Who are you?

This time of year I find myself writing a bunch of medical school recommendation letters for undergraduates. Although the applications aren’t due for several months, I guess the pre-med office requests that people prepare early. Don’t want to be late! In any case, I’m usually happy to write recommendations for students who have been working in my lab and doing well, or that have been teaching assistants in one of my courses. I typically have lots to say about these students since I’ve interacted with them often for several years and on a regular basis. I’m always happy to write these letters for medical school or graduate school. What I’m more conflicted about is when students who I know only through a course ask me to write letters. Typically these are students who have taken a small seminar course with me and have therefore interacted with me more than they would at a large lecture course. Yet beyond their coursework, I hardly know these students. Sure, I can say how much they participated in discussions or how well their final projects reflected their grasp of the primary literature. But this hardly seems to say anything about whether I think they would make good doctors or scientists. I could sort of rank them and figure out if they were the better or weaker students in the class. But usually most students who take these upper level courses are pretty good, so its hard to really rank them. Thus I often find myself basically saying the same thing in all the letters, since I really have nothing or very little unique things to add.

So why agree to write the letter in the first place? Maybe I’m just a wuss, and have trouble saying no because I feel an obligation to the student. Many of these students don’t have many other people they could ask for a letter since they haven’t worked in a lab or done independent projects, so by default they ask one of their professors. However, I think there is a bit of a difference in how students and professors perceive the in-class relationship. I remember as an undergrad having been inspired by several of my professors, and their courses having a big impact in my way of thinking or in my professional choices. So to me these professors loom large   in my mind and I felt a certain affinity to their way of thinking, and I assumed that they felt this same affinity towards me since I participated so much in their classes an wrote interesting papers, etc. But in retrospect, they probably hardly even remembered me after the semester was over. And I see that now. I’ll sometimes get an email from a student telling me how my class was so important to them and all that, but in many cases I’m like “who IS that student?” And maybe that makes me a horrible professor that I don’t connect like that to my students; but it just doesn’t happen. I enjoy teaching them and I enjoy learning from them, but once the semester is over, they rarely cross my mind unless they work in my lab or the lab next door or they become TA’s. So when these students that I know only from class ask me to write a letter, to be honest, I don’t have much to say.

Is agreeing to write the letter doing a disservice to the student? I think to some degree it does, since it readily becomes clear that these kinds of letters are stock letters with no real information, even if they sound good on the surface. So I usually tell the students that I really can’t comment beyond what I know from class. But they usually still want me to write the letter — maybe they have no one else to ask. That’s why I think it’s important for undergrads, and for those who advise them, to make sure that they really develop a working relationship with a faculty member. Get involved in independent research, work in a lab, get your name on a publication. That will earn you a good recommendation.

How would you deal with this situation? If you’ve taught a course, do you connect with your students? For any students out there, who have you asked or plan to ask for letters of recommendation?

While you ponder these questions, I’ll leave you with this:

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6 Responses to Who are you?

  1. namnezia says:

    UPDATE: Dammit! I see now that fellow blogger Drugmonkey stole my idea beat me to the punch after this morning’s Twitter discussion:

    http://scientopia.org/blogs/drugmonkey/2011/06/02/letters-of-rec/

  2. DrugMonkey says:

    Yeah but you actually put together some reflective comments, Namie! I just randomed…

  3. Genomic Repairman says:

    To help with getting to know these little assholes, a physics professor made it mandatory for all his students to come to meet him in his office for a 5 minute conversation just so he could sort of get to know you at the start of the semester.

    He was really nice and would jot some notes about you down on a notecard. That way later when he wrote LORs, he could add a bit of a personal touch. And to get him to write one, you had to come meet with him again so he could catch up with you.

  4. Dr. O says:

    I had two professors who encouraged students to fill out a questionnaire at the beginning of the semester for just this kind of thing. They asked a lot of questions about our major, where we were from, what other classes we were taking, what we planned to do after college/over the summer break, what our hobbies were, favorite novel, inspiration, etc… They were usually very long and took a lot of time to fill out. The profs encouraged interested students to meet with them about the questionnaire, understanding that very few would actually pay any attention to it. I got to know these professors very well, interacted with them throughout my collegiate career, and they both wrote (what I assume) were good rec letters for my grad school applications. One of them I continued to talk with throughout grad school until she retired, and I toasted her at her retirement party 🙂

  5. I applied to graduate school last fall. Some of the graduate programs I applied to specifically asked for at least one recommendation from a professor I had taken a class from. I did not take a class from either of my advisors, so I did ask one of my professors for a letter. I specifically asked if he felt comfortable writing a letter of rec for me to let him off the hook if he couldn’t remember me.

    Fortunately he remembered me even though the class I took from him had around 60 people (this is on the smaller end of the lecture classes at my institution). I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I interacted with him during class and in office hours. He had me make an appointment with him to discuss my goals and current research so he could write something more personal than the grade I received in his course.

    My other two letters came from my undergraduate advisor and my current professor in my technician job, so I did at least have some personal evaluations that included lab experience.

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