Letters of recommendation for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program are due soon. This year I'm writing letters of recommendation for applicants and it has me thinking about how these letters are written, and who is responsible for bad letters. It also has me thinking about the other side, how can applicants be proactive to prevent bad letters and help with strong letters? Along those lines, would I ever write a negative letter? A couple years ago, I would have confidently said, "no." Now, I'd like to think I'd refuse to write a letter, rather than write an unsupportive letter. But I haven't been tested with that yet.
Talking with a colleague got me thinking more about this.
Below is an anonymous guest post by a colleague, written about an experience with a student after last year's round of applications and responses.
The day after Meg Duffy’s great post about crying in science came out, I was in my office with a student who was crying. She was embarrassed that she had been brought to tears but sadly there had been several stresses encroaching on her life and reading the reviews from her NSF GFRP was enough to push her over the edge.
The reason why was that her proposal reviewers had included a comment that her letters did not indicate she had a strong potential for success. She felt betrayed and utterly at a loss as to what to do.
Although she wasn’t my student, I have an open door policy and often find myself as a faculty member that students go to when they have problems. I’m honored by this, and I take this responsibility very seriously. I try to give good advice, or at least to not give bad advice. So when this student came to me asking what she should do I was at a bit of a loss.
She simply asked, “What should I do?” She is an early career graduate student, with a strong and diverse undergraduate record, and good grades in a top program. Her letter writers were her committee – the individuals who were most familiar with her work. In theory she did everything right, yet still somehow had gotten these bad letters. She was worried. As she progresses she will need these people to write her letters for fellowships, graduate opportunities, jobs etc. She was feeling like she didn’t know who to trust.
I told her I didn’t know offhand, but I’d be willing to ask around to people I know, trust, and respect and get back to her. I reached out to several friends and got really good advice, and it boils down to this...
This student has been having trouble getting in touch with her committee. They had only been meeting once or twice a semester as a group and she only saw her PI about once a month. This lack of communication has brought forth several problems. First, the student did not really have a clear idea of what her committee wanted. This means that she was going along her own road, and while she is talented, this may mean that she wasn’t doing the things that her committee wanted, simply because she didn’t hear that from them. Second, this student wasn’t able to communicate what she needed from the committee. She wasn’t able to advocate for herself, to share her successes, and to craft a plan of attack for her thesis based on their advice. I don’t know the parties well enough to know who was more at fault. Basically everyone is busy – I get that. But it was sad to see.
I suspect this lack of communication ultimately lead to the poor letter(s). She probably didn’t have a chance to let her committee know what she’s capable of doing, and she didn’t impress the committee because she did not have a clear idea of what they needed her to do. Communication is variable and important - some students need mentoring to be more than a once a month email.
So given this what can she do? Has the milk been spilled and are we at a situation where the damage has been done? To some extent yes, but because the advisor/student relationship lasts beyond graduation it is important for students to have a group of solid letter writers who they know they can count on. After getting good advice from my friends I suggested she do the following:
She should email the committee and try to get a time to talk about the GFRP review, both good and bad. Walk through it with them and take their advice on how to improve the project moving forward. Also, and importantly, come to the committee and say that she knows they’ve had some trouble meeting and that may have resulted in her not always getting the chance to update the committee on what she was up to, and she didn’t always get to hear from them what it was they needed. Given that she has X months left, she should ask how she could work with them to get to be where they want her to be. What is she doing well and what are the areas for improvement?
By approaching this in the context of the grant, with explicit comments to address, rather than confronting the committee with “Why did you write me a bad letter?” the student circumvents a contentious encounter with her committee. Instead, she comes to them in a framework where she can clearly communicate her needs, and in the same breath, admit that there is work to be done. By showing that she is willing to grow and learn as a student, by showing that she wants to be a better scientist, she is demonstrating, at least to me, the indicators of future success.
However I fully admit I could be misreading the situation. I’d love to hear what you have to say.
* Terry McGlynn has written very eloquently about inequities in the funding allocation and advantages that students at certain schools get when applying for the GFRP, and I am trying to be mindful of that.