Many evaluators, on the other hand, cast themselves in the role of advocate. Rather than providing an independent evaluation, the author sees himself or herself as an agent charged with aiding the applicant in reaching his or her goals in much the same way a realtor works with a homeowner to sell his or her property. Any response to a request for numerical ratings or a relative ranking – a common feature of graduate school and fellowship applications – will be skewed heavily toward the very highest values. The signature of the advocate-author is a stridently positive tone juxtaposed against a striking unevenness in coverage. While most authors generally will say very little when they struggle to find positive things to say, the advocate-author adopts a more extreme all-or-nothing interpretation. Hence the letter will seem incomplete as some aspects of the candidate’s abilities and accomplishments will be described in great detail, whereas comments on some related topics will be nowhere to be found.
In some cases, the evaluator may have let some personal agenda intrude into his or her evaluations. Since one relatively painless way to divest oneself of a weak performer is to have him or her secure another position elsewhere, an evaluator may be tempted to paint an overly rosy portrait. Conversely, the desire to hang on to a well-trained and productive member of their research group may tempt some principal investigators to hold back in their evaluations. In both cases, the key indicator will be a disparity between the descriptors used and the documented productivity of the candidate. For example, if a trainee is described as the leader and intellectual driving force behind a particular project yet consistently is buried in the “et al.” portion of the author list on the relevant papers, suspect over-selling!
Some authors are animated by a vivid fear of legal retribution should a candidate’s search prove unsuccessful. Their letters contain repeated stipulations that the other evaluators are more qualified to comment upon the applicant’s skills and abilities. Letters in this genre tend to be relatively brief and dominated by vague, innocuous descriptors that neither inform nor inflame.
Multiple letters are key
Always request multiple letters. Pattern recognition is one of the more reliable ways to tease out information about a candidate whose individual letters of evaluation are frustratingly vanilla. If multiple evaluators fail to devote any space to some obvious topic, odds are that they share significant reservations in this area. Similarly, if multiple evaluators state that an applicant’s grades are not reflective of his or her performance and abilities, it is a good bet that this is indeed the case.
The identities of the evaluators selected by the candidate also can be revealing. One can feel positive and reassured when each evaluator unhesitatingly describes his or her relationship to the applicant in specific terms. Other positive signs are that the trainee initiated contact or met regularly with the investigator in question. Weak trainees frequently avoid contact with faculty or group leaders, preferring to work through an intermediary such as a fellow student or staff member. A person who asks other trainees to write letters instead of experienced and trained leaders may be technically quite competent but personally insecure and immature. Omission of the applicant’s last mentor or supervisor from the list of evaluators suggests that you proceed with caution.
In describing the candidate’s strengths, do the evaluators illustrate their points with specific examples? Supporting anecdotes should flow easily from someone who has substantive, personal knowledge of the candidate. The order in which specific strengths are presented also can be a telling indicator. The mention of some fundamental characteristic – for example, “an extremely talented experimentalist” or “an original and innovative thinker” – suggests a very high overall opinion of the candidate, whereas “a great command of the literature” suggests a person struggling to find something positive to say about someone whose abilities and goals may be mismatched. On the other hand, in my experience, very few authors include statements like “I would gladly hire the candidate back in future” or “the candidate would be welcome anytime as a member of my research team” unless prompted, so when this phrase is freely volunteered, it should be noted carefully.
Learn to recognize avoidance
When an evaluator is convinced, based on his or her own direct interactions with a trainee, that the candidate is strong or even exceptional, in most instances the enthusiasm is palpable. As you read the letter, you get the clear sense that the evaluator is having trouble keeping it to a reasonable length – that he or she simply can’t say enough. While letters for good or solid candidates may lack the same energy, they tend to be unhesitatingly direct in tone. On the other hand, any behavior suggestive of avoidance, such as difficulty in selecting a first strength, generally is indicative of an author struggling to find some way to make the evaluation sound better.
A classic model of avoidance is the letter that spends three paragraphs describing in great detail the trainee’s project, its progress and outcomes. The first paragraph talks about the student’s rotation project. The second relates in painstaking detail progress at the bench and in class during years one and two. The next paragraph relates the experiments that constitute the heart of the thesis. Finally, after negotiating a full page or so of narrative, the reader suddenly finds himself or herself faced with a concluding paragraph that covers the candidate’s specific qualities in three sentences or so. The end. Whenever I see such a letter, I get the impression that the author set a goal to write something long enough to suggest a positive opinion. Once that critical length was reached, usually a full page, the author could now safely move to the denouement, which he or she dispatched in a few short sentences. This structure is ideally suited to the agenda of the author focused first and foremost on providing no opening for a litigator.