ask a scatterbrain: recommendations (saying no)

It’s getting to that point in my career where lots of people are asking me for recommendations. For grad school, for studying abroad, for law school, to a shelter for adopting a kitten (seriously), and for jobs. So I have a question for the wise world of scatterplot readers: anyone out there have a good policy on when to write letters of recommendation, and when it is alright to say no? They take me a lot of time. I understand they’re my responsibility as a faculty member. I just don’t know when it’s perfectly reasonable to say, “sorry, I can’t do this.” And also, HOW to say that without it being read as, “I don’t want to because you suck.” We’ve come full circle. I asked about saying no almost a year ago!

12 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: recommendations (saying no)”

  1. I have written eight letters of recommendation in the past few weeks and I’m not through my list yet. In addition to the time it takes to write them, I meet with each student to get materials and a sense of why they’re interested in the program, why they asked me to write the letter, etc. It’s become really time consuming.


  2. as an undergrad i asked a favorite professor for a recommendation for a university-internal honor of some sort. she wrote me back a polite email to the effect that, while she certainly thought i was a worthy candidate, she’d limited herself to writing letters for grad school, and she’d be happy to write that one when i needed it. and she did.


  3. My basic policy is that students either have to be my supervisee or have taken two classes with me. And then, I’ve said no once because I did not think that i could write a good letter when another colleague not already asked could write a great letter or at least was strategically networked so that the student would probably have a better chance at entry.

    I recommend for kitten adoption letters, one just keeps a standard recommendation letter that says x is responsible, x is employed, and x has the prospect of future employment.


  4. I think I would have told the person with the kitten to write a short appropriate letter him/herself and that I would sign it. Medical school faculty do this routinely for much more high-stakes matters.


  5. @5.jeremy: this practice is definitely common in medical academia, but it really offends me. It seems to completely undermine the reason for having letters of recommendation in the first place! Then again, for kitten adoption it’s unclear just what that reason would be….

    The original question is hard. I don’t really have a hard-and-fast policy, but typically say no if I don’t feel I have anything of interest to say, or (unusually) if the recommendation would be mostly negative. I think generally most students who would get negative recommendations (is that an oxymoron?) already know I’m not on their side :).


  6. I you don’t do it, who will? Are you saying that undergraduates have no right to apply for internal academic awards? Or to apply for overseas studies programs? Or to apply for jobs? Or to adopt kittens, for that matter? If it is a student you have worked with closely enough to know them and can give a good recommendation, I think you are morally/ethically obliged to say yes. Whom else would they ask? Are you opting out on the grounds that some of your colleagues deserve to do a larger share of the work than poor little old you? Yes, this is a lot of work. Yes it is difficult and frustrating. Welcome to grown-up land where we do work that is irritating and time-consuming and not just of benefit to ourselves.

    The justifiable grounds for saying no are two variants of the same: (1) you could not write a good recommendation because what you’d have to say would be relatively negative, and (2) you don’t know the person well enough to write a good letter. And also a third: this is due tomorrow, you did not ask with enough lead time for it to be reasonable for me to do it.

    If I don’t know a student very well, I interview them about what other professors they know and how they’ve done in their other courses. If I can identify some likely better candidates as letter-writers, I send them away, sometimes after helping them find contact information for the other profs. If they did not do all that well in my class, I tell them honestly what the letter is going to have to say. Sometimes they say, Oh I’ll ask somebody else; other times, they say: well, I can’t think of anyone who will give me a better reference, so I’ll take it. I teach at a big university where many students never meet a professor, so that for a lot of students I talk to, the best they can do is having been in a lecture of 45 students and written papers and made a decent grade, even if the prof does not really know them. If it was a sectioned class with TAs, I have often co-written a letter with the TA so that there is more concrete information about the student’s work from someone who actually read it.

    A way to make this easier: Demand that the student send you an electronic document file with all the necessary information, the inside address of where this is going, the name of the award/program, any relevant details about what the letter is supposed to say, details about the student’s performance in your class (paper topics, grades, etc.0 and anything the student would like to have said about him/her, including GPA, skills, etc. I tell the student that I won’t leave in the letter anything I cannot in conscience sign, but it does make the process of producing the letter go a heck of a lot faster if you make the student give you this much detail. Some people actually make the student write the whole letter and just sign it, as long as it does not say things you cannot sign. You can also speed the process by having boilerplate descriptions available of your courses and your course assignments for each course, so that you copy/paste that part of it into the letter and then edit to provide specific details about that student’s performance.


  7. @ olderwoman: You’re right. I have never actually said no to anyone. It’s just that I now teach a 22 person undergrad course and the students in it are closer to me than many other lecture classes. So they are likely to ask me. That means 10+ recommendations per year (last year it was 15 out of this class alone). Often they are for different things which have to be tailored. And they are starting to come in from this year’s class. I’ve only known the students for 2 months. But for many that is a closer relationship than with other profs at CU. The advice to “just do it” is well taken.

    One piece of local advice is to ask how competitive the program is that the student is applying for. The justification is this: a lot of these are for study abroad programs. These programs want to know whether or not said student will burn down a building. If the answer is no, they’re in. If yes, probably not. So figuring out the kind of letter I have to write will most certainly help. If it’s not that competitive, I don’t have to give a really detailed letter about the work, the person, the expected trajectory, etc. If it is competitive, that’s another story.

    Picking up on a them from OW’s comments: I think there is a tendency for academics to think of themselves as self-employed. MY work is what gets me a job. And this results in an orientation to undesirable work as something that isn’t justified (think committee work). But I’ve had plenty of jobs that required far more undesirable work. So I should just quit complaining.

    As for the kitten: adopting a cat is serious business. I was perfectly happy to write a note about the person. I didn’t go into their professional qualifications, etc. But I did go the fact that the cat would be loved. It was a very satisfying letter to write. As now the cat and the person are quite happy together. Such happiness is a rare yet welcome outcome.


  8. Shakha: Sorry for going off so much, but yeah, you can tell I’m pushing back against the idea that the only “important” stuff we do is our research. Folks should remember that it is the undergraduates who pay our salaries. Undergraduate tuition subsidizes research and graduate education at major universities. They are the reason we have a job. Where we need to push is to remind everyone to have a culture that validates and rewards rather than stigmatizes the time spent doing well by the undergrads.

    You raise a different point which I thought about when I was going off, that depending on the class you teach and your general personality, some of us attract more undergraduate requests than others. Especially if you feel like your colleagues are brushing off the undergrads and avoiding them, you can feel like a chump for being nice to them and picking up the extra work. So that element of department culture is a big issue, I think.

    And, as I said, it helps a lot to have strategies for streamlining the work process of producing the letters, having basic templates so it isn’t a creative writing project every time.

    Well-placed staff support can help too: an undergraduate advisor who is respected and paid as a professional can make the whole thing easier on everyone by teaching the students some of the “ropes” that make things easier for everyone.


  9. OW: I didn’t think you were going off on me at all!

    As for being a chump and departmental culture: one thing that is building beyond requests for letters of recommendation are also requests for independent studies and undergrad thesis advising. For this I DO so no, unless the student is working on something I really know. The problem is that I do say yes to a few students (which I am gathering is rare). Then word gets out. And then there are lots of people at my door. And I feel guilty saying, “Yes, I know you were in my class. Yes, I remember you. Yes, you did good work. Yes, I am doing this with other students. But no, I cannot supervise you. You are working on something I don’t know much about and I already have three students I’m working with…” What would make this easier is if we had departmental policy on how we manage undergrad theses. I’m going to bring this up at our next meeting.

    I actually advised undergrads at Wisconsin (though not officially, as we grad students weren’t allowed to). This was an enormously helpful process. I learned how to manage the relationship (good training for my now life as a prof). The students seemed to be perfectly happy. And an official faculty member signed off on the process – so there was a kind of quality control. This might be a good way to deal with the thesis question.


  10. My rule:

    I’ll write you a letter if you have earned a B or higher (that weeds out many people). I also tell them that the more you have worked with me, the better the letter. I am under no obligation to write a high quality letter for a person who just showed up, said nothing, and got a B on the exam. I also require a resume/CV, which weeds people out.

    On occasion, I’ll write a letter for a low quality student as long as they understand that I can’t say much about them. As Olderwoman says, sometimes that’s enough because all a student needs is a piece of paper with a signature on it.

    I also have the kind of personality where grad students only approach me for letters if they actually have a real relationship w/me (good class work, paper co-author, adviser, etc.) My evaluations suggest that people like me a great deal in the grad seminar, but I also send out an “only bug me if you are serious about this job” vibe.


  11. When I read the first sentence of this post (“It’s getting to that point in my career”), I figured it must be one of the senior people on this blog who’s writing about this. After all, at your stage, you’re still protected from so many things. I hadn’t even officially transitioned to Associate Prof status yet (our change-over is Sept 1st) when I got my first request for a tenure review. That’s when it really hit home that there are pros to being junior faculty.

    Of course, I realize there’s the pressure of getting tenure so I understand why junior faculty should be protected and I very much support it, but yes, service of this type is part of the job. Like others suggested, I think it’s okay to say no if you simply don’t know the person enough to write a supportive letter or if you are not willing to support the application. Otherwise, this task is very much part of our jobs. (Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to vent about it on occasion.:)


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