Friday, July 02, 2010

Who Cares What They Think

Some of my readers are in the process of selecting Names to put on lists of possible letter writers to comment on their tenure dossiers. Some of my readers are obsessing about this, as I myself once did.

Some people who evaluate these dossiers think that such letters are essential to the process; others think the letters are essentially worthless. Yet it's hard to imagine any application or nomination process, including tenure and promotion, without them.

So: How to choose the Names that go on the list? Previous discussions of this topic have covered such issues as: Should you leave out obvious names in the hopes that those will be the ones selected by the department/tenure committee? (Short answer: Yes, maybe you should do that to some extent, but don't leave out all the most obvious names).

Today's discussion, by request: Is the degree of "famousness" of the letter writer important? Do such letters have more weight than letters from less famous people, or would a very positive, thorough, and convincing letter from a qualified but less famous person have the same (or more positive) effect?

Some people do weight Letters from the Famous more and some do not.

I have witnessed many times the phenomenon in which someone on a committee is awed that an Academic Superstar -- a Nobel Laureate, for example -- wrote a letter for an applicant or nominee. In extreme cases, letters by former students of Nobel Laureates are given particular weight, as if the genius* of an adviser is automatically passed on to all students.

[* Let's not discuss whether all Nobel Laureates are geniuses.]

This happens, but it is always controversial. Someone else on the committee typically rolls their eyes and makes a sarcastic comment. On all-university committees (e.g., for awards), humanities faculty are particularly good at rolling their eyes when another committee member slavers over a letter from a Nobel Laureate in Science, although I wonder what they would do if someone had a glowing letter from J.M. Coetzee or Toni Morrison.

On the various committees on which I have served for hiring, promoting, and awarding, many of us are impressed by letters from Big Names if -- and this is a big if -- the letter is thorough and shows that the Big Name really is knowledgeable about the candidate's research. Certainly such a letter is useful if the BN has interacted with the candidate and has substantive things to say.

I am, however, profoundly unimpressed by letters from Big Names if the letter consists of little more than a terse statement to the effect of: "To whom it may concern: By taking 2 seconds out of my day to instruct my assistant to affix my electronic signature to this letter, which says nothing but which has a really nice logo, not to mention my illustrious name on it, I herewith bestow my acknowledgment that the applicant seems to exist and probably does pretty good work because he/she is associated with my lab/institution/colleague. Please find attached my impressive CV."

Such letters are of no use. If you get a letter from a Big Name, you should hope that the BN will take the time to write a letter with content, otherwise you may be better off with less famous but conscientious letter writers.

But of course you don't know if the less famous people write thorough letters or cursory letters either.

How do you know if a letter writer is conscientious so that you can plug the relevant variables into an equation and determine who should be on your list? I know I have discussed this somewhere before.. somewhere in a post deep in the archives .. but I am pretty sure my answer has not changed: in short, you (probably) don't.

If you are trying to decide which people should go on your list of possible letters writers, whether or not you are agonizing between listing Professor Nobel or Professor Non Nobel, maybe you can get some information from others who recently went through a similar process in your field, maybe you have a mentor who has seen letters from these people before, and/or maybe you have had varying degrees of interaction with these people and can guess how much effort they might put into a letter.

If you really don't know and can't find out through reasonable means, you might as well flip a coin, or list Professor Nobel even though you don't know him/her well because it would be cool if that worked out, and then don't worry about it (too much) because your dossier will be seen by faculty who have seen thousands of letters of reference and have experience sifting through the rubble and won't hold one uninformative, terse letter against you.

My advice, in summary:

- A detailed and impressive letter from a respected but not cosmically famous person is better than a cursory letter from a Cosmically Famous Person. Committees are influenced by the prestige of titles, institutions, and awards, but if you have awesome letters from respected people in and beyond your field, don't worry that you haven't yet managed to hang out at the conference hotel bar with Professor Nobel.

- Make sure that as many names on your list as possible are people who are likely to be able to write knowledgeably about your research. If you think it is important that you have at least one Big Name, go ahead and put one on your list if it is at all reasonable for you to do so based on your research field and accomplishments. But: be conservative about the number of BNs on your list, unless you know them well.


rrf said...

Your advice is rational, but perhaps misses the essential point. In all discussions of letters for tenure or promotion I've seen, as committee member, chair, and dean, I can say that the question "who solicited this letter, the candidate of department" is the most important element. A strong letter from someone the candidate selected is always viewed as suspect. In my experience the candidate is well served by using her mentor within the department to suggest letter writers to the committee which he/she knows to be reasonable and at least likely to give a positive response

Anonymous said...

In my department, the candidate is not supposed to provide any information on who potential letter writers could be; any names that the candidate supplies are considered tainted.

This is additional stress on the candidate, because someone other than him/her is deciding who the important people in the field are. Typically, the TT faculty's collaborators are solicited for input, but even that is not without pitfalls. We have had a stellar young candidate get denied tenure at the university level for too many letters from people who'd never heard of him, simply because letters were solicited from people too far outside his area. (He went up again next year with a new set of letters, from a more carefully chosen pool of writers, and was a shoo-in.)

That said, the caliber of letter writers is specified as at least the status of fellow of the relevant professional society. It is however desirable that they be members of the National Academies.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has just passed the tenure gauntlet, this post just makes me laugh (although a year ago it would have made me whimper in a fetal position).

There is no Nobel for my field, nor anything remotely related it. The voting faculty of my department are also particularly ignorant of my field, for no really good reason. I guess I was too busy working my ass off to take time to educate them on my worthiness. Anyway, I slaved over my list of potential letter writers to make sure it included only well established, respected influential people (and excluding all known cranks). But my list was immediately returned to me with a note that no one was "famous enough!" I then added a paragraph to each name explaining why they were so great, including number of publications, citations, h index, awards, ya-di-ya-di-ya-da. Another reason why those stupid indices are important....

I would be very surprised if the committee requested letters from anyone not on my list.

Sharon said...

We supply 5 names, the department supplies 5 names, then all 10 go up to the Dean's office blinded by source, and the Dean's office selects without knowing who supplied the names. We have to include a blurb about each.

Our department/university is big on "peer institution" more than on BN, though name matters as well.

I think your advice about asking around is great. I took my list to several senior colleagues and learned there were people on my list who were BN's and knew my work but were known to write negative letters. I would have had no other way of knowing that.

a physicist said...

Our school likes the letter writers to be from top-tier institutions. Seems to matter less if they've won a Nobel, matters more if they're employed at Harvard, MIT, Princeton, etc. I think this especially becomes important when the letters are viewed by someone outside of science (such as the other members of the tenure and promotion committee). They may not know what an APS fellow is but they know what Harvard is.

Anonymous said...

I'm up for tenure next year, and my materials are currently with the external reviewers. I'm not to whimper in a fetal position, but I have NO IDEA how important these letters may be (at my uni in general or for my case in particular).

I kind of wish I had been more strategic on this earlier, but I was busy working on other stuff. I hope that stuff got me in front of the big cheeses sufficiently to leave a positive impression.

To early career scientists: Don't neglect opportunities to cultivate professional relationships. Work with senior folks on professional committees, be a good and reliable reviewer when asked by editors (who are often senior people in your discipline), and invite senior people to give talks at your uni or in symposia at meetings.

It's been 15 years since I started my Ph.D. research (I'm FINALLY coming up for tenure!). That's a long time to interact with a whole bunch of folks.

John Vidale said...

The posts so far mention passive methods. Two more active strategies:

1. Poll to see who might write helpful letters. Some senior faculty have seen letters and reviews from most of the senior people, either from award nomination or panels, and can opine who puts effect and specificity into writing commentary, and who is a booster and who is a crab.

2. Ask for suggestions from department colleagues or other folks who have been involved in your previous reviews and applications. They shouldn't say straight up who wrote you the best letters in the past, but can still be helpful, particularly in who to avoid.

My own strategy has been just to suggest the most perceptive people intimately familiar with my work. I have the odd idea that if they don't like my work, maybe I SHOULD get that feedback.

Anonymous said...

Why is this (from the post) "passive": maybe you can get some information from others who recently went through a similar process in your field, maybe you have a mentor who has seen letters from these people before, , but John V's suggestions are "active"?

John Vidale said...

@anon 11:23

you're right, I missed the similar active comment in FSP's post.

Also, anon @9:03 made another similar prior remark that appeared after I submitted my comment.

And after your comment, I'd retrench that active/passive is not a good characterization - it's more investigating the review style as well as the expertise of potential writers rather than just their expertise.

My general advice is to not spend much time picking letter-writers, nor with the tenure process in general, and concentrate on the research instead. Some just-submitted papers that create a stir trumps a finely-crafted CV and statement, and research is a permanent result.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

One additional important consideration is the geographic diversity of your letter writers. In particular, it is extremely useful to have letters not only from people in your own country, but also in other countries with legitimate scientific research enterprises. The point is to establish that you have a national and international reputation in your field. Corollary to this is that it is really useful to have invited seminars/conference presentations in foreign countries on your CV.

Anonymous said...

I am up for tenure next year (my letter writers are writing letters right now), and from discussions with friends in other institutions I concluded that each university has their own idiosyncrasy when it comes to this issue. Therefore, instead of asking around, I spent time talking to chairs and senior faculty in my department and college. They all agreed that ideally I would have one or two members of the natl. academy of sciences, and several more at that level (editors of famous journals, people that were awarded prestigious awards, etc). Knowing that, I was careful enough to make sure that two members of the academy in my field knew me well, and invited several hot-shots to give seminars in my department along the years.
I think everybody should have a mental list of potential writers several years before tenure, and use any opportunity to meet with these people or at least be sure they are aware of one's research achievements. Personally, I found that bringing people to give seminars works like a charm, as one has a unique opportunity to sit one-on-one, have a nice dinner, etc.

Dave Backus said...

Is it common for candidates to choose writers? In our system, it's not. And letters from supervisors, coauthors, etc are ruled out. The department typically chooses letter writers who can comment intelligently on the work (that speaks for itself, as you suggest) and who have enough official status to make it clear to people in other fields that they're legit experts.

A bigger issue if how much weight to put on them. Ideally the letters would have similar themes about the work and its impact as the internal assessment.

Anonymous said...

In the University of California, the candidate for tenure suggests some reviewers, and the department puts together a list of reviewers which may or may not contain ones suggested by the candidate, but nearly always contains a couple *not* suggested by the candidate.

What weight is given to different reviewers varies a lot from department to department. In my department, familiarity with the research trumps "big name" status, and we nearly always want at least one reviewer from another UC campus.

Anonymous said...

I've posted a longer blog post about selecting names at

Anonymous said...

There is an issue which I think is probably very significant, but I have never figured out how to use it beyond its effect on my own vote, even when I am a P and T committee officer. This is when a candidate and the committee have come up with a large number of names and almost no one agrees to write a letter. This seems to me far more (negatively, of course) significant than the content of the letters that are eventually obtained. Have you encountered this?

I am an occasional commenter here, but I am going to post this anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue in a current case.

Anonymous said...

Sure, I've encountered cases where few people were willing to write letters. Often this just means that the requests came at a bad time of year, or that lots of people in the field believe in shirking service duties, and says nothing at all about the candidate.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I have seen this widespread refusal to write letters happen for only two or three candidates in 30 years. It seemed cleat to me that it was because the people thought that an honest letter would be damning.

AnonProf said...

I'll echo John V's first response, which has some excellent advice. If there's anyone pre-tenure who is reading this, I strongly endorse his advice.

My own experience was that I was asked for a list of about 5 names. The department was then responsible for coming up with another about 5 other names. Then, they asked some subset of the resulting 10 names (close to all of them). That's the theory. In practice, the folks in my department responsible for selecting the other 5 names came to me quietly and said, don't spread this around, but if there's anyone you would suggest for the department's 5, we would welcome your suggestions. I figure this was a chance for me to make their life easier, and to improve my chances of getting reasonable letter writers, so this was good for everyone.

Anonymous said...

Is it polititcally correct etiquette to send these people recent papers published a few months before they might be asked, to familiarize them with your most recent works?

about to come up.....