It just so happens that a student asked my advice today about writing a support letter for another professor's promotion evaluation. He wanted to know how long these letters should be and what typically goes in them. Those queries, along with some comments on yesterday's post on this very topic, inspired me to answer some Frequently Asked Questions and to provide a versatile template for students to use when writing support letters for a professor's tenure and/or promotion file.
This isn't quite like providing online term papers, is it?
SUPPORT LETTER TEMPLATE FOR A STUDENT WRITING A REFERENCE LETTER FOR A PROFESSOR
Dear X (dept. chair/promotion & tenure committee or whatever),
I have known Professor X for _____ ( years; months; weeks) and have interacted with him/her ______ (extensively; a bit; not at all) in his/her capacity as ________ (my MS/PhD advisor; committee member; random professor helping me with my research; instructor in a course; my landlord). During my research/this class, I have come to know Professor X _______ (very well; just a little; not at all), and therefore can/cannot comment on some aspects of his/her _________ (advising; teaching).
Professor X is a ___________________ (select some adjectives: kind, caring, interesting, hard-working, creative, organized, remarkable, self-absorbed, abusive, cruel, despicable, disorganized) advisor/teacher, and it has been a ___________ (pleasure; horror) working with him/her. For example, [insert specific example of how Professor X has helped or harmed you].
An important aspect of Professor X's interactions with students is his/her ____________ (availability to answer questions; interest in his/her students' work; ability to provide just the right amount of structure, yet allow the student some independence; truly random cruelty; petty behavior; propensity to prey on female/male undergraduate students). I personally have ______ (benefited; suffered) from working with/taking a class from Professor X and sincerely hope that his/her efforts as a teacher and advisor will be rewarded by being _______ (promoted/tenured; fired).
Objective Student Z
Note: If there have been particularly memorable incidents involving Professor X's advising/teaching, you could include descriptions of those.
What is the typical length of a student support letter?
half a page to two pages, but most commonly a page (on your department's letterhead, if possible)
Will Professor X see my letter?
In the US, it depends on the state. In some states, definitely yes. In some states, maybe not. You should assume, however, that there is a good chance that Professor X will see your letter.
Can I refuse to write a support letter if writing such a letter makes me uncomfortable or anxious?
Yes, you can. If, however, it also makes you uncomfortable and anxious to refuse, you have some options: (1) talk to the department chair or promotion committee chair about why you don't want to write this letter (note: you should not have to accept or refuse directly to Professor X); or (2) write a very perfunctory and short letter:
I am one of Professor X's graduate students and have worked with him/her for n years. I am working on (describe your research).
Professor X has given me advice about my research, and I took n graduate classes from him/her. We have also interacted in the lab and during research group meetings. I am making progress with my research, owing in part to having the opportunity to work with Professor X during my time at this university.
Anxious Student Z
What if Professor X asks me directly if I will write a letter?
You can say OK if you really feel you can't say anything else, but ultimately it is someone else who administers the reference letter requests, not Professor X. The official request for a letter will come from someone else, and you can have a change of heart then. You should be able to deal with the situation without involving Professor X.
Can I write a negative letter?
Yes of course, if you have good reason to write negative things and are quite sure that these negative things are owing to dire failings of your advisor/professor, you can express your opinion. It would, however, be disturbing if your first attempt to communicate your unhappiness were in such a letter. Ideally, you would have had other opportunities to complain about Professor X's advising/teaching, either in teaching evaluations or through discussions with relevant people (Professor X or others). Also ideally, any obvious problems in advising and teaching are detected during pre-tenure reviews and there have been attempts to fix these problems. In some cases, however, this doesn't happen and the tenure review is needed to bring such problems to light.
If you write a negative letter, even if you feel very negative about Professor X, be aware that your letter will have more impact if it is written in a professional way that focuses on major issues. An over-the-top flaming negative letter might be discounted, and your opinion will not be seriously considered. Think carefully about the best way to make your case in writing.
10 years ago