• October 23, 2014

When Your Adviser Wants a Letter of Support

Writing Dissertation Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

Enlarge Image
close Writing Dissertation Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

Recent e-mail messages from readers indicate that it's time to revive an important topic: how (and whether) a graduate student should write a letter of support (or of opposition) for a professor's tenure- and-promotion case.

Some colleges and universities request letters from students for the teaching component of tenure-and-promotion dossiers. You may be asked to write such a letter if you have taken one or more classes with—or been advised by—the faculty member who is up for promotion.

Who should write such letters? That is, should graduate students who are currently in a professor's course be asked, or only former students? What if former students still rely on the adviser for their own letters of recommendation? (The same questions apply to undergraduates who are sometimes asked to write these letters, too.)

Some students are happy to write letters about a professor or an adviser, either because they appreciate the faculty member's teaching and mentoring or because they want to take the opportunity to explain why the professor is a terrible teacher, an abusive mentor, and/or a despicable person. Other students are anxious about writing a letter for someone who has authority over their academic fate. Former students are in a less awkward position, as long as they won't be taking any more courses from the professor in question.

I understand why it's important to have the advisee point of view in a tenure dossier; advising is part of a professor's job. But I don't think it's a good idea to ask current advisees to write letters, especially for faculty members who advise only a few students. It puts the students in a difficult position. In addition, it is presumably in the students' best interest that their adviser gets tenure or a promotion, so they may not be able to be objective in the letter, even if they feel comfortable writing it. The same is true of letters written by former students who are still relying on their old adviser for their own letters of reference.

Similarly, students who have a tense relationship with their adviser may be able to provide important information to the tenure committee, but may lack the necessary perspective to write a sufficiently objective letter. In those cases, letters from former students may be useful, but again, only if they no longer rely on their adviser for career opportunities and advancement. The letter you write when you are still working with your adviser would be very different from the one you might write after you graduate or years later, when you are more established in your own career.

Faculty members and administrators reviewing the letters can, of course, take all of those concerns into account. Based on my experience reviewing tenure-and-promotion dossiers, I know that most students write fair letters for their advisers. However, students have also written to me (via my blog) to admit how uncomfortable they felt being asked to write such a letter. I have concluded that great care needs to be taken before putting this responsibility on a student.

How should we ask students to write a letter of support about a faculty member? And who should do the asking? It didn't occur to me at first that those were even questions. I assumed that the requests for letters always came from the chair of the promotion-and-tenure committee, from the department head, or from another administrator. But then I learned that some advisers ask their own students for letters of support. That raises some issues, including the following questions, which readers have asked me by e-mail over the years:

What do I do if my adviser asks me to write a letter for his or her tenure case? It is inappropriate for an adviser to ask you to do that. The request should come from someone else. If your professor is just making the initial (informal) request but the official request comes from someone else, you can tell that someone else whether or not you want to write the letter. If the only request comes from your adviser (or from a professor whose class you took), presumably you will send the letter to a different person. Perhaps you can talk to that person if you have questions or concerns about writing the letter.

Will my adviser see my letter? In the United States, it depends on the state. Unless you have some ironclad promise of confidentiality, you should assume there is a good chance your adviser (or professor) will see the letter. When faculty members are asked to write letters of support for another faculty member, the request typically comes with an explanation of the degree of confidentiality that can be expected. Students who are asked to write a letter should receive the same information.

Can I decline to write the letter? Sure, you can refuse. If, however, it makes you more uncomfortable and anxious to refuse than to accept, you should talk to the department chair, the promotion-committee chair, or a friendly senior professor about why you don't want to write the letter. Again: You should not have to accept or refuse directly to your adviser or professor.

Can I write a negative letter? Of course, particularly if you can support your critical statements in a compelling and professional way. Ideally, a negative letter would not be your (or anyone else's) first attempt to highlight a professor's poor teaching and advising, especially if the criticism goes beyond mere discontent and reflects a severe problem. In theory, major problems are detected during pre-tenure reviews, but that is not always the case.

If you write a negative letter, even if you feel absolutely hostile about the subject, it will have more impact if it is written in a professional way and focuses on major issues. An over-the-top rant about everything you hate about your adviser/professor might be discounted, undermining your efforts to illustrate a major problem. Similarly, stating, without explanation, that Professor X is the worst teacher/adviser on the planet will not be useful. If you have important criticisms to make, think carefully about the best way to make them in writing.

What to write? Tenure committees have different sources of information about the quality of a candidate's teaching and advising: student evaluations from courses, in-class observations by colleagues, lists of students who have completed their graduate degrees and of undergraduates who have participated in research projects, and citations of publications and conference presentations involving students. Letters from students are just one piece of a long file of information.

So, what do review committees want to read in a letter? When I have been on such committees, I found it useful to read a clear statement of support (or not), with information about how long, and in what capacity, the student interacted with the professor in question. I looked for specific examples to explain why the letter writer thought the professor was a good (or bad) teacher or adviser. The one thing you don't need to do is recommend whether the candidate does or doesn't deserve tenure.

The letter does not have to be an epic. A good length is between half a page (minimum) and two pages, depending on how well you know the professor and how much the two of you have interacted. A one-page letter is typically sufficient.

A few years ago, in response to students' questions about what to put in a letter of support for a professor, I created the following template. (This isn't quite like providing an online term paper, is it? I think it is more like Mad Libs for Reference Letters.)

SUPPORT LETTER TEMPLATE FOR A STUDENT WRITING A REFERENCE LETTER
FOR A PROFESSOR

 

Dear Z (department chair, promotion-and-tenure committee, or whatever),

I have known Professor X for _____ (years; months; weeks) and have interacted with him/her ______ (extensively; a bit; not at all) in his/her capacity as ________ (my master's/Ph.D. adviser; committee member; random professor helping me with my research; instructor in a course). During my _____(research; courses), I have come to know Professor X _______ (very well; just a little; not at all), and therefore can/cannot comment on some aspects of his/her _______ (advising; teaching).

Professor X is a ________ (kind, caring, interesting, hard-working, creative, organized, remarkable, unstable, self-absorbed, abusive, cruel, despicable, disorganized) adviser/teacher, and it has been a ___________ (pleasure; horror) working with him/her. For example, [insert specific example(s) of how Professor X has helped or harmed you].

An important aspect of Professor X's interactions with students is his/her ______ (availability to answer questions; interest in students' work; ability to provide just the right amount of structure yet allow the student some independence; truly random cruelty; petty behavior; propensity to prey on female/male undergraduates).

I personally have ______ (benefited; suffered) from working with/taking a class from Professor X and sincerely hope that his/her efforts as a teacher and adviser will be rewarded by being ______ (promoted/tenured; fired).

Sincerely,

Objective Student A

 

Note: If you can describe some particularly memorable incidents about Professor X's advising and teaching, they could be included to give your letter more substance and provide support for your opinions. The examples need not be elaborate.

I hope some of this advice is useful (to someone), but my main advice to graduate students who are confused or anxious about writing these letters is to have a conversation with a senior professor who can provide guidance about the norms in your department or field. Ask what the expectations are, and use that information as a guide.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is http://science-professor.blogspot.com.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.