Every week, The Sassy Scientist answers a question on geodynamics, related topics, academic life, the universe or anything in between with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Do you have a question for The Sassy Scientist? Submit your question here or leave a comment below.
Though wanting any former student to reach as high as possible in life, Geppetto asks in dubio:
Should I write a dishonest recommendation letter to help a former MsC student obtain a position in a PhD program?
First and foremost, you’re a scientist. Ethics should be an absolute priority. This means: no lying or blatantly misrepresenting your opinion on the abilities of your former students. However, we all know that one of the strengths of scientists is their exceptional ability to find a way to speak about things in such a way that no actual proof is presented, but the argumentation seems so convincing that the final conclusion must be true. You could almost call us politicians. But with ethics, of course. I’m sure you’ve done this, the readers have done this. Hell, I’ve done this. I’ve certainly read it.
Anyways, putting the abilities of former students in the brightest light possible is one thing, flat-out lying is another. I would seriously reconsider jumping on that boat: you’re not just “helping” your students to get into a PhD, you’re also introducing them into a world of hurt. Even though we have made it look so easy, it really isn’t. When incompetent, doing a PhD becomes a painful exercise for everyone involved: the PhD’s, the partners/family, the supervisors, the office mates, the room mates, the non-scientific members of staff, the parents, et cetera, et cetera… The only happy person involved is the psychologist helping the burnout back into life. And then they need to find some new job after getting kicked out of a PhD program. That’s going to do wonders for their self esteem. Moreover, you’ll probably be held responsible because you vouched for them. Meaning: nobody’s going to believe when you say somebody (even you yourself) is able to do a job. Science is like a small village, and you’ll be the one exiled. In case you’re hesitant to write them a positive letter because you are absolutely convinced that this person does not have the skills to actually do, get through and excel in a PhD study, don’t. However, people grow. Especially students. They have a lot of room left still. So, if it’s just certain aspects of the students towards performing research that bother you – and these are not detrimental, and can be improved upon – give them the benefit of the doubt. Do mention these aspects in your letter then, as any recruiter recognizes that there are not just excellent sides to a potential hire. Also some rough edges.
Only one thing remains to ask you at this point; are you asking me this question because you yourself are in doubt, because you cannot confidently state that there is potential in that student, or there definitely is not? Seems to me there’s still a lot of growth potential to go around then…
The Sassy Scientist
PS: This post was written with long legs, a short nose and no fire-retardant pants. Where’s my fairy? I’ve got wishes too.