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 recommendation letter. 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

  1. 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.
  2. Each and every letter is targeted to the specific institution, research group, or company where you wish to apply.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Some Consequences

The characteristics above make my letters extremely valuable but this happens at a steep price
  1. 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 bitterly disappointed.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

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
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 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.
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.
All those good examples above are about things you know and why they are interesting for the people hiring you.

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:

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 things they really want is some genuine information on whether

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.

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?

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.

Some students don't fully appreciate that the notion of what is 'urgent' may differ 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.

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.