ask a scatterbrain: letters

I’ve received a bunch of questions on writing letters of recommendation for students. I think the answers will be helpful both for students and for faculty. And I hope both will weigh in, as these are questions about both how faculty should handle letters and what students can expect from faculty. There are a lot of questions here, but I think they’re best addressed in one big post. The issue basically boils down to: how do you write letters for students who are on the job market together and who are applying for the same jobs in roughly the same area?

What’s the best strategy here? Do you just send a letter out for each student and not mention the letters you’ve written for other students?

What’s the right thing to do by the students? Should you counsel students so they don’t apply to the same jobs? In some ways it depends on the situation. Either, (1) you really think the students are pretty comparable and it is a matter of fit with a particular job, OR (2) you really think one of them is significantly better than the other, at least for top jobs.

It’s the second case that’s the trickiest. If you’re a student, would you want to be tipped off that you weren’t as competitive compared to a fellow student? Would you want to know? Or is it too discouraging?

Assume that the adviser gives positive and encouraging but realistic advice to students about the kinds of places they should be applying. How would students prefer the two-student problem to be managed?

If you’re on a search committee, how do you prefer these letters are written?

5 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: letters”

  1. I haven’t had this problem yet, nor will I have enough students in the near future to create this problem.

    However, I think a lot of letter issues can be resolved by doing two things:

    (a) treat each student as an independent draw

    and

    (b) stick very carefully to what the student has actually accomplished via diss, pubs and teaching, and additional research related skills.

    Unless someone asks you directly, don’t compare students. Just play up each person’s best attributes and let the hiring committee decide who is really comparable. If they are both good, why not let them persuade the dean to hire them both?

    PS. When it comes to advising, I never say “you”ll get a job at X or Y.” That sends the wrong message. Instead, I say “if you want to be competitive at school X, you will need an ASR/ASJ/whatever.” Then it is up to them to reach that level of achievement.

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  2. I’d just stick to the letters you’d write no matter what. It’s up to the hiring institution to compare, and you may be screwing both students by talking one up over another. If people on the committee like the second candidate better than your favorite, then both may get downgraded. If both students wind up in serious contention for a research focused job, someone may ask and then you should tell. But until then, I’d not tell unless they ask.

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  3. Letter writers need to be totally honest about the letter they will write. It may not be easy for the faculty to say or for the student to hear, but students need to know if your letter will not be strong enough (because the student isn’t prepared) for them to get a job at X, Y or Z. I almost went on the job market a year early, but my adviser said that in all honesty all he could say was that I only had a lot of potential. He suggested that I wait a year, and then I would have a lot of potential and a lot of evidence that confirms that potential. By the way, I would always want to know the truth about where I stand, especially if I can use it to help me make better choices.

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  4. Unless someone asks you directly, don’t compare students.
    .. someone may ask and then you should tell ..

    I disagree with these two comments, unless you actually do have a favorite between the two. Otherwise, there are ways to have a conversation that does not, in the end, compare two people directly. You can keep focusing on the strengths of the two candidates completely independent of each other. I know a faculty member in my department did this and both students ended up getting great jobs.

    I would definitely stay away from the prediction game as much as possible. (I certainly would never tell anyone not to apply for a particular job.) It is extremely hard to tell who does and who does not have a chance at certain jobs. That said, as per the comment by bandeiras, if you think the person could really use another year as a student (and assuming that is an option, it’s not always an option!) then it’s fair to suggest they wait with the process altogether.

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  5. I agree with the people who said to keep the letters independent. I’ve seen advisors try to say “I’m writing for several people and each is really strong, I’m not ranking them” and it does not help at all, it would be better just to say nothing at all about the multiple letters. Typically when there are multiple applicants from the same school, the different writers stress different strengths of a candidate. There are times when the letter is clearly much more enthusiastic for one candidate than the other, even when they are independent. But I’ve seen review committees override the references when they read the candidates’ work. Also, in my department, there is often some sort of “upset” between who people think will be well regarded on the market and who actually does well.

    Two other comments. One, it is dangerous ever to put anything comparative or negative in a letter, as it can be used against a candidate by higher ups when a department wants to hire. This is contrary to advice I’ve seen for other fields, where letter-writers are told to put something negative in a letter to build credibility. The drill in sociology is that the letters are always positive, but you don’t lie. You say everything positive you can about the candidate, and the assumption is that what you don’t say is probably not true. This can be problematic, and there is some research to suggest there are gender/ethnicity patterns in what gets said in the letters.

    Two, in my experience, students seem to vary a lot in how much realistic advice they seem to want about where they should apply, as well as in what they hope to find in a job. Some students are much more competitive than others, always worrying if someone else wins an award they didn’t get, while others take this more in stride. As far as I can tell, overt competitiveness does not seem highly correlated with publications or other measures of “quality,” but seems more likely when people are working in closely related areas.

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