Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Students & Babysitters

This is another rant about something I don't like in reference letters, this time in letters for applicants to grad school: I don't like it when faculty letter-writers mention that a student was their child(ren)'s babysitter. Both male and female faculty do this, though the babysitters are dominantly female. I can maybe see mentioning it in a letter of reference for a job, as it signals reliability, but in a reference for graduate school?

I can probably be talked out of this opinion, but when I read in a letter that the student is an excellent babysitter for the letter-writer's child(ren), as I have read in a number of recent letters, I think it is weird. It doesn't affect my opinion of the student of course, but I think the letter-writer is being unprofessional. One letter I read today devoted a paragraph to how and why the letter-writer's kids "adored" the applicant. OK, that's nice.

If I make an effort to think of why someone would mention babysitting in a letter about a student's capacity for graduate studies, I come up with:

- the writer doesn't have a lot else to say about the student?
- the writer is trying to say in an indirect way that the student is nice and therefore not a hostile and strange nutcase?
- the student is reliable and trustworthy.

I guess it bothered me in particular today because of the juxtaposition of several applications I read: e.g., one for a male student whose letter writers emphasized his research experience and his leadership skills, then one for a female student who also has research experience and is a wonderful babysitter.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't like mentions of baby-sitting experiences in reference letter either. However, I guess probably those writers try to imply that the applicants are potential good TAs. Teaching undergraduates might demand some same qualities of teaching kids, which can be told from baby-sitting performance?

Annie said...

Oh, wow, that would truly bother me, as a student. Another reason one might mention babysitting is to demonstrate that the letter writer really *knows* the student -- not just from weekly research meetings or the odd class, but from a more well-developed (professional?) relationship.

Anonymous said...

that's truly weird that it happens so often! Why do people mention this? There must be nothing else they could say about research or teaching credentials, that would be my immediate reaction.

Having said that, I feel a little funny about hiring a male babysitter. I would feel strange about a random (non-family related) teenage boy babysitting my kids (mostly because I don't think they would take the job as seriously as most girls would), and I would definitely feel weird about an older 20-something or 30-something male doing the babysitting. Does this make me sexist?

Finally, there's something strange, creepy almost, to have your employee (and let's face it, graduate students are PI's employees) do personal chores for you - babysitting, laundry, cleaning the house, making coffee, whatever. It doesn't really matter if you pay them (below minimum wage, obviously) or not.

I don't care how good your relationship is with the student, this is unprofessional and should not be done. Even though I knew a professor who asked a student to come in to feed his cat while he was out of town. I didn't think it was inappropriate at the time, but I now think it was, a little bit.

anon said...

What if I ask the postdoc to water my office plant when I'm out of town? Very nicely.

I suppose that would make the firing harder (if I was a PI). "Well, your research sucks, but you did water my plant..."

prosaica said...

I am tempted to ask my students to babysit for me. After all, I do the scientific equivalent of teaching them how to blow their noses and tie their shoes. I never ask, and I find it unprofessional somebody does.

I did once help my advisor's wife who was alone with a baby and sick in a town where they knew nobody. I just went and lived with her and baby for two days while my advisor was away. My advisor gave me a lovely present, and he never mentioned this on my letters. Or so I hope :-).

As a side remark, I don't have gender preferences for babysitters.

prof J said...

We currently have an undergrad as a babysitter, who we found through my University's student job website. If she (yes, she's a she) asked me for a reference letter I would happily write one. She is my employee and I would describe her job and how well she does it. Babysitting is a perfectly respectable job, and I do not think getting reference letters from your employer is unusual, even if you are applying for a very different position.

However, I think it is very weird, and almost always inappropriate, to have someone in a research position perform personal jobs, even if they are paid for it. It just smacks too much of taking advantage of someone. Maybe you are doing them a favor, giving them extra work and extra pay, but it raises too many opportunities for exploitation for me to be comfortable about it.

Anonymous said...

This kind of corruption/nepotism exists all over the world. The only exceptions are the *best* schools of any country. Only in best school you find people with good values, because after all, its the people who make the place so-called "best".

JoAnne said...

I'm up to my ears in graduate admission files right now, and have yet to come across a letter that mentions babysitting. That is totally unprofessional and it would thoroughly put me off. Such a letter would seriously harm the candidate's chances of admission. As a committee, we care about a candidate's physics credentials - grades, research, statement of purpose - and a digression into babysitting would raise a red flag.

Sara said...

ugh, that sounds very unprofessional. I guess I would give hte letter writers the benefit of the doubt and assume they thought they were doing the student a favor by demonstrating that for example they would be good TAs, but if I was the student it would annoy me.

as for the gender, my little brother and I had a weekly Friday night babysitter who was male and not family related (though he was closer to 18) and he was a wonderful babysitter.

Carrie said...

If you were looking for a babysitter referral, than of course the description of the student's qualities therein are totally appropriate. But you're not. You're looking for a graduate student. There are other ways to describe someone's drive and ambition and 'niceness' without discussing their ability to get along with the referees children.

And I just find it strange that a faculty member would hire a student (presumably a student who had been in their class) as an employee outside of the University.

Anonymous said...

My PI said it is common that letters for females discuss niceness, honesty, being a hard worker, easy to get a long with etc, more often while "stronger" adjectives about research ability or intellect get written for male letters. I don't know if it is true but there you go... I would be offended if in a letter for grad school someone wrote I was a good babysitter. I'm not going to school to babysit, I'm going to school to do research.

Am I a woman scientist? said...

No matter how infantile undergrads can be (I TA'ed for 4 years, I know, I know), I would not consider actual babysitting skills to be relevant, especially in a letter of recommendation for grad school. If my college advisor had mentioned in a reference letter for grad school how well I took care of his horses while he was away, I would have been horrified. Even profs that didn't know me as well as him managed to find enough things to say about me in letters to fill the space (e.g., how I was as a student, my level of involvement in the department, etc.)

I did take good care of his horses, though. But babysitting an advisor's children? I think I would have felt that was inappropriate. That is just my gut reaction, I don't know why I view the two tasks so differently. Maybe it's an intimacy issue; it would be equally inappropriate to ask a student to pick up an advisor's dry cleaning, or clean the house or whatnot. Or maybe it's a fun issue... horses are pretty darn cool.

TW Andrews said...

Maybe they're trying to indicate that not only will you get a grad student, but someone who can take care of your kids to boot!

M. said...

I think it's probably an attempt to indicate reliability and trustworthiness (but it sure makes me hope my undergrad adviser didn't put anything about me walking his dog in his letter, humorous as that would be...).

Most of the students in my department occasionally walked that prof's dog (for free) when he was out of town. We liked the dog and it wasn't an inconvenience to us, so I don't think it was inappropriate.

(I had both male and female babysitters when I was a kid, and the teenage boys across the street were my favorites because they'd play Monopoly with me. There are plenty of female babysitters who don't take the job seriously, but it's not uncommon for people to be uncomfortable with male babysitters, especially with girl children.)

Anonymous said...

It's because so many professors use (female) grad students as babysitters!