Friday, December 22, 2017

The "Nice Guy" Recommendation to Graduate School

draft / being rewritten as we speak

This post is intended to be background information for those of you who may end up writing a letter of recommendation for my attempt to get into graduate school.  

I have agonized over this requirement (letters of recommendation)  for years without having a really satisfying solution, as you will see.   What could be so hard? 

Well, it turns out that there is a subtext here beyond merely having someone who knows you write a letter saying what a fine person you are.  I am informed by professionals in the field that these committees are looking for letters from (a) direct peers who have (b) worked with the candidate in the recent pasts, (c) who know the candidate well and (d) are willing to write a detailed letter demonstrating this. 

There are many good reasons why this is not a 

I have many friends who are tenured professors, but only one of them has worked with me in the recent past.  I have many friends who have worked with me in the recent past

The problem is, this is rather hard to arrange if you have not been in school (e.g. academia) for a while. 

But if you have been asked to contribute then probably you have written more recommendations than I will ever see or could imagine.  Almost all of you are tenured professors at a major research university and the few who are not have other research credentials.  Nevertheless I want to go over some basic principles here because (a) the situation is atypical and (b) because if I misunderstand something I am hoping you will correct me.

So what is the graduate school admissions committee looking for in these recommendations?

As I understand it, they are looking for (a) a letter from a direct peer (e.g. if this is computer science, then a professor of computer science) who will (b) demonstrate that they know the candidate in detail and has worked with them recently, and (c) will reassure the committee that the candidate is an exceptional student who will (d) be both capable of and certain to get their degree in a reasonable period of time.

And in my case, we also have (e) since the applicant has been out of school for so long, that it makes sense for him (me) to be accepted even though there are many other qualified candidates. 

Unfortunately, only one of you, Ken Perlin, fits all these criteria. He is the only one who has worked with me at all recently and is also a professor of computer science at a major university. The rest of you are either tenured faculty but havent worked with me much at all, or certainly not recently. And in one other case, you know me fairly well but are not a tenured faculty member, although you are a recognized member of the research community.

I have tried to figure out how to get around this problem now for several years and I really havent come up with much. My plan is to do fall-back applications to MSc or MFA programs in the hope that it will lead to more current academic experience and more current recommendations for the next wave of applications. Of course this only matters if I am not accepted to a PhD program. 

And so, dear friends, I hope that you can see your way to writing what I call a “friendship” or “nice guy” recommendation. This is a recommendation that says what you can of what they are looking for: that I am interesting, smart, determined, clean, trustworthy and so forth.

And that they should accept me anyway, goddamnit.

I dont expect you to agonize over this, the way I have.

Do what you can and we will see what we see.

Thank you.

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