Wednesday, January 05, 2005
Academics, in particular, are tone-deaf in what they write about their Ph.D. candidates who are new entrants to the academic market. Herewith a few hints:
- All your students are "bright and hardworking". I'll give a box of Macanudos to the first reference writer who refers to his student as "lazy and dumb as a brick". It's filler, friends, and I've got a buttload of these to read, so get going.
- Grad students getting teaching awards? I have a printer too, pal. Skip it.
- Telling me a candidate is "qualified to teach at all but the top-10 economics departments" sends many bad signals. First, this isn't your best candidate; your best candidate is qualified to teach there, even if you are not. As Da Vinci said, "Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master." Second, you are saying my place is not. I already knew that, and you aren't helping my mood for your student by reinforcing this.
- You do not need to tell me bad things about a student; if you tell me someone has a "relative strength" in teaching, I can tell what you mean. I read letters for three different applicants from the same faculty member, who was dissertation advisor for each. The next to last paragraph always began something like "So what are this guy's bad qualities?" And then gave me a whole paragraph, with details. These students, alas, will never be able to get this idiot's letter out of their files, and they will suffer.
- You have two pages, tops, if you are the dissertation advisor. If you're not, a page. Windy references don't get read, and soon neither does the rest of the file.
- Related to the last point, you do not need to review for me every aspect of that person's dissertation. They all "will generate useful publications" and make "a genuine contribution". If they did not, they would not be dissertations. If the applicant can't tell me what's in there, your explanation is not going to persuade me of anything.
- Someone commented that so and so had an accent that was "good for an international student" (actually identified the ethnic group). Yikes. I'll be the judge of that eventually, so why say it? If someone is screening out international applicants for fear of accent, your representations won't change anyone's mind.
- What does this person contribute in the seminar setting? In your opinion, is this person participatory and insightful?
- What do you think other grad students think of this person? Someone communicated that an applicant was someone other students "looked up to". That counted for something.
- How does this student rank compared to other students at your program? How big is your program? Where else have you placed your grads and did they get tenure?
- Someone wrote they had a student that they chatted with in the hallway. Collegiality matters: As I said last year, when you teach in a smaller town, whomever we hire is not just our co-worker but likely a dinner companion. Knowing that a grad student is someone a faculty member likes to talk to matters to me.
- Is this person a Yankee fan? I may be just at SCSU, but I do have standards.