Friday, January 01, 2010

LoR: What I Think

Writing letters of reference (or recommendation) is part of the job of being a professor. We write them for undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, professors, and other academic people applying for various things (school, jobs, promotion, awards).

It can be a major point of stress for all concerned. The subjects of the letters wonder what we will write. The writers of the letters wonder (in some cases) what to write. Some applicants worry that some letter writers won't submit letters of recommendation on time (if ever); some applicants are justified in this worry. Some professors get annoyed when students ask them to write letters of reference on very short notice and/or provide disorganized, incomplete information.

And has any professor, during the year in which they were being considered for tenure and/or promotion, wandered around a conference feeling paranoid about who was writing their external letters and wondering what they were writing?

And so on. But write them (and read them) we must, in great profusion.

If I had to rank my preference in writing letters of reference, from don't-mind-writing-them (= best case) to don't-like-writing-them (= worst case), my list would look something like this:

top = best (in this relative scale); also: list assumes that I have agreed to write a letter so it does not include the worst case scenarios in which I would not/could not write a letter
  • grads/postdocs applying for jobs such as faculty positions
  • undergrads who are applying for something (grad school, internship, job) and who worked closely with me on a research project
  • tenure and promotion letters for people who are great and whose work I know well
  • colleagues being nominated for awards they deserve
  • undergrads who are applying to something and who only took 1 class from me and about whom I know almost nothing except what their grade and maybe where they say in class but I feel obligated to write a letter in cases in which the student has no better options for letter-writers
  • tenure and promotion letters for people whose work I don't know very well* (this is at the bottom only because of the vast amount of time it involves; if we factor out time, the previous one in the list is my least favorite).

But let's not focus on the negative. Why do I "like" (relative term) writing letters for students (whom I know) or postdocs applying for things? I like it because in most cases writing such letters is a very positive thing to do. If you have worked closely with someone for a year (some undergrads) or more (grads, postdocs, some undergrads), you probably have a lot of things to say, and, if you have agreed to write a letter, presumably you have some positive things to say.

Despite the time commitment, it can be a very positive experience for the letter writer to think back on someone's research/education experience, pick out the essential points and examples, and write a well-crafted letter geared towards the specific job/institution to which the candidate is applying. In this case, writing the letter ends up being an affirmative experience, as long as you don't think about the cynical committee members reading 100s of these awesomely positive letters and as long as you don't have to write many many of these letters at any one time, in which case the personal hand-crafted letter thing falls by the wayside.

* Some colleagues and I recently had an argument about this topic: Should you agree to write a tenure/promotion letter for someone whose work you don't know well? A post will follow at some point with elaborations.


amy said...

Okay, now I'm freaked out. I'm coming up for tenure this fall, and I'm trying to put together a list of suggested letter writers. The problem is, I'm terrible at the social and networking aspects of the profession. I hardly know anyone. I go to few conferences, and when I'm there I keep to myself. Also, my papers are all published in obscure journals. That's fine for my mediocre university, but now I'm really worried about external reviewers. What if they refuse to write letters because they don't know me and have never read my papers? Or what if their annoyance at having to write such a letter seeps into the content of the letter? Am I screwed?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Should you agree to write a tenure/promotion letter for someone whose work you don't know well?

If you work in the same field and are in a position to substantively evaluate the scientific merit of the individual's work and its impact on the field, then it is absolutely appropriate to agree to write the letter. However, the fact that you don't already know the work well probably says something about that impact. In fact, when I read T&P letters, one of the most important things I do is try to read between the lines and get a sense for how familiar the writer is with the individual and their work.

If it is clear from a letter that an established leader in a field is very familiar with the individuals work, this speaks well of the individual's impact on the field. If, conversely, it is clear that the established leader barely knows who the individual is, not so much.

EliRabett said...

It seems to Eli that if someone asks you to write a tenure and promotion letter for someone you whose work you don't know, the proper thing is to decline. Of all of these letters, this is the category where you have a. The least obligation b. The maximal probability of making a serious mistake.

John Vidale said...

Great summary, as usual. Two additional points:

The biggest stress in writing letters, to me, is how the recipients receive them. The subjects generally never know the contents, and in some cases never know who wrote the letters. But some letters do good, some have no effect and were a waste of time, and some even reflect poorly on the writer and/or the subject.

One reason we endure writing letters is to demonstrate our knowledge and judgment to our peers, essentially showing off. To decline a request for letters, even when it is probably the right thing to do, is admitting ignorance, the last shortcoming a prof wants to demonstrate.

EliRabett said...

amy, your chair may seek your input on letter writers (as in editors ask you to suggest referees). Go check in WOS who cites your work, and if they are good people suggest them.

Hope said...

FSP, the way you feel about letter-writing is the way I feel about teaching. I’m happy to teach a class in a subject that I know well, and when I’ve been given enough notice so that I can adequately prepare. When someone springs a teaching assignment on me at the last minute in a subject that I don’t know well and/or have little interest in, it becomes a very painful experience – definitely for me, and sometimes for my students.

Anfa said...

OMG I am still laughing my *** off. I have just been requested by a person whose work I supervise to write a LoR for her for 6 residency programs. Immediately, if not yesterday. And 50% of her work falls short of acceptable. I am writing very vague comments in the hope that she goes elsewhere where she can be better supervised. "Suzy is very nice and works very hard." Yeah, unfortunately her work sucks no matter how hard she tries. Times six. Lick. Stamp. Mail.
Thanks for the chuckles, FSP.

Anonymous said...

Here is a situation I found myself in, which is probably quite common. I got a Ph.D. and started a postdoc, but, as postdocs are not common in my field, I intended to apply for faculty positions the following year. Since such positions hire on a nearly year-long cycle, I needed letters of recommendation about 1.5 months after starting the postdoc. I felt I had an impressive first 1.5 months, but nonetheless, this is still much less than my postdoc advisor would have liked to be able to say substantial things about me for a letter. So it seems the best course of action would be not to ask the postdoc advisor for a letter. After all, any faculty hiring committee should understand this situation.

However, after years of learning to write emails no longer than 1 sentence to faculty members, knowing that they rarely read past the first sentence before replying (if finding time to reply at all), I could not expect most faculty hiring committees to put 2 and 2 together and realize that my situation gives a satisfactory explanation for why I have no postdoc advisor letter. All they would think, in most cases, is "(has postdoc advisor and no letter from postdoc advisor) \implies (postdoc advisor no like postdoc)". So I asked my advisor to write a letter, and when she said she couldn't say much yet except content-free stuff about my "potential", I said that this would still be better than no letter so as to avoid the above-mentioned feat of intellectual laziness on the part of the faculty hiring committees.

Has anyone been in such a situation? This seems like it would be a problem in any field that relies on 1-year positions such as postdocs, and 1-year-long hiring cycles.

John Vidale said...

regarding getting a letter 1.5 months after starting a post-doc:

I'd ask for the letter despite the short time in position. She probably likes you, since she hired you, and she should be able to summarize why your previous work is notable. It also provides commentary on your current and future projects. Finally, she's going to have to start composing these letters sooner or later, so it is less of a burden than on someone at a greater distance.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

amy, your chair may seek your input on letter writers

An important finesse element to tenure & promotion letters can occur at institutions where the candidate is asked to officially provide a suggested list of letter writers, and then the department chair and/or department committee is asked to provide names of additional letter writers, with the final list of solicited letter writers coming from both lists.

A good supportive chair will make it clear to the candidate that she should leave some likely favorable letter writers off her own list, and let the chair know who these people are, so the chair can put them on her departmental list.

Stilton said...

Slightly tangential question for you all about LOR submissions...I'm in the final throes of applying to grad programs, and just heard back from one of my recommenders. He sent a list of the places he'd submitted letters to (thanks Bob!) but also mentioned that the due dates the schools sent him were much later than the dates I sent him. I know the dates I sent were correct- at least, they came straight from the dept. pages. Is this an intentional ploy by the schools because they expect LORs to be late? (in which case, wouldn't they tell profs an even earlier date?) Is it a department vs grad school deadline glitch - for all 4 schools? This doesn't matter for that one person now, but it does sort of make me look like a jerk.

Blair said...

I'm a graduate student, but applying for faculty positions since I'm about to graduate. I have a rocky relationship with my academic department, and have low confidence about the quality of recommendation I will get from the faculty within my department. Would it be better to find a better recommendation from outside the department (and have no reference from inside my program) or use a questionable recommendation from within my department?

EliRabett said...

To add to what John V said, ask her to note that it is only 1.5 months, that she would have preferred to write the letter later on, and in fact will follow up (make sure she does so, esp if you are doing a great job. Word spreads), that you have made a good start, and that mostly she is writing the letter to close why is the post doc advisor's letter not here.

Also, you should send a letter to the hiring committee explaining what is happening.

This way the committee does not have to speculate about anything.

Anonymous said...

When I applied to grad school, I omitted my final year supervisor as referee for the sole reason that when I applied we didn't know each other at all. At the interview they asked for my supervisor's name anyway and contacted him for reference, even though he knew nothing of my application to that place. He told me later about having been contacted for reference. Good thing I wasn't a bad researcher or come to think of it, that lack of most recent referee might have looked suspicious...

Though, just as a side note, here in the UK we have been informed, when applying for academia that if you have only recently joined a lab you are allowed to defer the due date of the reference letter as long as the receiving institution have been notified of the reasons why.

John Vidale said...

Regarding exclusion of letters from one's own dept in case they are weak - that would be a flaming red flag to some of us, others might not notice. I might call over to someone in the dept to ask what's up in a case like that, and then hear the unvarnished opinion from a prof I can calibrate.

CPP's suggestion of omitting references known to be favorable, but letting the Chair know, is savvy and effective. In many cases, the department is behind a candidate, but wants the case to look as strong as possible to the university-wide tenure committee, and this tactic does just that. Or the Chair (really the dept tenure committee) needn't reveal to the dept why the name was chosen, helping the case within the dept.

Female Science Professor said...

I agree with the CPP strategy, but it has to be done in a fair way -- some university committees do not like it if it is very obvious that the department-selected referees were stacked in the candidate's favor and do not represent an objective cross section of prominent people in the field. And, if a department has more than one candidate up for tenure or promotion in a given year, it is particularly important that all candidates be treated the same in terms of referee selection.

Kevin said...

Blair, if you have a rocky relationship with your current department, why do you expect things to be different once you get a faculty position?

If a person applies for a position with no letters from his most recent position, the committee either sets the file aside waiting for the letters or calls to find out what the story is. A mediocre letter is better than no letter.

Stilton, possibilities include

1) they changed the deadlines (a common occurrence: our department does it nearly every year, if the pool of candidates is smaller than we want but there are a lot of half-finished applications in the system)

2) the web pages have not been properly maintained

3) there are several web pages with the deadlines, and only some of them are up to date.

4) you goofed

5) the professor goofed.

Of these, only the last is dangerous, as your letter may not arrive on time.

John Vidale said...

Not sure whether I parsed FSP's words correctly:

it has to be done in a fair way -- some university committees do not like it if it is very obvious that the department-selected referees were stacked in the candidate's favor and do not represent an objective cross section of prominent people in the field.

but I'd guess 9 in 10 tenure committees oversample supporters compared to antagonistic referees. University committees can sense it and do not like it, but can do little to change it.

Some of the Ivies have Deans that enforce objective reference selection. There's also little reward in references writing neutral evaluations, although some of us do it out of scientific habit.

If a Dean really wants an objective opinion, he/she picks up the phone and the NAS directory.

I'd go so far as to say that the easiest way to recognize a slamdunk case is when the candidate and the department really poll all the best people for an opinion, which is rare.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Regarding exclusion of letters from one's own dept in case they are weak - that would be a flaming red flag to some of us, others might not notice.

As a general matter, the best way to deal with a no-letter-from-former-mentor/supervisor/department situation is to try to secure another trustworthy letter writer who can explain in her own letter the justifiable reasons for the absence of the former-mentor/supervisor/department letter. Assuming it is in fact the case, such a letter writer can explain that, e.g., the former mentor was a dificult personality and there was not a good mesh with the applicant, but that this should not reflect at all on the applicant who is totes awesum, blah, blah, blah...

amy said...

Thanks for the helpful advice, folks!

Hope said...

Academia – you gotta love it! So the department chairs often stack “objective” references in the candidate’s favor, and the tenure committees know it but often pretend not to. Yup, makes a lot of sense to me ….

Anonymous said...

The problem is, I'm terrible at the social and networking aspects of the profession. I hardly know anyone. I go to few conferences, and when I'm there I keep to myself. Also, my papers are all published in obscure journals.

I'm sorry but it sounds like you have not been playing the PI-game properly. A PI's job is not to hunker down and work in isolation, but to be a marketer, networker and advertiser of their lab to get funding for their students and their programs. If you only wanted to stick to yourself and do your own thing, you should have become a staff scientist in industry or government research.

Anonymous said...

I think it's OK to write a letter for someone whose work you barely know, as long as you are upfront and honest about how much or how little you know about them and their work.

As long as you provide the correct and accurate context for your letter, then whatever you have to say about them can't be "wrong", it is just what it is. And the readers of the letter can take it or leave it. Whether or not it's detrimental to state that you hardly know the person under consideration, well it's the truth!!

Stilton said...

Thanks, Kevin- option 1 hadn't even occurred to me.

EliRabett said...

Another contest!! Writing letters to explain why the candidates supervisor didn't

Dear APT committee

I write in strong support of Dr. Hyde. Unfortunately his untrustworthy supervisor Prof. Beserk cannot provide a letter of reference, having been terminated, I hasten to add with complete justification, by Dr. Hyde, an action applauded by all in the Department. In fact, we were in the process of offering the suddenly available position to Dr. Hyde, when the local constabulary interfered. By the time that Dr. Hyde was found not guilty by a jury stacked with department post-docs and graduate students, the Dean had grabbed the slot. . . .

EliRabett said...

FWIW, amy ain't at an R1. Things are different in your average mediocre university.

amy said...

I'm sorry for my lack of clarity. I should also have mentioned that I'm in the humanities, in an undergrad-only dept., so the expectations for me are a lot lower than for the people who usually comment here. Still, networking is important, at least for improving one's own work, and I've known from the beginning that I was not doing well at that aspect of my career. But it honestly had never occurred to me that people might refuse to write tenure review letters if they didn't already know me and my work well. That added a whole new worry on top of my stress this year.

Anonymous said...

Amy, I don't network well either. When I do and try, things gets funny and strange. Previous experiences have twisted my perceptions and now I am working hard at twisting it back to standard. I agree its hard! However, networking IS something that is useful and when things gets complicated it sure saves a lot of time figuring things out!