Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Too Little Information

A previous post expressed a wish that students for whom I write letters of recommendation (in some cases, many letters of recommendation) let me know the results of their applications. It was interesting to read the comments from students who said that it had not occurred to them to inform their letter writers about application outcomes.

A related situation came to my attention recently when a colleague who is a director of an undergraduate summer research program lamented that a surprising number of applicants do not respond when he sends out acceptance letters. This program is highly competitive and has a limited number of available positions each summer. There is always a long waiting list of excellent applicants, so if a student who gets a first-round offer has decided to accept another position for the summer, it's nice to know that so that those on the waiting list can get an offer sooner rather than later.

According to my colleague, 50-60% of the first-round offers get an immediate reply and acceptance. The rest don't reply right away. Some eventually reply (there is a deadline by which a response must be received or the offer is rescinded), and either accept or decline the offer. Some never reply at all.

My colleague spends a lot of time organizing and administering this program as a university 'service' activity, including time in the summer when he is not even paid a salary by the university. I suppose this makes him somewhat sensitive to perceived rudeness in the students to whom he is devoting all this time, even if the students have no way of knowing that he is volunteering his time to give them a (well-paid) research opportunity.

I used to have his job running this program, and I don't recall having so much of a problem with non-responders. There are several possible explanations for this:

1 - The number of non-responders has not actually increased with time, and it is my memory that is at fault. Perhaps I don't remember because it didn't bother me at the time. (note: I think this explanation is unlikely)

2 - The number of non-responders has increased with time because:
(a) Students today have a greater sense of entitlement than they did 6-10 years ago when I ran the program.We are here to serve them, and it doesn't occur to them to make the effort to communicate.
(b) Students today have many more options for summer research programs and some students likely have several offers. They make a decision to accept one position, and then they forget about the others.
(c) The current research program director sends out offer letters that are worded in such a way that does not seem (to the students) to require a response.

2c was my preferred interpretation until I saw the offer letters. Maybe some students don't read all the way through the letter, but it does clearly state that a reply of some sort is expected soon. So I suppose 2c could be amended to read "Students don't read the offer letter thoroughly".

I am glad that students have many opportunities for research experiences these days and don't have to have some of the awful summer job experiences that I had in my youth. Nevertheless, it is never too soon to learn Academic Etiquette, including learning what is an appropriate level of communication.

In fact, soon after my colleague complained to me about the lack of communication by undergraduates, one of my own undergrad research assistants asked me if I thought he was emailing his summer research advisor (at another university) too much. I asked him how often he had been emailing this professor, and he said that he had sent two emails within two weeks about [short list of important topics]. I laughed (kindly) and assured him that he was well within the realm of reasonable for the number and topics of emails.

My student did the right thing by asking for advice. My advice to others is: If you get an offer of an internship and the letter requests a response, reply immediately with a brief email containing one of the following pieces of important information (1) I accept, (2) I decline, (3) I'm not sure yet but I will most definitely respond by the stated deadline, if not before.


undine said...

Yes and yes. The advice in your last paragraph ought to be memorized by all students applying for internships or whatever.

Anonymous said...

I agree with undine.

I recently took a couple of days to think about whether to accept a summer program. I should have let them know I was deciding, in retrospect.

I remember thinking about that at the time, but I didn't want to be insulting to the program and faculty that offered me a spot, so I just kept quiet.

I can, however, now see that it's inconsiderate for me not to reply in the meantime.

As an aside, I let both of my referrers know about which programs offered me spots after reading your earlier post and I thanked them for writing me a letter. They both seemed genuinely happy.

Anonymous said...

I'm relieved to read this post. Timely advice!

Anonymous said...

This is true on the receiving end as well. Out of faculty job applications to 26 universities I sent out in 2007, 10 or so never got back to me. "No answer" is a form of reply, too, as I've learned early when I as a European first dealt with busy North-American professors...

Alyssa said...

Wow - it would never occur to me to not respond with an answer to an offer! How strange!

Anonymous said...

I agree with FSP's and undine's advice, but I think it is a little much to view people who don't offer an immediate response "inconsiderate".

If the letter says "reply by Date X", I wouldn't view you as inconsiderate even if you waited until 4:59pm on Date X to put out a response. Inconsiderate would be if you didn't reply at al.

Female Science Professor said...

Some don't reply at all. I think that if someone is undecided until the deadline, it is fine to wait to reply. If you've decided to decline an offer and just don't get around to letting anyone know, you can do that, but it would be nicer if you didn't wait. The same is true for applicants to grad programs.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the students are like me and just afraid to actually pull the trigger on a decision for fear it turns out to be wrong. And then they forget. Or, maybe they are like me and can't keep track of paperwork (like reply forms) for the life of them.

But your point is well taken. I'll reply to the people who have invited me to pull money out of my rear end to pay for their MA programs tomorrow, and tell them no thanks.

(At least it sounds as if you can be confident that the problem isn't that your offer is so bad/unworkable as to be borderline insulting.)

Do you think it's appropriate for a student to give a small gift to people who wrote recommendations, or is it best to stick with profuse thanks? (Already dispensed!)

John Vidale said...

It's fortunate that our academic advisor has the tact to send out functional declination letters to unsuccessful grad school applicants. I have trouble verbalizing an email "thanks for applying, your application was not good enough to make the cut". No matter how it is framed, the bottom line is me telling him/her their application failed. I imagine students declining an offer to be even more reluctant to pass bad news to future senior colleagues at the schools they choose not to attend.

On the flip side, I have no trouble asking the accepted students where they are in their decision-making process. So frankly, I think the onus is on the person awaiting the decision to gather information, rather than grouse about lack of responses, particularly when we are much more senior than them.

Courteous, prompt responses are great, of course, but their absence is understandable.

Anonymous said...

On a related note, I've recently been considering several postdoc opportunities. After a long, painstaking decision-making process, I got in touch with all my potential PIs letting them know my decision. None of the rejected PIs emailed me back. After spending time with their group, on the phone, emailing, I feel like I at least should get a quick note with "thanks for letting me know" or some acknowledgment that they at least got my email. I know they're busy. But a quick response would be nice.

Prof-like Substance said...

Good advice for students, but I have to concur with Anon@6:06. I would say that at least 40% of my applications for TT positions were never responded to in any way. An additional 20-30% were either 9-12 months after the fact or were hastily prepared statements, complete with spelling or pronoun errors of some kind. It made me appreciate the process from the applicant's side and realize that we can't ask applicants to do what we are unwilling to. Certainly, this does not apply to the case in your post, but an important consideration for any committee with the power to accept applications.

Anonymous said...

During my senior year of college, I got 3 job offers. For the first one, I wasn't too excited about the job, so I told them I would respond when after I heard from the other 2 companies. After I got my next offer, I called the first place and told the secretary that I wanted to talk about the job offer, but didn't tell her I was declining it. Nobody ever called back, so I assume that they already offered the job to someone else or the secretary never passed along the message.

EliRabett said...

Basically they are gazumping.

octopod said...

Seconding human's question above: Is it appropriate to give small gifts to recommenders? Like, cookies or a bottle of wine or something?

Jenn said...

I admit that it had not occurred to me to write back if I was still making my decision, though it might now because I've seen the other side of it enough to understand that it's not all as faceless as it feels to the applicants. But the one time I did officially withdraw my application due to accepting another position, I got a rejection letter several weeks later, which just stung!

Anonymous said...

Haha Jenn... I guess they taught you to reject THEM!

Anonymous said...

Re: gifts - students in my department have to go to grad school to work in our profession, so I write letters for a 15-20students each year. I probably get thank-you cards from 3 out of 15, and gifts from 1 out of 15. Since gifts are rare they're a nice treat. I don't think I'd like to be getting trinkets from that volume of students each round! Unless you really put a prof out and they go beyond the usual call of duty (like writing a letter on short notice, or sending letters to >10 school), gifts really aren't necessary. If you do one it should be cheap - my favorite is a $5 gift card to a coffee shop :-).

All in all I'd prefer hearing the results of my efforts (which I typically have to elicit - perhaps 1 in 25 students has thought to tell me what happened) to getting gifts.

Anonymous said...

Not that you all are are looking for advice, but might it improve his return rate if he puts a little self addressed card with a stamp, so all they have to do is check a box? As someone else remarked, it would eliminate the awkwardness of coming up with the right phrasing. It works at least some of the time for those having weddings.


Kevin said...

For our grad student admissions we have to make decisions on *all* the students before *any* of the letters go out. There are standard letters for each of the decisions (reject, wait list, accept, accept with funding), with some customization of the funding letters to give the details of the offer.

We have a similar process for faculty appointments, except that the rejection letters go out at the same time as the please-interview letters, so people know whether they are on the short list or not.

We do have some problems with students who were accepted not bothering to confirm whether or not they are coming---our assumption is that anyone who doesn't reply by the deadline is a complete flake and the offer is automatically withdrawn.

I'm uncomfortable accepting gifts from students. About the most I'd take is if a student brings in cookies for a thesis defense. One of my grad students did give me a hand-decorated coffee mug (after I had signed his thesis and he had nothing more to request from me)---that was OK as a thank-you present, but it was about the upper limit.

I do appreciate a thank-you email (or even a written note) for writing recommendation letters, particularly for letters requested several years after the student has left the university, but presents strike me as excessive.

Ms.PhD said...

I think you left one out- problem with the delivery/communication mechanism? Every once in a while, someone will send me something and it goes to my spam trap (or my neighbor, if it's snail mail).

And another one- how many of them are having major family/health crises at any one time? This is a weird year, a lot of people are out of work or losing their homes. Summer programs might be out of the question if these kids have to go help relatives with something like that.

I also suspect that it's not sufficiently emphasized in the letter that a response is expected by X date.

I've noticed lately that I've been taught to put a lot of effort into communicating clearly, succinctly, and often, so I tend to miss things when people send me something only once, or something which is badly formatted or otherwise unprofessional.

I don't understand why I've been treated as if this is absolutely essential to my continued employment, nay, existence as a human being, while most other people seem to glide through life functioning quite well with no knowledge whatsoever of layout, editing, or graphic design.

Doctor Pion said...

I will bet they only read the first sentence in the acceptance letter (your revised 2c).

My experience dealing with undergrads is that an increasing fraction of students do not read beyond the first substantive sentence in an e-mail.

Does the first sentence say "You will be accepted to our summer program if you accept this offer by e-mail to xxxx before yyyy. If we don't receive a reply by yyyy, this offer will go to the next person on the list.", or does it say "you are in" with the request in a separate paragraph?

FemaleAssistantProf said...

Thank you presents make me uncomfortable too. Helping students is part of my job. A thank you email is always appreciated (appreciating the help is part of the student's job!), but I think that is sufficient. When a colleague received a $35 gift card as a thank-you, I thought he should give it back. It almost had the flavor of a bribe.