Archive for the 'letter of reference' category

Must-Have Letter

Over in FSP a few weeks ago, readers and I obsessed about many different aspects of Cover Letters. And yet, there are still aspects of this topic that remain unexplored. Here is another interesting one from a reader:

I have a letter of reference question that I haven't seen addressed on your blogs, but (to me) seems like a fairly serious, and not uncommon, one.  I did not have a particularly close relationship with my thesis advisor, a prominent figure in my discipline.  Instead, another a postdoc in his research group was my de facto advisor.  While I suspect his reference letters for me are largely positive, I know that there are others who would willingly write letters that more accurately reflect my abilities.  I have had minimal communication with my advisor since completing my PhD several years ago.

I am currently in a non-tenure-track research professor job, and am contemplating applying for jobs with a short-track to tenure.  My question is: Would my application be discarded or flagged as suspicious if it does NOT include a letter from my thesis advisor?  Would it be sufficient to list him as an additional reference?

I think you should list the advisor unless there is some extreme reason not to do so. In that case, you need to try to have another letter writer address why there is no letter from your advisor (not your fault etc.). If your relationship was overall good, just not close, you should still list your advisor as a reference. Even if the advisor's letter is perfunctory, it is better than no letter. A really positive letter from a postdoc won't make up for a missing advisor-letter.

Also, I would make an effort to get back in touch with the advisor, especially if you are going to be asking for letters. Bring him up to date on your work, send him your CV, and explain about your upcoming applications.

Does anyone disagree with this? I did not have a close relationship with my advisor, so I can relate to this issue, but I still asked for a letter from him. Did anyone make the opposite decision, and live to tell the tale?

8 responses so far

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


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

Women's League

Jan 13 2011 Published by under letter of reference, sexism

Sent by a reader, from a recent letter of recommendation for a candidate for a faculty position:

[the applicant] is in the same league as other top female graduates [from this department]

But how does she compare to people with the same hair color? eye color? height? weight? religion? race? Surely these are as relevant as classifying by gender in a letter of recommendation for a faculty position.

The reader who sent the excerpt notes that the writer of the letter is male and in his early-mid 40's. That puts him in the same league as other top sexist letter-writers of older generations.

The letter-writer may have been trying to compliment the woman in question, or he may have been trying to signal that she isn't actually as good as the top male graduates from that department. If the latter, he probably could have found a better way to do that.

My question is:

Is someone who would write the above statement in a reference letter -- no matter what their motivation -- capable of making a fair evaluation of a female doctoral recipient, or does the very act of writing something like that in a letter of reference indicate bias?

52 responses so far