Career Palanca

Yesterday, I asked my academic friends on Facebook what they thought of giving a copies of letters of recommendation to the students they’d written them for, as a way of giving those students encouragement they could reread when the going gets tough. Most people who responded thought it was a good idea, and many in fact already do this regularly. However, a few pointed out that in some cases, jobs require the letters of recommendation to be strictly confidential (you can tell if this is the case, as you will likely be required to certify that the student has not seen the letter as part of the submission process), so it’s not universally OK to pass along letters of recommendation even if well-intended.

Today, I was talking about encouragement with my friend Nina Tandon, and we had what I think is a pretty good idea. For context, Nina and I have known each other since high school, and are both now scientists (she is a tissue engineer at Columbia and founder a new company, Epibone). The high school we went to is Catholic, and has a tradition of writing palancas.

You: “WTF is a palanca?”

Palancas are letters, written to a particular person and collected on their behalf by someone else, who then delivers the collected letters to them in one batch. In Catholicism (and perhaps religion generally– I’m not sure how widespread palancas are but I’m not sure if they are specific to Catholicism), these letters are usually supposed to be about god. Now, I’m an atheist, and if memory serves, there was some stuff about god in the palanca I received… but mostly what was great about it was that it was an envelope full of letters from my friends saying nice things to me. Who wouldn’t want that?

 So here’s an idea that I think would work not only for students, but for anyone going through a difficult time or transition in their career (grad school, postdocs, tenure process, etc), which circumvents any issues with letter confidentiality: write them a career palanca. Here’s how it might work:

1. Pick someone to write to. We already have to write letters for our colleagues, so chances are you’ve already even written some of what you’d write to them anyway. You just need to ask a few other people (say other members of your research group, other colleagues, whoever seems appropriate) if they would write to that person. Shoot for 5-10 letter writers. 

2. Collect letters on their behalf. This can be via email or actual physical letters, whatever works.

3. Pick a time to give the recipient their letters. You can use this as a way of commemorating some occasion (e.g. defending your thesis, or getting a new job), but I’m pretty sure there’s no bad time to tell someone you think they’re good at what they do.

4. Give the recipient their letters… and then let them read them whenever they want. I recall the experience being pretty moving, so they might want to read it in private because FEELINGS.

What do you think? Is this something you can see yourself doing for a friend or colleague?

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