Good" means average. "Great" means good. "Competent" is a blistering criticism. Welcome to the world of letters of reference, where you never say what you mean, and sometimes what you don't say, says it all.

Letters of reference are the dirty work of science—an administrative duty that nobody wants to be bothered with. Yet they are an indisputably important part of being a scientist. In 2000, US universities awarded 25,979 science doctorates, according to a National Science Foundation survey. That translates to 26,000 people looking for 26,000 jobs, each demanding three to five recommendation letters apiece.

In the sciences, reputation is everything, so a letter of reference can be the most potent weapon in the battle for admission to a good program, getting the right job, or getting tenure. "These letters are too important to people's lives and to the functioning of science to take them lightly," says Moses Vijayakumar...

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