One Man & a Baby

(by Science Professor) Mar 09 2012

This is a combined/excerpted/modified version of some interesting gripe-mails, with details removed and the verb tense arbitrarily set in the present (some e-mails used the past tense), but still (I hope) capturing the essence of the situation/s:

I am in a family-friendly department, and I am really grateful for that. It is one of the reasons I have generally been very happy with my job over the years. Owing to my infant/toddler/school-aged child, I sometimes have to leave a meeting early or postpone something for reasons related to my son/daughter. I do this as little as possible, but it happens. I never hide the reason for my absence/departure (etc.), usually just saying that I have to pick up/take care of my kid. I appreciate very much that everyone seems to understand, and has never treated me as if I am not serious about my job. But..

And this is where the writers of the e-mails diverge a bit, some saying they feel like a hypocrite because.. (see below), some just harshly criticizing those who use the kid-excuse (apparently) too much, and some wondering if there is a difference in how men and women deal with such things (that is, not in their own life, but in how and how often they communicate about their work-family time conflicts to their colleagues).

Note 1: I think most of the e-mails are from women, and in some cases that is relevant, but in other cases it isn't.

Note 2: If you're interested, there's an old FSP-post on a related topic ("TMI Talks").

A specific focus of ire or, at least, mild contempt, seems to be those who bring up their kid and their kid-responsibilities at every possible instance and in many different contexts, even when it is not relevant.

For example, in one situation in which perhaps the gender of the griper and the gripee matter, the "I feel like a hypocrite" comment came from a woman who was very weary of how often a male colleague mentioned his diaper-changing, baby-walking, baby-carrying, baby-this-and-thatting, not in casual/social conversation, but at pretty much every opportunity in the course of the work day (faculty meetings, committee meetings, professional e-mails etc.). She wonders whether a woman would bring these activities up quite so often in a professional setting, or whether women are more concerned about appearing too unprofessional and distracted from their work (whereas men get points for being the Involved Dad).

I am guessing that most people wouldn't be bothered if someone (of any gender) says in a meeting, "I'm sorry I have to leave this meeting early, but it's 5:42 PM and I have to pick up my kid from daycare by 6:00." The question is whether you think it is annoying or cute/heartwarming if someone (you can break this down by gender if it is relevant to you) says in a meeting, "That's a good point, Bob. I was thinking of something similar last night while I was changing my son's diaper, so I'd like to suggest that we keep talking about X before making a final decision." (especially if that wasn't a one-time event, but something repeated in many different professional contexts).

What think you, readers? General opinions and anecdotes are both welcome.



17 responses so far


(by Science Professor) Feb 29 2012

An undergraduate recently wrote to me about a difficult situation. I don't want to reprint her entire e-mail because it might have identifying details, so I will describe the general situation below (I told her that I would do this, and have her consent). I will, however, use the student's term for the professor in question; that is, she uses the term PI, indicating the professor in charge of the lab in which she does research, but not someone who closely advises her research.

This student has been doing research in a lab at a large university for several years, and her work is going well -- so well, in fact, that she recently gave a presentation on her research at a conference. The conference was far from her university, so the various members of the research group who attended the conference stayed in a hotel.  The student was pleased to get to know the PI of her research group better at this conference, as she seldom interacts with him in the course of her research in his lab. Her happiness at attending a conference, presenting her results, and having more interaction with the PI turned into anxiety when he texted her to ask if she wanted him to come to her hotel room one night. She did not text him back, and she has not talked to him or seen him since this incident.

This part is in the student's own words:

I really enjoy the research that I'm working on, and I love the group I work with, so quitting and finding another paid undergrad position seems unreasonable. I wouldn't put it past my PI to never speak of it again, but if he does, I'm afraid I might say something wrong. .. I want to go to grad school and expect to get a letter of recommendation from him in the near future when I start applying.

Have you ever been in a situation like this?  What should I do?

I know that this letter will seem very familiar to those who have experienced similar situations and/or who have read about other incidents like this in other posts. I wanted to post this anyway so that this student can get a range of responses and advice, which I expect may range from "Don't do anything" to "Report him. He's a creep and may be doing this to other students."

Although in some ways the situation is clear-cut (professors should not proposition their students), it is a difficult situation for the student. She has been doing her work, doing it well, and getting excited enough about research to want to apply to graduate school. Now she is worried and doesn't know what to do.

I hate to think about this student feeling anxious when she is doing her research, and worrying about asking this professor for a letter of recommendation for graduate school. Will this incident factor into his opinion of the student? Unless the professor proactively apologizes sincerely to the student, says he has never done anything like this before, and affirms that he thinks highly of her work, she is likely to worry about this until she graduates, and perhaps beyond.

The student worries about saying "something wrong" if the PI brings up the incident. If he does bring it up, I think that saying "That made me uncomfortable" is a perfectly reasonable thing to say, whether or not he apologizes. It tells him that he crossed a boundary he shouldn't have, and that his behavior had consequences. An undergraduate student shouldn't have to tell that to a professor, but this entire situation shouldn't have happened in the first place. If the student then turns the conversation to research issues and/or career plans (graduate school), maybe they will be back on track with their professional relationships.

Even so, I think it might be worth asking around about this professor, especially if the student feels comfortable talking to others in the research group -- a female grad student or postdoc, for example. If this professor is in a habit of propositioning his female students and creating a climate of anxiety in the research lab as a result, this information needs to get to someone in authority, if not the department chair, then an organization on campus that can provide information and advice. It would be good if the text messages are still on the phone.

But mostly I hope that readers who have dealt with similar situations can provide some ideas and support, to help this student through this anxious time.




77 responses so far

I Notice These Things Too

(by Science Professor) Feb 22 2012

Consider this:

Last week I went to listen to a talk by a graduate student. I didn't know this student, as he is in a different department from me, so I don't have any way to understand a particular aspect of his talk: and that is that throughout his talk he referred to some relevant previous work by others by the author's or authors' last name/s for all male authors, but whenever there was a female author whose work he mentioned, he gave her first name as well. I noticed this but it didn't bother me until I realized that he was highly critical of the work done by the female authors he cited by name, but the work of male authors was presented as being useful, interesting or neutral. This bothered me. Should it have?

I notice these things too. Of course, there's no way to know if the speaker in this case was consciously or subconsciously bashing women or whether it was just a coincidence that he did not like the work of the women but he did like the work by male authors on these topics.

It is strange that he chose to say the women's name in full, but gave only male last names. Possible explanations:

- He thought it was disrespectful to refer to women by their last name only. I don't tend to buy this explanation; we cite authors by their last name in papers all the time, and that is not disrespectful if the first author is female, ergo it is not disrespectful to refer to these citations in a talk, using only the last name. In this way, there is a difference between talking about a citation ("Snoopy 2010", or just "Snoopy" for short) and a person ("Snoopy").

- Until we were told that the work of the women was criticized and that of the men was not, a possible explanation was that he was highlighting the work of women to show that there are women scientists, thereby providing inspiration for students in the audience. I think we have to reject that in this case, unless someone wants to make the argument that he was showing respect for the women by highlighting their gender and criticizing them rather than being chivalrous (I really had to twist my mind to come up with that one, but who knows..)

- What else, other than random coincidence with no meaning?

I wrote a post in the FSP blog about a related scenario last year. In that case, a speaker used different words for how he described the work of women and men who had opinions about a particular topic. The women did not fare well in his choice of verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

It's fascinating how many ways we have to use word choice, tone variation and emphasis, image design/selection, and other methods to display our opinions about people and their work, even while giving a seemingly 'dry' talk on our scientific (or other) research. I think there is definitely a place for criticism in such talks, but there are respectful, professional ways to do this.

Not long ago, I saw a talk by someone who criticized the work of others -- men and women -- by name, directly and by unflattering descriptions. Based on that experience, I can tell you that the direct approach to criticism is not more appealing than the subtle approach.

It is possible to eviscerate someone's work in a classy way. I find a classy evisceration to be much more persuasive.

But back to the original scenario: If I noticed someone doing this in a talk, particularly if it were a student I knew, I would ask him/her whether they were aware of how they cited the work of others in their talk. For example, I might say "Did you realize that you were citing women by their first and last names but the men only by their last names?" Note that there is no mention of the possible woman-author-bashing in this question. Depending on the response to that first question, one could decide whether to proceed or not.

Questions for readers:

- Have you noticed anything like the phenomenon described? Did it bother you? (or do you think it would?)

- What do you think the speaker was doing, consciously or unconsciously (based only on the information provided)?

44 responses so far

Local Mom Effect

(by Science Professor) Feb 17 2012

Most weeks, I post something here and put a link on my FSP blog to it. This week, I am reversing that practice, for no particular reason, and providing a link to a question over there regarding the impact (or lack thereof) of local role models (that is, in one's immediate academic environment) vs. statistics for the professional community at large.

No responses yet

Mid-Career Mentoring

(by Science Professor) Feb 07 2012

Although perhaps no amount of information, obtained online or in person, can remove the uncertainty and anxiety associated with being a graduate student, postdoc, and/or tenure-track professor, in recent years there has been an information explosion targeted at early-career academics. There are articles, books, blogs, forums, webinars, conferences and more on how to cope with graduate school; how to apply for postdoctoral positions; how to craft a CV, cover letter, and applications when applying for a faculty position; how to interview; how to negotiate; how to maximize chances of tenure, and so on.

As part of these efforts, many of us professors are increasingly called on to improve our mentoring skills, to participate in panels and committees devoted to mentoring and career development issues, and to demonstrate in our grant proposals that we have mentoring plans for our postdoctoral researchers. I support these efforts and consider such activities an important part of my job (as long as the paperwork doesn't get any more abundant than it already it).

But what if the mentors need mentoring? Note that I am not talking about how we can learn to be good mentors (although this is an important topic). In this case, I am referring to how mid-career and senior faculty can get information about career issues that may affect us at later stages of an academic career. Do complicated career issues evaporate after tenure and/or do we all magically know how to deal with everything that academe throws at us? No, and no.

Mid-career+ career issues that some of us have to navigate without a lot of information include:

  • whether and how to pursue tenured positions at other institutions,
  • how to use an offer of a job from another institution to negotiate an improvement in our current job, and
  • whether to pursue a part-time or full-time position in administration.

(Please add to this list! I am working on a new essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education about some of these mid-career+ issues and would like to be as comprehensive as possible.)

Just as an example, for discussion today and in an effort to use a blog to help bridge the Information Gap for mid-career and senior faculty: Let's say you go out and get another job offer, or perhaps you are recruited without being active about it. You have an offer or a hint of an offer, but you are not 100% sure you want to leave your existing institution. If you did want to leave for sure, presumably you would just take your offer and leave without trying to negotiate with your current institution. But let's say you want to try to improve your situation somehow and therefore possibly stay at your current institution.

I am surprised when people write to me with questions about this and assume that they have to provide the details of their new offer(s) to their current institution. Has anyone had to do this? In the cases with which I am familiar, no one has had to explain the details of the new offer and certainly no one had to show an offer letter; the fact of the offer (or, in some cases, the rumor of an offer) was enough to start the negotiations for a retention package.

OK, so you have an offer and you want to negotiate with your current institution. The key issues are: What do you want? And: Are you going to get what you want?

So, what do you want? A raise (sometimes this is the only way to get a significant raise)? More resources for research? A position for your significant other? More respect from your institution/colleagues? All of the above? Other stuff? I have heard of places that have a standard retention package -- e.g., a certain amount of $ added to the faculty member's base salary when there is an outside offer -- but the possibilities at many institutions are more open-ended.

Here are some suggestions, for discussion, for how to pitch a request for What You Want in your retention package:

If you are leaning towards leaving, but a really awesome retention package would convince/tempt you to stay, ask for the moon if that's what you want. This is probably only likely to work if your offer is from a more awesome institution, or at least one with which your current institution feels competitive in some way. Don't be a jerk about asking for the moon; just make your request, and the administrators at your current institution can take it or leave it.

If you really aren't sure and you feel that you could stay or go, depending on how things shake out in the negotiations, then you should still ask for what you want, but perhaps don't ask for the entire moon (and perhaps consult with senior colleagues who have gone through this process, ideally in this millennium). Don't undersell yourself because you are worried about being seen as greedy or disloyal. If you know that you are underpaid relative to your peers, or if you think this is your only chance to get more space/resources from your institution, go for it: make a case for what you want and need.

Similarly, if you really don't want to leave and just got the offer because you felt you needed to play the game, you should still make a reasonable request for what you want/need and see what happens. You don't have to give any indication of how likely you are to stay or go (although people will try to guess this). If you have an offer, the opportunity exists for you to leave, so you might as well find out what your current institution is willing to do to keep you.

If you got the outside offer because you are desperately unhappy about some aspect of your current position and want to use this chance to change things for the better without actually leaving (because, for various reasons, you don't want to or can't leave your current institution), I think you should keep your expectations reasonable (i.e., low) in terms of how much positive change you can wring out of a retention package. That is, you might get a raise, perhaps even an impressive one, but if you don't like your colleagues, chances are you still won't like them even when you are being paid more to spend time with them. They might respect you more (outside offers tend to have that effect), and that can help, but the positive results of that are unlikely to be experienced in a rapid, dramatic, satisfying way (correct me if you have experienced the contrary).

And that brings me to an important point: YOU DON'T HAVE TO LEAVE. If your current institution doesn't give you what you ask for or (worst case) doesn't even try to keep you, you still do not have to leave if you don't want to.

Of course you can leave if you want, but some people who write to me seem to think that just by entering into discussions about retention, they are implicitly threatening "Give me this stuff or I'm leaving." You are not (I hope) saying this, unless of course you are definitely set on leaving. If you are not definitely intending to leave, you may be just finding out what your options are, exploring the various opportunities, considering the pros and cons, and then you making a decision about whether to stay or leave.

If you think there is a chance you want to stay, and you keep the negotiations calm, professional, and constructive (i.e., don't rant to the chair or dean about all the things you hate about your department/institution/colleagues), you are not burning any bridges by entering into these discussions and negotiations. Administrators expect to deal with these situations; they may not welcome the chance to deal with such issues, but it is a normal part of academic life, for better or worse. Everyone does it isn't the greatest justification for seeking outside offers, but you can try to do it right (don't be an egotistical jerk, don't be a drama queen, don't issue an ultimatum etc.), and don't feel guilty (unless you are a habitual accumulator of outside offers) or disloyal.

Does anyone have any advice to add to (or contradict) any of that?




12 responses so far

Taking a Chance

(by Science Professor) Feb 01 2012

Several readers have written for advice about complex situations involving making major career decisions before all possible options are known. Most of these e-mails are very long and detailed, and I am not going to include any one e-mail here, but will just present the general situation for discussion.

What do you do if you have an offer for a job (e.g., a tenure-track position) that is not your dream job (for whatever reason: location, resources, colleagues, family/life issues etc.) and you also have some indication that you might eventually have more/better offers, but nothing is certain (e.g., you have other interview invitations). You have to give an answer to the place that has offered you a job before you will know all your options. (Let's assume that you asked for more time to make a decision and maybe even got some, but it's not enough; the hiring department can't wait any longer.)

Do you accept the offer that is in-hand and withdraw from the other search(es) or do you turn down the in-hand offer and hope/gamble that you will get something better?

First let me say that I know that discussions of such topics are painful for those in fields with no/few job options, but in fields with job opportunities, including tenure-track positions, this is a common 'problem'.

You might think it is a simple decision: If you are lucky enough to get a job offer, take the job. And yet: the reason that the e-mails to me on this topic are so long and complex is because this can be a difficult decision, particularly if you (and any partners/family involved in the decision) are not thrilled about Job Offer #1 and would be thrilled if you are so fortunate as to get an offer from another place that might be an option if you wait a bit longer.

I hope everyone agrees that it is important to conduct discussions in good faith with all concerned, but beyond that generic statement, it's worth discussing some of the gray areas.

For example, what if you accept Job Offer #1 and then renege if a 'better' offer comes through a month or three later? That's not good, especially for the institution that has invested time and money in hiring you, but is it more or less bad than accepting the offer, starting the job, perhaps spending your no-doubt considerable start-up funds, and then leaving as soon as you can get something better?

Or: what if you decline Job Offer #1 and then nothing else comes through? That's not good for you, but is it more or less bad than taking a job that you know will make you (and/or your family) unhappy? (I would caution here that we can't always predict these things. I left what I thought was my 'dream job' for another place I didn't think I would like nearly as much, but the new place turned out to be even better than my first job.)

You might be wondering: Why would someone apply to Job Offer #1 University if they think they will be unhappy there and don't really want the job? This is a good question, but such situations are quite common for a variety of reasons, including (1) Some people send out applications to every possible job for which they are even somewhat qualified, not knowing how well they will fare on the job market; and (2) Some people might apply for a job that they think might be OK, but after they visit for an interview, realize that working there would not be so great. So, it happens, and as long as different institutions conduct searches at different times and rates, these situations will arise.

What to do, what to do? You can weigh all the pros and cons for your career/life, try to guess what is the 'best' place for you, and maybe flip a coin or consult an oracle, or something. Can the blogosphere help? I don't know, but I hope that readers who have been in this situation -- either as a job candidate or as an administrator trying to recruit top candidates -- will weigh in with comments and advice.

25 responses so far

Must-Have Letter

(by Science Professor) Jan 23 2012

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

The Ask

(by Science Professor) Jan 17 2012

Here is an interesting question from a reader:

I was wondering, how to ask the faculty search chair, "why was I not invited for an interview?" and if this is a reasonable thing to ask ?

First, the second question: Is this a reasonable question to ask? My first reaction is: sure, go ahead and ask. It is not an unreasonable question in the sense of being unprofessional, strange, or obnoxious; it is a perfectly natural question, and I don't think search chairs will be annoyed by being asked this.

Correct me if I am wrong, search chairs of the world. Certainly no one would want to get 300 of these questions, but most applicants don't ask, so it doesn't seem like a problem to me if a few do ask.

In terms of how to ask, just do it, and keep it simple, without any long, sad explanations about why you want to know. That is, just a "I was wondering if you could give me any information.." kind of question; concise and polite.

In my opinion, however, the real question is whether you are going to get any useful information from this query. In fact, I rather doubt it. Some searches involve so many applications, even if every one is given due consideration, the search chair might not be able to give you an answer. Then there is the issue of what a search chair can say, not to mention will say.

I tried to think of all the possible answers I might give someone if I were asked this question. Note that I have never been asked this question by an applicant who was not interviewed, so I am just imagining what I might say. I have been asked a similar question by unsuccessful interviewees, wondering why they were not offered the job, but that situation is only semi-analogous.

We can classify possible answers into categories: reasons you might actually be told, and reasons you are unlikely to be told.

In the likely category, I think you might well get the vague answer "We had many excellent applicants and could only invite n to interview, so we had to make some tough choices." That could well be a completely honest answer, and it might make you feel better, if you believe it. If, however, you are looking for some magic answer to help you improve your application, it's not so useful.

It is very unlikely that a search committee chair is going to say something specific like "You might want to ditch Professor X as a reference; you will never get an interview with a letter like that" or "We are all still laughing about your absurd and pathetic research statement" (or a more polite equivalent of that comment).

It is also unlikely that you are going be told something specific like "We all hated the fact that you mentioned that your favorite hobby is fishing. We think that is a boring and anti-intellectual hobby, and we would never consider hiring anyone who considers fishing an acceptable leisure pursuit."

Likely or unlikely?: Would a search committee chair tell you that you don't have enough publications (in top-tier journals) or you don't have as much postdoctoral/teaching/whatever experience compared to other candidates? Maybe, but these seem like obvious things you should know or infer about your record compared to your peers. These are questions you could ask an advisor or mentor before asking a search committee chair. Maybe you can find out the interview slate and the identity of the person offered the job and compare your record to theirs; then you will know the answer to some basic questions about how your record stacks up.

Keep in mind, though, that it's not always something obvious, like number of papers. You might have more publications than someone who was interviewed, but perhaps there was something about that other person's research and/or teaching or ideas for future research and/or teaching, that caught the interest of the committee/department. That can be hard to explain, much less infer from a list of interviewees.

If you are wondering about technical aspects of your application -- i.e., whether your application needs a bit of technical fine-tuning in terms of how you constructed your CV, statements, cover letter etc -- these are things to ask mentors or friends who have successfully navigated a job-search, not search committee chairs.

What are some other possible answers to the question of why someone was not interviewed, whether likely or unlikely to be uttered by the search chair to an applicant? Perhaps the committee/department decided to interview only people with a particular research focus or approach (different from yours), but only decided this once the applications were in? That is within the realm of possible explanations you might be told, but it is also something you could figure out by knowing the identity of the interviewees.

I am sure I am missing some possibilities here. If you are a search committee chair and have been asked this question by a non-interviewed applicant, I hope you will leave a comment based on your experience: What did you say, if anything? Similarly, if you are/were a non-interviewed applicant who asked this question, did you get a response, and if so, what was it and was it useful?


20 responses so far

Wrong and Stupid

(by Science Professor) Jan 13 2012

A reader wonders:

Consider this hypothetical situation: two individuals (married, but with different last names) apply for the same job but do not disclose their relationship. The search committee determines that the two individuals are in fact a couple, based on similar research interests and shared academic histories.  One of the members of the academic couple is the #1 person on the short list in terms of grants, publications, and teaching experience.  However, based at least in part on this person's personal situation (e.g., we can't hire two people, we'll never get them both, we don't want them both, etc.) the committee decides not to invite one or both of them for an on-campus interview.
Is this considered discrimination? If so, what law(s) are being violated?

In the case described, the search committee/department doesn't have to invite the second member of the couple to interview, but they should invite the first one; the one identified as the 'top candidate'. There are two reasons why a department should not use a concern about a "2-body" situation to eliminate the top candidate:

1. It is wrong. Imagine putting in the job advertisement that candidates who are otherwise highly qualified for the job will be disqualified if they are married or otherwise significantly involved with any other applicant or even with anyone else in their field. If you are going to ask (just ask) for a second position, don't even apply because your application will be tossed no matter how good you are. Also, it would be best if applicants did not plan to have babies, health problems, or aged parents, and preference will be given to those who closely resemble faculty hired before 1990.

I will leave it to others to discuss legal issues, but this is an inappropriate (to say the least) criterion to use to reject a candidate who would otherwise have been invited for an interview. Probably the couple is hoping for 2 positions (and hence both applied for the job), but this is irrelevant to the early stage of the search.

The 'best' candidate should be interviewed, and, if this person is still the 'best' candidate, they should be offered the job. If there really is only one position and no possibility of a second, this person can decline or accept the offer, depending on their options and priorities.

2. It is stupid. Yes, of course I know that searches are time-consuming and expensive and it is in the interest of an institution to select a candidate who is likely to accept the position, but (even ignoring the ethical issues) there are so many variables involved in this process, there is no point in second-guessing what someone will do if given a job offer.

I have seen searches in which there was concern about the 2-body problem of a top candidate who ended up accepting the job anyway (even though there was only 1 position), and I have seen cases in which it seemed impossible at first for there to be a second position created, but then one was, and the department got their top choice candidate and a second person who ended up excelling as a faculty member. In all of these cases, it would have been unethical and unwise for the department to eliminate these candidates from consideration owing to their marital status (specifically, being married to another PhD in the same field).

Hiring committees and administrators should be advised by their institutions about what is appropriate and not appropriate to use as criteria in a search. There are ways to circumvent these 'rules' -- you can find a flaw in any applicant and say that that is the reason why they should not be interviewed or given a job offer -- but if the real reason is concern about their being a member of an academic couple, that is wrong.



67 responses so far

LoR Lore

(by Science Professor) Dec 20 2011

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?


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