Grad School Recommendation Letters

This week I wrote graduate school recommendation letters for two students whom I don’t know very well at all. One received an AB and another a B in the classes they took with me.

When they asked me for letters (they did so separately and are in no way connected),  I explained to each that I didn’t know them very well and that I usually didn’t write for students who hadn’t gotten an A in my class. The thing is, they each have one professor who knows them well, but need at least 3 letters for their applications. I make a point of remembering everyone’s’s face and learning their names  (it’s doable even with a 100+ people in the class, but requires some work), so I guess they came to me because they were at least sure that I knew who they were.

How many undergraduates really have 3+ professors who know them well? A couple of my former graduate researchers come to mind, but they were stellar (it helps with getting remembered if you do great in someone’s class), engaged with a research group for over a year, and having college-level extracurriculars. But most students aren’t superstars; even if they do research, that advisor is likely the only professor who knows them well enough to write something specific.

Why do undergraduates need 3+ letters to get into graduate school? Couldn’t we say, “At least 1, and make it substantive?” When I look at applicant’s letters, there are always lukewarm ones from the people who clearly don’t know the student. At best, these letters add nothing of substance to the case. At worst, they make the applicant seem weaker through the well-known “damning by faint praise” effect. Students from large universities cannot be expected to be well connected with multiple professors the way they are at some smaller schools.

I wrote the letters that are as specific and as positive as I could. The B student is switching majors, and is passionate about the topic he is about to pursue for his Master’s more than the one he’s received a Bachelor’s degree in; I knew as much and focused on his motivation and ambition for the new field. The AB student is actually very bright but I would say somewhat lethargic; I focused on his capability and how it manifested itself in my class.

I told both students that I would write the letters, but that they would be fairly generic. I said I would try to make the letters as positive as I could to the extent to which I knew the students, which isn’t much. They were fine with it.

I did what I promised and I wish them success with their applications.

Adventures in Mansplaining

(To men who are not mansplainers: I know you are out there and I promise that this is not about you. But, there are many dudes whom the shoe fits. )

  1. A while ago, I met with a visitor who had come to give a talk in a department I am affiliated with. Last minute, a new faculty member from the same department, whom I hadn’t met before and who is also a compatriot and an acquaintance of the visitor, decided to join us. I should have just canceled, but I didn’t know they knew each other and it was also last minute. Unsurprisingly, I ended up being the third wheel; while the visitor was nice and polite, the new faculty member ignored me and spoke to the visitor without so much as glancing my way. I am sure they would have preferred not to speak in English, but had to on my account. The visitor asked about some data about the campus and the city (e.g., population, size of the student body, largest department) and the new colleague either volunteered information or, whenever I managed to get a word in edgewise and provide an answer, he rushed to correct me. Not that I was incorrect, mind you, but I don’t think that mattered; he simply had to have the last word. Being new, he cannot possibly know better than me, who has been here for a over a decade, the data about this city or this university; this is  textbook mansplaining, certainly aimed at impressing his friend.  I am too old for this $hit. What a giant waste of my time.
  2. This is my all-time favorite mansplaining anecdote. Last year, I was watching a swim meet. Next to me sat a guy who was in charge of the team’s parents’ electronic communications. We spoke a few times and he identified himself to me as “a computer guy,” but never expressed an interest in what I did (likely assumed me a Hausfrau). The meet we were watching was a high-level meet for high school boys. Generally, the first six places get scored, and the scores count towards the team total, which is very important. This man’s son had just tied with another boy for first place (which is really remarkable because they time to a hundredth of a second), so I asked if they would both get the number of points for the 1st place or if they would split the scores for the 1st and 2nd place (this was his boy’s 4th year on the team, I figured the dad knew about the scoring practices). The man proceeded to teach me, speaking veeeery slowly, on what the average of two numbers is, in a language suited to 2nd-grade children, “Yes, they will both get the average of the 1st and 2nd place score, which means the two scores will be added together and divided by two, so they will both get less the 1st but more than the 2nd place.” This was so hilarious that I wasn’t even offended; I mean, what does one even say to that?

Academic Nuggets

There should be a special place in academic hell for:

  1. Expat academic scientists who only talk with, advise, and collaborate with people from their own home country. This is wrong on many levels. I know quite a few such specimens, from several different locales.
  2. Professors who work at research-intensive, PhD-granting institutions, yet cannot be bothered to train graduate students. They can only work with postdocs because their work is “too complicated” (as opposed to everyone else’s simplistic work). The fact that somebody else had to train all those postdocs, from baby graduate students to the level at which the are professional PhD-holding scientists, doesn’t seem to enter these people’s minds.

Any other candidates for eternal academic damnation?


Benevolently Sexist

One of these days, I will have to have a talk with a colleague, who has an administrative role in a physical science field. His heart is in the right place and he is one of the men who really support women and their advancement in the physical sciences, as evidenced by him propelling his female colleagues and students. However, I think he might have inadvertently gotten lost in the thick forest of benevolent sexism.

For probably several years now he has been spearheading this notion, backed by research but not in the literal form he seems to espouse, that we need to pitch our field as the haven for those people who want to help others and that we need to do it specifically so that we would attract more women students.

One the one hand, I understand what his real motivation is. Being head of a department, his role is to bring in students, because high enrollments mean high importance to the college and the university. In that sense, one cannot begrudge him for wanting to cast a wider net by any means necessary.

On the other hand, there are several things that are sexist about this attitude. First, it assumes that, deep down, all women want to be nurses, and that one has to appeal to a smart woman’s inner nurse in order to bring her — nay, trick her! — into the physical sciences. It also assumes that while men are naturally geeks, women could not possibly be real geeks or like the physical sciences for the same reasons as men, or for any reasons unrelated to their inner nurse.

I don’t know what one has to do to get this through people’s skulls: There are women geeks. Honestly, they exist.  *raises hand to be counted* There are women who like and are very good at math, physics, chemistry, computer science; who play video games; who like science fiction and fantasy.

Women geeks and men geeks do not necessarily look and act as the stereotypes. One can be into math, physics, chemistry, or computers, and at the same time also look perfectly presentable and be perfectly socially adjusted. One can be into math, physics, chemistry, or computers, and also have long hair, boobs, and/or lipstick.

Not all women are motivated by helping those around them. In my choice of career, helping people didn’t figure out one iota. I like what I like because it’s intellectually challenging and fun. If anyone had come to pitch math or physics as a means of helping people when I was young, I would have probably run away from them as fast as I could. (Women can be misanthropes, just like men.)

Not all men are motivated by the same things, either (shocker, I know). There are plenty of men who want to help others. It boggles my mind that we as a society seem okay with stereotyping men as robot-loving geeks. I bet there are many boys who went into premed majors and whom we could have perhaps swayed into the physical sciences with the “physical sciences — because we are all about helping people!” pitch, the same one that supposedly mesmerizes the ever elusive girls into majoring in STEM.

There is a variety of reasons why people choose to do what they do. We should try to understand the reasons and expand the appeal of our field as best we can when we to try to attract more students. But please let’s do that in a way that does not enforce gender stereotypes.

Let’s not insist women don’t come unless you appeal to their inner nurturer. Some girls simply like computers and robots, period. Pitching soft as women and hard as men only further perpetuates the ideas that women are not real physical scientists. It also pushes away the men who may care about their fellow human and would be motivated by the human-centered aspect of the physical sciences. And it also makes many men resentful, because they perceive that the field is being softened and moving away from its essence because of those darn women.

The physical science fields are what they are. Let’s be honest as well as open-minded when we report about the opportunities the fields offer (good job prospects, anyone?). But let’s also be honest about the skills and interests that are required to succeed, and let us enhance the appeal without benevolently perpetuating the stereotype that women could not possibly be capable of swallowing the bitter science pill without the sugarcoat of nurture.