Fall Activities – Travel, Teaching and Letters

By Mark Trodden | October 20, 2009 7:00 am

As I mentioned in my last post, it has been a busy few weeks. In addition to my citizenship interview, I’ve also been traveling to deliver some talks and attend some meetings, as well as attending to all the usual requirements of my job, such as teaching.

Now that I’m basically settled at Penn, I’ve been focused primarily on working on some exciting new projects, while also trying to bring to completion a lot of different research projects that have been languishing somewhat as I got myself settled. I think most of these are back on track now (although some of my collaborators, whose Skype calls I’ve moved several times, may have a different opinion), which is a nice feeling to have after a few months of concerted effort. I even managed to get a conference proceedings finished. I’ll probably post about some of these projects when they’re done.

But over the last few weeks, I’ve also been traveling a little, starting with a colloquium at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where I talked about modifying gravity to a very knowledgeable audience, and where I was treated to a wonderful (and very late) Friday night out, courtesy of Luis Anchordoqui and Patrick Brady, to whom I owe many thanks. That trip was followed by a colloquium at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, which seems to employ an inordinate number of people I went to graduate school with. I certainly enjoyed the talk, but particularly enjoyed the meetings they had set up for me during the day. I learned about the long-term possibility of using observations of gravitational wave sources by the LISA experiment, accompanied by optical follow-ups, as a new way to construct a Hubble diagram to trace the cosmic expansion history. While not feasible right now, I found this a fascinating possibility for the future, and I’m hoping that our resident expert may tell us more about it some time.

My final two trips of the recent period were both to New York, and both to NYU. The first was to deliver a seminar at the Center for Particle Physics and Cosmology. The second was for the first of a set of one day meetings that the Center for Particle Cosmology has begun with the NYU Center. That took place a week ago, and featured talks by my colleagues Justin Khoury and Daniel Wesley, and NYU speakers Neal Weiner and Roman Scoccimarro. This was a very fun intellectual exchange, with talks on modified gravity, cyclic cosmologies, and interacting dark matter. Certainly the NYU people set the hospitality bar pretty high for us for when they visit us at Penn next semester.

However, perhaps the most time consuming activity of the last few weeks, in comparison with the rest of the year, has been writing and editing letters of recommendation. This is something I think everyone realizes professors do, but usually doesn’t realize the amount of time it takes.

I don’t know what it is like for everyone, but the first time I was asked to write a serious letter of recommendation was when I was a postdoc, and one of the graduate students I’d been working with asked me if I’d be one of his letter writers as he applied for his first postdoc. This first letter keeps you up at night. One wants to be enthusiastic about the candidate, while realizing that your letter is supposed to provide a service for your colleagues who will evaluate the application, as well as for the candidate. Thus one gets excessively stressed about painting a balanced picture of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, while competing with some of the glowing letters that one knows other people will write for their candidates. Nevertheless, you get over it, and you write the best letter you can and hope that it is helpful.

As a faculty member, one rather rapidly comes to realize that writing letters of recommendation is a crucial and time-consuming part of one’s job. So how does one go about it? Well, suppose that someone has asked you for a letter. They might be an undergraduate, a graduate student or a postdoc, asking for a letter for positions ranging from an REU position to a faculty job. The first thing to decide is whether you are prepared to write for them. For me, I tell a person I will write if I think my letter will leave a better impression than receiving no letter at all. If not, then I turn them down and tell them they would do better asking someone else. I also like to tell people roughly the type of letter they can expect. Obviously I don’t give details, but I don’t want there to be any confusion. They might decide they can get a better letter from someone else, or that they just don’t want me to write, and I like them to have enough information to make that decision.

But assuming you’ve made the decision to write for someone, and that they still want you to write, then you have a lot of work ahead of you. There’s some basic stuff to get out of the way up front – how long have you known the person and in what capacity? This is where you lay out why you have sufficient experience with them to be able to provide a complete and authoritative account of their skills, track record and potential. When one is rather junior and writing, this part is important to demonstrate your qualifications before you discuss the applicant’s. As a physicist becomes more senior and well-known, this part of the letter remains just as important, although now it is more because it reassures the reader that the writer actually does know this person well, as opposed to them just being another of the presumably huge number of people clamoring for letters.

Now one moves on to the meat of the matter – evaluating the technical talents of the applicant. Are they deep, broad, sophisticated, creative, and calculationally skilled? There are many nuances involved in this part. Obviously, one wants to be accurate, while highlighting the skills that have impressed you most about the person. If you have written papers with the candidate, then this is the place you’ll write about some of the details and what the candidate brought to the project. If there are relevant weaknesses, you may want to point them out; but in my case, if I’ve decided to write, then I will typically think that these are outweighed by strengths, and you want to make that clear. Perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind here is that these are just your opinions. Yes, they are informed opinions; and yes, they have been solicited by both the candidate and/or the hiring institution because they feel you are qualified to give them. Nevertheless, there is no way around the fact that there is a significant subjective component to a recommendation letter, and it is important to make sure that you recognize this and consider it carefully before making any strong statements.

This, of course, makes letter writing somewhat terrifying (naturally, having to ask for them is also scary). Of course, one doesn’t resent students, postdocs and colleagues for asking for letters (not least because we have all relied on others to do this for us many times), and you want to see your talented colleagues succeed. It’s just that because of this you owe it to everyone involved to do a good job, and this is what makes for the required time commitment. October and November are the time when most letters are requested, and so if you find yourself writing for many people (ten or more people sometimes, at various levels), then it comprises a significant portion of your work over those weeks. It’s a not-often-mentioned, but important part of an academic’s job.

  • Gavin Flower

    How about saying Autumn in the Northern hemisphere?

    Down here in the Southern hemisphere, it is Spring officially.

    We also never use the term Fall for a season, unless it relates to a lot of accidents involving falling or some such.

    Remember that most people on the Earth do not live in the United States!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Wait; there’s a Southern hemisphere?!

  • Eugene

    Hi Mark,

    I have been asked to write letters of recommendation more than once, as a postdoc, and I’ve always given the same response “I will be very happy to, but are you sure this is the best thing for you to ask a postdoc to write one?”. That’s an honest answer — it is an honor (that comes with responsibility) to be asked, but in that vein, I also think that as a postdoc, I am under the impression that my writing a letter may not be in the best interests of the recommendee.

    As a letter reader now, do you (or any reader of this blog who evaluates letters) have an opinion on whether postdocs make good letter writers, even if they can write a stonking good letter?


  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi Eugene. That was my reaction when I was first asked as a postdoc. The person in question pointed out though that although some Professors knew him from classes, I could write about the work we’d been doing together, That made some sense to me, and so I wrote. It seemed to work out OK for him.

    From the perspective of a letter reader, I can’t speak for everyone, but I would say that it is natural to prefer a detailed letter from an experienced faculty member than the same letter from a postdoc, just because of experience and calibration. However, I think a detailed letter from a senior postdoc with direct experience of the candidate’s research would be more useful than a letter from a faculty member who only knows the student from classes.

    In general though, I’d say that what you did is basically what I’d advocate – i.e. make sure the candidate sees the pros and cons of having you write (even though you may write a good letter) and then let them make an informed decision.

  • Shoubaneh

    Getting good Recommendation Letters is way harder than writing them. I think it should be omitted at least from the graduate application process! This way professors will have more time and I won’t receive a recommendation letter saying I look like some other student! :D

  • Sili

    Hmmm – given how I sorta fell out of my ph.d. I think I don’t think I’d be able to get a recommendation from supervisor. Of course, I don’t know for sure, since I haven’t had the courage to go back since then.

    I did get some letters of reference for my ph.d. I think, but I’m not sure really. What I do recall is applying for a grant (quite a good one) for my masters, where I needed a coupla references – three, I think. In that case I made a point of getting one for the professor I felt I’d done the worst with – in maths, which was my minor. Because I’m perverse that way. I don’t recall the third, but I think the first was from my B.Sc. advisor.

  • Gavin Flower


    You’re right, you spotted that the existence of a Southern hemisphere is merely a hoax…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I’ve always suspected as much. in fact, when I’ve “been” there, I think they probably just flew around and round and dropped me off in Florida.

  • http://www-thphys.physics.ox.ac.uk/people/RhysDavies/ Rhys

    I have two related questions for those out there that are regularly asked to write recommendation letters:
    - How often do you get asked by somebody you would hesitate to recommend for a position?
    - How do you say `no’ to them (assuming you do)?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi Rhys – nice to see you here. My own answers to these are that I have been asked that question by a handful of people. Of those, I refused one, two others decided not to ask me to write after I told them I could write a positive but not glowing letter for the kinds of position they wanted me to write for, and a couple more in the same situation had me go ahead and write anyway.

    At the graduate level and above, you are far more frequently being asked by people with whom you’ve had a successful and enjoyable research collaboration, and so it doesn’t arise too often.

  • http://diracseashores.wordpress.com Moshe

    Hey Mark, I’d also appreciate a post about reading letters, seems to me much more difficult than writing them. Many of them seem to be written in code, and your job is to wade through all the enthusiastic and over the top superlatives, and decide which of them are faint praise…pretty difficult to do if you don’t know the writer personally.

  • Belizean

    I think that the practice of requiring letters of recommendation for career advancement is harmful to academic physics. Asking for such a letter is very much like asking a colleague for $5000 — extremely distasteful and actually beyond the capacity of certain personality types. I’ve known talented physicists who have left for industry rather than continuing to undergo the repeated torture of having to asks for recommendations each time they apply for a job.


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Cosmic Variance

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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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