Wednesday, December 30, 2009

LorR Results, continued

The following are apparently real Letters of Reference, but I think they are worth including here for their entertainment and/or horror value:

REAL LoR 1 (from "seat-of-the-pants scientist"):

XX is a student in my lab. She has made progress this year.


APPLICANT may be mediocre but her personal problems make it impossible to tell.


Marc X is a student whose self-perception of achievement is inversely proportional to his actual skill level. He is incapable of teamwork and unable to understand criticisms of his own work. I have had to put up with him in three classes. He likes to ask questions that he thinks demonstrates his superior understanding of the course material. He has an issue with handing in work on time and has had to hand in a second term paper in one of the classes, as the first one was a gross plagiarism. He particularly requested that I give him this letter of recommendation, although I twice said that I didn't think that this would be a good idea. We will be glad to see him graduate, just to get him out of our hair.


Anonymous said...

I once had an undergrad in my lab as part of some summer undergrad research fellowship program. He was awful. He had excellent course grades - a 4.0 GPA, and had a lot of extra curricular activities on his resume, which is why he made it into this supposedly selective/prestigious program. But he thought really highly of himself and was so arrogant he didn't know that he didn't know anything, even when told point blank how little he knew. He thought he could read one undergrad textbook and understand all of physics (which meant he did not take technical guidance well). He argued with my postdocs and grad students and made them very angry too.

Unfortunately the summer program was supposed to be where undergrads "do their own research" under the mentorship of the professor. As opposed to being "merely" lab assistants for the grad students or postdocs or professors (which is how I got my start in research when I was an undergrad). I'm not sure I agree with this premise. Come on, as a second year undergrad, are you ready to be doing "your own" research? The undergrads who do well in that program are those who function as lab assistants for the professor anyway and then the prof just writes up some vague description of how the undergrad was the 'actual researcher' not just merely an assistant.

Anyway I had to mentor this kid because our institution was participating in this program and he was assigned to my lab. He made a mess and broke many expensive things all because he would not listen to instruction. I was very angry. So were my grad students and postdocs.

Fortunately he was gone at the end of the summer cos that's when the program ended, and he never asked me for a LoR. In fact not only would I have not written an LoR for him, but I almost felt compelled to write the opposite - a Letter of Warning, whether or not it was solicited by anyone!!

I have had other undergrads in my lab whom I pay from grant money to be lab assistants rather than "independent researchers'. They have done much better and accomplished much more that than this kid who came in on some undergrad 'research fellowship'. For them I have been only too happy to write glowing LoRs. One of them just finished his PhD (at another school), another few are now in grad school all across the country or overseas.

Aroza said...

I shall make a copy of LoR3, as it reflects a student I have - I might need inspiration for when I write his LoR, grrrrr...

Anonymous said...

You would have thought that the practises of people like that 'recommended' in LoR 3 would have died out by high school...

I do wonder what my references would be like when it's my turn for when I graduate...

FSS said...

17 bucks for a t-shirt. Seriously?

John Vidale said...

re LoF3:

While such complete dismissal of individuals can be refreshingly cathartic and that portrait is highly amusing, and one might verbally deliver such an opinion to a friend, I'd argue they are irresponsible.

Either say it to his face before picking up the pen (in diplomatic terms) or refuse to write the letter. Or both.

Undiscoverable revenge on trying and immature students is too cruel for my taste. I hope the letter is apocryphal.

Non-US FSP said...

John V:

Why should letters of recommendations be written only if they serve the student, and not when they serve the academic community?
Saving a university from admitting such a person (if the decsription is correct) or the person mentioned by anonymous1 (even more misleading) is just as important.
It might allow to admit a more deserving individual.

We have in our PhD program a student similar to the one described by anonymous1: He has been in a special excellence program, and is full of self-worth and know-it-all attitude.
But, close to the completion of his PhD, he has very little research to show, and has caused an enormous amount of hassle and trouble for many people, including fellow PhD students.

Recommendation letters are service to the academic community not to our students.

John Vidale said...


I'd guess such a letter would eliminate the chances of a student to be accepted.

Perhaps the letter is objectively accurate. More often, in my experience, feelings that it is necessary to dynamite an applicant with thermonuclear criticism come from personal and cultural clashes. One of the top profs in my dept had such a clash with his advisor in grad school.

If, for example, you replace he with her, and FSP with MSP, I expect many here would speculate that she is really just more assertive than he can handle, and the plagiarism claim was an exaggeration.

Perhaps I should have argued instead that readers of such a letter of reference might mainly conclude the letter writer can't stick to facts, and rather revels in witty, withering, cruel, and unrefutable criticism. Nevertheless, they are unlikely to gamble by admitting the student.

If the letter were four times as long, saying the same thing with much more specificity, and omitting the opening and closing zingers, my objections would be much milder.

Hope said...

@Non-US FSP, John V: I thought that the whole point was that a letter of reference is supposed to be a letter of recommendation. If you can’t recommend the person, don’t write the letter.

If what you’re truly after is objective feedback of the unsolicited type, then why allow the candidate to choose the people that write letters for them? If profs refuse to lie and/or exaggerate in reference letters, a truly bad student will be unable to obtain good letters, thus barring them from admission. No need to write a scathing letter like this – and this way, faculty can spend the extra time working on crafting great letters for truly deserving students! :-)

John Vidale said...


why allow the candidate to choose the people that write letters for them?

Because no one else can consistently and easily find people familiar with their qualifications, and make sure they follow through.

If profs refuse to lie and/or exaggerate in reference letters ...

Unfortunately, letters are not in general accurate. Most err on the side of over-enthusiasm, cherry picking of good things to say, or outright exaggeration, leaving out the bad. They can be very hard to calibrate, although sometimes it is possible.

Doctor Pion said...

I recently had a student that I would highly recommend to EuroFemSciProf to replace Marc X. I can guarantee that he will fill that gaping hole in her classroom with random, almost erudite questions that suggest more time spent reading bad popularizations of science than actual science textbooks.

A bonus: His presence will reduce the amount of homework you have to grade.

Doctor Pion said...

John V, you did notice that Marc X explicitly requested the letter despite being warned, twice, it would not be a good one?

I saw an instance of the story in Anonymous1 back in grad school days. Really bright guy. Left without accomplishing anything except passing his exams. Used up lots of resources that could have gone to someone else.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

I am so honored... @John V, if you will note, I *twice* declined writing the LoR. Stu Dent insisted that he needed a LoR from me. And they are letters of reference (that is, who is this person, anyway) and not letters of recommendation.

John Vidale said...


Maybe your letter is accurate, and is constructive in driving the student away from higher education.

My only responses are that (1) I've read perhaps 100+ reference letters per year for the last 15 years for applicants to grad school, and I've never seen such a snide blanket condemnation of a student, and (2) of the much smaller number of letters that I've written, I've never agreed to write for someone that I couldn't write at least some positive remarks, and three requests wouldn't move me to body slam a student in a reference.

Kevin said...

I'm with EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor on this one. I've never written such a negative letter, but students usually take the hint when I tell them I can't write them a positive letter. If a student can't take the hint after being told three times, the program he is applying to needs to be warned.

I do sometimes write letters that are somewhat negative, but I always warn the student first. Sometimes the student is applying to an unselective enough program that they get in despite my letter. Sometimes they do better than I would have expected (and sometimes not).

I feel I've done my duty by providing honest reviews---that is my professional responsibility.

Hope said...

@EFSP: I think that “letter of reference” and “letter of recommendation” are considered synonyms by many people – and the understanding is that they are supposed to be positive. Is the convention different in Europe?

And holy cow, was that a real letter?! Why on earth would you waste your time doing that? So what if Stu Dent insisted? If Stu Dent insisted that he get an A in your course, would you oblige him as well?

I knew I should’ve skipped this blog this week ….

Non-US FSF said...

My comment assumed that a negative letter comes with details to support its claims, and it can be distinguished from a revengeful attack.

Even a warning about the negativity of a letter is more than they'll get in a future research career, let alone a declination.

And yes, outside the US letters are less sugar-coated.

european in us said...

Imho letters outside of US are less overstated and sugarcoated, i.e. "Dr X is a good researcher with innovative ideas" compared to "Dr X is an excellent and outstanding researcher with novel and totally new ideas"....

And even if the letter no 3 is harsh, why ask someone 2 or more times after they say "i don¨t have anything good to say"? I once asked a prof to write for me, he replied "i don't know you so I can't. I can write a nondescript 'she has been an student in one of my classes' but no other description or reference". I thought that was honest and good.

I think the main problem for some people would be to find honest profs who will write a good letter of reference for them... sicne it requires personality and interaction.

and I am a bit surprised aobut the aggressvieness against EFSP since it is her/their honesty and research ehics on the line. Why would you think they would want to lie and write a "nice" letter that isn't true? Imagine writing a "good" letter of someone bad and then meeting thier new employer and they are really unhappy about them? I would hate that, which is partly why I haven't recommended unknown students for lab duties in other's labs.

John Vidale said...

Marc X is a student whose self-perception of achievement is inversely proportional to his actual skill level. ... . We will be glad to see him graduate, just to get him out of our hair.

Just to check whether I'm way off base, has anyone else ever read a reference letter that denigrated an applicant like this? The person was admitted to their program and apparently on schedule to graduate.

Perhaps this is not unusual in some non-science areas (i.e., far from my field). But I've never seen a proposal review that negative, either, although it is easier to imagine it might be appropriate.

I'd like to leave students reading this blog with the impression such a lethal letter from those impossible-to-impress professors is not a frequent occurrence.

Hope said...

…and I am a bit surprised aobut the aggressvieness against EFSP since it is her/their honesty and research ehics on the line. Why would you think they would want to lie and write a "nice" letter that isn't true?

Oh please! No one said she should lie and write a good letter when one is not warranted. But she has the option to refuse to write – what some people are saying is that she should have exercised that.

And there is a *big* difference between not sugar-coating something or exaggerating and what EFSP supposedly wrote.

sib said...

I think EFSP's letter is obnoxious and appalling but my main issue is that several derogatory remarks are made about a student with any substantiation. At least in the excerpt provided, no particular incidents are described to give the reader any basis for judging whether EFSP happened to have a personal hysterical response to this student.

I also wonder how clearly the student was warned about the likely content of the letter (was the warning as obnoxious as the letter itself, for instance?).

The letter dismisses the only academic record that is actually visible to the student - the transcript and uses the royal pronoun "We" in the end to bolster the letter writers surmise without elaborating on who *they* are.

All in all, very unprofessional.