The All-Important Letters of Reference

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.

12 Replies to “The All-Important Letters of Reference”

  1. 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

    I’m not in that line of work, so there may be something specific to med school admissions that I’m not aware of, but it’s not obvious to me why this is or should be the case. There may be situations where a conflict of interest would make it inappropriate for a professor to write a letter of recommendation (e.g., the student is applying to the department where the professor’s spouse or ex-spouse works), but I don’t see how being on a curriculum or student advisor committee would be disqualifying.

  2. Med school applications are a complete circus. As I understand it, there’s a committee locally that sort of pre-screens application materials for the med schools– students submit a portfolio of stuff, which is reviewed by this committee. The committee then prepares some sort of report about each pre-med student that gets sent to the med schools as part of the application process. The members of that review committee aren’t allowed (or at least get to tell mediocre students that they’re not allowed) to write reference letters.

  3. As I understand it, there’s a committee locally that sort of pre-screens application materials for the med schools– students submit a portfolio of stuff, which is reviewed by this committee. The committee then prepares some sort of report about each pre-med student that gets sent to the med schools as part of the application process.

    That sounds as though med school admissions committees have found a way to offload a significant portion of their work on people whom they do not compensate for it. I can see why, if there is such a committee (I wasn’t aware of one in my day), the med schools would want opinions from people not on that committee. But it puts SLAC students at a serious disadvantage because, as you note, the professors who would otherwise be most appropriate for writing these recommendation letters are likely to be on this committee, whereas R1 universities are more likely to have biology and chemistry faculty who aren’t on the committee (those being the two most likely majors for med school applicants from universities which don’t have a specific pre-med major).

    FWIW, the first I heard of a “pre-health” committee was from a comment on one of Orac’s threads today, from a physics professor who is apparently on this committee (or at least is good friends with people who are) at his university. I got the impression from his comment that this committee was concerned with curriculum, but he didn’t go into details. He did, however, give the name a well-deserved mocking.

  4. The pre-med committee writes a committee letter. At many schools, the committee letter is written by the faculty member who knows the student the best with others who also know the student adding additional details to the letter. Since the committee members are writing a letter already, they want to gather additional information hence the additional letters.

    Not all the letters sent to the committee are forwarded to the medical schools. The committee I have been on has also been known to go back to a faculty member to ask them to rewrite portions of the letter or suggest the student find an additional letter writer when one is subpar.

    Students at SLACs I have seen aren’t really at a disadvantage. Even the letters from General Chemistry & intro Bio faculty tend to be personalized. It does favor students who get to know faculty members.

    Also, the rule of pre-health committee members not writing individual letters is not a universal rule. At my college, we have the rule to entice people to be on the committee but other places don’t have the rule so students aren’t limited in who writes a letter to the committee.

    Curriculum change with pre-med is big right now. The new MCAT starts next year. The material on the MCAT is expanding to cover biochemistry, psychology, research design, and social science in addition to the material seen in General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, General Physics, and Intro Biology. Many medical schools are changing their requirements and the pre-reqs are becoming less standard.

  5. To get back to physics, some medical schools are requiring just one semester of physics instead of two semesters. That may alter enrollments in General Physics depending on how widespread the one semester requirement becomes. For some Physics Departments that means being able to teach smaller sections and or freeing up contact hours for teaching specialized topics. For other Physics Departments that may mean contraction if they primarily served pre-med students through two semesters of General Physics.

  6. When I applied for postdoc or teaching positions, some 30 years ago, my adviser reminded me that I should clearly mark those institutions where teaching was expected, so that he would mention it (& winning of best TA price, summer school lecturer with good review…) ONLY in those letters. Otherwise, he said, if I mention teaching in a letter for a research job, it will be interpreted, that I had not enough good things to say about your research, and had to stuff the letter with mentioning extraneous things. It’s the kiss of death.

    So indeed, expectations for what should be in a letter are very specific to the position applied for, and as a recommender one should inquire carefully. (I still think that people working in research should get some credit for reasonable presentation = teaching skills.)

  7. I’ve only just become acquainted with Letters of Reference, as in the UK we tend to just have Referees who employers can contact for information on a candidate. The US method also seems to hold in a lot of Japanese institiutions, which puts non-US applicants in a bit of a bind when applying.

  8. I should think that letters from a person leaving a permanent position (as a non-academic it feels utterly bizarre writing that) would need to be considered very differently from others. In ‘normal’ jobs such a thing would only exist in unusual circumstances. A layoff, or perhaps some dramatic personal reason for leaving. Most of the time the previous/current employer is either in the dark, and one wants to be careful about tipping them off, or if they either do or do not want the person to leave and have a strong conflict of interest.

    Something I encountered fairly recently is that employers from the UK seem to routinely ask about illness, sick time, etc. It is illegal for a manager to give out such information in the US, but it is awkward as you feel like you might be hurting the person’s chances.

  9. @Jeff: There are such things as non-faculty soft money positions, as well as research faculty (also soft money). It makes perfect sense for somebody to want to move from such a position to a tenure-track position, even though they are in a “permanent” position. There are also people who go from tenure track positions to non-facutly research positions, not because they were denied tenure (they may not have come up for tenure review yet) but because they discovered that teaching wasn’t for them. In the former case, at least for R1 positions, somebody on the search committee will usually be aware of the candidate’s situation, and of course R1 tenure track positions are generally considered to be the most desirable. In the latter case, there should be something in the candidate’s application stating why he wants to leave his current position. There are also cases where the search is for an endowed chair (we had such a search this year in my department), and the search committee will be looking for somebody with more experience (and often a tenured or civil service position already).

    But as the original post says, it depends on circumstances. The example of somebody whose present colleagues want him to remain in their group but who would rather teach at a SLAC, and the recommendation letter states this, is a good one.

  10. There are a lot of reasons to move from a permanent or potentially permanent job to a different position, everything from wanting to get off a sinking ship (colleges and universities do sometimes go under, and departments are sometimes eliminated) to simple professional advancement (moving to a school in a more prestigious category, or to a more important role, such as a chair or program director) to personal or family benefit (moving along with a spouse who got a too-good-to-refuse offer in a new area, or moving to be closer to family). Those candidates will tend to get a somewhat closer look, and it’s good to have the “Why?” question directly addressed in either the statements or the reference letters.

  11. Sorry, I meant to say that the letter from the former employer is something of a minefield, but botched my first sentence.

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