Friday, April 2, 2010

Where are students supposed to learn this?

Where are students supposed to learn this? I don't know, but I learned in Jr. High. I wish they would arrive at college with this, and a passel of other manners/ professionalism skills:

A student wrote me an e-mail asking for a letter of recommendation. The e-mail, while not in text language, still hadn't been proofread, and Stu had copied and pasted the application questions on the e-mail. Stu did not give me a deadline, though he did ask relatively politely.
Ok, From what I know of this student, I simply cannot write a good recc
letter for him. He wants to be a neurosurgeon but is barely literate, and
he has NEVER showed to an appt we have made on the right day
(let alone on time).

Me to Stu:

I'm sorry, but I need to decline to write you a letter of recommendation
since I haven't had you in class and wouldn't be able to answer many of
those questions. You can get a much better letter of recommendation from
an instructor in whose class you have done well. I would recommend that
you start with one of your professors. You will do much better that way!!

And just FYI for the future, it is most proper to ask for letters of
recommendations face to face, any time that you can. And if it is an
important letter you should always ask the letter writer first if they can

write a favorable recc for you, and if they say yes, THEN ask if they will.
Make sure you give them plenty of advanced warning! I tell that to

all my students who ask for reccs electronically. Apparently its not that
common of knowledge....

Hopefully I have helped!

He writes back that it has to be from his academic advisor. Moreover,
Stu *still* doesn't follow the etiquette I just outlined for him. Crap.
Well, I'll do my best to be honest yet kind.


  1. Wowza! At least he didn't tweet it to you. :)

    I don't know if I would do it. If isn't capable of going through the correct channels to get a LOR, maybe he doesn't need to be applying for a Blahdy-blah scholarship. But I consider myself a hardass on stuff like this. I will confess that the students are scared of me.

  2. I've never heard that about asking for recommendation letters in person.

    I've also never heard that you should ask first if they can write a favorable letter for you. But maybe that's because the farther along you go, you have no choice. Your thesis & postdoc advisor have to write those letters. And if they don't have enough spine to tell you they won't be good letters, doesn't that indicate they're horrible mentors? Not giving you enough feedback in general?

    So to answer your question, no, nobody taught us that in college or junior high. Not where I went to school. Where are you supposed to learn it, indeed? Maybe you should write a book? You could call it something like Best Practices - Things We Should Have Told You Sooner.

    Funny that you said he should ask a professor who has had him in class. My rule is to decline unless I've actually worked with them in some capacity, ideally in lab or on a publication together.

    Does he need to be literate to be a neurosurgeon? Or socially capable? I'm thinking maybe not. But I certainly agree with your wanting to turn down the request. I would, too.

  3. tell him to switch advisors

  4. Just to clarify: I am his academic advisor, not research advisor. I am the only one in his field this year (there is another on sabbatical).

    I have actually tried to pawn him off on to the advisor for students on academic probation (dude has a 1.8 GPA).

    Yes, I don't know if this is outdated etiquette or perhaps I had a very stodgy Jr. High gifted teacher, BUT at least one of those websites backs me up on this.

    Its true that asking first whether they can give you a good one takes, well, cajones, but it seems like that's what you really want to do in that situation, doesn't it?

    p.s. I may have lost a comment somehow, please repost!

  5. I'm not sure where I learned it, but I completely agree with asking first if an advisor/prof is willing to write a positive recommendation. Although this may be difficult to do, the last thing a student should want is a poor letter or rec heading out to an internship or job that he or she really wants. This, in fact, happened to me when I asked my academic advisor for a rec when I was an undergrad. Apparently, my advisor didn't know me as well as I thought, and while he didn't say anything negative about me, he didn't have much positive to say about me either. He also mis-attributed one of my proudest accomplishments as being a joint venture between myself and a friend, whom he named in my letter, and who was awarded the honor I was also applying for. (It's a mystery to me why I was given the letter when I went to retrieve my other application materials after I was turned down. I wish that they hadn't.)

    I do, however, have to disagree about asking for recs face-to-face. While I agree that this is the most polite, in today's electronic age students just aren't wired that way. Also, it can be difficult to track down some profs and it seems more polite to give an advisor/prof as much time as possible to write the recommendation than it is to make sure that I make a face-to-face request.

  6. II, I do agree with you somewhat on the face-to-face, especially if they aren't in town. But I do say MOST proper, and ANY TIME YOU CAN. While students aren't wired that way, they will eventually have to interact with others of different generations, and those who have a repertoire of etiquette that applies to several different populations will succeed more easily than those who don't. At least that's the worldview I am working from.

  7. I was taught not to ask for a reference letter in person, if intending to inquire whether it would be a strong endorsement or not. This is simply to avoid putting the potential referee on the spot.

    However, I was also taught only to request letters from people who had had ample opportunity to evaluate me, and by corollary, would know me just from my name in an email.