Friday, February 29, 2008


There is always something exciting going on in Academia World, and this time of year is no exception: among other things, it is Decision Time for many students who applied for graduate programs, jobs, or internships. Some applications are still ongoing for jobs/programs with late deadlines (I got asked to write a letter of reference yesterday for an application deadline of today), but late February to mid-April is typically a very busy time for weighing options and making decisions.

In the past few months, I have, as usual, written many letters of reference for undgrads and grads. My own advisees let me know what happens regarding their applications, of course, but I am always amazed at how many students don't bother to tell their letter-writers the results of their applications. This applies to undergrads applying for internships, jobs, or graduate programs; and also to graduate students (other than one's own advisees) applying for faculty positions and postdocs. I typically say "Let me know how it turns out" or "Let me know what you decide to do", but it is surprising how few follow up on this.

Perhaps people get busy and just don't think about updating their ancillary letter-writers, or maybe they think we don't really care (?). I just looked through my files and counted fourteen (14) letters of reference that I wrote for a graduate student whose committee I was on. I don't remember how I found out he had gotten a faculty position (for which I had written a letter and had a phone conversation with the search committee), but it wasn't from him. ??

My intention here is not to whine or complain. My intention is to say to any students who read this: if someone writes you letters, and especially if someone has written > 10 letters for you (each one special!), let them know the outcome. It doesn't matter if it's for a summer internship or tenure-track faculty position: some of us want to know. Maybe some don't, but err on the side of assuming your letter-writers are interested, that we do care, or even that we have idle curiosity about your fate.


Anonymous said...

People don't let you know? Seriously?

I've always tried to write a thank-you letter to whomever wrote recommendations for me. I try to write them after the outcome of whatever event is known so that I can inform them (if they aren't aware already).

I've waffled on whether or not to give them some sort of thank you gift. I feel like I *should* given they have taken time to do something which helped me...but I always wondered if they might take it as a form of bribery or something bizarre. Or then there's the issue of "what do you get for the professor who has everything?"

Female Science Professor said...

I don't want gifts, and I don't even want a formal thank-you note -- just a quick email with the basic information would be fine.

That said, a few years ago a student gave me a small and geeky gift in thanks for all the letters I wrote for him, and I keep this on my desk. I would not have felt comfortable with a 'real' gift, but I like this because it was both heart-felt and funny. If you know a professor well enough to do something like this, fine, but if you are at a loss as to what would be a suitable appreciation gift, I am sure that your thank you notes are more than enough.

Anonymous said...

It could be because all their applications were horrible failures and they are afraid to admit it to you.

Female Science Professor said...

No, that is not the explanation. I gave an example to the contrary, and, although I gave an extreme example, it was not unusual. Another example: An undergrad for whom I wrote 8-9 letters for grad admissions this year has gotten lots of offers, but she has not told me about any of them herself.

Anonymous said...

Thanks FSP. I will write letters today telling people what the outcome has been. It has not been positive.

The other day you had a post about talking about failure, in which a professor was bragging on firing a student. I also think students need to be careful about describing horrible experiences in public. I mean, doesn't it look bad on the student even if there is truth to their experience. Since women have more negative experiences, if they discuss them in public,does it make the women look bad again? Double whammy.

Average Professor said...

don't want gifts or formal thank-yous either. Letter writing is just part of my job.

But I do agree it would be courteous for the beneficiaries of those letters to at least let their writers know the ultimate outcome (not necessarily the outcome of every application that required a letter, but just "here's what I decided to do with my life/summer/next thing").

But this hasn't ever occured to me before, and I think I've got maybe a 50/50 record of hearing about what happened.

But, the most letters I have ever written for an individual student is 3. I think I would definitely feel more deserving of an update if I had taken the time to write 9-10 letters on a person's behalf.

Anonymous said...

Hmh, I never really understood that you were supposed to do this -- update your letter writers on the status of your applications. Honestly, I would have agreed with your anonymous commentators, that people don't update because the outcome is negative. But, I have also been guilty about not updating about positive outcomes, too ('cause inevitably that brings up the negatives). But, I stand corrected.

So, do you want to hear about the failures? Or, a general summary when a person makes a decision. What if there were no positive outcomes (i.e. faculty applications). In that case, do you want an email that says ("none of my applications resulted in positive outcomes this year, but I hope to apply next year". Or "non of my applications resulted in positive outcomes, and I've decided to quit and stay home with my children (or join a commune, or go to medical school, or . . .).

Interested -- cause I'm grown up enough that I should know to do this, if you're supposed to.

Female Science Professor said...

A general summary is fine. If the news is all bad, I still want to know, especially if that means that I will be asked to write more letters in the future.

I realize it would be hard to tell a letter-writer that you received only rejections, but if your letter writers know you well enough to write letters for you, maybe they also know you well enough to give some helpful advice about your situation in terms of additional applications or other options.

Anonymous said...

FSP, I've been reading your blog for a while and it's very inspiring and helpful on so many levels! I'm a female postdoc trying to decide whether to stay in research or go on into a more clinical field. Re the outcome of reference letters I have always been writing thank you notes and I have let my references know whenever I got a position. But until reading your today's comment I would have limited this to positive-outcome scenarios. Reason is that I was thinking trainees apply for so many positions that their references would be swamped with emails on every single job the trainee chose not to take/was not offered in the end.
Luckily this has not happened to me yet but this is probably what I would have done.

Emily said...

This is good advice. I often assume that since I'm one of many many students that faculty members interact with, that the impact I have on them is far less that their impact on me. It's good to hear that you put so much effort into your letters AND that you care about the outcome. I should go email some people now...

Astronomum said...

Thanks for the reminder. In my case I just have so much else going on that updates about my (unsuccessful) job search this year are low in the list. In any case I just sent the email. Maybe they'll be able to commiserate with me now.

Anonymous said...

Your readers might be interested in this editorial published in Nature last
week. Here's a link, and the first three paragraphs.

Seven years ago, Mitiko Go, a biophysicist then at Nagoya University,
told Nature about a disturbing experience she had had at a meeting of
the university's Division of Biological Science (see Nature 410, 404-
406; 2001). The academics were considering a female applicant for a
vacant chair, and one male member said: "I'm sorry to have to say this
in front of Dr Go, but one woman is enough."

Go thought she might be scolded for relating the story (and indeed she
says she was accused of "tarnishing the honour of the university"),
but she was about to retire from the university and felt the time had
come to say something radical.

Times have changed. Far from retiring, Go is now president of the
prestigious Ochanomizu University in Tokyo and a member of the Council
for Science and Technology Policy, the country's highest science body,
which is chaired by the prime minister. Go and others have implored
the government to do more in support of women. The science and
education ministry has responded.

Southern Grad Girl said...

I had multiple faculty members write me recommendations for grad school. I probably only alerted about half of them as to what I was actually doing. I did make a point of writing them a thank you note for the letters (with chocolate!), but that was before the decision was made. I mostly felt like they didn't really care, or was at least worried that they wouldn't. They had lots of students, and I'm sure wrote lots of letters. I figure it's a plus if they can remember who I am.

Female Science Professor said...

I repeat: err on the side of assuming that your letter-writers care! If they don't, oh well, they can just delete the email. And again: you don't have to provide a detailed list -- just say something like "Thanks again for writing the 57 letters of reference for me. I've accepted an offer from X" or, if no such luck, convey that fact and indicate whether you will be requiring letters in the future or not.

Anonymous said...

I really want to know how they turn out, too - especially if they land a job at company X or a position at university Y on the basis of my recommendation. I might need a contact at X or Y in the near future, and then I know who I will call first :)

Anonymous said...

It warms my heart to hear that letter writers do care about what happens. I asked for so many letters when I applied for medical school and so appreciated the kindness and help of my letter writers. I couldn't wait to write thank you cards to them telling of my future plans! I'm interested in service and academia in medicine, and I hope I can help other students reach their dreams too.

Anonymous said...

I find this post very interesting, because I wrote thank you notes immediately to all my recommenders, but never let any of them know what school I decided to attend. I did this for two big reasons. First, it felt too much like bragging to me to just randomly walk up to them after class and say "FYI, I decided to go to (school)." Part of that is just how I am intrinsically, but a decent part of it was motivated by reason #2: out of the three professors that wrote me recommendations, only one liked my undergraduate institution. The other two (and I, for that matter) hated the place and were trying to find employment (or graduate) ASAP. Two of us did manage to leave, but the other is still there. Given that over half of my recommenders were trying to leave Undergrad Institute, it just didn't seem very nice to mention that I'd gotten accepted into schools when they were in the midsts of job talks all over and all sorts of crazy meetings (since their job talks coincided with the acceptance notification period, for some odd reason).

That said, however, I plan on writing an email to my recommenders tonight and telling them how things panned out. You're totally correct in that the easiest course of action is to just assume that they may care.

Anonymous said...

I didn't tell my letter writers the recent status of my job search because either 1) I was rejected, or 2) the universities are evoking a policy of radio silence on the status of applications, which at this date means being rejected.
I don't tell because I'm embarrassed. What would you say if I said "thanks for those lovely letters, but the university went with Joe Bloe instead"? To me it would come across as fishing for sympathy and I don't want sympathy, I want a job.

Female Science Professor said...

I would understand if someone didn't want to tell me about an unsuccessful job search if they weren't going to ask me for letters again. Otherwise, there needs to be some communication.

Anonymous said...

I am an undergrad in the midst of grad school applications, and I have been pondering the topic of this blog entry. I do plan to write thank-you letters, but I was unsure of whether I need to list every failure and success. I have received both rejections and acceptances (more of the former). I was rejected from my dream school and it does hurt, a lot. As a devoted student, I guess I've always measured myself in terms of academic success. I felt a sense of inferiority and failure by the rejections, and to be honest I'm not sure I have the strength to broadcast my failures...I'm not ashamed to admit my hesitance has to do with ego and keeping with appearances.

Female Science Professor said...

You don't have to list your rejections and acceptances school-by-school. Just send your letter-writers a note saying (1) thanks, and (2) where you'll be attending grad school (or working or whatever) in the fall. Don't worry about the rest.

Ms.PhD said...

I wish they were all like you.

I have a very hard time believing all my letter-writers genuinely care where I end up.

I think at least some of my failures are partly due to letters that don't quite say all the right things all the right way.

It has been established that letters for women have to say slightly different things than letters for men, but most people don't seem to know this. I only heard this relatively recently.

Don't get me wrong, I think at least some of my current letter-writers are great.

But one of them torpedoed my job apps by saying that MrPhD would strongly affect my eventual relocation, which is neither appropriate nor true in my case.

At least I know now, and I think it wasn't malicious, and I will make sure to say something about it if/when I re-apply.

Almost all my other letter-writers require extensive nagging, which I have been begun to resent more and more, since it reeks to me of passive-aggression.

If I have to remind you ten times, are you really pleased to be writing letters for me? The message is that you're not. But in every case, I asked these people up front, they said yes.

So far I have also asked all of my letter-writers for advice on where and when to apply for faculty positions, and so far none of them have been right. At all. And they don't always agree with each other.

I've tried to report back to them since I figured that even if I don't apply again, it might help them learn from their mistakes.

So I don't want to send the perpetually late and forgetful people thank you letters, but in reality they're more likely to be cajoled and patted because of their irresponsible behavior, since it seems to be the only way to get the letters delivered by the deadline.

The flip side of your post is, if you send a letter for someone, you should LET THEM KNOW that it went out on time.

Some schools have been wonderful about letting me know if letters were missing from my file and everyone cheerfully responded after an 11th hour, 11th reminder, but still.

I really hate the recommendation letter system for a whole variety of reasons.

Anonymous said...

Thank you FSP for pointing out this important aspect of letters!

I am in exactly this situation as a student (postdoc really, applying for TT faculty positions). I was wondering if my letter writers' would be annoyed if i told them about my progress. In the end, I decided to stay in touch with them and they have been super supportive of me all along the way! Now I can't even understand why I was almost not going to keep them in the loop!

Female Science Professor said...

Christina - I didn't post your comment, but will reply here anyway. Thanks for the intriguing invitation, but I don't think I'll be able to participate in the conference.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, FSP.

I recently defended my thesis and up until now had never given feedback to people who have written letters of recommendation for me because I just assumed they didn't care. It never occurred to me that they would like to hear how things turned out.

After reading your post, I contacted a professor who had written a particularly influential letter of recommendation for me. I was pleased to receive a very enthusiastic congratulations and nice note from this professor. It is nice to know that people really do care and I will certainly give feeback to people in the future!

Laura E. Mariani said...

I sent paper thank-you notes to each of my recommenders right away when I applied to graduate school. After I'd heard back from all of my programs, I sent them emails thanking them again, saying where I'd been accepted and where I decided to go. It was extremely validating when one wrote back, "Good choice, that's the best program of the bunch" re: my decision.