Playing From a Different Tee: How Not to Write a Recommendation Letter

By Julianne Dalcanton | October 21, 2009 6:06 am

As Mark recently mentioned, we are deep in recommendation letter season. I’ve been in the biz long enough that I’ve probably written at least a hundred letters (estimating more than ten a year for more than a decade), and read far more than that.

After you read enough letters, they can start blend together. But, in a big stack of applications, there are usually a few letters that stand out as risible, causing a good chuckle and round of comment from the committee.

And they are almost always letters written on behalf of women.

In a standard letter of recommendation at the postdoc/faculty level, there is frequently a comparison to other successful scientists. The letter usually reads something like “reminds me of person X, Y, or Z at a similar level of their career” or “shows the same persistence and insight as person Q, and stronger big picture thinking than person P”. These comparisons are almost always favorable, saying that the applicant is in the same league as other people who are recognized as having had a significant scientific impact.

But, for some reason, some fraction of letter writers insist upon doing these comparisons only within a single gender, when the applicant is a woman. In other words, “(woman) X shows a similar level of insight as (woman) Y and (woman) Z”. I’m not saying that these comparisons are not favorable — they’re usually comparing a strong female applicant favorably with other successful female scientists. Their praise is genuine and well meant. However, one can’t but help perceive that they see women as somehow swimming in a different pool than the rest of the guys.

Now the good news is that most committees that I’ve been on have seen right through this. We note it, and have a small laugh at the letter writer’s expense. In addition, it’s not common — usually only affecting a couple of letters in an applicant pool.

So, if you’re writing a letter for someone in an underrepresented group, please save yourself from mockery by examining exactly how you perceive the applicant’s comparison sample.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Advice, Women in Science
  • Phillip Helbig

    I am writing in support of Ms. %§$&&§$%$, who I sincerely believe is the best
    Palestinian Lesbian Marxist handicapped mother-of-ten physicist younger than 25 I have
    ever met personally. :-)

    More seriously:

    I saw an interview with her on television once, where she explained that she usually starts
    her routine by saying “I’m a 30-year-old Palestinian-American virgin from New Jersey with
    cerebral palsy. ” It’s all completely true, but always gets a big laugh.

  • Personal Failure

    Ms. Doe is just like Madame Curie- in that they both had vaginas.

  • Per


    Have you ever read a genuinly negative letter of recommendation for someone?


  • Phillip Helbig

    I know of a case where someone asked Professor X to write a letter of recommendation
    (for a doctoral fellowship), but Professor X knew that another person was applying for the
    same fellowship, thought the other person was better and had been asked by the other
    person to write a recommendation. Professor X wrote both recommendations, clearly
    stating whom he thought best for the post. The other person got the fellowship, working
    with someone else, and the first person ended up with a less prestigious position—with
    Professor X. So it does happen. (Professor X did not tell the first person that his letter of
    recommendation would be negative, even though he knew it at the time.)

    Despite this example, truly negative letters are probably quite rare. Most people when
    asked would probably say “if I write one, it won’t be positive” or suggest—with more or less
    nudge nudge, wink wink—that someone else write it. Thus, the important thing is probably
    the fame of the person writing the recommendation—not in general, but with respect to
    recommendations. Sure, a recommendation from a Really Famous Scientist should carry
    a lot of weight, but some are too well meaning. (Apparently hundreds of people had
    letters of recommendation from Einstein, some of whom he didn’t even know. While he
    remained a famous scientist, letters of recommendation from him were soon worth little.)
    However, if someone has had good experience with people recommended by someone, he
    will probably believe that the latest recommendation means that that person is worth
    hiring. On the other hand, if the person has recommended duds in the past, this doesn’t
    bode well for the candidate.

    The more interesting question: Have you ever written a genuinely negative letter of
    recommendation for someone?

  • Julianne

    Have you ever written a genuinely negative letter of
    recommendation for someone?

    I always talk in detail about an applicant’s strengths. Even the students who have struggled the most have strengths that can be highlighted. Those strengths vary widely among candidates, and are more or less suitable for different positions. I leave it up to the committee to decide if those are the strengths they’re after.

    I choose not to mention strengths an applicant lacks, unless it’s something that needs some context to explain (say, a student who has lousy exam scores from test anxiety, but who clearly knows their stuff). I also may also mention areas where an applicant is obviously still developing, but where I have reason to be optomistic about the trend line (say, slow publication rate, but starting to ramp up).

  • Pieter Kok

    But what about a person who is clearly lacking in a critical skill (say, maths for a theoretical physics studentship)?

  • Luis

    @Pieter Kok

    That person should be told to forget about the position they are applying to, go back home to learn their stuff, and try again next year.

    Harsh? Maybe, but if you don’t do it, you’d be deluding the candidate into thinking that they actually have a chance, and wasting the committee’s time having them read the application of someone who doesn’t have a chance. If you think about it, it’s only a bigger version of telling your student “this paper you’ve written is hopeless because it contradicts this well-known experimental result, and it doesn’t take into account that incredibly successful Principle. Go back home and rewrite it in a proper way.”

  • Julianne

    Exactly Luis — The case Pieter described really requires better advising.

  • Ellipsis

    Very good, this post compares well to those by Risa and JoAnne.

  • jls


    That was just about as funny as saying “ha ha, yeah, now get back to the kitchen and make me a hamburger.”

  • Sean

    I thought it was funny. I would say that Ellipsis’s comments are at least as funny as those left by other grammatical constructions.

  • Mark

    And with about the same content as a colon.

  • Ellipsis

    Thanks Sean. Clearly it was a joke (not a great one, but a joke nonetheless.) May the multiverse help us if we can’t laugh about these things.

  • Julianne

    I thought it was hilarious, personally.

  • Pingback: 21 October 09, PM edition « blueollie()

  • Marc

    Yes, I have on two occasions written negative letters of recommendation. In one case I was aware of misconduct (akin to plagiarism) by the candidate and called the committee’s attention to it – it could easily be checked (and it was a special fellowship in which failure to get it wouldn’t hurt the candidates career). In another, it was for someone for medical school who explicitly told me that he wanted to do it for the money and that he didn’t really like patients (I actually told him that I’d have to mention that and he said that he didn’t mind!!).

    In another case, I refereed a paper, and showed that the author had completely neglected an effect which ruled out his/her model. It was very obvious, but we all make mistakes. They withdrew the paper and submitted it without change to another journal, where it was accepted. No mention of the effect I’d mentioned. They were up for a special fellowship. I really, really wanted to say something, but simply chose not to write the letter.

    I’ve written about 1000 letters (30-35/year for 25 years)–many premeds. It’s really hard when all you know about them is their grade in your class. I ask for their resume, transcript, personal statement, and try to say something reasonable. Med school admission committees recognize these and basically ignore them.

    The hardest letter was when I wrote a faculty job letter for someone who was basically my graduate student. Alas, I was applying for the same job (I was a very senior postdoc, he was younger)! I wrote a cover letter noting this fact, and then sending an exact copy of the letter I’d sent the previous year for him. Neither of us got the job :-(

  • Cartesian

    I know the case of the University of Michigan, where positive discrimination has been judged as unconstitutional.

  • TomC

    Apparently football announcers have exactly as much imagination as physics profs. Anytime a young player comes along whose race is mildly atypical for his position (e.g., Caucasian wide receiver, African American quarterback), announcers are incapable of comparing that player to anyone not of the same racial makeup. Thus you get absurd comparsions such as Byron Leftwich to Donovan McNabb and Wes Welker to Steve Largent.

  • The AstroDyke

    How frequently do letters compare a male applicant to successful senior women?


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