Years ago, a friend of mine had a highly unsuccessful interview for a faculty position. According to the legend, the department chair, who had had the same adviser as the candidate, was upset that their mutual adviser had written in the reference letter that the candidate was the best graduate student he had ever advised. This was humiliating for the not-best professor and he did not support hiring the candidate.
Perhaps I am naive, but I don't believe that the wounded ego of one professor would be enough to sink someone's chances at a job if there weren't other reasons for other faculty to not prefer this particular candidate. The reasons might be good ones or bad ones, but I think there must have been other reasons. I also think in this case that it was true that the candidate was indeed the best graduate student of that adviser; the years since the fateful interview have demonstrated this well.
It's likely that the adviser sent the same letter to every institution to which the candidate applied and did not modify it out of consideration for his former student who was on the faculty at one of these places. Should the adviser have worded the letter in a different way for that particular institution? Or was he was correct to state his frank opinion, which was surely accurate and not a case in which every one of his students was the best?
I was recently thinking about this incident for two reasons:
(1) I have been writing reference letters for graduate students, and I always think about who is likely to read my letter -- anyone I know? anyone my students know? Does it matter in terms of what I write in the letter, or at least how I express my opinions?
(2) I just read a reference letter for an undergraduate student applying to graduate school at my institution. We went to the same college and had the same professor for a particular class, albeit many (many) years apart. Although the applicant is not the best student this professor ever taught, she is very close to the best, who is clearly indicated as a recent student (i.e., not me).
I laughed when I read the letter that states (indirectly) that I was not the best student of that professor. For one thing, I knew that. I did well in his course, but I did not excel.
Also, I was responsible for a practical joke that my class played on this professor and that he still seems to remember when I encounter him at conferences. When my friends and I graduated, he told us that he would miss us, but not too much.
His letter for the almost-best applicant was obviously a form letter sent to all departments to which the applicant was applying, but even if it had not been, this wouldn't have mattered in this case. The applicant is impressive and my ego has weathered the blow (this time).
9 months ago