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Letter writing

Posted by Melissa on August 6, 2013

Summertime and the research labs are humming, but in addition I find myself doing a fair amount of letter writing – writing letters of support for senior physicists being considered for career awards, writing letters evaluating portfolios of junior faculty up for promotion and tenure, writing letters for students applying for fellowships. And because it’s not December or January, when I am slogging through writing mounds of letters for graduate school and summer research programs, I’ve been a bit more reflective about the task.

While I resent letter writing eating up time in the middle of an academic term, during the summer I find I actually enjoy the task. It’s an interesting opportunity to reflect on how academia measures success. Academia seems to reward the accumulation of individual accomplishments. In writing many of these letters, indeed the goal is to aid in evaluating how worthy an individual is of a particular award or achievement. But in the letter writing process, I find myself feeling acutely aware of the heartfelt professional commitments to our intellectual communities that many of us make. Ultimately, the academic career is relational – how we  relate our ideas to those of others in the field, how we relate our talents and interests to community needs on either a big or small scale, how we relate as mentors or mentees, as teachers or students. As I write letters for individuals along the career spectrum I find myself filled with gratitude that amazing people choose to share their talents with the physics community every day in such a multitude of ways.

Taking the time to write letters, many of which will never be read by the people who I am writing about, serves as a chance to provide the praise or gratitude that I don’t fully express in real life, and knowing that others have written these letters for me at various points in my career makes me immensely appreciative of the community that has helped me get where I am.

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