As a principal investigator, or PI, one of the tasks that I am consistently faced with is “interpretation.” How so? Well obviously, my job revolves around interpreting data and trying to understand if experiments done by my students and co-workers really do support or rule out hypotheses that we have proposed.
However, the role of a PI in interpreting extends far beyond data. It can be interpreting the mood of a student, or his/her motivation. It can be in interpreting the comment of a collaborator–on the phone, e-mail or in person–as to whether they are enthusiastic about a given project. And it can, and often is, about interpreting reviewers’ critiques regarding manuscripts or grant proposals submitted. I hope to expand on the latter two issues in some upcoming blogs.
Today, I would like to focus on another form of interpreting–one that needs to be honed to a fine art form, and can be rather tricky–interpreting reference (recommendation) letters. In the 8 years since I have been in this position, I have come across thousands of such letters: recommendation letters for students to gain acceptance to our Ph.D. graduate program, letters on behalf of potential post-doctoral fellows eager to gain employment, letters in support of candidates for faculty positions in our department. In my role as reviewer, I have also examined recommendation letters for students and post-doctoral fellows who have submitted fellowship applications. Okay. Enough, you say. I’ve convinced you that I’ve read (and written) my share of these letters. SO what?!
The point that I want to make is that interpreting recommendation letters is a fine art that needs to be honed. Moreover, there are huge cultural differences when reading letters from across the pond, or from other parts of the globe.
US recommendation letters, for the most part, are extremely diplomatic. They follow the old axiom “If you can’t say something nice about a person, then don’t say it.” What this means is that the reviewer needs to proceed with extreme caution. Why? Because it’s not what’s in the letter, but what’s missing that’s important!
An example: if a letter discusses an excellent student, who is extremely determined, very bright, and excellent speaker and writer–but ends with this short description–then an American PI will have the impression that perhaps this student doesn’t get on well with his/her colleagues. So a nuanced reviewer needs to constantly look for whatever is lacking. On the other hand, so-called minor issues such as “despite being in the country a short time, the student has done a good job catching up in language” will often mean the person can’t speak a word of English!
So PIs in the US become accustomed to looking at a checklist of qualities, and taking special note of anything that is either understated (ie., “the student is good at writing” will generally mean the student can’t string 3 words together in a row), or worse, missing altogether from the letter.
As it turns out, this is not a universally accepted way of writing and interpreting such letters: in Israel, and I believe in many European countries, the system is far more direct. PIs will give a more candid assessment of applicants, often highlighting out their good and not-so-good traits. An American PI reading a recommendation letter from Israel or Europe that notes “the student is outstanding in work at the bench, but needs some guidance conceptually” will undoubtedly conclude that this student can’t think and plan his/her own experiments. However, the referee writing this letter may only be noting that the student fares better with some guidance and discussion and isn’t yet fully independent.
Meanwhile, a European PI receiving a post-doctoral application from an American-based student may be surprised at how the student is so “overwhelmingly outstanding” in every category listed, not realizing that because communication skills are not addressed in the letter that the student might actually be essentially illiterate!
Expanding on these cultural differences, I suppose the worst danger for a student or post-doc would be to move with his/her PI from Europe to a lab in the US, and to look for a job in the US before the recently moved PI has had a chance to catch up culturally. The newly migrated PI might think he/she is writing a strong supporting letter, but eventually find out (when the student doesn’t receive any interviews or job offers) that “one man’s strong recommendation letter is another man’s weak letter.”