Friday, October 26, 2007


Every once in a while I obsess about Letters of References. This is one of those times because:

- I have been reading hundreds of L of R's in recent weeks.
- I have been writing L of R's for promotion files, students seeking things etc., and
- I have been thinking about names of L of R writers for myself at the request of my department Chair, who is nominating me for an award.

I've written before about what makes a good/great L of R and what makes a bad/loathsome L of R, so in this post I will instead discuss issues related to selecting L of R people for one's own purposes.

As a grad student/postdoc seeking employment, I had letters from my advisor(s), a Ph.D. committee member or two, and someone who had been a teaching mentor. Later, as I moved from a visiting professor job to a tenure-track job, I had letters from a colleague at the institution I was visiting. When I was applying for jobs to move from one tenure-track place to another, I did not request letters from colleagues at the institution I was seeking to leave, but some people do that.

When I needed letters for tenure, I had letters from various luminaries in my field and a colleague from my first tenure-track job. There was much discussion at the time about whether to get a letter from my Ph.D. advisor. Some of my department colleagues thought that a letter from the former advisor was essential for tenure/promotion files because the advisor could make a statement such as "My former student, Professor X, is the best student I have ever had in 82 years of advising Ph.D. students." Other people thought that a letter from the advisor was not relevant, as the advisor was not objective, even though a letter from an advisor is essential when one is first applying for jobs. I felt ambivalent -- I knew my advisor must have written a good letter for me at one point or I wouldn't have had job offers, but I also felt that he had always been closer to his male students and I didn't know how I would fare if he were asked to compare. Also, we had had an uneasy advisor-advisee relationship owing to his unethical behavior involving other women students. In the end, he was not asked to write a letter.

For promotion to full professor, luminaries were again asked to write letters, including some international scientists. It was important to get letters from people from highly ranked universities, as committees like that kind of thing. Owing to a snafu that was only detected just before my file was to go to the Dean (something entirely the fault of an administrative assistant who somehow manages to be simultaneously hostile and near-comatose), the Chair asked for a letter from a distinguished professor in my own department -- someone with whom I have never collaborated but who is widely respected in the university.

For my ongoing exploration of possibly maybe moving to another university, I have mostly not needed letters. Faculty at one university didn't consult me -- they contacted the people they considered authorities in my field and asked them about me. Another university requested 3 letters, and I gave them the names of 3 people, only one of whom is a research collaborator.

Now I have to think about names for this award nomination. The chair thinks that the nomination will be more likely to succeed if I have letters from Chairs, Deans, renowned international scientists, National Academy of Science members, and Nobel Prize winners. Letters from at least one of those are not going to happen. Choosing letter writers for an award of this sort involves considering who will effuse the most in a letter, and that's not something that is easy to guess for some people. I am also stressing out because several of the obvious letter writers are at institutions that are considering hiring me, and that makes for a bizarre situation that I didn't want to discuss with my Chair when we talked about names.

Having someone write a letter for an award feels more awkward than getting letters for things like promotion/tenure. The tenure process can feel like a life-or-death situation. When I write tenure letters for others, I take this responsibility very seriously and work hard at writing effective letters. Awards aren't necessary in the same way, and it's asking a lot to request that someone take the time to write a letter for such a thing.


Anonymous said...

As a grad student I've of course never written any LORs myself, but my advisor tells me that she only finds them arduous if she is lukewarm about the person; if she really thinks they're fantastic, they're a pleasure to write. Do you feel the same way? Does that notion help at all in deciding whom to ask?

Female Science Professor said...

It is a pleasure to write letters for students/colleagues who are really great. The most arduous letters to write are for students I don't know well but who need a letter from a professor (I'm at a large university), and letters for iffy tenure cases.

Anonymous said...

Urgh. Letters of reference have just blown up in my face in a major way. A while back I was applying for a faculty position, asked my head of group (a luminary) for a reference and was told no because I worked independently and our research interests didn't overlap - even though he was my direct line manager. I was pretty upset about this at the time, assumed he thought I must be pretty useless, but gritted my teeth and applied anyway without his name on my list. In due course I was shortlisted and the school concerned contacted him directly to ask for a letter - which was then given. However I have never asked him again for a letter for any of my other applications - assuming that circumstances overall had not changed. He was aware that I was applying, and never offered to write, so this wasn't unjustified.

Over the last few days we've been having a review at our institute of various issues, during which postdocs were invited to speak freely - and I mentioned this as an example of a possibly negative consequence of having people in the group who work reasonably independently. The review panel then pointed out that externally it looked pretty bad not to have a letter from your group head. I had hoped that the point might be conveyed in some generic and anonymous way. Unfortunately this got out of our closed (and theoretically confidential) session, and now my group head is pretty riled, and has forwarded me the (very nice) letter he eventually wrote for me for the one position. Fortunately I am about to move on to another institute anyway, but letters really are a minefield.

Anonymous said...

Can you point to your earlier posts discussing what makes good / great letters of reference?
Given your efficiency and eloquence, they will probably be very helpful.

And speaking of efficiency, can you share some tips? Seriously, what do you think makes you effective?

EcoGeoFemme said...

My advisor has said that he avoids requesting letters from people working outside the US. He claims that Americans use over-the-top language, which others, specifically Europeans, do not. He believes that a letter written by a European that is as positive as a letter written by an American will not convey the same praise.

Ms.PhD said...

AWIS has had a lot of interest lately in getting more women to apply for and nominate each other for awards, and how to ensure that once nominated, they go on to win the awards.

Recent discussions have included putting together resources on what makes good letters good, how to write them, etc. I'm with the person who asked for a pointer to your previous post on letter writing, I will try to find it but it would be nice if you can put a link here.

You are not alone in wondering how much to worry about this kind of thing. There is a general feeling among women that it doesn't matter, we don't have time, etc. But the latest findings suggest that this is one of the areas contributing to the gender gap, especially in the higher echelons of science.

In other words, go out there and get them. It sets a good example and should help make you competitive for positions where you have more power to do good and fight evil.

See also the RAISE project, which currently lists awards and in theory will eventually list advice on how to win them:

Anonymous said...

this is off topic, sorry about that. I looked up "recommendation" because I'm about to write my first batch of recommendation letters for people applying to tenure track jobs and thought I'd see what you have to say about that (luckily my lack of fame and Nobel prizes precludes me from doing some of the most annoying things, and it is good to know a sincere letter by someone who doesn't know the student very well can have some impact =)

Anyway, one of the hits I got was to your comments on the NAS report "Beyond bias...", so I then did a search into that (yeah, I know, but it is Sunday!). I was wondering if you could comment on what you think about the recommendations in the report (I just skimmed the report, so hopefully I got this right), especially the idea that the tenure system is designed for scientists with substantial support in the home frount (i.e., a traditional wife). I have often found that FSP have this no-nonsense, I got it done by their rules and so can you kind of attitude. Given your recent posts on balance and your obvious high productivity, I was wondering what you would think about trying to tap into the potential of women who are not naturally that efficient, but who are as efficient and productive as many men who are tenure-worthy, except that these women may be less likely to be able to show that because of the lack of wife and so on.

In other words, there are some things in academia that need to be changed because they are clearly and directly unfair (like taking the accomplishments of men more seriously than those of women), and there are other things that are unfair in a more indirect way (like setting tenure standards by the model of a male scientist with a wife at home). It seems like it is only the first kind that affects you, since you are very productive. Would you be for changing the second type too? Do you think only people who are willing to put 70hrs/week into their work should be scientists at first level universities? Is there any value in considering other possible career trajectories, some that may be more "friendly" to women, even women who cannot pull off what you do?

sorry for the many off topic questions!

Female Science Professor said...

I think academic/science culture has to change to be more 'life friendly' (for lack of a better term) for everyone. I don't think FSPs or anyone should have to work 70 hours/week to succeed, even if some of us have done that. Everyone needs to find their own balance, and the academic environment should be flexible enough such that more people can succeed/thrive.

Female Science Professor said...

non-us fsp and others: there might be other posts about reference letters in the archive, but at least one is in December 2006:

Anonymous said...

As a full professor and chair of a mid-size department who is also female, this is my experience and opinion. It depends on the nature of the application or nomination. Of course, you need your advisor and and faculty/mentor collegues when you apply for a job. Otherwise why you don't have those letters is questioned. You never use an advisor or collaborator for promotion. Those are nearly always discounted and often prohibited. This is the time that external reviewers at other institutions who have no tie whatsoever to you are used because they are objectively evaluating your scholarship. For awards, it makes little difference, other than the bigger the name the better. Just be careful for all letter writers that you truly know their track record when it comes to letters and how they feel about you. Some people are notorious for being hypercritical and negative so you should avoid them at all costs. It never hurts to run names by a trusted colleague for their opinion.

Anonymous said...

In talking about a top-tier research universities, I agree that _SPs need not work 70 hours a week or more to succeed. However, I don't know ANY _SPs that work less than 60 hours a week and are very successful. I often remind the people in my lab of this fact when they are considering a SP career.

Anonymous said...

This is so timely! I've been lurking here for a few weeks and I really enjoy your blog. I am a female, second-year, tenure-track professor in a STEM discipline, and I'm at a large state university that is research intensive, but not Tier 1. I've been encouraged to apply for a position at a Tier 1 institute and I need to figure out who to get to write reference letters. There are senior people in the field who I know and who know me and are familiar with my work, but I don't know what kind of letters they write. I also have the option of asking a department chair from my current institution (but not my department). He's someone I've worked with extensively and would write a good letter, although he's outside of my field. I'm not sure how much weight a Dept. Chair from another field would carry. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

That's a good point that the life-friendliness needs to be for everyone, not just females. It just happens that for sociological/biological issues it is women who are statistically more likely to be affected by the way things are.

I know in my case it is not too hard for me to put in 70+hrs/week because I need only a few hours of sleep to be functional. My husband, on the other hand, needs a minimum of 8-9hrs/night so it wouldn't work out for him (so he has a great job in industry making much more money than I am ;)

I do wonder if ability-to-be-coherent-on-4hrs-of-sleep is something we really want to factor into the "are you good enough?" equation.

Anonymous said...

I have a question regarding the content of reference letters. Is it really the content of the letter or the letter writer's credibility that matters? I mean, in this age and day, 99% of the reference letters probably say the student or postdoc (or faculty) walk on the water but how credible is that statement? thus, I imagine it is the letter writer's track record comes into place somewhat(e.g. how many students postdocs he placed i nacademic positions before and whether his previous letters about other people turned out to be correct etc.) Otherwise, getting a letter from a pig in a poke which says the candidate is next to nooone hardly matters presumably. Anyone?

EliRabett said...

The point about US and European LORs is well taken. OTOH a lot of people on both sides understand the culture of the other. For example, I have a very long term collaborator I sometimes ask for LORs, he always asks "US or German style". To an extent you have to depend on the readers being sophisticated.

A point which has not been touched on is that in hiring, the ability to work with others is valued. A collaborator can help there.