European ref letters

Jan 27 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

As much as I bitched about not getting any decent candidates with a week to go in my search for a PhD student, I did get a couple good applications in the end. I have asked for reference letters from the list provided by my top candidate and have been surprised by what I got back. I have two out of three in hand and the first was sent to me less than an hour after I inquired. What I received was a three sentence email paragraph basically stating that the candidate was highly recommended, but little else. I got the second letter last night as an attachment, but the first and last paragraph used the wrong pronoun to refer to the candidate, whereas the middle two used the correct one. Ummmm, okay... How am I supposed to take that? The two middle paragraphs are a total of four sentences and indicate a high regard for the candidate, but how highly can you think of someone if you don't even take the time to read over you letter for them? Can I trust that someone really puts their "full and unreserved support" behind someone when they use the wrong pronoun to refer to them in the same sentence?

The mitigating factor here is that the candidate is from Europe and I don't know much about what would be expected as a reference there and whether it would be different from what North Americans might write. An additional complication is the language barrier, so the reference writers may truncate their comments if they have to write them in a non-native language. Is there something I am missing or did the candidate just pick lazy reference writers?

7 responses so far

  • chall says:

    hm, this is tricky. I know what my first letter of recommmendation looked like from my Scandinavian country and although they were not as you describe the letters they were not full with "outstanding, excellent, superduper etc". They were more modest but still very scincere. They worked really well in the Scandinavian setting. For US, not so much. My tw o profs did rewrite my letters for my post doc. Much more superlatives, boasting and more self assured on their part too....with this I want to say, sure - it could be a "culture" style thing. Although I have a hard time with someone writing the wrong pronoun it might be a stress factor. Sometimes (as it was for me) it is not required for the position as a PhD to have long letters of recommendations more than to show that you are not lying about your credientials and maybe to phone the prof up and chat with them?! My experience from Scandinavia is that for a PhD position you look at grades and maybe one recommendation.... and how well the student works with you as a prof. (usually by hireing a phdstudent who has done her masters/rotation in your lab so you know the person a bit - might be a bit narrow...)Maybe this helped a bit?!

  • Odyssey says:

    If by using the wrong pronoun you mean the writer referred to the candidate by the wrong gender (he vs. she), I would take that as a clear indication that they simply copied and pasted from a letter they had written for someone else. That makes the letter pretty much useless. As chall suggested, a phone call or two might be in order. Yes, calling Europe can be a pain, but not even in the same ballpark as the pain of having a useless grad student in your lab.

  • Comrade Physioprof says:

    It is absurd to expect much detail from a letter of reference for someone applying to a PhD program. So long as the letter writers do not say anything affirmatively bad about the applicant, don't worry about it.

  • Odyssey says:

    It is absurd to expect much detail from a letter of reference for someone applying to a PhD program. So long as the letter writers do not say anything affirmatively bad about the applicant, don't worry about it.In principle I agree. However, here the student is applying directly into a lab, not a program. And since it's a foreign student, a face-to-face interview is unlikely, if not impossible. The letter of mixed pronouns says nothing of any use whatsoever. Since PLS doesn't have the option of vetting the student via a rotation he needs some reliable data from the referents.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    This is true, I am in the unenviable position of having to rely a bit on the references to make a decision on accepting someone into the lab. I will certainly talk to the candidate before I accept them, but a phone conversation won't reveal much about their lab or conceptual abilities. And before CPP calls this "absolutely and fantastically fucking ridiculous", or some other variation of hyperbole-ridden descriptors, I can only say that this is the process I have right now and I can't fix the system this week, so I have to work within it. It's not ideal, but since starting last September I have managed to find two very productive students who are easy to get along with, so it can work even if it takes more time up front. However, getting useless reference letters makes this all more of a challenge.

  • Candid Engineer says:

    It certainly can't hurt to call one or two of the references in question. At worst, they won't be any more helpful than they've already been. At best, they will reassure you that your candidate is excellent, despite their own personal laziness.

  • Anonymous says:

    I work in a lab with many foreign students/staff and I know that they often confuse pronouns, even when referring to people they've worked with for a long time. I wouldn't put much stock in pronoun confusion.

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