Apr 24, 2014
By Dawn L. Hershman, MD, Columbia University
When fellows and junior faculty sit down to write their first career development grant, they often spend a lot of time focusing on the scientific aspects of the proposal, such as the aims, the background section, and the research plan. While these components are obviously critical to the success of the grant, they are not the only factors that go into the final application score. For both one- and multi-year career development awards, reviewers are also scoring the applicant’s potential for future success as an independent researcher, choice and experience of the mentor, and career development plans during the grant period. Your mentor letter is a component that will emphasize many of these attributes. Below are some tips for how to approach the process of obtaining an excellent mentor letter and information you should be prepared to provide.
1. The Mentor Letter Is Not Just a Recommendation Letter
The mentor letter should not read like a recommendation for fellowship. The focus should be on your research history (including papers and presentations), role in current research, and potential for future success.
2. Choose a Mentor—or Mentors—with Experience
The review committee needs to feel confident that your mentor has sufficient experience in research and in offering guidance. The mentor letter should summarize your mentor’s research background, current academic position, and leadership roles, as well as prior history of mentorship. Some mentors summarize this in a paragraph; others include a table. It can be useful to share the number of prior mentees, the types of career development grants received, and if the mentees went on to have an academic career. If your mentor is junior, often it is a good idea to have a “co-mentor” with more experience who can provide career development advice, while your primary mentor focuses on the research project. It is not uncommon for an applicant to have several co-mentors or advisors who focus on different components of the project or different components of career development.
3. Demonstrate Sufficient Resources and Support for the Project
The funds from grants are used primarily for salary support, so the letter should reassure the reviewer that you and your mentor have sufficient resources to complete the proposed project. If the project is laboratory-based, the letter should describe the resources available with regard to supplies, space, and technical help. If the project is a clinical trial, the letter should describe how the study is being funded.
4. Demonstrate Sufficient Time on Your Mentor’s Part
If your mentor oversees multiple fellows and junior faculty, it is important to show how much time your mentor will have available for your project. Emphasizing the frequency of your meetings and how much supported effort they have for mentoring activities can help convinc ethe reviewer your mentor is invested in your success. This is another situation where it can be useful to have a co-mentor; your letter should then spell out how much time you will spend with each person and outline their responsibilities. Highlighting collaborations between the mentor and co-mentor can be helpful.
5. Include Key Components of Your Career Development Plan
The more specific the mentor letter is, the more believable it is.Summarizing your career development plan with regard to courses, outside meetings, internal meetings, seminars, conferences, and other educational activities often can help the reviewer understand the scope of the application.
6. Describe Your Role in the Design of the Project
It is often difficult for a reviewer to determine how much intellectual input you contributed to the research project. A mentor letter can stress your creativity and detail your specific role in the design and development of the project.
7. Outline Your Interactions with Other Mentors/Advisors
If you have multiple mentors and advisors, the mentor letter should acknowledge all the participants and explain their role in the project and in yourcareer development. One approach is to have group career development meetings several times a year. Even if you have one primary mentor, your sub-mentors and advisors should contribute letters that can be included in the appendix of your application.
8. The Letter Should Be Personal and Laudatory
The letter should explicitly state that your mentor has confidence in your academic success. One approach a mentor may take is to compare you with other individuals they have worked with, and to describe your personal attributes such as intellect, reliability, creativity, professionalism, and drive.
9. Make Sure the Mentor and Advisor Letters Are Different from Each Other
It is common for a mentor to ask you to write a draft that they can modify and expand. Because letters are sometimes confidential, you may not have the ability to review it after the preliminary draft. It is important to make sure the draft letters you give out are different from each other. If all of the letters in your application are identical, the reviewer may assume that your mentorsand advisors did not put thought or effort into the recommendations.
10. Give Your Mentor Sufficient Time to Work on the Letter
Researchers who mentor fellows and junior faculty are very busy, and often operating under multiple deadlines, so it is important to start the process early. The more time you spend with your mentor, the easier it is for him or her to write a sincere and thoughtful letter. It is important to discuss the letter in advance and to come up with a time-frame with your mentor from the very beginning about when they will need to review each section, and the deadline for submitting the letter. If you start working with your mentor early in the application process, you have a better chance of obtaining a detailed, enthusiastic, and personal mentor letter.