Our books






Become a Fan

« Applying to junior positions from a senior position after a 'redundancy'? | Main | Applying for an Associate Professor position from a non-TT position? »

09/14/2023

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

anon almost tenured

No, very often junior people don't have this kind of choice. We often don't in practice have a choice about whose committees we end up on (because we have to be on some committees, and we have to please various senior colleagues), and for a lot of us, it would burn a serious bridge with whoever the advisor of the student is to both be on their dissertation committee and refuse to write them a letter.

My honest suggestions are: ask the student's advisor/more senior people to see their letters, if they are willing to share--this can be done under the guise of "I'm still learning to write good job market letters"--and then try to write a letter that balances any honesty you want to convey with not sabotaging whatever positive things the other letter writers say about the student. If the other letters are very strong, you can probably write a lukewarm letter without hurting the student too much, if you're just careful not to e.g. directly contradict something someone else says. And if they are weak, then you aren't doing the student a disservice by writing them a weak letter. Basically, gather info about what others are doing as best you can and try to figure out how to balance your own desire to be honest with making things consistent with others.

Also, if you have a placement director who reads letters, you are going to need to at least minimally not write a very weak letter anyway, if you are junior and in a precarious or just cautious tenure situation. So you may just want to suck it up and think about strengths of the student and focus on those.

I also think that for research-focused jobs, if you haven't written a lot of letters yourself/people aren't used to your letters, your letter will probably be discounted a bit anyway in favor of more well known letter writers on the committee, so that should make you feel better about the whole thing--and for less research-focused jobs, stuff like teaching and departmental service/collegiality might be worth talking about more extensively if, say, the student is stronger in those areas than in research.

Overall I think we all owe it to our students to be honest with them, and so a good long-term strategy is to just consistently be clear with students about weaknesses/areas they need to work on, and honest with them about how much progress you do or don't think they've made, going forward. But my experience as junior in a PhD granting department is that you will often be the only one doing this while other people are too nice or non-confrontational to do so, so it can be hard to stick your neck out. None of this helps with your current situation, since it's more of a long term strategy for advising students. I think you should be *somewhat* honest with the student--like tell them that you think your letter may be weaker than others and give them reasons why--but if you are on a committee, and the senior people on that committee matter for you tenure wise, which I am sure they do, I would be a little cautious about even this.

Another strategy you can take is to just ask to meet with the other members of the committee and tell them your concerns--some of which they probably share--and just ask them for advice about writing the letter. They may be more forthcoming about sharing your concerns in person, in a safe setting, even if they write glow-y letters, and it will also look better if you can consult your colleagues before sharing those concerns with the larger world. They may also give you helpful ideas about how to construct a letter even with those concerns, without sabotaging the student.

Also, I just want to say, if you are quite junior and haven't advised a lot of grad students yet: since many of us working in programs with PhD programs come from fancy/elite programs ourselves: just keep in mind that there are many different kinds of jobs, and there are many different kinds of letters that you can write for students who might be well suited to some of those jobs but not others. Your student doesn't need to be held to the same research standards you were in your program to be doing work that merits one of these kinds of letters.

breakup expert

I'm not sure how helpful this is, and it certainly is cynical, but a number of things I've heard people say to students in this kind of situation is straightforwardly derived from things people say in breakups:
"I'm not sure I can do all of your strengths justice." ("It's not you, it's me.")
"Perhaps a more senior letter writer will look better when reading your application." ("You deserve better.")
"You should consider getting a teaching letter/ an external letter." ("We should see other people.")
"I don't think I can support you as much on the job market as I would generally like to." ("I'm just not in a good space right now.")
"I'm not sure I have enough things I can say about you in a letter." ("I don't even know you!")

we must write letters

The above advice is all good, but I am inclined to speak to the opposite point.

Part of one’s job as faculty in a department with grad students is to help the grad students build the best careers possible. This means that the department’s job, collectively, is to get their students the best job-document portfolio possible. If a lukewarm student is asking for a letter from a faculty member they barely know (e.g., a third reader on their committee), then probably this is because they have no one else to ask. If they are lukewarm as a student, then this could very well be because they’re not getting the support they need (though of course there are other possibilities). All of this suggests to me that faculty members aren’t doing their jobs.

Now, I have no idea whether what I’m describing is OP’s situation. But I do recognize the lines from @breakup expert above from my own days as a student in a large cash-cow MA program. I took their classes, got As, but couldn’t get PhD application letters because they all would have been lukewarm, since no one knew me very well or had much to say. The famous faculty there all told me to go elsewhere for letters in the breakup language described above, but I had no one else to go to. It would have been nice if the professors there had committed themselves to doing that part of their jobs.

Now that I’m faculty at a program with grad students, I try to remember and avoid those kinds of bad situations for students.

East Coaster

@we must write: This was also my experience as an MA student. In grad school, I suspect that this was the experience of some of the younger students or less socially aggressive students.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Subscribe to the Cocoon

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory

Categories

Subscribe to the Cocoon