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?






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