Thursday, April 06, 2006

Letters of Recommendation

Note to students everywhere: If you request letters of recommendation from me, you need to give me 4-6 weeks to get them done. This is the industry (and by industry, I mean the industry of education, which does not compensate professors for writing letters of recommendation) standard. If you thrust a bunch of materials at me and expect a letter to be done in two weeks, when I have a) teaching obligations, b) research obligations, c) service obligations, d) advising obligations, e) a very limited personal life, you will be disappointed. And I will not feel sorry.


Bardiac said...


I also ask students to actually collect the materials, rather than just expecting me to somehow know and remember all about them from the ether.

Dr. Crazy said...

As do I, Bardiac, as do I. In fact, I've got a big scary list of instructions on my website that explains exactly what I need to get an effective letter from a recommender. And yet, still, the problems persist.


Incidentally, I just wrote what has to be the lamest letter of recommendation I've ever written. No, it's not bad, but it's not exactly glowing, either. And THIS, students, is why you don't want to put a professor in a bad position time-wise/material-wise. Because it will result in you getting a crappy letter - not out of spite, but out of just trying to get the thing done.

Liz Ferszt said...

Being asked to write a letter of recommendation is a tremendous honor, and if it doesn't feel like it, then don't do the letter. I've been writing letters for 15 years and if it's a student whose work merits a good letter, it's a treat to do, and taking 4-6 weeks is just incomprehensible.

Dr. Crazy said...

I'm sorry to disagree with you Liz - well, actually I'm not, as you seem to enjoy commenting on my blog with the sole purpose of being a know-it-all and insulting me - but writing letters of recommendation is often something that is a responsibility, and honor has nothing to do with it. Part of the job is to write letters for students or to serve as references for them. Sometimes that is a pleasure. Other times it is a chore. And while I do tell students whom I cannot recommend at all positively that I will not write a letter, that is not possible for a lot of cases that fall in the middle.

Second, even if it is a pleasure, taking 4-6 weeks to do it seems completely reasonable to me, as letters of recommendations are not, nor should they be, my top priority as a professor. The 4-6 weeks is there to allow me to schedule when I write the letter into the rest of my schedule, which has more pressing deadlines and which has greater impact on my promotion and tenure prospects.

Finally, I'm all for having a variety of perspectives represented in comments, and I do not want my comments to be some sort of Dr. Crazy fan club. That said, I also do not appreciate comments that are rude or that treat me like a bad little girl who doesn't understand her profession. Thus, any more comments like that are going to be deleted by me without response.

Katherine said...

I'd love to see your instructions to those requesting letters of rec. Like you, I require that students provide me with all relevant materials and that they give me at least 3 weeks notice. I don't find that unreasonable: I have other committments, other deadlines, other duties.

I tell students that waiting to the last minute to request a letter will likely get them the same results as writing a paper the night before it's due.

Dr. Crazy said...

Anybody who's interested in my letters of recommendation guidelines can drop me an email at and I'll be happy to pass them along.

Starving for Wisdom said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
phd me said...

Can I print this out and post it on my future office door? Even as a grad student, I've had to write WAY too many rec letters, and too many students wait until the last minute to ask me.

For what it's worth, Liz, treat or not, writing a good letter - one that accurately speaks to the student's strengths, academic and otherwise - takes time. I don't dash them off without some serious thinking first; I imagine Dr. Crazy puts a good amount of effort and thought into her letters, as well. I wouldn't say her request is incomprehensible, just particular to her professional sense of respect for the professor's time and quality of the letter produced. Who would argue with that reasoning?

Ancarett said...

It sounds like you have a clear and fair system for all concerned (at least if they actually go to the effort of reading your directions and, if they don't?, who wants to write them a letter of reference, anyway?

I have to admit that I do follow one of a series of formulaic letters I've set up over time (filed in my LoR folder on the computer). There's the "glowing like a nuclear reactor" letter for the all around standouts, the "recommending a capable workhorse" format, the "bright but has had to work on the rest of the package" and so forth. Then I have to customize each of these with some thoughtful, germane comments about their work in my classes. I tell undergraduates to bring in a copy of their courses taken & marks (they can print it off of WebAdvisor) and one of their papers they've written for me. They should also have a one page statement about what they want to do in graduate school. Graduate students looking to do the Ph.D. have to bring in a research plan as well.

I usually try to get the letters out in two weeks, though, as I find if I leave something in my hands for a month or so, it gets buried. Get it in, get it out, is generally my rule. But I also tell students in October to start planning their applications, who they want for letters and to get all that in the hands of referees before the end of year!

Liz Ferszt said...

We are all different, I suppose. In my own case, I don't write letters for folks who fall "in the middle." There is nothing honest I could say about that person that would help him/her. There is enough hyperbole associated with job searches that adding to it with favorable letters for middling students just seems to me to be duplicitous.

However, I'm sorry my comments are on the verge of being deleted. I'm not a veteran of these blogs, but I assumed that the comment section was a bit of a dialogue with the readers having a small area where we could offer ideas. That is clearly not the case, and my naivete is to blame.

Deleting dissenting opinions will - of course - create a Dr. Crazy fan club, and that wouldn't in any way take away from the interesting journey your posts chronicle.

Good luck with your website.

Dr. Crazy said...

Offering ideas is one thing. Whether they are in agreement with mine or not. I do not generally delete comments, even when I really disagree with people's points of view. (See the comments from the post on feminism from a couple of days ago for just one example.)

You will also notice that I'm not deleting you now, because this comment demonstrates some basic respect for me, for this space. I think that we have divergent points of view about letters of recommendation, in that I believe there are reasons why one has to write letters for students in the middle - such as that the student is one's advisee, or one knows the student's work extremely well compared with all other professors a student might ask. Also, throw into the mix that I'm on the tenure-track and can't really afford to alienate students at this teaching-intensive university, and, well, I've got a lot of letters I can't say no to writing. Finally, I'm not sure if only the privileged few most stellar students are the only ones who deserve letters - and thus jobs or internships - or that I should be the one to decide that. (Again, I'm talking not about horrible students but about those who are just kind of lackluster but solid.) That leaves a bad taste in my mouth, especially given the student population that I teach.

But you see, we disagree, and I'm engaging with the disagreement. Not deleting. Why? Because you were courteous instead of condescending. See? Simple.

My problem with your other comments wasn't related to your disagreeing with me; it was related to the tone that you took with me. Your tone was disrespectful. Period. And no, I do not have to allow people to disrespect me in my blogspace, and that doesn't mean that I want a fan-club or that I will create one. I think I've got readers who've been around for a long time who can attest to that about how I run my comments.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ancarett -
Yes, I've got the boilerplate versions of letters now, too, but it always seems to take longer than one anticipates to make those little person-specific changes, doesn't it?

I see what you're saying about the two-week thing for you. My problem is when multiple students ask all at the same time. Sometimes my turn-around time is quicker than a month, but generally (and ironically) that's usually when students ask early for the letter and I'm not swamped with requests. You know, I'm beginning to think that the best time for students to catch me for letters of rec. is actually at the very start of a semester. Once I hit midterm, I become increasingly less interested in rushing to get them finished because there are so many more demands on my time.

PoodleGrrl said...

Oohhh, this touches a sore spot. I'm finishing up a week in which I got a request for a letter from an advisee who has come to my office just once, for 10 minutes, and another from a student who slept through my class every week in the front row.

But here's my big question: how do you turn down a student for whom you can't write even a mild letter, without crushing them or getting dissed in your teaching evals? Impossible?

Liz Ferszt said...

Regarding letter requests from students whose work does not make it possible for me to write a positive letter of recommendation, I say, "I'm really sorry, but based on the work you've done for me, I couldn't give you a strong recommendation, and the market is such that anything less than a glowing rec letter will do you no good. Could we put our heads together and think of someone else who might be able to help?"

Ancarett said...

Dr. Crazy, yes, I could see where you can get hit with too many letter requests, especially at the midterm crunch. It's one reason why I try to urge the senior students I know to start thinking much earlier. (This is where it helps to be the graduate coordinator -- my head is full of the various scholarship deadlines and application due dates, so I promote these letters in the first term, as much as possible.)

As for the students who really don't have any standout qualities, I'm fairly blunt when it comes to their application to some place I don't think they'll fit -- I tell them that I haven't seen enough of the "star quality" in their work for me to convince me that they're ready for XYZ U or program, but I'll leave it open for them to convince me or I'll suggest, based on our discussion, another professor in the department who might know their best work. But if I think that they are a good match, given their qualities and the program they seek, I'll write an honest letter singing the praises of their legitimate skills while pointing out what weaknesses they've faced or are dealing with. Several such students have made it onto doctoral programs and done remarkably well, leading me to deduce that it's all a bit of a crapshoot!

Jill said...

So do ALL students need letters of recommendation, or only the ones applying for grad school or academic jobs? Letters of recommendation aren't used in Norway, except sometimes as confirmation that yes that person worked here and this, that and that was among the things required in the job, and she performed well/ok/great. Part of the we're-a-country-of-farmers-and-there's-been-no-aristocracy-or-even-rich-people-here-since-the-vikings-except-the-bloody-Danes-so-we-don't-trust-what-so-called-important-people-say-about-anyone-and-will-only-pay-attention-to-objective-facts-like-grades-and-years-employed-and-if-you-say-something-nice-about-someone-we-bet-you're-lying syndrome.

Or something like that.

The problem occurs in cross-cultural collaborations. Like when I needed a letter of recommendation from my boss for a Norwegian-US research grant with Americans in the committee assessing applications and he wrote "I strongly recommend Jill Walker." That was it. The whole letter. No, I didn't get the grant.

Does appear to save some time on the recommendation-writing though.

BrightStar said...

I totally forgot about two letters of recommendation I promised I'd write, so I had to stay at work last night to finish them. These are the days when I wish I didn't teach seniors. I do like your timeframe idea, but the question I have is -- when to communicate this to them?

Dr. Crazy said...

Hey all :)

RE: who needs letters of recommendation (or forms filled out as recommendations, or for me to serve as a reference, all of which amount to similar kinds of work for me, as even with serving as a reference I find that I need to have some kind of document with notes ready in order to field questions about a student over the phone):

1) People applying for high school teaching jobs in my area.
2) People applying for things like Teach for America or other gov't sponsored post-graduation programs.
3) People applying for scholarships (and not just ones for the regular academic year but for things like study abroad, etc.)
4) Students applying for certain internship programs.
5) Students applying to grad school/law school/med school.
6) Students with unusual circumstances who need a letter in order to get a requirement waived or something.

#5 is the one number on the list where I feel most comfortable in refusing to recommend a student if they are not stellar, as we all know how competitive graduate school is, particularly in English. It's the other ones on the list that are stickier for me, especially given the kinds of students that I teach. For example, I think ALL college students should have the opportunity to study abroad - regardless of how smart or whatever they are - but the reality is that without a scholarship many of my students will never get that chance. Do I deny them the letter of rec because they weren't awesome in my class? If so, doesn't that go against something important that I believe in?

On when to communicate the time-frame thing to them, I tend to invite my best students to request letters from me at the end of a term in which I've taught them and I explain the time-frame then. I also tell advisees. I also tell anyone who requests a letter the time-frame up-front. What I wish, however, was that this was something communicated to students in a more systematic way as they enter college. The problem here is that students do not necessarily understand the conventions of things like requesting letters of rec. - what they need to give in order to get a good one, or how to go about asking - and the only way for them to learn that is for us to teach them.

When I was an undergrad in the honors college at my institution the honors college gave us a lengthy document to fill out and to copy and to give to instructors from whom we requested letters - this was a real help, and it explained all of the stuff about giving the instructor a month and about what stuff they'd need from the student in order to write a good letter. But should only honors students get that kind of assistance? I feel like that's wrong.

Starving for Wisdom said...

Sometimes it is nice to allow for a little bit of flexibility.
From a student perspective, I can't express how much I appreciate the fact that my professors were willing to write my letters -- with only TWO DAYS' notice this fall.
I had a misunderstanding about an important set of deadlines and as such needed to prepare a set of application packages in that amount of time.
If my professors hadn't been willing to do this I wouldn't have had a chance. I truly appreciate that they were willing to go out of their way to do this for me (and on a weekend) although I think that they all understood the jam I was in. I agree that it would be scary if that were the norm but sometimes it is nice to be thrown a rope.

Dr. Crazy said...

Starving for Wisdom:
I see your point, and I think that all of us have helped out a student at one time or another with some sort of extreme circumstance. I also think that this is much less of an issue if one has a letter on file for the student that one just has to update (i.e., one has done the bulk of the letter-writing work already) and if someone knows the student quite well. For example, in order for any student to be able to get a hold of me on the weekend he/she would have to know me VERY well because I do not check work voicemail or email on the weekends.

At any rate, yes, of course there will be exceptions in extenuating circumstances. I think that what we're really talking about here though is a broader sense of entitlement on the part of some students and/or a lack of familiarity with the conventions of how appropriately to request letters. At least in my experience, not every student is in a jam when he/she asks for a recommendation at the last minute.

At any rate, though, thanks for contributing to the discussion from the student perspective :)

Dr. Crazy said...
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