Archive for: November, 2011


Nov 30 2011 Published by under letter of reference

Questions abound about what should and should not go into Letters of Reference. I will not include any particular reader question here, but will try to hit the major points that commonly arise.

Of course the purpose of the letter and the nature/length of the letter will vary depending on the purpose and the personalities involved, but there is a certain sameness to these things as well, whether the letter is for an undergraduate applying for a summer internship or a postdoc applying for a faculty position.

Over the years, I have marveled at some of the weird things that people put in reference letters. I think the weirdest items appear in letters for undergraduates applying for internships or graduate programs because the letter-writers:

(1) may not know the applicant very well and struggle (in some cases, mightily and inappropriately) to find something to say other than "Jane got an A in my class"; and

(2) may know the applicant very well indeed and may somehow lose perspective on whether potential research advisors want to know that Jane was a great babysitter for the letter writer's 7 children (I personally do not want to know this. There are people I would trust with kids but not research, and vice versa.)

Just a few examples from the FSP and SP archives of strange and possibly inappropriate things I have seen in letters of reference for academic positions, awards, tenure, and promotion over the years:

- phrases like "Applicant X is one of the best female graduates of our department";

- or this: "He and his wife have spent many vacations in Bavaria, organizing their walking routes to coincide with the locations of breweries."

- "In my opinion, Applicant X is an excellent scientist. Now let me tell you about my credentials. Attached is my CV."

- "Applicant Z's Christian faith has helped guide her through a rigorous academic program."

- "Molly is such a responsible and mature person that my wife and I have repeatedly trusted her to care for our 5-year old and 2.5-year old when we have a 'date night' or a social function that is not suitable for young children."

- "Dr. X has come from a distinguished academic line. One of his committee member's advisor's advisor's advisor was awarded the Nobel Prize in 19xx."

OK, enough of that (for now). Writing letters is difficult, no matter how little/well you know the applicant. No one is perfect, so a common question by letter writers is how/whether to describe or hint at some of these imperfections.

Arguments in favor of writing a positive letter that has a few minor mentions of reasons why the applicant is mortal, even if you mostly think this person is awesome:

Letters should convey useful and accurate information. If someone's imperfections are relevant to the position for which they are applying, wouldn't the letter readers want to know this? Your credibility is at stake as well, and therefore your ability to advocate for others in the future.

Argument against mentioning these unless they really are major, fatal flows (in which case there is the issue of whether you should have told the person who asked you to write the letter for them that you couldn't write them a good letter):

Many (most?) letter-writers don't write anything negative in letters, so if a particular letter-writer does say something negative, however mild, that may doom the applicant's chances because all other candidates are apparently perfect (even if committees/individuals reading the letters know that the letters are likely to be somewhat incomplete in this way).

I think you've got to do what you think is right in each case, and just be as straightforward and unambiguous as possible. I have spent way too much time in committee meetings listening to people try to divine what is meant by a possibly somewhat ambiguous turn of phrase or choice of words -- is this a Red Flag intended to signal that the candidate is fatally flawed as a human being and a scientist, even though the rest of the letter is entirely positive, because the letter-writer didn't want to commit on paper to writing a major criticism? Or is that phrase just what it seems; a simple statement of something reasonably positive?

But maybe people will try to 'read between the lines' no matter how unambiguous you think you are being in your writing, and therefore it isn't worth anyone's time to try to psych the situation out.

These are some general "rules" that I try to follow for myself when writing letters (please add to the list with your own personal LoR-writing rules):

- I write what I think is fair, relevant, and useful in the context of the letter. I tailor each letter to each applicant and letter destination/purpose. I back up opinions with examples or other information.

- If the letter request contains specific questions or topics that should be addressed, I try to answer/address these as much as possible, unless I think the question/request is unreasonable. I have written before about requests to compare someone with their peers; that can be an extremely challenging request, fraught with potential for unfairness.

- If I don't have much to say about someone [and they are aware of this fact, but don't have other/good options for letter-writers], I keep the letter short. I explain that I had limited interaction with the candidate, so my short letter will be understood in that context, rather than that I was too busy to take the time to write a decent letter. I think some of the stranger letters I have read arose when the letter-writer started fishing around for things to say to bulk up a letter.

- I avoid personal information (hobbies, babies..) and irrelevant information about personality. Studies have shown that unconscious bias creeps into the adjectives we choose to describe the personality of female vs. male candidates, so I fight the urge to describe someone as "nice". If the person in question gets along well with others, there are other ways to explain that, such as with examples of successful collaborative work. I also don't think it is relevant to mention whether someone has a sense of humor; I think this is more common to describe in letters about male candidates than about female candidates, even though I doubt if the men are actually funnier than the women. [Yes, I know there are studies and debate about this.]

My letters are by no means perfectly crafted and compelling vessels of information, but I think it's important to try to write a good, useful, convincing letter. This takes time, of course, but it is time well spent.

What are some other Rules to Live By when writing a Letter of Reference?






14 responses so far

Stay or Go?

Nov 22 2011 Published by under career issues

A reader wonders whether it is a bad idea to do a postdoc in the same department/institution as the PhD (but in a different research group, with a different supervisor). This is an interesting question, and raises some related questions.

There are many possible combinations of staying and going in an academic career, from undergrad to postdoc and/or faculty position. I don't think it's worth making a distinction between those who do an MS and PhD at one or more institutions, as some departments require an MS along the way to the PhD, some don't require an MS at all, etc. Of course some people do get an MS and PhD at different institutions, but staying at one institution for an MS and PhD is not as significant as staying for some or all of the other stages of an academic career.

With that in mind, I would classify the extreme cases as:

case 1: different institution for every stage from undergraduate to faculty position (probably the most common, especially since those who go to undergrad institutions without grad programs have to move, by definition); and

case 2: two or more institutions the same for consecutive stages of undergrad, grad, postdoc, and/or faculty stages (most extreme case = all stages at one place).

I included the word consecutive in the second case because I think it is important to distinguish between those who return, perhaps many years later, to a former academic home and those who just stay.

I have seen diverging views of those who stayed in one place for undergrad-grad or grad-postdoc, from "S/he stayed at the same place because no one else wanted them" to "S/he is so awesome, University X didn't want them to leave".

I have also commonly seen in reference letters for undergrads applying to grad school, "I would gladly have accepted Z to stay on as my graduate student, but I know it is in his/her best interest to move on to another department." (implying that it is conventional wisdom that moving = better?).

As usual, I have lots of questions, and as usual, the most likely answer to most of them is "It depends..", but I think we can be a bit more specific than that, if only to make things more interesting. As usual, I hope that there will be many different points of view represented in the comments; e.g., from those who stayed, those who went, and those who are in a position to make decisions (e.g., hiring) about those who stayed vs. those who went.

Questions for discussion:

  • Is case 1 always better than case 2?  (my opinion: I think it is good to move if you have that flexibility, but case 2 is not by definition bad.)
  • And if you think so, is case 2 necessarily bad, or just not as good? (my opinion: case 2 is not necessarily bad; in some cases it might even be a better career opportunity to stay, although probably in most cases it's not better. I guess we could debate what are good vs. bad reasons to stay in one place, and whether we think this has positive or negative consequences.)
  • Does it matter which stages are involved? For example, undergrad and grad at the same institution is good (or bad), but grad to postdoc is bad (or good)? (my opinion: Above, I wrote about how many people think that it isn't in a student's best interest to stay from undergrad to grad, and I guess I have to agree with this. I have never wanted my best undergrads to stay on and work with me as grad students; I think they should move on. However, 'should' does not mean that I would be critical of someone who did this. I also think that the grad to postdoc situation is different, maybe even indicating something good about research momentum, ideas, independence, excellence etc.)
  • If someone does stay at one institution -- for example, from PhD to postdoc, as in the case of the person who wrote to me with this question -- does your opinion about staying vs. going change if there is an internal change from one research group to another? (my opinion: I don't think it is a strike against someone to stay in their grad department as a postdoc, especially if it's a short-term postdoc and certainly not if the project and/or advisor changes. Perhaps the grad/postdoc-to-be got their own funding? It's good if you can move and want to move, but it's not dire if you don't.)

I think these are the situations of most interest. Postdoc-to-faculty at one institution is going to vary a lot in goodness or badness depending on whether the postdoc is largely an independent scientist who clearly deserves to be hired in a faculty position (= good), or whether that person is someone's favorite minion and they are hired in an inside-job political move (= bad).

I have moved around a lot in my career, and I'm glad I did that (and had the flexibility and opportunities to do so), but academia is not one-size-fits-all, and there is room for all sorts of career paths followed by many different people with many different priorities, preferences, and experiences.

For me, it was important to move on from time to time. I met many interesting people, gained new collaborators, and developed new research directions in each place. Perhaps you can do this as well in a very large and dynamic institution, and therefore perhaps the key to whether staying vs. going is good vs. bad depends on what you do with your opportunities in each place.

27 responses so far

Independence Day

Nov 17 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school

Instead of including a specific e-mail question from a reader, the topic of today's post is a synopsis/synthesis of some related issues that I have seen in e-mails from students and advisors, not to mention my own semi-real life.

The question has to do with the independence of an advisee in research. I have seen issues related to independence raised by:

students who think they have too much independence; that is, too little advising or structure and little to no input on how they are doing in terms of progress and their advisor's opinion;

students who think they have too little independence; that is, they are told what to do and when to do it, and then they have to do what they are told. If they do what they are told for long enough, they may get their degree.

advisors who wish their students were more independent; that is, they wish their students wouldn't keep asking for instructions for every single stage of every project, even if the student could figure out some of these steps without asking, or have done this type of work before. I think we all understand that some students just want to make sure they are doing things right so they don't waste time or do something wrong, but some of these situations seem to involve extreme lack of independence to the point of not having any ideas and not developing any critical thinking skills.

advisors who wish their students were less independent; that is, they wish their students would keep them better informed of their work and progress instead of preferring to work alone, checking in only when necessary and not wanting any input or advice.

.. and everything in between those most extreme cases.

Of course some of this variation is related to personality type and perhaps also the sort of research involved, not to mention research group size and dynamics. But what, if anything, can be done about a mismatch in advisor-student preferences about independence in research?

As a long-time advisor, I can speak most directly about the second two scenarios listed above. If the advisor variable is relatively constant (not necessarily a good assumption), and the student variable changes (i.e., some students are too dependent, some too independent), the question is whether and how the advisor can explain what needs to change, why it needs to change, and perhaps how to change.

For example, a student who asks too many (unnecessary) questions about every single small thing could be told to try to do X alone next time, and then discuss how it went; and then the next time, they could do X and Y alone.. etc. You can figure out what is an appropriate level of help for the problem, technique, and people involved. Some students just need to be given the go-ahead to work independently and they will; others need the step-by-step approach to gain skills and confidence. And of course there is always the classic sink-or-swim approach: don't talk to me until you get to Z and we'll see how you did.

Similarly, a student who doesn't check in enough may simply need more specific communication about expectations. I have written before about students who submitted conference abstracts with me as a co-author but without showing me the abstracts prior to submission. In at least 2 cases that I can remember, the abstracts were bad in writing and content. Clearly these students should have checked these with me first and not been so independent as to skip that step. I would be very happy to give a quick read to a final or near-final version of something a student has written (especially if it has my name on it) -- the student is still being quite independent by writing something that only needs final, minor (or no) editing. Being independent does not mean that you have to go off and do everything yourself without any input from your advisors (although in some cases, with some, advisors, I suppose it does mean exactly that).

Readers, here are my questions for you on this topic:

- If you are a student, are you happy with the amount of independence you have? If not, is there anything you can do about it? If you are, is this just a happy coincidence, or did you (and your advisor) have to work this out?

- If you are an advisor, do you have any particularly effective methods that you use to develop what you consider to be the appropriate level of independence (or the type of research you do, for your research philosophy, etc.)? How common is it for you and your advisees to work out a mutually acceptable level of independence vs. having this be a continual source of frustration for one or both of you?

18 responses so far

Going in for the Kill

Nov 09 2011 Published by under academic etiquette

A reader wonders (original e-mail shortened/edited):

I am interested on your take on the etiquette of Q&A sessions during talks: who, if anyone, should ask critical questions? By critical I mean any question with a clear orientation of "I don't buy your results much, if at all, and I'm going to ask about a deficiency in your work to see if you will give in and agree with me."

I've seen undergrads ask these types of questions (direct quote: "I don't understand the overall point of your research") and it be considered a major gaffe, in part because the critique was unsophisticated; I've seen post docs hone in on a methodological weakness and be perceived as too aggressive and outspoken for doing so in a direct manner; and I've seen senior, tenured faculty really go in for the jugular and everyone just thinks they are being mean like always but no one really tries to call them on it or rein them in.

At a talk yesterday, there was a potentially major flaw to the results presented. The speaker did not come across as credible, and at the end of the talk a senior faculty member went right in for the kill.

The thing is, I agreed with him, but as a 2nd year Ph.D. student I don't feel like I could phrase a question so directly. This made me wonder how I COULD phrase it if I wanted to politely but directly inquire. My question is, how would you phrase this type of pointed, critical question and do you think it's appropriate for a graduate student to do so (considering they have more on the line than tenured faculty).

As a spectator at a talk, I enjoy a well-posed killer question, no matter who delivers it, but I think that everyone, from first-year students to ancient professors, can be most effective at asking these questions if the questions are simple and polite. These questions are most satisfying if delivered to a worthy recipient -- that is, someone who enjoys questions, who isn't vulnerable (e.g., an interviewee), and who might be able to provide an interesting response.

It's not so great seeing someone destroyed in an aggressive way by piranhas in the audience.

I want to mention here that I think it is great when students and postdocs ask questions after a talk (or during, if that is the culture of a department), so the question is not whether early-career academic people should ask questions, it's specifically about how to ask killer questions.

Although I don't think I have an inflated view of the awesome brilliance and cosmic knowledge of professors relative to students, I think the person who wrote the letter is right to wonder whether it is somehow different for students than for others to ask these questions.

I admit that I am bothered if a student asks an apparently rude or aggressive question that seems to be based on the assumption that the student has the necessary knowledge to tell someone their work is pointless or flawed. Maybe they do (in which case, I am less bothered), but if they clearly don't, they come off as jerks.

Of course, faculty can be jerks as well, particularly if the faculty member doesn't know much (or anything) about the research they are attacking. I am not so bothered if someone (professor, student, postdoc, anyone) with relevant expertise is a bit aggressive and asks a really good, probing question. The best questions of this sort, though, are politely and simply expressed.

You don't have to bend over backwards to be polite. I also find it annoying when someone has a really long, self-deprecating preface to try to soften the blow of what might be a killer question. You can briefly say "Maybe I missed your explanation of this, but..", but then go for it. Or just ask your question, but focus on the material, not your opinion of it.

I understand that, even though some visitors to departments are told that they will be speaking to a general audience that includes students and people from a variety of sub-fields, some speakers make no effort to provide the necessary information for most people in the audience to understand the talk. It's fine to call them on this, and students should ask what questions they want to ask (politely).

If, however, a student's intent is to be aggressive and tear down someone's work, rather than their presentation style, they should be quite sure that they know what they are talking about.

Is there a polite way for anyone to say "I don't understand the overall point of your research"? Perhaps. First of all, it might be better to phrase it as a question (but not "What is the point of your research?"). What did the student mean by that statement? That they were confused or that they thought the research was pointless? It's not clear.

For example, if the student was trying to say that the speaker did a lousy job of explaining the context of the research and wants to know why the research was done, it's perfectly reasonable to ask "Could you take a step back and explain the overall motivation for this work?" (or ask for specific questions being addressed, or ask if this work has anything to do with [something you think is relevant and more interesting, without saying that]).

If, however, the purpose of the question was to say "I think your research is not worth doing", then, as I said, the asker of that question should be quite sure that they know what they are talking about.

If one of my advisees asked what I thought was a rude question, I would talk to them to see if they knew how their question sounded. Some apparently rude questions are asked without any intention of being rude, and it's just a matter of some friendly, constructive advice to fix the problem.

Does this post have a point? Maybe, maybe not, but I hope others will leave comments and weigh in on the topic.

25 responses so far

Should She Do It?

Nov 04 2011 Published by under colleagues, tenure

A request from a reader for advice (original e-mail excerpted and slightly altered to preserve the anonymity of the writer):

I'm a tenure-track scientist, nearing the time of tenure evaluation (a year or two to go). Recently, a senior male colleague and I have developed mutal feelings for each other (we are both single), and are considering whether to pursue a relationship.  He is not much older than I am (about 10 years), but is a full professor and the chair of the department P&T committee.   Given our university's policies, romantic relationships are permissable but he'd have to be removed from any supervisory role (i.e., not allowed to vote on my tenure case or annual evaluations).  He has substantial concerns about what our potential dating might do to my career; I feel like we could manage these issues, but worry that I am perhaps being naive.

I'm curious whether dating a colleague ever works (particularly in the junior woman-senior man configuration), whether it always casts shadows over a young FSP's career to be involved with an older man in the field, whether there are things that can be done to mitigate the possibility of damage (e.g., not disclosing it at work beyond our department chair, as mandated by policy-- though obviously, if things work out, at SOME point we'd have to do so, and "we've been dating for 3 years and are getting married!!" may not be the way to do it; not publishing together; something else I'm not thinking about?)  Precisely how bad of an idea is this, exactly?

Other information: He has dated in our field before, so has a bit of a reputation (and met his ex-wife when she was a graduate student in a closely related discipline; she moved to another instution when they divorced.)

So far my pretenure evaluations have been positive but not home runs (my teaching and service are great, I should try to publish more than I do, though [description of recent improvements in publication record].

In general, I don't think it is a good idea to give relationship advice to someone you don't know. Yes, we out here in the blogosphere are, in theory, more 'objective' than this woman's friends in real life, but maybe in such cases objectivity is not a good thing -- we don't know these people and can only evaluate the situation from incomplete information.

But let's do it anyway.

Actually, I think that all we can really do that might be helpful is to say how we might view such a situation if we were in this woman's department or in her field.

I don't think I would really care one way or the other, or, at least, not in any way that would affect this woman's career. If I were in her department, I wouldn't vote against her for tenure, for example, just because she decided to date a senior colleague, even one with "a bit of a reputation".

That's not to say that there wouldn't be some consequences, especially within the department if the relationship doesn't go well, but I will leave it to others to go negative with their advice on this issue.

Beyond this specific situation, though, I was thinking about whether (and how much) it matters how successful the woman is in terms of how much freedom she has to pursue whatever relationships she wants, with no/fewer consequences.

For example, does it matter in this case that the woman in question, although apparently doing OK, wasn't hitting "home runs" in the early years of her tenure-track position? Does that change how we view people (in general, or women in particular) in terms of their professional and personal lives, or can we separate these? I think I view them separately, but am not sure that is true in general.

41 responses so far