It Was A Truly Great Letter

I have just finished reading the 99th letter of reference I’ve had to peruse in the past week, and I happen to have a few opinions about what I’ve seen. My opinions are also based on the approximately 57,832 other letters of reference I have read over the years. I am going to list various reference letter ‘types’, in order from what annoys me most to what annoys me least, just because that’s the mood I am in right now. Reference letter ‘type’ probably says something profound about the referee’s character and/or personality, but I am not qualified to evaluate that (not that my lack of qualifications stops me from commenting on other things). The worst: this reflects my own interests/biases, but I hate the letters that say things like “She is among the best young female scientists in her field”. I don’t need to point out that one never sees similar statements for male scientists, do I?

]. I am perfectly willing to believe that talented people had talented advisors etc., but give me more information! Quite annoying: the “I really can’t bring myself to say anything too nice because it would imply that this person might be better than I am”. These can be quite odious, in fact. I saw this recently in several letters. Semi-annoying: the self-serving “this person is great because he/she does research closely related to my own and therefore his/her research is immensely significant”. Well, OK, that’s nice. I could be convinced with some additional information other than a statement to that effect, but sometimes that information is lacking entirely. OK to good letter of reference: clear statement of how well (or not) the reference writer knows the person in question, and opinion with examples regarding research quality or potential in the context of the field. Best: The above, but with some examples or descriptions that make the person in question stand out in some way.

If a committee is reading hundreds of these letters, they really can all start to look the same after a while, so the really well-composed letters stand out. Alas for the person requesting letters of reference, there may be no way to know what kind of letter-writer your referees are. And, for early career people, you might not have much choice anyway. Fortunately, committees (in my experience) can be very forgiving about poorly written reference letters that are otherwise positive recommendations. I am leaving out of my list the case of reference writers who are insincere and who, in some cases, lie about a person’s abilities. That’s another topic. The candidates whose letters I have been reading recently really are all excellent, so it’s a (difficult) matter of ranking the most excellent from the merely excellent. I recently read a letter written by someone who didn’t know the nominee well but who had been impressed by his work over the years. This letter was written from the heart and was so well written that it was very moving to read. It was a truly great letter. I wish there were more letter-writers like that. I aspire to write letters like that. So far this fall, I’ve been writing tenure/promotion letters for various people. Now the faculty application/grad application season is getting into high gear, so I will try my best to write the kinds of letters that I find most useful and interesting when I’m the reader rather than the writer.

Job seekers often aren’t any better about doing their homework before taking a job. Consider, by contrast, what a trial lawyer does. One of the cardinal rules of courtroom effectiveness is never to ask a question for which the attorney doesn’t know the answer. Just to meet that test often requires hundreds of hours asking questions of potential witnesses and reviewing documents. The trial lawyer may also employ investigators, experts, and jury consultants to fine-tune the information to gain more insight and to make it more useful for the client’s benefit. As you can imagine, a conscientious trial lawyer might learn from the importance of being thorough to do a lot more homework in developing a new business or looking into a new job than even conscientious business people do. My expectation on this point was validated recently when I met Professor Andrew Goodman of Rushmore University (an online school), a well-respected barrister (trial lawyer) in England.

Professor Goodman deeply impressed me with how much homework he is willing to do before starting a new job or business. He felt that he should experience the program from the graduate business student’s perspective before teaching it to anyone. The school’s dean accepted that proposal and served as Professor Goodman’s academic advisor and tutor. From his MBA studies, Professor Goodman reports that he gained important skills in disciplining his time and being flexible in his study methods. More importantly, he gained a better ability to connect with and empathize with students studying for graduate business degrees while holding down full-time jobs. His students have appreciated that part of his learning the most. The benefits for Professor Goodman didn’t stop there. Developing the curriculum, earning an MBA degree, and beginning to teach business students were just the beginning of a major new business he later launched. First, he reshaped the course material he had prepared into four books and approximately 20 published articles that explain his views on conflict management and dispute resolution.

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