Monday, December 04, 2006

Species of Reference Letter Writers

I have just finished reading the 99th letter of reference I've had to peruse in the past week, and I happen to have a few opinions about what I've seen. My opinions are also based on the approximately 57,832 other letters of reference I have read over the years. I am going to list various reference letter 'types', in order from what annoys me most to what annoys me least, just because that's the mood I am in right now. Reference letter 'type' probably says something profound about the referee's character and/or personality, but I am not qualified to evaluate that (not that my lack of qualifications stops me from commenting on other things).

The worst: this reflects my own interests/biases, but I hate the letters that say things like "She is among the best young female scientists in her field". I don't need to point out that one never sees similar statements for male scientists, do I?

Tie for second-most annoying: the "I'm so great that just my sending this piece of paper back to you with my signature and CV is a royal seal of approval even though I have written nothing of substance because I don't have time and I don't really care" reference; and the "He's great because his advisor is in the National Academy of Science and/or Engineering and that's all I need to say", or even, "He's great because his advisor's advisor got a Nobel Prize". Wow. It's so cool that brilliant, award-winning people's students are also all brilliant. [note: I used 'he' in the example because all the examples of that I have seen have been male]. I am perfectly willing to believe that talented people had talented advisors etc., but give me more information!

Quite annoying: the "I really can't bring myself to say anything too nice because it would imply that this person might be better than I am". These can be quite odious, in fact. I saw this recently in several letters. For example, a referee wrote something like "Because I have won This Award and That Award, I have the authority to state that candidate X [a woman in this case] is showing signs that she might one day be at the level of someone who could also win these awards." Amazing.

Semi-annoying: the self-serving "this person is great because he/she does research closely related to my own and therefore his/her research is immensely significant". Well, OK, that's nice. I could be convinced with some additional information other than a statement to that effect, but sometimes that information is lacking entirely.

OK to good letter of reference: clear statement of how well (or not) the reference writer knows the person in question, and opinion with examples regarding research quality or potential in the context of the field.

Best: The above, but with some examples or descriptions that make the person in question stand out in some way. If a committee is reading hundreds of these letters, they really can all start to look the same after a while, so the really well-composed letters stand out.

Alas for the person requesting letters of reference, there may be no way to know what kind of letter-writer your referees are. And, for early career people, you might not have much choice anyway. Fortunately, committees (in my experience) can be very forgiving about poorly written reference letters that are otherwise positive recommendations.

I am leaving out of my list the case of reference writers who are insincere and who, in some cases, lie about a person's abilities. That's another topic. The candidates whose letters I have been reading recently really are all excellent, so it's a (difficult) matter of ranking the most excellent from the merely excellent.

I recently read a letter written by someone who didn't know the nominee well but who had been impressed by his work over the years. This letter was written from the heart and was so well written that it was very moving to read. It was a truly great letter. I wish there were more letter-writers like that. I aspire to write letters like that.

So far this fall, I've been writing tenure/promotion letters for various people. Now the faculty application/grad application season is getting into high gear, so I will try my best to write the kinds of letters that I find most useful and interesting when I'm the reader rather than the writer.


Ianqui said...

Writing reference letters is something I agonize about every year (do they sufficiently highlight the candidate? What I can I say about people I don't know *that* well?). But I'm happy to see that I definitely don't do any of the things that annoy you, since I could imagine that those things seriously annoy a lot of people!

Anonymous said...

If I copy the text of your post, and put it up in the deparment mailroom to look suspiciously like one of those junk flyers that are pasted on the notice board, do you think the grief that comes with that is worth it as a trade-off for better reference letters for the students?

Female Science Professor said...

That depends on if the letter writers are writing substandard letters because they don't know how to write good letters or because they don't care. In the first case, I'm sure there are more professional, serious, and comprehensive descriptions of what should go in a reference letter than what I wrote yesterday. It might help to post something like that.

Anonymous said...

About discerning the excellent from the merely excellent: really, what is the informational *use* of 5,486 glowing letters? Is this not a form of grade inflation? How do you deal with that?

Sadly, my thesis advisor - who rants about having to read 5,486 variants off the same letter, which tell him nothing about the candidate - deals with it by writing "uninflated" letters. Though I actually agree with him in the idealistic sense, it makes my life difficult when I have to explain the context of the letter to its recipients. That alone once sunk a job interview for me.

I'm torn on whether to keep including his letter: he was my thesis advisor, but next to 5,485 glowing letters his doesn't glow, but not for the reasons the recipients assume. Any advice on this? I sure could use some.

Female Science Professor said...

That's a tough one, and you have my sympathy. It is like grade inflation, and I don't know why so many people buy into it. Perhaps your advisor could work on the fine line between not writing the usual glowing letter like everyone else does, but also not crossing the (undefined) line between not gushing and seeming to be negative. I personally appreciate an honest letter when I see one -- one that gives a sense for a real person, not a perfect godlike being. I don't know what your field is like, but ideally your advisor would have a reputation for not writing inflated letters, and if this is known, you'd be fine in many cases (though it doesn't sound like this is the case). In recent years, I have seen the types of letters that my advisor and postdoc supervisor write for other people, and it's a wonder I ever got a job in the first place. Two of my four referees knew how to write good letters, fortunately, so the feeble efforts of the others did not have a dire consequence.

Am I a woman scientist? said...

I have only seen one reference letter written for me so far... one from my graduate advisor. (If Wikipedia had a page for the phrase "pompous ass", I'm sure his picture would be used as the example.) It was of the "feel honored to be holding an actual correspondence from THE Prof. John X. Doe" type. But the kicker: he wrote "She can be too smart for her own good." !!! Yeah. I didn't finish my degree with him.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog. I love how you point out the obvious (to us) re: the female grad student, but the not obvious to many that we interact with.

I love your blog.

Anonymous said...

I've heard from people in my field that letter-writers from the East and West coasts tend to write more gushing/glowing letters than do letter-writers from the Midwest. Another effect to take into account when recalibrating the stack of 5000.

Female Science Professor said...

I have not seen any east coast - west coast - midwest difference in letter writing gush-magnitude. There are probably lots of academics who are from the east, went to school in the west, and are employed in the midwest, or some variation on that scenario. There is, however, a difference between U.S. and European letter-writers.

Anonymous said...

I'm European with European letter writers. Do you have any suggestions what I should tell them to take care of when they write letters for post-doc applications in the US?

Female Science Professor said...

I can't speak for all fields, but it's well known in my own that European letter writers are less effusive than American ones, so this is just expected and accepted. I don't think it would harm anyone in an application. The place where it can have a negative effect is in ranking proposals from U.S. funding agencies. You have to know that in NSF rankings, "good" is really bad, for example.

Zeynel said...

"The worst: this reflects my own interests/biases, but I hate the letters that say things like "She is among the best young female scientists in her field". "

I thought about commenting about this this morning but I now see that you wrote "this reflects my own interests/biases" so I would think that since your blog is titled "female science professor" and there are no blogs which are titled "male science professor" it is your interests/biases so you are already aware that it is your bias. I tend to see this merely as a struggle for limited job opportunities. In the corporate world now males and females are 50/50. In academia it appears that females are lagging but not for long. I believe that recruiting younger females before they get addicted to celebrity cult culture would help your cause a lot. Are you letting, for instance, your daughter watch television? Is she interested in science or more to celebrities she sees on television? Does she know about Marie Curie?

Female Science Professor said...

I don't see your point. My bias makes that particular type of letter the most annoying in my opinion, but no bias is necessary to see that it is wrong to classify someone's field of scientific expertise by gender. For women, it narrows the comparison considerably. In one case, the letter writer said that a candidate was "among the best young female scientists of her field", but there were probably only 2-3 women who fit that description. What if he compared her to men in that field? Would he still think she was any good? At that point, I didn't care about his opinion anymore, so maybe it didn't matter in the end.

As for your other comment -- we don't have a TV (though we watch movies from time to time). When she grows up, our daughter can be a scientist or not, as she wishes.

Anonymous said...

well, with letters you have to read between the lines - perhaps she is just not good enough for this professor to say "she is the best student I had". So what the letter says - if you want gender diversity, get her, she is the best female candidate for you. If you want the best person for the job regardless of the gender, then there may be better candidates.

We tend to complain about letter inflation but then also don't want brutal honesty either.

Carrie said...

HOLY MOLY! What world does admin1 live in? In the corporate world now males and females are 50/50. I happen to work in the corporate R&D engineering world and I can tell you first hand that we are so NOT 50:50.

Zeynel said...

Oops! Sorry. I am not in the engineering field. I believe that 50/50 applies to women in management and professional occupations:
I have no idea why there are fewer women in engineering but I believe that in life sciences the ratio may be closer to equal. But I am not sure. Where I work women are in majority and they are all super intelligent, better organized, more logical and more result oriented than I am and other men in general. So it seems that it is only a matter of time when the labor force will be dominated by women and men will stay at home and take care of the baby. I think this has already started.

Ms.PhD said...

Yes, I wish I could send this post to my letter writers. I think a couple of mine are in the category of not wanting to praise me too much because of their own insecurities. So then people read the letters as 'faint praise' (not a good thing).

I'm with the people who say what the hell is the point of the whole exercise when the grade inflation phenomenon means everyone already has straight A's? Weeding out the A- letters (like mine)?

Anonymous said...

agree to you that the reference letter should mention how much the applicant is known to referee. it also should be specific and should mention strong points of the applicant instead of saying he/she is the best in the field.

i am a final year phd student and in many cases i have been asked by the referees to prepare on my own and send them so that they will edit and send it. that has been very difficult as i have to prepare a reference letter for me, myself. but the positive i get is that i could highlight my strong points. anyways since the referees edit it after that, it would have their touch.

now the problem comes if two referees for the same application asks me the same hehe. i would have to prepare in two styles!

stumbled upon your article while checking for samples of reference letters. i am also working in oceanography, and we have a community website at

cheers,, Roxy

Anonymous said...

oops, the site i am administrating is and not com