How to Get a Letter of Recommendation from Fabio Massacci?
If you have been a student of mine you may wish that I write you a
I may (and normally do) write one to all students
who distinguished themselves in some way, or that I remember
for some reason.
Yet, it is important that you understand the following key points
to make sure that you actually got a letter.
These instructions are mostly meant for MSc students.
(They also apply to PhD students and post-docs but they
should know me well enough).
Some Key Characteristics of My Recommendations Letters
- I never write generic or hyped recommendation letters: I have
received too many useless letters (at best) or outright misleading ones
(at worst) from reputable scientists of reputable institutions to
inflict them myself on any one.
- Each and every letter is targeted to the specific
institution, research group, or company where you wish to apply.
- My letter should make clear why some
specific technical or
professional knowledge or skills which you acquired by working with me is
relevant for the position you are seeking.
- My letters are always truthful on your
standing respect to other students whom I had.
So you should be aware the average grade in the courses
that I taught is 27/30 for electives (pass is 18) and it is
25/30 for mandatory courses.
The characteristics above make my letters extremely valuable but this
happens at a steep price
- Since each letter is specific to a position, it takes time to write one
and I need to allocate the time for that in
my agenda. If you notify me on Monday that you want ten letters by Thursday
to ten different institutions and positions you will surely end up being
- If you are not the very best student of the pack, I'm going to write that.
I can write my courses are though
(which they are) but I strongly advice you to check you grades and
decide whether it is in your interest that I write
that you are in the lowest quartile or been caught plagiarizing.
- Grades are not everything, and I might remember you for some other
characteristics (eg you presented the best enterpreunerial project)
in which case I will write it.
- Since time is scarce I often ask you to send me a draft letter
and this is the point where there seems to be most misunderstandings.
The purpose of the draft letter
I always explain the purpose of the draft orally, but since a student
misunderstood it one time too many I decided to put it in writing. The purpose of the draft letter is NOT to write how
good you are and how great you have been or whether
you are a devout X (replace X with your religion).
If I remember you, I will write that.
Remember that my letters are specific.
So the purpose of the draft is to tell me
which technical/personal/group skills you learned with me are
relevant to the position
you are applying for, so that I don't have to wander
across gazillions web pages of the company
or research group to figure out what they are doing
and why they would be interested in what you learned by working with me.
The less time I waste in wandering on the net, the more time I have for your letter.
Below I put some examples of bad and good drafts
Why are they all bad? Because they are all about self-praise of yourself or about things you want or wish. The former should be better left to others, the latter are irrelevant for my letter and belong to your motivation letter (if you are supposed to write one). They don't convey any information on
- Bad draft (How great you soft skills are)
- One of his excellent traits is his perseverance which was evident
during the course of the aforementioned research.
- Bad draft (How good your hard skills are)
- During the course, I improved and stimulated my creativity, perseverance and coding skills, which I honestly think are all key requirements for a research position.
- Bad draft (How genuine you are)
- His genuine interest in the nature of privacy, trust and computing,
prepares him beautifully for your company.
- Bad draft (How hot is the thing you want to do)
- I think that studying IoT devices vulnerabilities, is clearly an hot trend nowadays
- Bad draft (Why you want the job)
- I want to challenge myself working in a heterogeneous team, with time-zone issues
- Bad draft (Why you want the job II)
- I think such and internship can really help me in finding the right PhD
Ask yourself this question: can I take the sentences you wrote, search-replace your name with the name of your colleague, search replace the target institution with any other institution, and the letter would perfectly stand in the eyes of a person that doesn't know neither your nor your colleague? If the answer is yes, well, this is a bad draft.
- what do you actually know? (which is different from what you would like to do or be),
- why should they hire you? (which is different from why you would like to work for them).
All those good examples above are about things you know and why they are interesting for the people hiring you.
- Good draft (Describes a skill you learned and why it is relevant)
- In a course under my supervision //your name// learned about
//topic//, a key research topic for the //research group where you
want to go//.
- Good draft (Describes a skill that other people in the hiring team have proven interest in)
In particular, students did a project on //things// where I did //stuff// (For example, I programmed a drone to recognize a landing spot, I wrote a programme to intercept and decrypt wifi messages on a radio channel, etc. etc.)
which is definitely aligned with //similar stuff// that
//collegue in the recruiting institution//
produced in the last year on //this other topics//.
- Good draft (Describes a skill that other people in the hiring team have proven interest in)
S/he has research experience on //activity//
is the basis for teaching //sample course// that is
present in the //degree programme in the recruiting institution//
- Good draft (Soft skills in context relevant for the perspective employer)
- //your name// has been //role// for the //course//
which is a multidisciplinary course focussing on //topic// among others. This expertise is
a particularly relevant for your position as you require
//some expertise// on page //some page// of the job description.
If you think I forgot it, you might also add [[My grade was //XXX//, you said we did the //best project//]]. Be sure to put the right number.
At this point I will rewrite the text above
(to make sure you were correct about topic that I thought I taught)
and add all the mantra about being you on top of the class (or just
average or below average of the class). Still, in this way I know precisely what do you want, can briefly check that the group really does what you think they do.
Some links at the web site and call for positions are also useful at this point. They are going to disappear in the final letter.
It does not need to be a "letter". It can also be few sharp paragraphs in your email:
- I'm applying at X (see link) in particular with P who works on Y
- Can you please write me a letter by date D?
- I want to go there because R (something they would like to have and that you know)
- My previous work W with you qualifies me because V (something you did or know)
In all cases, beware that my final letter will be very very different from your draft.
Why is this information important?
Have you ever seen a letter stating "This lady can't code, don't hire her" or "This guy is a moron, give him a wide berth"?
All reference letters will say that the person is very good, skilled, etc. If it is from a French academician, it will tell that an obscure freshly graduaded PhD has made the same contribution of a Nobel prize. By reading an UK professor's letter you would never be able to gauge that, after one year and 90 credits Master Degree at a world leading UK University, the guy in the letter can't speak English. US professors have been trained to write far too many letters for Visa support (as the previous two, squared)...
Ok, so if the "quality" part is worthless, why people want these letters?
At first because the very existence of the letter shows that you were entrepreneurial enough, and organized enough to get it from somebody.
People look for either comparative statics
or for missing sentences:
- the best of my,
- among the best, a very good,
- a good, reliable
- a student I met in the elevator...
- In his research on the theory of the universe, he was very good at coding = can't even read formulae,
- her main contribution to our experimental paper was theory development = can't write a single line of code, not even Matlab).
The things they really want is some genuine information on whether
- you actually know something that might interest them
- you actually did something that may be an interesting experience for them (for them
If you can't enucleate in a paragraph for me why your prospective employers should hire you (for something that you learned by working with me) then how can they?
This would also be something you could use in an interview.
On US-style vs EU-style Graduate Schools
Periodically some student writes me that
Let me explain that, unfortunately for your wallet, there is no difference between US-style and EU-style graduate schools.
- "The above doesn't apply to me because I am applying
to some US Graduate School and things works differently, so there is no prof
who must hire me."
There is only one question you need to answer:
have you a big pot of cash and are ready to pour the lot
into a University's coffer?
- Yes, I do, my pockets are pretty bulky..
Then you are right, you will pay your full tuition fee out
of your pocket (or your dad's and mum's pocket) and you don't need to find a
professor who will want to work with you. Whilst the
University will gratefully pocket the lot, you should be aware that
self-funded students who have no opinion on whom they want to work with
are normally considered morons
and assigned round-robin to (or claimed by) lowest performing academics.
Top performing academics have always grants to recruit students.
- No, I am actually looking for a scholarship.
Then, sorry about that, you will need to find a research group that
will foot your tuition fees and bills out of their research grants or quotas of the University-wide grants. If the professors say on their web page
they have no impact on the selection process (so you shouldn't write to
them) it is just to shoo shoo away the hapless morons.
On the (In)Effectiveness of Stalking
Finally, calling me on my mobile phone or stalking my assistants as some people do
The fact that you didn't plan well and now you urgently want ten letters from me
by tomorrow is not going to make me any more inclined to write them
because my agenda might be already fully booked. Fully booked means that
I typically have other Master or PhD students (or colleagues)
in my office and are talking to them, and that I booked those meetings
usually a week in advance or more.
- I have forwarded to you this email in request for a recommendation letter. [...] can i meet you in order to pick the letter? The deadline of submission is [...] tomorrow.
[First and only email sent Sunday 21:58]
I have emailed and called you several times regarding this matter.[...]
I mentioned you for 10 PHD programs
[First email sent Sunday 08:00, Deadlines Thursday]
Some students don't fully appreciate that the notion of what is 'urgent'
from individual to individual. Let me explain that more in details. In a past, parallel life,
I have worked for a voluntary service
organization working on the field on peace building, supporting
mentally disabled people and underpriviledged children,
doing refugees relief in war torn countries (see my web page for that).
My notion of urgent has been strongly shaped by that experience.
'Urgent' means that I have to stop doing what I am doing,
rush out of the building and do something entirely different.
Some illustrative examples from my real life experience of 'urgent' actions:
You realize by yourself that writing a recommendation letter for
a cushy position in academia or industry doesn't fit in the list.
- 'The roof of the school collapsed under the rain and kids must be evacuated',
- 'A member of the cooperative, a former drug addict relapsed and overdosed. He must be brought to a hospital.'
- 'Put a X of duct tape across all unbroken windows to avoid implosions of glass shreds during shelling' (You won't believe it but it actually works!)
It is therefore important to make sure that your request is 'normal' rather than 'urgent', 'well planned' and 'moderate in numbers'.
So, please remember: Ten letters for Ten different PhD programs mean Ten different drafts and Ten different specific reasons why Ten different groups should hire you. If you can't be bothered to figure them and spell them out in advance of the deadline, neither do I.