Grant reviewers want to invest in success.  If you’re applying for a career development award, you must convey the support of your institution.  If your chair doesn’t want to invest in you, why should the NIH or other funding agencies?

Dr. Nancy J. Brown, chair of the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and author of hundreds of letters of institutional support, recently shared her top suggestions for crafting a letter that shows your department chair is invested in your success.

(And yes, you will be drafting these letters.)

The Kiss of Death. Never, ever say that institutional support is contingent on receiving the award.  See the point above about grant reviewers wanting to invest in success.

The letter should promise what you need to succeed. This is typically at least 75% protected time for research and career development activities. Spell out teaching, clinical, and administrative duties you will put down upon receipt of the award, or duties from which you will continue to be protected if you don’t have them already.  The letter should also describe the appropriate office and lab space, equipment, and other resources (including access to research populations) the division or department will provide.

Success looks like: Your becoming an independent, tenured investigator.

Open strong. The opening recommendation should include superlatives, e.g., “I write to provide my strongest support…”

Provide some (superlative) biography. This person is a star, and his/her unique qualities are…  When drafting a letter, this is where you let your ego off the leash.  Statements that may seem hyperbolic to you may be appropriate.  If this is uncomfortable for you, ask your mentor to include more superlatives when he or she revises the draft.

Include a bit about your science. The letter should convey that you’re doing important work, and your chair knows about it.

Commit. As above, spell out how your time will be protected, space provided, and other items and investments you need to succeed.  Count everything.  For example, if you work somewhere that sells access to an electron microscope in small chunks for a small fee rather than you having to buy the whole $2 million thing yourself, count how much money that’s worth, especially if it explains why your research funds may seem low.

Close with a strong summary of why you are a promising investment.

Use good etiquette. Always provide a draft. Use the right hierarchy for your department—if it should go to your mentor, then division chief, then chair, send it that way.  Allow sufficient time for busy people to read, revise, and submit the letter.  (Think weeks, not days.  And follow our guide to pacing the components of your proposal.)

Common grammatical and style errors to avoid:

  • Comma rather than a colon after the greeting (a business letter always uses the colon, even if it’s to your best friend).
  • Use of passive voice.
  • Use of “their” as a singular pronoun (“The candidate will then select their…” vs. “The candidate will the select his or her…”)
  • “Data” are plural. “Datum” is singular.
  • Split infinitives: Any word in between “to [verb].” For example, “to boldly go where no man has gone before…”  Good for Star Trek.  Not for you.
  • Spelling errors of any kind.

Drafting a letter of collaboration? Check out advice from collaboration pros.

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