It’s the time of year where colleges and grad schools are making admissions decisions, and faculty job search season is winding down (for tenure-track positions in physics, anyway– our search for a visiting professor for next year is still underway). In the spirit of the season, then, Matt “Dean Dad” Reed asks about the writing of reference letters.
Given how much letters can count, I’m struck that we almost never talk about how to write them. They’re a genre of their own.
For example, I’ve been told — and I don’t know how true this is — that without a FERPA waiver, it’s illegal to reveal a student’s grade in a letter. That does not appear to be common knowledge.
Letters can also reveal information about race, gender, family situations, and other sorts of information that normally would be problematic, if not forbidden, in consideration of one candidate as against another. Gender may be inevitable, given the third-person pronoun choices that the English language affords, but the other categories are not. And it’s difficult to be both specific and compelling in describing a candidate, and also demographically vague at the same time.
Some professors move quickly to the quantitative: “this student is among the top x percent in my y years of teaching.” Others shy away from that, instead going with the poignant quote or the telling anecdote.
Given the disparity of styles in writing letters, I’m concerned that student outcomes may be more reflective of differences in faculty writing styles than of differences in student performance or ability.
I’m not in a position where I read applications for admissions on a regular basis, but I do read job application letters, and all of the same problems apply. I’ve had to write a bunch of letters over the years, as well, and I do my best to avoid the major pitfalls.
I tend not to be quantitative in the “top X% of students I have seen” mostly because I’m not really organized enough to make those kinds of judgments, but also because our numbers are small enough that this tends not to work very well. I’ve been here 13 years, and it’s only within the last couple that “Top 5% of physics majors” would be more than five students. (It’s much easier to crack the top 5% if I include all the engineers and pre-meds, but that’s not all that useful…) Most of the letters I write are for research students, so I tend to talk about their lab and presentation skills.
The hardest cases are the students I don’t know well– on a couple of occasions, I’ve had to write med-school applications for students I only had in lab, because the faculty who would be more appropriate are on the pre-health committee and thus can’t write letters. Those are really awkward– if you’re a student, do everything in your power to avoid putting a professor in this situation.
I’ve also had to write one letter for a student with a really mixed record– he did great work as a summer research student, but flaked out during the year and barely passed. In that case, I called him in and told him what I could write for him– basically “Did really good work under close supervision, and would be a good hire for that kind of situation, but might be a risk in a more independent situation, at least at the moment.” I said “If you’re okay with that, I’ll write it,” and he was, so I did. If you’re a student, though, that’s another situation you want to avoid, preferably by not flaking out on your independent research projects.
In terms of reading letters, as Reed notes, there’s a huge difference in writing styles that can be really hard to interpret. This is particularly confusing when you get very different styles of letters for the same candidate. We’ve had applicants who get one glowing letter– “An exceptionally talented young scientist sure to be successful at any institution”– and one or two blandly platitudinous letters– “totally worked down the hall someplace, and was apparently very competent.” I never know what to make of those– is the effusive writer exaggerating? Are the others just stingy with praise? Those cases are maddening.
If you want advice from the standpoint of a reader, again, my experience is fairly specific to the small liberal arts college world, but if you’re in the position of writing letters for somebody applying to jobs at schools like Union (or a candidate requesting letters to support such an application), here are a few things I look for:
— We are a liberal arts college with a heavier emphasis on teaching than many places, but we still expect faculty to be active in research, so I want to see letters that address both. I don’t necessarily need each individual letter to speak to both– it’s fine if there’s one from somebody who can only talk about research, or one from somebody who can only talk about teaching– but there better be a solid mention of both somewhere in the group of letters. If I get three letters that only talk about research, with only perfunctory “I think he did some TA work and didn’t hear any complaints about that” mentions of teaching, that’s Not Good.
— I want to see something indicating a genuine interest in this sort of position. If I see letters that suggest a candidate sees us as a “safety school,” a second-best option that they’ll settle for if they can’t get a major research university position, that’s a major negative. We had a candidate once whose letters had statements like “He would be a shoo-in for a permanent position at our research institution, but he has this crazy idea that he wants to teach undergrads,” and that was a major plus. It doesn’t have to be that extreme, but some evidence or anecdote that indicates an interest in teaching at a smaller school. This can, to some degree, be dealt with in the candidate statements– “I went to a small college, and have always wanted to work in that environment” is a good one– but it’s very helpful to have it confirmed independently.
— If the candidate is leaving a temporary position, I look for some mention of why. It’s particularly useful to see statements of the form “If we could keep this person on, we would.” This goes quadruple for someone leaving a (potentially) permanent job, but we don’t see many of those. That’s another thing that can and should be addressed in candidate statements, but again, independent confirmation is helpful.