium externship in Florida, give them more details.  If there is a link to the position description, provide that. “I am applying for small animal rotating internships in academic and private practice institutions.”

Your ask for help

Just keep it simple and gracious.  Always attach your letter of intent and curriculum vitae.  “I was wondering if you would be able and willing to write a good letter of recommendation for me?  My letter of intent and CV are attached for your reference. Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you.”

Closer

These commonly include “Sincerely,” “Best Regards”, and “With Appreciation.”  I personally like “Respectfully,” but you can choose what you like. “Cheers,” “Take Care,” and similar too-personal closers should not be used.

So that’s it!  If you want to put some examples together and share them in the comments, I will comment on them!

How to be Successful: Aim for Zero Inbox

How do you know what is on your to-do list?  Do you keep checklists on your phone or on the fridge?  How do you update/check them during the day? What about tasks that require communicating with others, often over email?  

Managing your to-do list is essential so that you can be considered reliable and dependable. If there are two individuals: one who Gets Things Done and one who Does Not, which will have a better professional reputation and be able to progress through life more successfully?  There are dozens of task management systems, but I believe there is one which is easy, free, readily available, and highly functional: your email account.

Using your email as your to-do list makes it accessible.  You can access it via your phone, laptop, desktop computer.  When I am at work, I have a window with my inbox open at all times so I can see incoming messages and handle them appropriately.  I can see at a glance who is involved in the messages and what the last date on a task was. Gmail (and most other email systems) creates threads so I can keep track of all the messages related to that topic.

Some people use different folders to manage their to-do list, rather than their inbox.  This is fine; it’s the principle which matters. I keep a folder of ‘awaiting response’ messages, because it is shocking to me how often I send out an email and never hear back from someone who should have responded.  I also keep folders like ‘Personal’, ‘Professional’, and ‘Karate’ to hold important messages to which I need to refer back for long periods of time.

The goal is to achieve Zero Inbox because that means I have taken care of all the tasks I am currently responsible for.  Once I achieve that goal, then I know I can move on to starting new projects. This keeps me from getting overwhelmed and over-committing.

Be sure if you use this system to make an email account which is NOT the one you have at your institution.  You will move on one day (if a student) or you may not be there forever, and many institutions drop your email account once you leave

You don’t have to use this exact system, but I want you to engage in the principle.  You need to keep track of what you are responsible for and act to take care of things for which you are responsible.  Don’t be one of those people who just gets tasks and never takes care of them. You will not be well-regarded professionally- it will definitely adversely affect your professional progression.

Will They Pull a Faculty Position Offer?

For anyone applying for a faculty position, this is probably the nightmare scenario: you interviewed, you like the position, they liked you, they offer you the position, you begin negotiating, and then they pull the offer.  What the hell just happened? This topic is difficult for me to discuss because it is so thoroughly beyond-the-pale unprofessional and unacceptable for institutions to pull an offer that I can barely wrap my head around it.  Nonetheless, it does happen in veterinary medicine, and I have personally seen it twice.

The first I heard second-hand about but did not participate in.  The small, private institution had offered a candidate the position and the candidate came back with requests.  The problem is, one of those requests was absolutely impossible for the institution. The applicant felt strongly about it, though, so contemplated it for a long time and came back with another possible solution.  There was at least one other back-and-forth like this. The candidate came back with another possible solution, and the hiring manager at the institution became frustrated and said, “Forget it.”

The second happened to a friend of mine.  They received an offer for a faculty position at an off-campus research center affiliated with a large state school.  My friend came back with a request for flexibility to allow remote work from an office on-campus (4 hours away from the research center) 4-6 days per month because of a personal family situation.  The institution pulled the offer without further negotiation or explanation.

Let me be clear: this is the fault of the institution, NOT the applicant.  I told my friend that it was probably for the best: any organization which would pull an offer during negotiations is not one you want to work for.  This happens only because individuals at the organization get ego and emotion involved, which you SHOULD NOT do during negotiations. Here’s how negotiations are supposed to work:

The institution extends an offer.  You respond with what you would like in order to accept it.  The institution responds. They may give you everything, they may give you something, or they may give you nothing of what you ask for.  If they give you everything, great, you accept the offer. If they give you something, you may be able to reply asking for a different something.  The second-to-last step in any negotiation is the institution saying: this is our final offer, take it or leave it, and we need a decision by this date.  It is then up to the candidate to decide if that is acceptable to them or not.

I can’t imagine why an institution would rescind an offer unless it is due to ego or emotion.  I have heard administrators say during a negotiation, “Well, they aren’t appreciative enough of our offer,” or “What they are asking for is unreasonable.”  The first reflects a ridiculous premise- of COURSE they appreciate the offer, but they want to do the best thing for themselves, their colleagues, and the institution.  The second is irrelevant- if the institution believes it is unreasonable, they can reply with, “We cannot do that.” That’s how negotiations work!

If you are applying for faculty positions and are concerned about the pulled offer, my advice is: Do not be concerned.  First, they are vanishingly rare. I have a personal sample of probably 50 negotiations of which I am aware enough to know if this happened. The fact that this happened in only two cases indicates a 4% incidence rate. In fact, the rate is very likely much lower than that, as there are hundreds more negotiations I do not know of that did not result in a pulled offer. Second, it is a GOOD thing if an institution pulls an offer to you.  This indicates they are immature and unprofessional and don’t know how to conduct a negotiation. You don’t want to work at an institution like that. Of the two cases I described, I believe both candidates dodged a bullet.

Any competent administrator, if faced with a situation where they can’t give a candidate what the candidate is asking for, will say so, “This is the best we can do.  Let us know by this date if you will accept or not.” When negotiating, you need to ask for what you NEED and what you WANT and offer reasonable explanations for your requests.  Don’t accept any less because you are afraid of the pulled offer. The reasonable institution will give you what they can and negotiate in good faith.

NB: All of this assume YOU dealt with the institution in good faith. If you withheld something (pending license investigation, legal trouble, accusations of academic malfeasance, etc.), you should absolutely expect this will be discovered and, no matter where you are in the process, the offer will probably be rescinded. But you wouldn’t do anything like that, would you? So does not apply to you.

How To Avoid Making a Damn Fool of Yourself on Externship

I don’t want to write this blog post.  I don’t feel like I should have to. It’s common sense, isn’t it?  It’s a waste of data to send this through the interwebs. Unfortunately, I have experienced veterinary externs who made a damn fool of themselves.  They besmirched the reputation of their home institution, irritated colleagues and faculty, and sank any hope of getting a letter of recommendation or being ranked at the institution.  So, since I have seen it, I am here to help. If you are an RFHB, you may go to the next post.  If not, here’s how to avoid making a damn fool of yourself on externship.

1) You are a guest.  Would you go to someone’s house and denigrate the way they load their dishwasher?  “Man, they’ll never get clean if you do it like that!” Don’t insult your host school in any way.  Don’t talk down about their students or their faculty or their processes. You may make a polite remark like, “Oh, how come you do it like that?” or “Oh, why do you do that” or “Oh, what was your rationale for deciding to do it that way?” if it reflects a genuine interest to learn.  But just because they do things differently doesn’t mean they’re bad. Try to see the good in the differences. Heck, I learned how to place coccygeal art lines at CSU during a 3-week externship which I would have never learned otherwise. Be open-minded.

2) Learn the system.  There is always a painful learning curve the first week, but pay attention and try hard to figure it out.  If you work at it, you will be more effective by the second week. You may not know where the Q-tips are, but at least you can fill out a medical record and find ICU.

3) Show up.  Set two alarm clocks if you have to.  A student at their home institution may get a one-off if they miss a day or show up late.  You don’t have a whole year to impress these people, you have 2-4 weeks. A single day of a bad showing represents up to 10% of the experience these people will have with you.  Make sure you know the route to the hospital and budget plenty of time in the event of an accident or road closure.

4) Work hard.  Come in early, stay late, don’t complain.  You are representing your home school as well as yourself.  You don’t want anyone to have the slightest inkling that your home school trains slackers.  Represent your home school with honor.

5) Smile.  Be pleasant.  Be engaged. Ask polite questions.  Be helpful. Be positive. It’s only for 2-4 weeks.  Even if you are not by nature a particularly outgoing person, you can still appear happy to be there.  Because you SHOULD be happy to be there. You’re in god-damned-vet-school, how amazing is THAT?!? And this place had the good grace to accept you in as a guest!  That is pretty amazing.

6) Treat everyone with respect, especially the technicians.  Obviously, this is true at your home school, but is even more important when you are an extern.  Technicians are amazing; be sure to treat them with the utmost esteem.

7) Be appreciative.  Make sure to thank your colleagues and mentors for the experience.  If you had a particularly good connection or may be interested in a letter of recommendation, a follow-up thank you card may not come amiss.  In particular, thank the technicians.

That’s it.  It seems simple, doesn’t it?  It seems like it shouldn’t need to be said.  But believe me when I say this: it DOES need to be said.  And YOU may be the one to whom it needs to be said.

How to Be Successful: Answer Emails

The Vetducator - Reply to emails image.

A while ago, I posted this question on my Facebook wall: “Is answering emails promptly a requirement for white collar work?”  My professional friends responded with a resounding YES. “It is, and those who don’t make everything harder for everyone else.” In your endless quest to aim for zero, this is an easy one.  Not answering email makes you a clear -1 in professional realms, including veterinary medicine.

Getting an email and not answering it is almost exactly like being late to a meeting where your presence is required.  What you are saying, loudly and clearly, is this: “My time is more valuable than your time.” You may not INTEND to say that.  But that’s what you are actually saying with your actions. I don’t know why and, you know what, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter why. The end result is me feeling about this small.

The Vetducator - Feeling small when no one replies to your emails.
I feel like the small figure when I don’t get a reply.

I understand there can be an overwhelming flood of emails coming in, all needing attention.  There are a variety of systems for handling them. Ignoring them is not an option if you want to be seen as a professional.  Here’s how I handle them, but YMMV.

First, when I get an email, I decide whether it needs to be deleted.  I get a lot of these that aren’t spam per se, just not relevant to me right then.  If I don’t care about it and don’t imagine needing it, it gets deleted. (This baffles my best friend, who insists I should just archive it, but if I can’t imagine ever needing it, wouldn’t it be better to remove that data from my storage?  I think so.)

Next, is it an email which can be answered quickly and in a sentence or two?  Scheduling events are like that for me. These can be quickly bounced back to the sender with my availability.  Others are quick replies like “Thanks” and the like. These are my favorite types of emails. Requests for working with me from this blog also fall under this heading.  They get dealt with within the hour or, if I am busy on clinics, that day.

Third, if it’s not an email which can be answered quickly, how much cognitive energy is it going to take to handle?  Is it a request to run statistics on a paper with which I have passing familiarity? That will be an entire afternoon project.  I generally divide these into two categories: do in under a week or put off until close to deadline. If under a week, I tend to do the more cognitively simple tasks sooner.  In either event, I always reply to the email promptly (unless it was automated, as with a journal decision on a submitted manuscript).

Replying to email is just one aspect of being reliable.  And hoo boy, if you can get a reputation for being reliable vs. being unreliable, go for reliable.  You will get better recommendations, people will want to work with you more, and your career will progress more positively.  You must respond to emails in a timely fashion to be considered a professional.

So now I am genuinely curious: why don’t you respond to emails promptly?