Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Advising dilemma

I want to tell you about Master's student that I am currently advising (we have a small Master's program and no PhD) This student is in his/her 3rd year, so has used up all his/her funding. Let's call this student, P. P is an OK student, but does not seem well-suited for a PhD. Well, P is applying for PhD programs and has listed me as a reference. My dilemma is this, do I:
  1. tell P that I don't feel comfortable writing a letter for him/her?
  2. write a letter, but be brutally honest?
  3. write a letter that says I recommend this student for a PhD (when I don't?)
  4. write a letter that says anything good I can think of, but isn't glowing?
  5. some other option that I haven't considered?
I am in a bind here for a few other reasons. This student is from a distant country (here on a student visa) and has chronic health problems. If P is no longer a student, s/he will have to go home where treatment is not readily available. However, if I write a glowing letter, P starts PhD work and is clearly not up to snuff, my own reputation could suffer. I already have a good idea of what I will likely do here, but still wanted to hear your thoughts.

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Jane said...

Hmmm, this is a toughie. Are you the student's primary/sole advisor? If not, you can probably try (1) first---that's the easiest path out. If not, or if you try (1) and the student still insists on having you write a letter, I'd do a variation of (4). It's really easy to telegraph to letter readers that you are recommending someone with reservations, without coming out and directly saying so.

Good luck! And let us know what you end up doing.

ScienceWoman said...

I'd be inclined to go with #4. A letter that says the student is good without saying the student is exceptional is probably enough to convey what you mean to say.

Chaser said...

I tend to do #4. If you see a letter write owthat says "this student has good hygeine"

Chaser said... know what he is saying. (sorry; misfire).

Rhonda said...

Is she unsuited for any PhD program, or could you steer her towards lower-tier programs, so that you could honestly recommend her as a student for those departments? If the issue is her staying in the country, and she's likely to bomb in a good/rigorous program, perhaps the low-value PhD is an acceptable compromise?

Addy N. said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I will likely do something like #4. The student isn't terrible or anything, just probably not cut out for a PhD. I feel like if I am honest- nobody can hold it against me later. I also like your idea, Rhonda- I will talk to him/her and mention that as an option.

USJogger said...

Do not write a letter that you can't actually endorse. It's not fair to the student, it's not fair to the grad school, and it's not fair to the next student, the one that you think really is suited for grad school, but you can't write a better letter because you've already used all the superlatives that you know for P. I think that you should be honest about your reservations, and qualify that they are your opinion. "I don't see P as the best possible Ph.D. student, but she could surprise me."