Monday, November 26, 2012

Letters of Recommendation's grad/med/dental/etc school application season. For the first time ever I'm sitting down to write multiple letters of recommendation for former students and researchers in my lab. I've now seen the process from all sides: as a prospective undergraduate researcher, as a tenure track PI asked to write letters, and as a grad school admissions committee member.  I remember being horribly blindsided by the process as an undergrad (they require 3 letters from DIFFERENT people?) and hope to offer a couple of words of advice for those prospective students.

1. Email me way before the deadline to ask about writing a letter. There is nothing worse than finding out that I have to pop out a letter of recommendation in the next couple of days. My life as a PI is stressful enough that I only survive by making lists of things to get done over the next couple of weeks. If you wait until the last minute, even if I think you have a great future as a post-grad, there is a significant chance I will decline because there aren't enough minutes in the day.

2. If you are a student in my class, don't wait until after the final to introduce yourself. I'm pretty good at remembering names and faces and know who participates in class and who doesn't. If you are ultimately thinking about grad school it's a good idea to participate in discussions in my class and answer questions. Not only does this give me ammo to put in the letter, but it makes a good first impression (which never hurts).

3. Get a good grade in my class. I usually only write letters for students that get A's in my class. I will make exceptions if you are an active participant (see #2) or if you've made a good hearted effort to improve your grade as the semester went on. This doesn't just mean doing better on tests, but it means coming to office hours and showing an interest in the material. I can't say this enough, enthusiasm is one of the greatest assets for prospective students.

4. Help me out. A letter of recommendation is just that...I am writing to back you in your pursuit of higher education. You can help by scheduling meetings to come and talk with me in person, give me a feel for what your interests/goals are. Let me know why you want to go to grad school. Tell me stories that illustrate why I should give you my seal of approval. A letter can be pretty dry if all I can write is that you got an A in my class. Seriously, help a brother out here, it will go a long way towards making your letter  the best it can be.

5. Don't make me search for addresses to email the letter to or websites to log in to. Please, give me the links and I promise you that it will get done much faster and more smoothly.

6. Ask if there are spots for undergraduate researchers in my lab. There is nothing better in a letter of recommendation for grad school than positive comments about a student's laboratory skills and dedication. All grad school is is trying to figure out how to make experiments work, and you've got a good head start if you've already had this experience. Obviously, the earlier you do this the better.

7. Remember, I'm doing this to help you. There is nothing in my contract that requires me to write letters of recommendation. Seriously, this is a favor I'm doing for you.

Have to write letters? Check this out.

Any other thoughts? Feel free to contribute in the comments.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Co-corresponding authors

I was involved in a bit of a discussion over twitter this morning over the value of co-corresponding authors on manuscripts. This has inspired a Drugmonkey blog post with some good comments. Because I've actually published a paper with co-corresponding authors (here), I thought that I could provide a slightly different insight into the process.

First off, what does it mean to be a corresponding author? Traditionally, the corresponding author spot on a paper is there in case researchers stumble across your manuscript and have questions or requests for reagents. This has morphed into somewhat of a status symbol with the increase in number of authors on papers because corresponding authors are seen as having "ownership" (for lack of a better word) over the published project. For instance, in the CV for my tenure packet I list where I am the corresponding author on manuscripts from my own lab that my postdoctoral advisor is also an author on. Maybe this matters, maybe it doesn't, but I see it as a way to point out projects that I have taken more of a lead role on.

So after that brief intro, here's my experience with co-corresponding authorship. Back in 2009 we published a paper on sequencing and assembly of a Pseudomonas syringae strain (here). This paper included biological data as well as a computational pipeline to that we used to assemble the genome. My postdoctoral advisor, Jeff Dangl, was the sole corresponding author on this paper. Jeff is an incredible biologist, but is not the best programmer in the world. Dangl was the perfect corresponding author for any biological question (strain/construct requests, etc...) from that paper. However, Jeff would get emailed questions concerning the computational pipeline and inevitably would forward the emails to the people (Corbin Jones and me) that could actually answer them. This was a bit frustrating.
To prevent this situation in our next paper in this series, which expanded this pipeline and analyses across 19 strains, both Corbin and Dangl were corresponding authors with a note that Jeff would handle the biology and Corbin would handle the computational questions.

One important thing to each case the lead author has been the one actually formatting and uploading the paper to the journal, and also dealt with actual correspondance to the editor of the journal after submission without being listed as corresponding author. As many know, those are the most fun and fulfilling parts of manuscript submission...

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