Monday, January 16, 2012

On A Related Topic

The topic of Letters of Reference seems to pop up rather often in the e-mails I get from readers, no matter how much I have already written about this topic. I get questions about writing them, reading them, asking people to write them for you.. The number of ways that this topic is fraught with anxiety and pitfalls is truly impressive.

I seem to have written 29 (now 30) posts on the topic in the past 5+ years. Or, at least, I have labeled 30 posts as such. Previous reference-letter-centric topics have included:

- How (whether) to compare the individual in question with others: peers, people with the same gender, the most brilliant people on the planet in a particular field..

- The most difficult types of letters (for me) to write, and the ones I most enjoy writing;

- The strangest (and most inappropriate things) I have read in letters of reference (I hope I have not written anything that would show up in someone else's list of such things);

- How to assemble a good list of people to ask to write letters of reference for a tenure case;

- How much I hate filling out the forms for grad applications that involve my comparing the applicant with the top 1%, 2.5%, 8%, 25%, 50%.. of students I have ever taught, or that have applied to grad school, or that I can remember, or something, not to mention also having to 'grade' the applicant on a host of Important Skills, from writing to ethics to working well with others. And yet, as much as I hate the ones with 57 categories, I also hate the ones with too few; e.g., I saw a recent one that lumped writing/speaking ability and wanted a single rating for this category.

- Writing letters (as a student) for an advisor, past or present;

- A plea for those who ask professors and others to write (many) letters of reference to send a brief e-mail telling them how things turned out, what you decided etc. Maybe the letter-writer doesn't care, maybe they do, but if someone took the time to help you out, even if you consider it "part of their job", at least have some brief communication with them later.

- What to do if a letter-writer asks you to write a first draft of the letter? (do it, it's just a draft);

- A classification of Letter Writer Types, from most obnoxious to most helpful;

- and let's not forget the Letter of Reference writing contest of December 2009.

That's a lot, and is just a partial list. Is there anything else? In fact, there is. Has anyone else encountered this situation that recently came to my attention?:

You are looking at the application (doesn't matter for what) from someone who worked in industry for a few years. The applicant worked for a small, specialized company in or near their hometown, and has a very positive letter from a top executive in that company. The applicant and the executive share the same last name; it is not an unusual name, but it is also not one of the most common ones. There is no mention in the letter or anywhere in the application that the applicant and the letter writer are related. What would (did) you do?

(1) Assume they are not related and take the reference letter at face value.

(2) Strongly suspect that they are relatives and dismiss the letter as possibly more unobjective than most such letters.

(3) Not care either way; letters are mostly filled with partial truths anyway.


John Vidale said...

I'd Google them. One can be probably check fairly quickly if they are in the same family.

Also, I'd slightly ding the person for not saying one way or the other - an alert applicant would realize sensible readers would wonder.

David S said...

If it's not a family member it will come from a friend anyway.

Anonymous said...

This is all because of professors like you who demand it...I hate asking for one, I somehow got the phD position and it was really uncomfortable for me, not sure if I will try for postdoc if I absolutely have to ask for the letters....I mean I will always feel that I got the job because someone put nice words for me and my academic records are irrelevant...

Anonymous said...

Do you know if a letter with errors in English would be accepted?
I come from a country where writing letters and speaking English is not in the culture (France). So I have great difficulties in finding academics who know me well enough and at the same time able to write in English.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 12:57, you do realize that any job you apply for will require either references or letters of reccomendation, right?

another anonymous person said...

Anonymous @12:57 - the nice words come from the academic and laboratory record. What do you think we write about?

Strong students come to our attention, whether or not they draw it to themselves. At the undergraduate level, we'll have watched your work as you move through our classes. As a PhD student, a strong research project typically results in strong poster and seminar presentations within the department. If you are a weak student or an average student who has made no effort to reach out to expand your work, that is when we don't have much to say.