My PhD thesis advisor is up for a promotion to full professor. What should I write in my recommendation letter?

Elizabeth H. Simmons 

To Inna Vishik's helpful answer, I would add the following:  I agree that these requests are common for promotion cases and also for certain award nominations.  The reader will understand the limitations of the topics you can address. Try to give a sense of any way in which your advisor helped you not only understand the content of your discipline, but also other useful skills and norms. If your advisor worked with you on the following kinds of things, for instance, it could be worthy of mention:
  • Preparing a cv, cover letter, or fellowship application
  • How to reply to a referee report from a journal -or how to write one
  • Presentation skills, opportunities to present at conferences
  • Writing skills for publications or conference proceedings
  • Applied ethics as related to authorship, citations, and collaboration
  • Planning for the next stages of your career

The tone should be warm, but business-like and the letter should provide evidence for any assertions. By the way, if you didn't have much of a positive nature to say, it would probably better not to write a letter at all.

Inna Vishik

It is not uncommon for promotion review committees to solicit recommendation letters from students.  I have written such letters for a number of professors I have worked with or taken classes from (specifically for tenure review, but I suppose the idea is similar for other promotions).  Typically, the professor provides the name of the student, and an administrator will solicit the letter on behalf of the committee.

The rule with these letters, as is the case with all academic letters of recommendation, is that you write only positive things.  If you have something negative to say, this is done by omission.

As a student, you might be naive about department politics and perhaps not quite sure where your professor stands in the hierarchy of the broader research community.  You should only write about what you know.  Since this professor is your

thesis advisor you can discuss his/her leadership as an advisor, how he/she has effectively chosen projects for you to pursue, how well he/she explains scientific concepts--basically any anecdotes which paint a picture of their talents as a research advisor.  If you have taken classes from this professor (or if you have to write such letters in the future) you can highlight his/her effective teaching strategies or effective curriculum.

Edit: see and upvote Elizabeth H. Simmons' excellent answer.

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Ed Caruthers

ToInna Vishik 's andElizabeth H. Simmons 's excellent answers, I will add,
Describe how your adviser interacts with and directs you and other students.    Different supervisors have very different styles.  Mine checked in with every student, every morning.  But I heard of others who let students work entirely alone for months at a time.  Every style can work with some students.  If it's not working for you, you don't have to say so.

J. Lee Anthony

A2A When I am asked information about people I know, I first contact them  to see what is going on from their perspective. They may have insight as to what the department is looking for. Next I would also discuss with the people asking for the recommendation to see what they are looking for so that you can provide that information. If you happen to have a relationship with full professors in the department, you can also discuss what they are looking for.

As for as the content of your recommendation is based on your relationship with your former thesis advisor. You can only comment on your interaction with him or her. There is a tendency to comment on what you observed as opposed to what you personally experience. As a doctoral student under his supervision, you should only comment about his or hers research and mentoring skills. You can also comment on his teaching if you were his or hers teaching assistant and on the classes you took.

Category: Advisor

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