Friday, July 22, 2011

Leave me the F Alone

A student I mentored years ago came back wanting letters of recommendation for graduate school. Student had a low GPA for entering grad school due to some health issues, but they were real and have since fed this student's work and research interests. In short, I could easily see how all the parts of this person's life were tying together and made a Master's degree make absolute sense and would increase his/her earning power. Cool. I said so in the letter.

Student got into several very good graduate programs despite the somewhat low GPA. Cool.

Now student comes back at the very last minute wanting another letter to take his/her life in an entirely different direction that makes absolutely no sense at all. I'm swamped with moving and a major change in my career. They have no way of knowing this, but still, it's there. I don't want to just say no to the letter (which would have to be recrafted), I want to drive to where this student lives and shake them till their eyes bleed. I mean, for FUCK'S SAKE. You got into better graduate schools than I did with a shitty ass GPA. You had an honest to god AWESOME plan for research and everybody who read it SAW THAT.

No, I have no idea how to write a letter for CompletelyDifferentField and I have no idea why you'd want to do that. I don't know the employment statistics. They might well be better than my current field at large, but what you want to do is still in high demand. I think you'd be fabulous at it. WTF is going on and why do you think that the end of July is the right time to make it go on?


  1. If this student is now asking you to complete a rec within the next couple of weeks and you can't do it, say so. "I'm sorry but I can't write you a rec on such short notice" is sufficient. I wouldn't have any trouble adding that I was very busy moving. I would tell the student that if they still need the rec after the semester begins, to contact me again and give me two full weeks to complete it.

    In addition I would ask for any information that I would require to complete the rec effectively, such as info on CompletelyDifferentField and revised vita and cover letter.

    I maybe write one letter of recommendation per year. Why? Well, it's not because I won't do them. It's because before I will write one I demand a bunch of necessary information, which is a pain in the ass for the student to collect and give to me. I also demand a meeting with the student to discuss their career plans. And of course at least two weeks to do the rec, from the time that I receive the materials.

    So, once the lackluster students find this out, they go away and don't come back. Which is too bad for them, because if I agree to write a good recommendation, the people that read it will sit up and take notice. But I'm not investing more energy in my rec for the student than they do.

    In short, say "no" and don't beat yourself up about it. You have a right to be left the fuck alone.

  2. Stella's correct: Just say "no" and don't beat yourself up about it. If pressed for an explanation, don't lie. Just politely repeat that you won't be writing the letter. You don't owe the student any more than that.

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  5. I recommend that you tell them the honest truth: that, as you've admitted, you don't know how to write a letter for the completely different field. You don't need to say anything more. James "the Amazing" Randi often dislikes Ph.D.s because, as he observes, once someone is awarded a Ph.D., it becomes nearly impossible for them to say, "I don't know," and "I was wrong." Don't let it happen to you!

  6. Good point, Frod. You've been missed. Welcome back!


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