Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Let Us Now Praise Our Advisors

In the past 10 years or so, it has become common at universities for the teaching part of tenure and promotion dossiers to contain support letters from students and others who have observed the nominee's teaching. This is of course in addition to the 57 letters of reference required from eminent scientists, emperors, and other celestial beings who can comment in detail about the nominee's transformative research.

Teaching is also evaluated using statistical data from the official Teaching Evaluations, but teaching involves more than classroom work; teaching also involves advising graduate and undergraduate students in research, and these kinds of teaching activities are typically evaluated via reference letters as part of the tenure and promotion process.

Some of the teaching-related reference letters are written by current students, including graduate advisees, who comment on their advisor's advising and teaching skills. It may well be that an Assistant Professor doesn't have graduated PhD students in time for the tenure and promotion evaluation, so the only students who can write letters are current (or at least very recent) graduate students.

I don't think it is a good idea to ask current students to write these letters, as it puts them in an awkward position. Furthermore, it is presumably in the student's best interest that their advisor get tenure (or a promotion), so the student may not be able to be objective.

Perhaps the main purpose of these letters is the fact that they exist. That is, the fact that a few students are willing to type out a few nice paragraphs about their advisor might serve the purpose of showing that the nominee is able to function as an advisor of student research. Can we assume that if an advisor is abusive, evil, despotic, and/or corrupt, this would have become apparent by other means before the tenure dossier is constructed? And if we can't assume that, is asking students to write letters for their advisor's tenure file the best way to get this information?

Additional letters for the teaching part of the tenure file come from faculty and others who have attended the nominee's class as observers. Not long ago, I read a teaching support letter from a professor who had visited one class on one day last year. Somehow he managed to write two pages of detailed prose about this one lecture, but I did not find the letter particularly compelling given the limited data base. I think these letters can be useful, however, if there has been a systematic effort to observe the nominee teaching different classes of different sizes and different levels at different times during their probationary faculty epoch. The main purpose of these visits would be to provide constructive advice, if needed, but another outcome can be an informative and authoritative letter for the teaching dossier.

I think the teaching dossier should contain a statement from the nominee, a list of classes taught and students advised (graduate and undergraduate), teaching evaluations, and, if possible, a letter from a professor or staff member who has served as a teaching mentor to the nominee and who can speak from the experience of observing and advising the nominee re. teaching.

It could well be that I have been too long in professor mode to appreciate the opportunity given to students to provide input into the tenure process of their advisor. Perhaps some students want to have this opportunity and do not find it awkward. Unless someone persuades me otherwise, however, I do not think that current or even recent students -- i.e. those who still need letters of reference from their advisor -- should be asked to write reference letters for their advisor's tenure or promotion evaluation.


Anonymous said...

As an undergraduate, I was asked--but not forced--to write a letter for one of my professors for his tenure evaluation. I didn't find it awkward, and in fact enjoyed it. I thought the professor was a bad teacher but a nice person. He clearly meant to teach us stuff but many of us in the class agreed that it was underwhelming. I said so much except with more detail in the letter. He got tenure, and I'm kind of hoping that my letter might in some miniscule way help to steer him towards improving his teaching.

phdballer said...

As a current PhD student who anticipates going through the tenure process down the road, I like the idea of allowing students to write letters. As you note, the value placed on them is probably minimal due to student biases. But, from the student's perspective, I see it as an opportunity to pay back all the letters of recommendation that my advisor has written for me. My advisor will be assembling his tenure-packet next summer at which time I anticipate being a newly minted PhD and will likely have some collaborative efforts continuing. In our lab, we are certain that our advisor is worthy of tenure (can't be said for all in our department), and I'd like to be able to contribute to that. If the committee places minimal value on my contribution, that is fine - at least I am hopefully allowed to voice my opinion.

I wrote a letter last year for a professor that I took a class with then TAed the same class the following year. In that process, my letter went directly to the department. As far as I know, the professor never saw what I wrote. While I could see some students (certainly some I know) feeling that they faced the wrath of their PI if they didn't write a glowing review, I would hope that most would be honest.

I'd also think that there would be some expected bias in letters written by research colleagues who would stand to lose benefits if tenure were not granted.

Eugenie said...

I was asked to write a letter of recommendation for a professor last year. It was a little interesting to say the least. (and a bit last notice, he gave me two days)

I felt that I couldn't say "no" for a couple of reasons, partly because the professor had already wrote a few letters for me in the past. That, and the fact that the professor is one of the professors I respect most on campus and he was up for two really awesome awards.

It was kind of nerve wracking writing the letter, because A. I've never had to do it before and there was little guidance (the professor gave me a little outline of suggested topics, but google failed me on this one) and B. I didn't want to ruin his chances.

To make matters more awkward, my boyfriend happened to be one of the students on the selection committee!

But I chose to write it because I felt that the professor should be honored for all his work he does on campus. (That and put up with me for all of these semesters.... for those who've read my blog this professor is "Dr. Z")

And the good news- he ended up receiving one of the awards!

In the end, I thought it was a good experience to have and I think that most students should have some kind of practice with writing letters of recommendation. You just never know when you'll be asked to write one and I suppose its a good skill to have.

I think that when I professor is up for tenure or some award relating to teaching that one of the best ways to gauge their abilities in the classrooms is to ask the student's themselves. Sure, the class evaluations are okay, I know when I do mine, I rush through it so I can move on to the next thing on my to-do list. The evaluations are handy because they result in a wide-range of multiple-choice opinions, but are less-personal then letters of recommendation.

johannarts said...

How timely. I sent in one of those yesterday for my PhD advisor's tenure case (I finished a year ago). I have an excellent relationship with her and my praise was completely genuine, but it was still an awkward experience. I questioned whether I should say things such as the fact that she gives way too much of herself personally to her students? Although I have a tenure track position and am in not immediate need of rec. letters, I certainly felt as though I couldn't be terribly unbiased (and chose not to write things that if I'd been brutally honest I would have....) partly because I like her and think she's a great scientist deserving of tenure.... but also because I am frankly still somewhat invested in the former-student-former-advisor relationship.

Becca said...

Can we assume that if an advisor is abusive, evil, despotic, and/or corrupt, this would have become apparent by other means before the tenure dossier is constructed?

NO! In fact, the existance of many tenured professors with one or more of those qualities prooves that having them is not a huge impediment to getting tenure.

And if we can't assume that, is asking students to write letters for their advisor's tenure file the best way to get this information?

Best way? No. But one way? Maybe.

Really evil advisors will usually push some of their students out of academia, out of any remotely-related field. Those students would not be in such dire need of a letter.

Psych Post Doc said...

When I was a 2nd year my grad advisor went up for tenure and I had to meet with a member of my department on the T&P committee. I did not write a letter but they did take notes on our conversation. Everything was supposed to be anonymous and confidential but my advisor only had 2 grad students at the time so I doubt it would be hard to figure out who said what.
I felt a little uncomfortable with the process however, I shared what I felt were my advisors weaknesses as well as strengths. I think it would have been different had I felt like my advisor was not overall a great advisor, if I thought they were not open to hearing my perceptions then I doubt I would have been honest about my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

As a soon to defend student, I'm dreading having to write a letter for my adviser's tenure packet. I haven't been asked yet but I expect to be. My relationship with my adviser is the most unbalance that I've ever experienced. Asking me to evaluate that relationship without the benefit of hindsight isn't fair to me or my adviser.

PhizzleDizzle said...

I'm with Becca. I know of plenty of evil profs who have gotten tenure.

One in particular, where the grad student wrote in the tenure letter that the prof not only was dating an undergrad that was doing independent study with him, but she moved in with him before the end of the semester and they remained as such at the time of letter-writing. And that she got an A. Apparently, that didn't matter. The dude is brilliant.

He now does things like forbid his students to talk to other students about non-work things during work hours, secretly install keystroke loggers on their computers to make sure they are doing work, and other such insane activities.

Anonymous said...

A couple of years after I graduated, I was asked by the dept to write a letter for an undergrad prof I had. I was thrilled for the opportunity to express how this professor changed my life. Having been through a failed tenure process with my current advisor, who is an excellent advisor who I then followed to his new school, I only wish I had the opportunity to write a letter on his behalf. I have heard so many horror stories from other grad students. But I do think that current/recent students might be afraid of calling out their monstrous advisors in a letter.

Anonymous said...

A couple years ago I was asked by my professor to write a "recommendation" type letter (I suppose) for his dossier. I wasn't terribly thrilled with the idea, and he certainly didn't "force" me into it, but he did stress that he really wanted our help and would really appreciate it. I suppose you could say i felt accidentally coerced. I couldn't very well turn down his request and then ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school later, but i didn't feel I had enough experience with him to give a purely objective "recommendation." I also felt weird knowing that he would read what I wrote and I planned to continue to working for him so saying things like "doesn't keep appointments or let me build things in the lab" didn't seem quite appropriate. I managed a couple paragraphs of generic nice things "He's concerned about the student's understanding of the concepts. Allows some hands-on learning experiences. Answers questions clearly and understandably" etc. I wish him the best and his research is really cool stuff and from what i've heard people like the way he teaches, but i felt it was almost a little inappropriate (conflict-of-interest-esque) to have his current batch of undergrad researchers writing letters for him

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm a PhD student and I think that this is a terrible idea -- for reasons that FSP and others have mentioned. I've never been asked to do this and was not aware of the practice. I don't see why the system couldn't work as follows: when a prof is going up for tenure, an announcement is made, like when a student is defending, for example. At that point, students that feel strongly about this one way or another (i.e. who have relevant information to share with the committee) would be free to write letters. The committee would weigh these letters as they see fit, taking into account potential biases, self-serving interests, etc. The letters would remain confidential (not available to the prof), and it would be taboo for profs to encourage students to write. In this way, students can be part of the process, good and bad advisors get what’s coming to them, and no one is put in a potentially awkward situation.

Anonymous said...

I would think that the most interesting evaluations would be from students who started but didn't finish an advanced degree with the person. I know personally of three instances where PhD students left advisers due to really lousy advising. How you (a) find those ex-students if they've moved on, and (b) make the process anonymous, I have no idea, but I would hope that tenure-granting committees are looking for those types of opinions. I would think that granting tenure to poor advisers would really hurt a department in the long run.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting discussion and timely for me, as I will write a letter for my PhD advisor very soon (thanks for the reminder!). I graduated this summer and am beginning a postdoc position.

My adviser did not ask me to write the letter, but I wouldn't dream of not writing one, and I feel quite comfortable with the idea. I want to support her and pay her back for the time she's spent working with me.

Of course it won't be an unbiased letter; I can't imagine any letter in a nominee's file would be. It will be as fair as I can make it, though. My voice may not have a huge bearing on the final outcome but I think that it would be a very negative statement on my part not to submit a letter to the department on her behalf.

The biggest problem I see with student letters for advisers is that few if any students in this situation have a template for such a letter, so there must be a wide range of letter styles that may or may not contain information that the T&P committee actually finds useful.

Lisa and Jim said...

I'm with Laura and Hope on this one. My adviser is a truly excellent educator and researcher, and we were working closely together when she went up for tenure. I actually asked her if I could write something to show my support - I didn't even stop to think that might have looked like brown-nosing.

Because my department is small and everyone knew I worked with Dr. X, a member of the selection committee asked me a few questions in a private meeting. My answers were kept confidential.

Anonymous said...

I recently wrote a letter for my MA advisor (I am in a PhD program at a different school now). I was so happy to write a letter (promotion in this case, not tenure). She has done so much work on my behalf, helped me get into my current program, kept up contact with me and continues to provide advice and support. I think that these qualities are important for the committee to know and how would they know about them without my letter?

She asked me for the letter, but gave me an "out" (I know you're busy right now, blah blah).

I think that writing this letter was a way for me to thank her work and to make sure that others know how much her students value her dedication.

Anonymous said...

I'd have no praise whatsoever for my advisor. It is a frightening prospect because confidentiality really isn't guaranteed and the nature of the phd/advisor relationship is already severely imbalanced in terms of power. I don't see the use of students writing these letters. A better indicator would be the quality of the students' work (ie time to degree, number of papers, quality of papers, and job placement).

Anonymous said...

Almost 10 years ago, I was working on my PhD and had the misfortune of having an extremely abusive and terrible advisor. You wouldn't believe the kind of things he made us do. On several occasions, I have had to write recommendation letters for him that he dictated. Due to severe conflict I had to switch my program to a Masters' but he did not let me finish that either. Basically two and half years of my hardwork and data were totally wasted. I ended up not getting anything in return and this prof has jumped three ships so far and continues to abuse students at reputed universities.

Before I left the university, I filed complaints to various authorities including dept head, grad cordinator, various deans and even consulted human rights lawyers at the university. None of that mattered. This guy had contacts in high places. He easily obtained tenure and to this day remains as monstrous as he was.

Meanwhile, I worked for 6 long years in academia to again establish myself and published 3 quality papers before trying for graduate school again. Surprise surprise! No professor was willing to accept that I had a genuine problem for which I was not responsible. This despite having excellent recommendation letters. Finally one prof agreed to take me. I am now at a reputed university, working hard, doing important research and on my way to publish few papers. But if I had a choice I would not work for my advisor. In him I see the hints of my previous advisor. He is definitely not as worse, but working for him I have never felt like a dignified person. No appreciation for anything and instant looking down for even slightest mistakes. Verbal humiliation.

Anyway, this guy is currently under facing a tenure review and would not disclose any information about it to me. I don't think he is in good offices of very many people. I was not asked to write a recommendation for him which I am glad about. I am tired of writing fake recommendations for people.

The point of this whole exercise is, terrible advisors also obtain tenures regardless of how negative their reviews were. A tenure review committee is like a small elite club, its totally up to them to make whatever decision they please.