Thursday, January 21, 2010

You're the Best

Years ago, a friend of mine had a highly unsuccessful interview for a faculty position. According to the legend, the department chair, who had had the same adviser as the candidate, was upset that their mutual adviser had written in the reference letter that the candidate was the best graduate student he had ever advised. This was humiliating for the not-best professor and he did not support hiring the candidate.

Perhaps I am naive, but I don't believe that the wounded ego of one professor would be enough to sink someone's chances at a job if there weren't other reasons for other faculty to not prefer this particular candidate. The reasons might be good ones or bad ones, but I think there must have been other reasons. I also think in this case that it was true that the candidate was indeed the best graduate student of that adviser; the years since the fateful interview have demonstrated this well.

It's likely that the adviser sent the same letter to every institution to which the candidate applied and did not modify it out of consideration for his former student who was on the faculty at one of these places. Should the adviser have worded the letter in a different way for that particular institution? Or was he was correct to state his frank opinion, which was surely accurate and not a case in which every one of his students was the best?

I was recently thinking about this incident for two reasons:

(1) I have been writing reference letters for graduate students, and I always think about who is likely to read my letter -- anyone I know? anyone my students know? Does it matter in terms of what I write in the letter, or at least how I express my opinions?


(2) I just read a reference letter for an undergraduate student applying to graduate school at my institution. We went to the same college and had the same professor for a particular class, albeit many (many) years apart. Although the applicant is not the best student this professor ever taught, she is very close to the best, who is clearly indicated as a recent student (i.e., not me).

I laughed when I read the letter that states (indirectly) that I was not the best student of that professor. For one thing, I knew that. I did well in his course, but I did not excel.

Also, I was responsible for a practical joke that my class played on this professor and that he still seems to remember when I encounter him at conferences. When my friends and I graduated, he told us that he would miss us, but not too much.

His letter for the almost-best applicant was obviously a form letter sent to all departments to which the applicant was applying, but even if it had not been, this wouldn't have mattered in this case. The applicant is impressive and my ego has weathered the blow (this time).


Steven Pierce said...

I think you're being a little naive in imagining that one colleague's irrational distaste for a candidate might sink his or her candidacy. I've been involved with searches where someone said "over my dead body" for idiosyncratic, unfair reasons. When that person was senior and influential, we inevitably hired someone else. Especially in the case of junior candidates it seemed humane; who wants to go up for tenure with a powerful enemy from day 1?

Anonymous said...

One of my letter-writers for graduate applications showed me his letter. It was very positive, but I distinctly recall that he wrote that I was in the "top 3.4 percent" of all students he'd worked with. It may not have been 3.4 percent exactly, but it was something hilariously precise like that. I've always wondered how he came up with that number.

Genomic Repairman said...

Alas we humans are petty and vile creatures who often tend to stoop to low measures when our delicate senses have been offended.

chemcat said...

this is so funny. I am in a hiring committee this year, and we decided to put all the candidates' material on a secure website so that the whole faculty can comment on them. One of my junior colleagues, two years out of her postdoc, came to see me reg an applicant who is a postdoc with her former advisor. She was visibly flustered that her advisor had ranked the new guy as one of the top 3-4 postdoc he had trained (and I think he named a couple of those- not her). She even told me that she didn't realize the advisor liked the guy.... So funny. Oversized ego anyone?!
I know the advisor in question well, and I'm quite sure he writes the same thing for most of the postdoc who go into academe from his lab....

John Vidale said...

People seem to generally attribute their failure to win jobs to the wrong and often unlikely reasons. As most jobs come down to a vote among many faculty, a single reason is usually not dominant in the discussions.

A surprising number of people think they came in second and almost got the job, when that wasn't the case, either.

Ranking of students is a risky way to write a letter, but makes the letter more valuable to the committee than vaguer endorsements, especially for the case in which several students of the same prof or same dept have applied for the same job. Such rankings can spread not only at the university offering the job, but more widely. Some PhDs seem to have outsized and out-of-touch egos.

human said...

In my experience, some of the students who could be described as "best" are quite firmly convinced of this in their own minds and behave accordingly toward others. I wouldn't hire that person, either.

But it's kind of funny to think of getting all mad because your advisor said some student or another, in the whole history of his career, was better than you.

Wanna Be Mother said...

Wow, get over yourselves people. Are you doing science because its fun and you love it or because you want to be "the best"? It is nice to be good at things, but once you get beyond undergrad, it is very hard to be "the best" of your peers, not to mention that "the best" is obviously a subjective opinion and could vary even when judging the same two people.

Ridiculously large but overly sensitive egos...another reason why I'm getting myself out of this science culture. Thanks FSP for reminding me again that I just don't have the patience you do to deal with these kinds of idiots.

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, indeed, academia is the only employment sector in which people have large and overly sensitive egos. The only other ones I have met have been in business, industry, government, law, medicine, the military, the arts, and other forms of education, but I bet these people were exceptions.

Historiann said...

This is an excellent and timely post--I've riffed off of it on my blog with respect to recommendation letters in the humanities. I'm with you that searches are much more complex, and that once a candidate has made it to the interview stage, one letter of recommendation or one disgruntled faculty member isn't going to sink hir. In graduate school, we worried obsessively what our advisors' letters said (or didn't say) about us, and how that would either mean success or doom for us on the job market. But now as someone who writes these letters and reads them from others, I see what a modest role they play in the process.

John Vidale said...

On further thought, I'm not sure letters matter much at all for the only case with which I'm familiar - when the several faculty members in the specialty of the search know their favorite applicants and have already invited the short list to visit.

These faculty members guide writing the ads, inform the ranking of the candidates, selection of the short list, and then play a central role in selection of the winning candidate. They choose quotes from the letters to cite, but usually form opinions during the visit or have preconceived notions of reality and are impervious to views in letters.

So great letters can help put candidates on the short list, especially if they favorably compare applicants to other candidates who also are on the short list, or if they mention that competitive schools are also interviewing them, or mention the likelihood of generating REALLY huge amounts of overhead. Once the short list is formed, I think letters have little role.

neurowoman said...

It does not surprise me at all that one prof could sink a hire - when that prof would probably be the closest colleague to the new hire and chair of the dept to boot. Why would the committee set the new hire up for failure? Also, my general impression is that a candidate needs a 'champion' on the committee to get hired - if the one person in the dept who would do that for you is against you, you have no shot. Other members of the committee are going to champion their picks, then it's a matter of compromise. I have declined to apply for positions when my closest colleague in the dept displays lukewarm to cool reception for the idea (they actually tell me, 'this probably isn't the position for you'). My spouse got his position heavily because a colleague pushed hard to hire him.

BugDoc said...

"In graduate school, we worried obsessively what our advisors' letters said (or didn't say) about us, and how that would either mean success or doom for us on the job market. But now as someone who writes these letters and reads them from others, I see what a modest role they play in the process."

This is not the case in my area of research (biomedical sciences). Letters of recommendation weigh very heavily in our decisions on whether to invite candidates for interviews. Not so much because a candidate was "the best" of all someone's students, or in the "top 3.4%" but rather the specific comments that mentors make that reveal aspects of the candidate that elevate them above others.

EliRabett said...

In this case it was the CHAIR. Good luck pegging one past the chair, and if you do, you think the candidate is going to get a square deal?

Anonymous said...

I think it is quite plausible that the one non-best professor sank your colleague's chances at the job, seeing as how he wasn't just any profssor but the DEPARTMENT CHAIR. If the non-best professor on the committee had been an assistant prof I doubt it would have had much impact on your colleague's job chances.

Academic fields can be very small worlds and totally in-bred. Thus words do matter because they can lead to bruised egos (and academics often have big egos to begin with).

that said, profs' memories of their students and how they ranked against one another can be clouded over time. Unless a student was exceptionally good or bad, it's likely that a prof would have forgotten just how good most of his "pretty good" students from many years ago were compared with the current crop.

Wanna Be Mother said...

Yes, there are people with large and overly sensitive egos everywhere, but from my life experience, which may not be as much as yours (~30 years) the density of these folks in academic science is much larger than what I've experienced at other jobs and in other situations. I will probably still have to deal with some people like that in the future, but I'm hoping they are the minority rather than close to a majority. And if that isn't true oh well, at least I tried.

Anonymous said...

My PhD physics department (which was at a large prestigious department highly ranked for our particular field) was filled with egotistical profs who all thought the world revolves around them or that they are all future Nobel laureates. Yes there were Nobel laureates on the faculty, so it seemed all the other profs assumed they would get a Nobel prize too at some point and the huge egos made life aggravating for everyone else who wasn't one of the professors - like the students, postdocs and support staff. I can see how any of those profs would have over-reacted to anyone indirectly saying they were not "the best."

Anonymous said...

In the faculty search committees where I've served, the negative opinion of a single full professor was always enough to tank any candidate. However, my department is quite small (~15 faculty, 7 of which are full professors), so perhaps we weight the opinions of our senior faculty more highly than some other departments? I would imagine in a department with 30+ faculty, it would be nearly impossible to reach consensus. Especially in small departments, I think it is critical to get "buy-in" for a candidate from the full faculty. Otherwise, you are just setting up the new person for a difficult transition into the professoriate.

John Vidale said...

Sure, sometimes faculty hiring votes for which candidate is best are unanimous, but more often they are not.

It is not necessary to win over every senior faculty member to get a job offer. Senior faculty can argue against a particular candidate in favor of another without having an axe to grind if their opinion doesn't win.

Most senior faculty respect their colleagues enough that if someone other than their own favorite choice is hired, the newbie still starts with a clean slate.

However, if a senior faculty member tries to blackball a particular candidate, particularly one close to his/her specialty, their chances of doing so are good but not surefire. Personally, I'm 0 for 2 in arguing against hires near my specialty (in a previous job).

It seems people outside the faculty meetings are overestimating the unanimity inside the meetings.

Ms.PhD said...

This story doesn't surprise me, and I agree with Steven. I think you're being a little naive thinking this doesn't happen often.

I can think of a few faculty who hate each other so much that they would never accept someone who had worked in the others' lab, and the content of the recommendation letter wouldn't matter one iota.

It's not much of a stretch for me to imagine that some trainees never stop wanting the approval of their former "mentors".

Learning that they will never get it must be difficult for that kind of person.

The last thing they want is a daily reminder of what a "failure" they are! Typically these kinds of people want everyone to like them, and better yet, to think they are The Best.

And then someone shows up with an actual trump card?

The response of the insecure approval-wanters is going to be:

Does. Not. Compute. Must! Erase!

Anonymous said...

From my experience, the powerful faculty already know who they are going to hire (people connected to them like proteges of their former students or friends). So when they advertise the job vacancy, the job ad is purposefully written to be tailored specifically to that one individual they've already picked so this then justifies hiring that person and no one else. This sucks if you are also applying and unaware that the job has essentially already been reserved for someone else and they're just stringing you along for the ride to make the hiring process legal and give the appearance of fairness (by being able to claim they interviewed many candidates before deciding on their pick, yeah right...).