LoR Lore

Dec 20 2011 Published by under letter of reference

A veritable flurry of letters about delinquent Letter-of-Reference Writers has appeared in my inbox. Coincidentally, my next piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education is about getting advisors and co-authors to read/edit things we write. With Letters of Reference (LoR), the problem seems to be a bit seasonal, I fear.

So: What to do when someone promises a letter of reference, there is a deadline, you gave them plenty of advance notice (+ reminders), you need that letter from that person (e.g., an advisor), and they do not write the letter (or letters) in time?

A serious example of this involves the need for support letters for graduate or postdoctoral fellowship proposals or other similar cases with drop-dead deadlines and a need for a letter from an advisor. In such cases, it is the responsibility of advisors who agree to write such letters to do so by the deadline, barring any unforeseen health or personal crises.

And if the letter is not submitted and the deadline is looming? The priority is to get a sufficient number of letters by the deadline. If a last-minute replacement can be found -- someone who heroically steps in to save the day with letter -- that person should mention that the advisor (or whoever) couldn't provide a letter, but that this in no way indicates a negative opinion of the applicant (if that is true; an advisor with no intention of writing a letter, for whatever reason, should state so well in advance).

Otherwise, if you can't find a replacement or if a replacement isn't allowed (because you have to have a letter from a particular person), you need to talk to someone -- a friendly committee member, a graduate program advisor, the department chair. That is, you need to talk to someone who can try to exert pressure in a way that you can't. You need allies. Some of us professors like to believe that we are semi-autonomous and can run our research empires how we want, but in reality, we have supervisors who (should) keep track of how and what we are doing; or, in this case, not doing.

Calling in the big guns to try to extract a letter from an advisor may not be the best way to ensure that you are going to get a positive and thoughtful letter, but if a person has a history of not sending in letters on time (despite promising them), someone in a position of authority needs to know this and rectify the situation. That may only be accomplished by alerting others to the situation. Ideally, any complaint would be backed up by documentation.

I appreciate that students and postdocs who need lots of letters from a particular person are reluctant to go this route, so I hope that anyone in this situation has some good back-up letters to alleviate the problem. This is a good idea anyway, as you never know what is going to happen to your preferred letter writers. Professors have health and personal crises, and so, despite the best of intentions, we may not be able to provide the letters you need, when you need them.

If the application in question is for a graduate program, it may be OK if the letter is a bit late. I can't speak for all programs, of course, but it sometimes takes a couple of weeks after the deadline for all the files to be completed. It is annoying for the staff person who has to chase down missing pieces of applications, but I know that some places will try to get a complete file for promising applicants. Some places won't bother, but some will.

Speaking only for myself here, if I am reviewing a graduate application of someone who appears to be quite impressive and who wants to work with me, but there is a missing letter, I may ignore the omission if the delinquent letter-writer appears to be somewhat ancillary and if the other letters are informative and detailed. If the missing letter is from someone whose opinion I want, I might contact them myself.

But that's just what I tend to do. Note that I am not on the admissions committee, so I may look at dozens of applications myself, but I do not have to deal with vast numbers of them.

I admit that, if I am not already impressed with the application, I will not make an effort to obtain a missing letter. The staff member who deals with admissions logistics may make an effort, but I won't make any special effort myself. There maybe cases in which that missing letter would have changed my mind completely so that I became extremely positive about a candidate, but given that there are so many applicants and many more outstanding applicants than can possibly be admitted, I err on the side of assuming that an otherwise-not-awesome application is giving me the information I need. And I don't even look at very incomplete applications (more than one letter missing).

This is where readers can leave a comment and say that if any application to their graduate program is in any way flawed, it is immediately shredded and sent to a landfill. Or, better, it would be great to have some helpful suggestions about how to extract an on-time(ish) letter from someone, particularly if suggestions come from someone with procrastination tendencies or such an insanely busy schedule that they only have time to write these letters on their iPhone while walking to a breakfast meeting. Do repeated reminders and guilt-tripping pleas work? If not, what does?


18 responses so far

  • In our admissions process, we are generally only aware of the letters in the file, not ones that might have been there. If an application has too few letters but otherwise looks good, we might check again later to see if late letters have arrived. We rarely call anyone.

    Not all students and alumni give adequate time to write letters. The shortest notice I've ever had consisted of a message from the robot at Janelia Farm, asking for letter within 20 hours for a former student. I got the letter done, but I was not best pleased.

  • Science Professor says:

    That's why I included "..you gave them plenty of advance notice (+ reminders)" in the scenario under discussion.

    I, too, have been asked to write letters on 1-2 days notice, not owing to an emergency but to a last-minute decision by a student, or procrastination or disorganization in some cases. That's a different situation.

  • Pippo says:

    As someone who really does not enjoy writing letters, I think it is very important for everybody involved in the process (both letter writers and committees) to be at least a bit flexible. There were plenty of people in our careers who took the time to write letters for us, and there were times where we stressed about submitted applications. So please folks, give the students a break!

  • peter says:

    In my experience if the person you asked to write a LoR and he/she doesn't, simply and plain he/she don't want to do so or doesn't have any thing good to say. Just fuck it. Do your homework and do some networking with more people.

  • Jenny Hoffman says:

    Here is my advice for students requesting letters of recommendation:

  • grad student says:

    If an advisor does not feel they can write a strong recommendation letter for a student, they should not be that student's advisor anymore

    • dallas says:

      That is incorrect, especially because there are different types of advisors, and different types of letters. A PhD advisor may think highly of a student's abilities and achievements, but not think that they are suited for, say, an academic position over one in a government lab / industry. An undergrad may want to apply for a scholarship that based on extensive amounts of service despite not having done much service; the inability to write a strong letter in that case dose not indicate a such a difficult problem with the advising relationship that it necessitates severing the relationship. There are also the cases of assigned academic advisors, that are often called upon to write LoR for undergraduates for awards, scholarships, etc.

  • NatC says:

    What about when LoR go missing?
    I've had a couple of these recently (that I know of). In one case, I was sitting with my advisor when she sent the email; in another a letter writer swore up and down that the letter was uploaded (it never appeared, but the system did go through maintenance right after the upload). In both cases the letters got submitted - one was requested via automatic system message before the due date, and the other was uploaded just 2 days late.
    (In both cases, these are one instance in >25 applications, I owe all my letter writers large bottles of booze)

  • Joan says:

    grad student - that is not a realistic perspective. Ideally, yes, advisors should be able to support & promote their graduate students. A graduate student who shows up and does his or her job in good faith generally should be able to get at least not a negative letter of rec - but there is no right to an awesome letter of rec. But students can do some truly crazy things and there will be students who barely make it through the program, perhaps due to laziness or misconduct. Advisors have no obligation to write good letters for bad students - indeed, there is a professional obligation not to write good letters for bad students.

    For instance, in our group now we have a problem student - we have caught him in multiple lies, over four years he's shown up to work about 50% of the time (with no medical issues), and he's done about 25% of the amount of work we would see from an average student in the program as long. Some of his unexplained absences (at least two weeks) occurred while on foreign travel for research which cost the group over $120/day. He will probably finish because he's made it far enough in the program that it is exceptionally difficult to kick him out. It would be professional misconduct to write a positive letter of rec for this student. Moreover, it would be unfair to good students. If you were a decent grad student in a group with this student, wouldn't you want some distinction between you and him? Would you want your advisor to promote him as much as you?

  • A.anon says:

    In our department, the graduate program application deadline is set two weeks before the committee starts looking at the applicants. I am told by the staff that this buffer helps reduce the number of missing letters by a large number.

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm a grad student and have requested many letters of recommendation. I give as much notice as I can (shortest was 1 week when I literally learned of an opportunity just 1 week from the due date). And I remind and pester. But I try to do it nicely. Most of my letters of rec have been written and submitted on the due date; it drives be crazy that they're not done a little earlier, but so far they've all been done on time. Here's my general strategy:

    1) Ask if a letter-writer will write me a rec. Give 2-3 weeks notice. But not more than that, or the letter will be forgotten. No one writes one 2-3 weeks in advance of a deadline. Provide as much guidance as possible to the letter writer, and ask if there's anything more the letter-writer would like from me. Request that letter writer email me when s/he has submitted or mailed the letter. Offer to be a courier if the letter needs to be physically moved from letter writer's office to the mail room.

    1.5) If this is a letter writer who's got procrastinating tendencies (as opposed to being very busy, but reliable), I give them a due date 2-3 days before the *real* due date.

    2) I email a reminder 1 week before the due date. And I email another reminder 3-4 days before the due date. And another 1 day before the due date. I try to make the subject lines light and/or funny, so the emails get read. Or if I can fit my reminder in the subject line, I do that: "Reminder: MyName Letter Due on Thursday"

    3) I stop by in person or call by phone the morning of the due date to ask if the letter's been done. I'm polite about it: "hey, just wondering if you've had the chance to write that letter for me yet."

    Most recently, I had a new (for me) letter writer. I called him up on the due date and he said, "oh, yeah, that letter. When's it due?" "Today at 5:00pm," I replied. "Oh right," he said. "I'll write that letter right away then." He did finish it and submit it that afternoon. Some people really just live on a day-by-day schedule.

    I have not yet run into the case where a letter-write has a last-minute emergency and can't write the letter, but I guess I should think about having back-up writers just in case.

  • Alex says:

    How legalistic do people get about late letters and incomplete applications? I know some people who are so procedure-oriented that, were they the ones making the rules, they'd refuse to even read anything in an application until all letters were in.

  • Sarah says:

    It was surprisingly helpful to have a slightly delinquent letter writer for my recent faculty search. I had advance notice that several schools were interested when they emailed me looking for the letter and I know the letter was good because every school that asked for it invited me for an interview.

  • Cherish says:

    I've always given my letter writers at least a month's notice. When apply for PhD programs, I gave all of my letter writers six months notice to write three letters. Two of my writers got them in within a month. The other one did not. This is also a committee member of mine who never bothered to show up for my MS defense. I managed to still be accepted to two of the programs despite this shortcoming in my application.

    In retrospect, I think I would've given up when there was less than two weeks left. If he couldn't get it done in the previous five months, I'm not sure why I still believed he was going to do it in the next 14 days.

    In the future, I think I'm always going to ask for an additional letter so that I don't have to worry about people having emergencies or being flaky.

  • trxa says:

    I find asking for LoR to be torture, and had many applications submitted late because of busy profs who don't think deadlines apply to them. I have no idea how this will affect my prospects, but it would really be appreciated if submission sites could explicitly state how they deal with missing LoR! It makes a big difference if they won't even look at the application without all the letters.

    Interfolio.com has a good service for profs to upload generic letters, and then the student can submit them to any school (content kept confidential) without asking every time.

  • Kati says:

    Last year, I had to deal with the dreaded one-missing-letter nightmare. I was applying for an NSF fellowship/grad school. The errant professor, with whom I had done considerable amounts of research as an undergrad and who had given me A's in all three courses I had taken with him, had promised to write an LOR but failed to submit it by the deadline. He was also inexplicably inaccessible via email or phone.

    To make matters worse, it had been a couple years since I was as undergrad--I took time off to work before applying to grad school--and lived in a different state than my undergrad institution, so I couldn't physically walk onto campus, remind the particular prof or hunt down other "back-up" professors. The day of fellowship deadline, I was frantically emailing anybody and everybody trying to get that required third letter. Finally, I was able to get in touch with a former employer of mine who happily wrote me a letter. I'm sure it wasn't the best letter---he wasn't able to talk about my research skills, for example, since I didn't do anything science-related while employed under him---but it was a letter, nonetheless.

    I got lucky, though. I got the fellowship AND I got into my grad school of choice.

    • Kati says:

      I wanted to add that this particular professor was never one to check his email religiously, and who knows if he ever checked his voicemail. As far as I can tell, he had just forgotten about the deadline.

      He did send me a holiday card last year and this year, as well, so it's hard for me to believe he didn't want to write the letter for me...

  • Ted says:

    I'd be interested in opinions on my technique below, from both sides. Personally, it has worked wonderfully.

    When I applied for the PhD program, I asked the associate Dean for a L0R. He said he'd be glad to write one, then told me his policy: I should write the letter for him, then he will edit it as he sees fit and send it in. (This, by the way, is incredibly hard to do at first. But it gets easier with practice.) With this method, he sent the letter in literally the same morning I gave it to him.

    So now - for job applications and fellowships, etc. - I always offer to write a draft LoR for the letter writer. This does a few things: if they accept your offer for a draft, it gives the person information that you think is important to highlight, while still allowing them to add their own viewpoints; it shows that you care enough about their LoR to do a lot of the work yourself; and it has consistently resulted in very quick - 1 to 2 days - turnaround for me.

    As I mentioned, it's very hard to put words into someone else's mouth (so to speak) especially when those words are clearly meant to be self-serving. You have to learn not to cringe too much at your own presumptuousness. And you can't just send out the same draft to everyone; it has to be tailored for the person. Otherwise, you'll get three LoR's that all sound suspiciously similar.

    But if you can make yourself do this, it works like a charm.