Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Maybe Definitely Give This Person Tenure

By request, this is a follow-up post on last week's musing about being the external letter-writer for someone's tenure/promotion evaluation. Today I will compare the wording of positive letters vs. not-so-positive (but not killer negative) letters (in the US academic system) to demonstrate the differences; some differences are obvious and some are less so. Although some external letter writers evaluating candidates for tenure/promotion write unambiguously negative letters, most letters are either positive or positive-ish.

I don't think the opening sentence is necessarily very indicative, although letters that start by saying that it is a "pleasure" to write the letter (perhaps even a "strong letter of support") of course tend to be very positive. Letters that start with a basic statement and perhaps a description of how the letter-writer has interacted (or not) with the candidate could go either way.

Positive letters tend to start positive and stay that way, with any quibbles buried deep within them. In my experience, lukewarm letters tend to start positive or positive-ish and then decay in magnitude of positiveness for the rest of the letter. I am not sure that I have seen a letter start negative or lukewarm and end up highly positive, although I have seen letters that I thought were quite negative end with a statement that the candidate would get tenure at the letter-writer's (in some cases elite) institution; that can be confusing.

Unambiguous positive statements that might appear in a very positive letter:

Dr. (or Professor) X is a world leader/pioneer/internationally known and respected specialist in [research field].

Dr. X and his/her students/postdocs have published (many) excellent papers on [topic/s].

Faint-praise statements that might appear in a lukewarm letter:

Dr. X is a specialist in [research field].

Dr. X has made contributions to the field of [topic].

Dr. X's research appears to be quite solid. 

Note: To make those statements even more negative, the research field could be described as narrowly as possible.

Examples of very positive words and phrases:

strong (inter)national reputation, novel, creative, major/significant/signal/tremendous/impressive/insightful/brilliant contributions, rigorous, breadth and depth, breakthroughs, widely respected, widely sought as an invited speaker, key player, true scholar, fundamental/leadership role, taking the lead (etc.), groundbreaking, rising star, international star, exceptional, exceptionally strong case for tenure, original/originality, elegant (referring to research, not the person), high profile, swimming at the top of the talent pool, the world beats a path to X's door, having X on your faculty brings renown to your institution.

Note that the hyper-positive adjective-laden letters tend to come from US academics or those very familiar with the US system. Non-US letters tend to be more restrained (the same is true for proposal reviews) and readers of such letters need to calibrate for this. The statement "Dr. X's research is quite good" might translate into Americanish to "Dr. X is the world leader and pioneer in creative and insightful investigation of a wide range of significant research topics."

Lukewarm (US) letters are characterized by fewer adjectives and of course few/no strong-positive adjectives. They may instead have faint-praise type adjectives such as 'solid', 'good' (with or without some other mild adjectives). The mild equivalent of the very-positive description 'has been extraordinarily/very productive' might be something like, 'has apparently been quite busy'; the positive 'focused' and talk of depth/breadth could translate as a negative-ish description of someone's 'varied interests'. Other not-awesome words are 'reasonably' and 'rather'.

Positive letters may actively propose explanations for some perceived weaknesses in the file:

Dr. X's h-index is a bit low even for someone at this early career stage but [sentences about how the h-index is a meaningless indicator of anything useful].

Dr. X does not have as many publications as one might like to see for a tenure candidate but there is too much emphasis these days on number of publications. Dr X's publications are all of very high quality and are all in high-impact and very selective journals. [This may be accompanied by an anti-shingling rant or opining about how Dr. X is a true scholar who waits to publish high-quality results that will stand the test of time.]

Dr. X has worked on a wide variety of topics rather than focusing on any particular thing but this is remarkable confirmation of her/his versatility, breadth, and boundless intellectual curiosity.

Dr. X has mostly been a middle-of-the-pack coauthor on his/her papers rather than the obvious lead author but I happen to know that Dr. X's senior collaborators are very aggressive about promoting their own work and tend to do this to younger coauthors.

Any of the above can of course be turned into a criticism if the reviewer is so inclined.

Or, lukewarm letters might mention some of the same things listed above but the rebuttal would not be as strong:

Dr. X's h-index is a bit low even for someone at this early career stage but it may increase somewhat in the future. (etc.)

Strong positive letters typically end on an emphatic note:

I highly recommend with no reservations whatsoever that Dr. X be awarded tenure.

I have no doubt that Dr. X would be awarded tenure at my institution.

Lukewarm letters tend to end on an ambiguous note:

I hope that my comments on Dr. X will be helpful to your evaluation of Dr. X for tenure and promotion.

I hope that these comments on tenure and promotion letters are helpful to FSP readers who are curious/anxious about this even if they are rising stars swimming at the top of the talent pool buoyed by their towering intellects.


TD said...

"Dr. X's research is quite good", from a non-US letter writer, might actually be lukewarm praise: "In British English quite good only means pretty good or fairly good, but in American English it’s much more positive." (

Unknown said...

Thanks. Helpful

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

So the investigators who aren't swimming at the top of the talent pool are where? Drowned on the bottom? Lolz.

Juan Lopez said...

Thank you for the post. I am in the tenure track and unlikely to be writing a letter of this type anytime soon. But, I do write letters of recommendation often for students in my lab and this is very useful.

Thank you for your blog, and for sharing. Your blog postings don't count towards your h-index (yea meaningless, bla bla), but they are solid gold for those of us new to the trade.

Anonymous said...

I just heard a story about an assistant professor who was coming up for tenure at Cornell. The faculty was voting, and there was concern that the prof only had three papers. Hans Bethe pointed to one of the papers and said "this one is important". The prof got tenure.

Douglas Natelson said...

TD: Speaking to this point.... In grad school I knew a brilliant string theorist from New Zealand. She once described a young academic (someone who I think became the youngest tenured faculty member in physics ever at a top-10 department) as "rather clever". This was classic UK/ANZAC stiff-upper-lip understatement of the highest order.

Anonymous said...

My son saw a couple of letters of recommendation written for him by math profs. The one from a non-American prof who thought extremely highly of him (straight A+'s in his classes, including a graduate course, did research with him) was much lower-key than those from American profs.

Asphericity said...

I've also heard that midwestern Americans tend to be much more subdued in their praise than people from either coast.

Anonymous said...

Letters are 90% bullshit. There is no substitution for reading candidates' papers and talking with them and their research groups about their research.

Anonymous said...

Re: anon 07:09:00

yes, but pointing to a letter is so much easier and covers your butt so much better than going to the trouble of actually investigating, judging for yourself, and putting your own opinion on the line!

Anonymous said...

@ Anon 8/07/2014 08:19:00 AM: Did the Cornell prof ever write any important papers after that?

Whoosh... said...

Thanks a lot! This is a very helpful post. I always struggle a lot to express my praise in recommendation letters for US students enthusiastic enough.

Rheophile said...

Anon @ 8/08/2014 06:04:00 PM:

I have heard a variant of this story, but it was about Ken Wilson (the version I remember is somewhere around here:

I would suggest (as would the Nobel committee) that he published some important papers from that point on.

Anonymous said...

I would point out to the "letters are 90% bullshit" comment that the department must produce a memo to be sent down the line (in fact, this occurs at every level except for the trustees) and that memo must make the case for awarding tenure or not based on specific information available in the tenure packet. By the time the letter gets to a provost or the college president, "Trust us, we talked to him/her and they seem really solid" is just not going to cut it. It does make it ever so slightly harder to deny or award tenure to people based on sexist/ageist/political criteria (not hard enough maybe).

Anonymous said...

Anon@ 8/11/2014 03:00:00 PM

I agree. A balanced & well-considered internal letter framing the candidate in context of the department and field is extremely useful for all. Outside letters become just one out of many primary sources of evidence.

Outside letters can avoid being 90% crap if they do as FSP suggests, help place the candidate's research in the context of the field. What are the contributions? What have they meant?

Letter writers: consider letters as (1) opportunities to educate outsiders on the wonders of your research area, and (2) exercises in appreciating junior colleagues who are doing their best to contribute at their top form.