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« Job Market Boot Camp, Part 22: Negotiating | Main | Extended mind, extended life? »

09/15/2015

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Lady Professor

I appreciate this advice, and I want to amplify the third point.

When I was a first-year tenure-track professor I was put on a hiring committee where I encountered a letter of recommendation from a former adviser (FA). FA was recommending Golden Boy, who was a year behind me in graduate school. In the letter, FA compared me, by name and institution, to Golden Boy. Golden Boy was described as being a much better philosopher.

I was utterly humiliated to encounter my name and this negative comparison to Golden Boy. I was two months into my job, coming right out of graduate school, and had all the insecurities than many new professors experience. It totally shook my confidence, and I remember worrying that my new colleagues would read the letter and conclude that they should have waited a year to make the hire. If FA had written, "Golden Boy is the best student I ever had", I wouldn't have responded in this way, but seeing my name and institution in the letter really hurt.

I can see now that my reaction was over the top. But this basically ended my relationship with FA and poisoned my relationship with my graduate department.

Now, many years later, I too avoid these kinds of comparisons, partly because of the damage that they can do, but also because I don't actually find them informative.

Axel Gelfert

Wow, that does sound like a sobering experience, Lady Prof, and no letter-writer should behave like that. I can't really see the point of explicit comparisons between candidates applying for graduate studies or entry-level assistant professorships. Tenure and promotion cases, as noted in the main post, are a different kettle of fish, since what committees seem to be looking for in such cases is some reassurance that the candidate really is at the same level as his or her higher-ranked colleagues. I suppose there could be an exception for someone who is writing letters for multiple applicants for the same job, but even then it would presumably be better a) to inform candidates that one is already supporting someone else for the job and b) to highlight specific strengths and weaknesses ("candidate A favours approach xyz, whereas B inclines more towards abc"), rather than wholesale generalizations of the sort "A is a better philosopher than B". Having only been involved in a few hires, what irks me about some letters of reference is precisely this tendency to be far too general. After having done the mental arithmetic of deducting the usual amount of hype ("...the best philosopher of language this millennium has seen thus far...") this leaves committee members with almost nothing to go on, unless they want to place blind faith in the letter-writers' judgment and intentions.

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