Thursday, October 16, 2008

Let Us Now Praise Our Advisors Even More

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?


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:

Dear Committee,

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.


Notorious Ph.D. said...

It's recommendation letter MadLibs!

Anonymous said...

FSP, thank you for this guide! There really needs to be a guide for writing letters like this (and general student rec letters too). Writing a good letter is a skill and it's not one that we're given any training in.

I think my comfort level with writing something like this for a professor would depend on my opinion of them. I'd be happy/comfortable writing a letter for someone who I have a good relationship with, but not for someone who I don't. I have to work with this person and I hardly want a written record with me saying what a horrible person he/she is to work with! Especially as I am in a position of less power as the student. I admit, I'm uncomfortable writing a negative letter; perhaps the refusal of students says something?

ScienceWoman said...

This is incredibly helpful, as next week I have to write a letter for a former professor. I want to praise him to the skies, but now I know what the pro forma letter sounds like so I can exceed the expectation (without wasting my time/paper).

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks so much FSP! This post will be helpful for many of us now and in times to come. I feel for those who have to write a negative letter, that can't be fun. I'm very thankful for thoughtful advisers...

Professor Staff said...

It was once pointed out by a colleague that "waiving your right" to see reference letters is just that, waiving your "right." It does not prohibit you from seeing the letters, it just prohibits you from asking for them.

This came to light when said colleague was going up for his/her next promotion. The department chair at the time offered to show my colleague copies of their reference letters that were used for tenure X years earlier. I was rather stunned.

This surprised me. I know this former chair, and suspect it would not have been done if the letters were negative. Still, it strikes me as a "legalistic" interpretation that is not within the spirit of how it is interpreted by letter writers.

Has anyone else heard of such situations?

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

I'm hoping this series of posts on advisor-praising letters culminates in a sample recommendation letter for Kitten X.

Female Science Professor said...

Kitten X just got tenure!

Ann said...

Thank you so much for this! I was just asked to write a letter for my undergrad advisor's tenure file. He was absolutely fantastic and I wanted to be sure to convey that in the right way. I wasn't certain how to balance personal and professional remarks, but this guide gave me some very good ideas, and I think my finished product is quite polished!

Anonymous said...

FSP, I can't believe the timing of this; I read your entries on this about a week before I was requested to write a letter for my advisor who is going up for tenure. Your comments were very useful. I thought about it and decided I didn't want to write one because of the conflict of interest, and submitted a short statement in place of a letter about why it was unreasonable to ask current graduate students to submit a letter (or at least, why all such letters would be positive if the students valued their own career advancement).

But then I talked to two people not in my department, a community college professor and a scientist who was in scientific academia 20 years ago. They both claimed that me not writing a letter would count as a black mark against my professor, and that she could be denied tenure based on that. I like my professor and want her to get tenure (as I said in my non-letter), and so now I feel guilty about this... but I still stand by my original qualms about the letter's uselessness because of the conflict of interest. Can my refusal to write a letter really be taken as an 'F' on some part of my professors application for tenure?

Anonymous said...

Thanks a bunch for this post. Its amazing, but this is the only thing on the web of its kind. It really helped me get my letter written.

Morgan said...

This was a VERY useful post for me. Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

wow..I had no idea where to begin or what to write, I'm so glad I found this site.

ConstituentOther said...

Along with other people's gratuitous comment, I also want to give special thanks to FSP for this entry, it's great help to get me a jump start on writing the letter-instead of having to begin from scratch.
Many thanks.