Letters of Reference

November 30, 2010

It is a professional obligation for academics to provide complete honest letters of reference for the people they mentor, and it is unconscionable to use such letters as bludgeons for the purpose of extorting compliant behavior.


7 Responses to “Letters of Reference”

  1. DrugMonkey Says:



  2. beatrice Says:

    ora et labora, dude

  3. beatrice Says:

    ora et labora, dude. Sorry for the duplication. Asian computers are slow

  4. tideliar Says:

    Agreed. This is what happened to me in my last lab. Cost me 2 months of work and a possible faculty position (they held the job, but not the position). All for nothing, at the end of it too. Nothing but a chance to wave his dick around.

    What do you think about the ‘honesty’ side of things too? If someone is totally suxxorz, do you say that? Aren’t there legal limits to ‘saying bad things’ about someone?

    What’s your experience been? If someone is second rate, do you say it or paraphrase it?

  5. zoubl Says:

    I’ve been asked to write my own letters of reference, which is not unheard of.

    For weaker candidates, I’ve tried to write letters that honestly highlight the candidate’s strengths, but also describe the weaknesses. If the person is truly useless, I will not write a letter for them, and will tell them so. Haven’t yet encountered that situation.

  6. Isabel Says:

    If you don’t have a positive experience with the person, you should tell them outright you are not the best person to write a letter for them. If they persist I am just lukewarm, not dishonest, but not enthusiastic, with the weak points as obvious gaps. Is this wrong, do people really actually describe the weaknesses?

    Same if I don’t remember them (as a TA in a large class for example). This happened recently, and the person insisted, writing “why, I said hi to you in the elevator the other day, Isabel…Yes, I took your advice and started working in a lab but I’ve only been there a few weeks! etc” so I finally gave in, and my letter was very brief, based on my records and a few stock phrases. I can’t imagine it helped them get the position, and I was finally off the hook from their nagging. After I emailed that the letter was submitted they didn’t even thank me. Haven’t refused anyone yet, but I don’t know why such people persist!

  7. Isabel Says:

    I think the above should be true for PIs as well. I think if someone is not in sync with their PI, or the PIs lab, they should move on as quickly as possible so they don’t get stuck in that situation. If they are a grad student and can’t do that they should develop strong collaborations with other labs and committee members, and PIs at other institutions (a good practice anyway), even becoming co-advised. I think truly positive letters are better than a lukewarm one from your main advisor/PI. I wonder, in the case of the PIs who do spell out negatives- do you at least warn the applicants before agreeing?

    If the application process requires a letter from the main PI only and the situation did not work out well (or it’s a lab tech who was unable to quit and has no other options for letters), the PI should not take that opportunity to cut off their chances. Why did you take them on and then keep them on in the first place? If they are terrible it’s partly your fault, so at least write the less enthusiastic version with tell-tale gaps.

    People can read between the lines anyway and maybe someone will still want to give that person a chance, and they may do better in a different environment. I’ve seen it happen. Maybe it was something about you or others in the lab, or the lab culture, that you were unaware of that caused them to be stressed and unable to get into the right work groove and to screw up, or even a health problem they themselves were unaware of that was affecting them at the time.

    And who knows, maybe they have learned their lesson, but because of all the negative vibes cannot really make it work til they get a fresh start(like when people benefit from couples therapy, just not in the current relationship). And yes, in any case it is incredibly unethical to keep someone hanging.

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