Do professors ever write negative recommendation letters

Do professors ever write negative recommendation letters?


Oh, yes, it happens.
It happened to me.

I was an undergraduate applying for PhD programs in psychology.
I had put much thought into who I wanted to ask to write my recommendations.
I chose one professor who had taught me in a couple of classes, one professor who had mentored me on two research papers, and one professor who was the sponsor of a successful psychology club I had founded.
The club's sponsor also happened to be the Chair of the Psychology Department, so I figured that was a nice bonus.
I was wrong.

After being turned down by nearly every program to which I had applied, my best friend and I got drunk one night.
She convinced me to get to the bottom of what had gone so horribly wrong by opening the sealed and signed envelopes I had agreed would remain confidential.
I still had a few in the trunk of my car because the club's sponsor had returned his recommendation letters to me over a week late so there had been a few schools I couldn't apply to since I'd missed the deadline.
I should've thought ahead and asked a fourth professor as a backup, but I hadn't dreamed there would be a problem.

I was conflicted over breaking my promise to keep the recommendations confidential but my curiosity, alcohol consumption, and my friend's urging persuaded me to read them.
I was stunned.
The club sponsor and chair of my department had written that he had no idea why I'd asked him for a recommendation since he'd never had me in a class and he barely knew me.
It hurt.
I had met with him in his office weekly for over a year while forming the club.
The committee that voted to approve the club had actually said they couldn't recall ever having heard a better argument for why a new club deserved a charter or read a more well thought out and well written constitution, which I had drafted completely on my own.
To have this man write that he barely knew me was baffling and devastating.

My advice to anyone who is applying to a program that requires letters of recommendation is this:
Ask for at least one extra letter and open that sucker.
Read it before you send it.
Confidentiality be damned.
You have a right to know if someone is stabbing you in the back.
Too much is on the line to risk someone sabotaging all your hard work.
 

FYI, the other two letters of recommendation were glowing and their praise was so sweet it brought me to tears.
That one guy was just a jerk.
 


Yes, generally if they really don't like the student, but the student pesters them into writing a letter of recommendation.
If they seriously don't like the student, some may even write a poor letter out of spite.

Sometimes professors will write something positive, but it is so insignificant that it looks bad.
.
.
for example
"X is a very good student.
He has nice handwriting"
At the end of my undergrad I actually think I had only one or two professors who really liked me, and I knew I had a few who hated me, and most did not know who I was.

I was seriously thinking about this and at moments panicking a little.
I eventually got 2 grad student lecturers, and Polish professor who I don't think.
.
.
didn't like me, but she definitely knew I was a slacker, and my syntax professor.

I got into half the universities I applied to.

Here is how my Polish professor knew I was a slacker.
One day I went to her office to tell her I would not be in class, and then she said "Ok.
What for?"
For some reason I did not expect that question at all.
The real reason was that my clan was playing in a Call of Duty Black Ops II League Tournament at 2pm-4pm pacific time on Xbox Live.

I basically stuttered and said "I don't know" and then she started laughing hysterically.
I then lied saying I had an appointment quickly correcting myself.

Then I went back to my dorm, had lunch, and started playing around 2.
I was playing like crap though because I was panicking knowing that she knew I was lying and skipping class.
I then left my room, walked across campus, and showed up to class about 30 mins late and said I finished early.

So then I was in the position of asking her for a letter of recommendation, which really worried me, but I guess she didn't hate me over that or write me a bad letter because I got into one of the universities she wrote a letter for.
 
I chose her over many of my professors I know didn't like me very much, or simply didn't remember who I was.
I know the historical linguistics professor hated me.

Ok here's some story so if you are bad at telling when someone does not like you, you can see some instances me being able to tell a professor did not like me at all.

For my historical linguistics professor, things were going fine in the class but then one day my phone went off in class.
He stopped lecturing, and went on a 30 minute tirade against me in front of everyone, saying that it said no cell phones in the syllabus, and threatening to quit teaching and abandoning us all for the midterm.
I basically just waited it out.

There was no way I would have asked him for a letter of recommendation.

My second year Russian teacher also hated me and she was one of the reasons I switched to Polish.
Basically, one day when we were practicing Russian o-de-emphasizing/lowering.
.
.
we would sit in a computer lab, with headsets on, and read Russian words with lots of "o"s in them and pronounce them as schwas or /a/ when necessary; it is one of the hardest things about Russian because unstressed os are spelled the same as words where the o is actually pronounced like /o/.
In any case, I was on wikipedia reading about this (not doing something completely unrelated), and she came up to me, tapped on my shoulder, and said something or other about how this was "an outrage" because I wasn't practicing my "o"s.

I apologized but she basically stalked me for the rest of lab.
Sometimes my computer would be booting up, and she would think I was up to no good and accuse me of goofing off, when the computer is just turning on.
 
One day I was talking to her in her office and she said something along the lines of "I like you, but you have a very flawed character".
After that, interactions with her became awkward.
It seemed like she was always trying to peer into my soul and analyze me.

After I quit Russian I bumped into her like 5 more times on campus over the next few years.
Each time was awkward.
By my senior year I was literally hiding from her sometimes when I'd see her because she was too weird.
I don't even know what she was on to about me, but she seemed.
.
.
obsessive almost like she was trying to poke holes in my character and expose me as mentally off or something.
Oh and one of the times this happened, she lead me off into the bushes and started smoking a cigarette in a non-smoking area blowing smoke into my face while discussing life.

The last time I saw her was finals week my senior year.
My cousin was driving me back to my dorm from work (we both worked at Datapro International) and I saw her, and literally ducked down in the car so she wouldn't see me.
My cousin was like "Dude! What are you doing?" and then I was like "it's fucking her! The Russian teacher! She's awful!!!" and told him my whole story of how she thinks I am crazy or have a personality disorder or something and how she hates me for screwing off in class, and how she sneaks all over campus smoking cigarettes like a derelict, and how it feels like she is trying to make every conversation extremely awkward and trap me.
 
Anyways, getting off this tangent, if any relations you have with your professors are as bad as the two I listed, do not ask them for letters of recommendation.
I swear the Russian professor I'd imagine would have given me one, but then write about how I seem to have a "bad character" or something.


Let me start by summarizing others: there are rare explicit bad letters and far more common insufficiently positive letters.
OK.

Someone suggested asking for an extra letter and reading it.
This won't really happen anymore because letters are submitted directly and electronically.
Regardless, this is a horrible idea.
If I found out a person had ever done this to anyone, I would never write them a letter.
There are precious few sacred principles in academia, but confidential letters are in there.
DO NOT EVER DO THIS.

There's an easier solution: don't ask someone to write you a letter, ask someone first if they can write you a strong letter based on a specific interaction.
The vast majority of bad-letter situations (of both types) are faculty who felt badgered into writing for the student.
If you give the professor an out and some context, this will probably never happen to you.
The prof can simply say, "I don't think I can write a letter that would help.
"
In the case of the person who read their letter, the professor apparently said he didn't know why he had been asked.
The student could have prevented that by saying "hey, Professor Gross, can you write me a letter as the sponsor of the [whatever] club?" I would probably say no to someone applying for a PhD program, because there's nothing I could say about club organization that would make for a strong letter for applying to a PhD program.

Let me be clear: the goal is not to tell the writer what to write.
The goal is to highlight the central story of the letter.
Just because you think it's obvious what the letter should be about doesn't mean that your professor knows what you are thinking.

There are, sadly, asshole professors in the world who write negative letters with insufficient justification, but these are exceedingly rare.
I don't use the word "asshole" lightly.
Some people consider it their place to slag someone junior, often for a stupid slight.
I can't speak about tenure letters, but when I've received the rare truly negative letter about a student, it was almost always an ax being ground.
Unless there's something truly compromising (e.
g.
, this student plagiarized, was unrepentant when caught, and hasn't changed), I dismiss it.
So a student grade-grubbed, so what? It happens, often even with good students.
Undergrads deserve second chances, IMO, even for things like plagiarism, if they can demonstrate they've learned & changed.
More senior students and junior faculty make social mistakes (as do senior faculty, but they are largely impervious).

So ask your references, accept if they say no, and writers: don't write someone a negative letter unless you have a duty to protect others from something that can never be rectified.
Just.
Say.
No.


Yes, they do.
As an undergraduate in Civil Engineering at a Liberal Arts school I wanted to continue on to graduate school following an internship at the University of Texas for Transportation Engineering during the summer before my senior year.
I asked two of my professors for 3 recommendation letters for 3 different schools.
For whatever reason I only applied to 2 schools so I never sent out the sealed 3rd set of recommendation letters.
Five years or so after receiving my bachelor’s I found and read that third set of letters.
My Academic Advisor, a geotechnical specialist wrote a letter very much like you are suggesting, beating around the bush a little.
The Transportation professor whom I still talk to often today was very direct in his letter listing out both my strengths and my weaknesses.
Considering the troubles I had as an undergraduate (many of them medical that wouldn’t be diagnosed until much later) the letter did come off with a negative tone even though he didn’t lie, was just very direct about my weaknesses.
But to conclude the story, I didn’t get into either of the schools and instead entered the work force.
11 years after graduating with my Bachelor’s I was stricken with 3 strokes in a 6 weeks span.
Upon recovering mentally I enrolled in a graduate school for a MS in Project Management and halfway through the curriculum my GPA is a full point higher than my undergraduate GPA, and I am due to get my Master’s next summer and hope to be rejoining the workforce once I get out of this wheelchair.


My Uncle shared this story with me, he used to be on the admissions board of a medical school in America.
There was a girl, let’s call her Kate, who continuously applied to the medical school.
She kept getting rejected, but she applied 5 years in a row.
For all of her applications, she asked one of her professors if he could write her a letter of recommendation.
The professor, let’s call him Dr.
Jones, agreed to do so.

Couple things:
1) Kate was definitely not the best person and certainly not the best scholar
2) Dr.
Jones was a great professor and generally liked by his students and fellows
It turns out that Dr.
Jones’ letters of recommendation for Kate were not necessarily negative, but they certainly weren’t positive — what he had to say about Kate was sincere and unbiased.
Dr.
Jones obviously had no intention of hindering Kate’s career, but he felt that it was fair to share his genuine impression of Kate as a person.

Well then, besides not being an exceptional student, what did Kate do wrong? She made a mistake that people make way too often.
She asked Dr.
Jones something along the lines of:
“I’m applying to medical school, could you write me a letter of recommendation?”
Now the vast majority of the time, that’s a completely fair question to ask.
Especially because you usually ask professors or colleagues who you have a good relationship with.

However, when asking a professor or a colleague to write a letter of recommendation, don’t ask if they can write you a letter of recommendation.
Ask if they are willing to write a positive and strong letter of recommendation for you.

They might decline, and that’s completely fine.
Respect their honesty, and move on.
It’s a whole lot better than them writing a letter of recommendation similar to the one Dr.
Jones wrote Kate.
The fifth and final time Kate applied to the medical school, the last sentence of Dr.
Jones’ letter of recommendation was something like:
“I have no idea why Kate keeps asking me to write her letter of recommendation, I barely know her because she rarely showed up to my lectures.

Turns out that my Uncle knew Dr.
Jones quite well.
He told my Uncle that he has no problem writing letters of recommendation for anyone, but if she had asked him if he could write her a positive letter, he would have respectively declined — as any professional should if they don’t have anything positive to say about the person.


I had a professor decline to write me a letter of recommendation for grad school specifically because he didn’t want to write a negative one.

He wasn’t mean about it.
He was polite and candid, telling me, “I don’t believe you’re a good candidate for grad school, so I can’t write you a good recommendation without being dishonest.
You’ll be better served by me not writing one.

I remember being shocked (and angered) by his response.
However, in retrospect, I appreciate his ability to be honest in a moment that was surely uncomfortable.

If he’d agreed to my request out of a sense of academic duty, or even just because he was uncomfortable saying “no,” he would have written a negative letter, and that obviously wouldn’t have helped my grad school applications.

I guess I was actually lucky he was more mature at the time than I was.

Thanks to his “lack of support,” I did eventually go to grad school.
Twelve years later, I have my PhD and actually teach at the same university as him.

We’ve yet to run into each other around campus, and if/when we do, I’ll likely thank him for being honest with me instead of writing a negative letter.
However, I’ll admit — at least in my head — the petulant 21-year-old in me he rejected will enjoy showing him what I achieved despite his concerns about my qualifications.

After all, as Frank Sinatra said, “The best revenge is massive success.

——————————————————
Agree with me? Think my answer is ridiculous? Read more about my experiences teaching entrepreneurship, and share your thoughts.


Of course it happens, but in my experience (grad admissions, faculty hiring, promotion and tenure cases) explicitly negative letters rare.
  Ben Zhao gives a lot of good examples of what we actually see.

Because explicitly negative comments are rare, they do get the attention of the evaluators.
But the damage might be mitigated if we know (or suspect) that the writer has some personal antagonism toward the subject, or is a notorious grouch, or if all the other letters contradict what the negative writer said.

Like most professors, if I am asked to write a recommendation by a student that I can't honestly recommend for the program or position in question, I will decline to do this.
If necessary, I will say something like "Based on what I know, I can't honestly say that you are a good fit for this".
If pressed I will talk about specific problems or alternatives.
It's an uncomfortable conversation for both of us, but necessary.

If the student presses for a letter anyway, I might just refuse.
  If not, I have to write a letter that is as positive as I honestly can be, but that will not damage my own credibility as a recommender, which indirectly will harm all the people I might recommend in the future.

From the recipient's side, we learn to recognize "minimally positive", "narrowly worded", or "creatively vague" letters.
  If the letter talks a lot about the student being pleasant to work with, trying hard, or came in with weak preparation but has improved, but does not say much about the student's research accomplishments and does not enthusiastically praise their research ability and potential, that's a concern.
  If the letter says "one of my best students" without making absolutely clear what group the student is being compared to, that's a concern.
  If the letter says "should do well at the next level", that's creatively vague — the writer didn't say that the student is ready for a place like Carnegie Mellon (if indeed the writer has any idea what that means).

A bad letter hurts you more than a missing letter from some expected source, like your advisor.
  But if it's an important case, we may contact that person and ask why no letter was sent or why the letter seemed imprecise or unenthusiastic on certain points.
People will be more frank in a phone call than in a letter or Email that might someday surface and cause embarrassment.
  But for graduate admissions, we don't have time to do that, so we make the best inferences we can from the evidence we have.
  Understand that admitted students can be a big financial risk for us, and we have plenty of excellent, safe applicants, so ambiguity is probably not good enough.


Here is what Henry Kissinger wrote about Jared Kushner:
Transitioning the presidency between parties is one of the most complex undertakings in American politics.
The change triggers an upheaval in the intangible mechanisms by which Washington runs: an incoming President is likely to be less familiar with formal structures, and the greater that gap, the heavier the responsibility of those advisers who are asked to fill it.

This space has been traversed for nearly four months by Jared Kushner, whom I first met about 18 months ago, when he introduced himself after a foreign policy lecture I had given.
We have sporadically ­exchanged views since.
As part of the Trump family, Jared is familiar with the intangibles of the President.
As a graduate of Harvard and NYU, he has a broad education; as a businessman, a knowledge of administration.
All this should help him make a success of his daunting role flying close to the sun.

As others have pointed out, Kissinger is an academic, and this is exactly how an academic would write a reference for someone they think is a bad candidate.
It signals disdain without directly saying anything bad.
If you want a detailed explanation as to why this is like a bad reference, check this article; Henry Kissinger’s Blurb for Jared Kushner in Time Is the Recommendation Letter No Student Wants.

(Kissinger wrote this because he was asked to write a blurb about Kushner for Time Magazine).


As others have mentioned, of course professors write “negative” letters of recommendation.
You have a broad spectrum of faculty out there, some of whom leave nothing to the imagination about how they feel about the individual requesting the letter.

To share another perspective, I am often asked for letters of recommendation (mainly for faculty positions), sometimes even by people I have not even met before (because I am in their field and have cited their work, they feel that I must closely follow their work…).
I wanted to share an opinion of a letter writer.
Here are a few things of note:
If individuals wanted to know where they stand with me, they can just ask.
I am very critical of both myself and others, and am happy to share my thoughts—the good and the bad.
If I just “enthusiastically recommend” everyone for everything, then my letter of recommendation doesn’t hold any value for the decision of the letter readers.

So, I’m hoping that sharing my own thought process here may help others to understand the thought process of similar-minded letter writers… unless they are truly just mean-spirited people.


I left my graduate program because my advisor asked me to leave.
It was a complex situation and I obviously didn’t want to ask him for a recommendation.
I left graduate school during a recession in the early to mid 80’s, and there were very few job openings in my field, which was physical chemistry.

While I was in graduate school, I was also the head teaching assistant for the physical Chemistry lab course.
I maintained the equipment for 24 student work stations and kept the grade book for the professor.
Of course, I didn’t assign grades.
There was a very arrogant young professor teaching the lab course the term that I left the PhD program.
The course was normally taught by a different professor with whom I had a good relationship and whom I should have chosen as my advisor, but didn’t for reasons related to my own poor judgement as a young student.
Since I left the program abruptly midterm,I needed to find a new job quickly.
I asked the young professor if he could write a recommendation for me to get a job, and he gave me such a creepy response that I ended up not using his letter.
I also requested if I could continue my job as the lab manager, at least until I found something more permanent.
He said that the work I was doing should actually be a post doctoral level position and so I was not qualified.

I later applied to medical school but visited the old lab.
They actually never hired a PhD for my old position.

The other professors I asked wrote good evaluations.
The one who normally taught the lab course helped me get a position at a research institute for the interval between leaving grad school and starting med school.


As others have said, the answer is yes – but only sort of.
First of all, different fields and different cultures have different standards.
In physics, it is not unusual for a negative letter from the US to sound over-the-top positive and for a positive letter from Europe to seem lukewarm in comparison.
Well known people also have a "style" – if they write something positive, their letter carries far more weight because of how unusual it is.

I disagree with some others who say that faculty should always turn down writing negative letters.
For a student, I absolutely would.
For an award, I always would unless I could really be behind the person.
For a postdoc, I probably would turn it down unless I had no real choice.
For a letter for someone's tenure, I probably wouldn't; in that case, the department is asking and not the letter writer.

Whether it is a negative or positive letter, in the US most people write the most positive statements that they can.
However, knowing that, you can read between the lines of a letter by thinking about what is missing.
For example, a letter praising something a person did 10 years ago, for example, is not a strong letter for most situations.
Similarly, you might have a letter praising someone's efforts on thing A when the letter is meant to assess thing B.

To finish this off, I remember hearing a joke letter about how to read between the lines of letters of recommendation for a postdoctoral position.
The letter was full of sentences with double meanings like, "You would be very lucky to get this person to work for you.
" I wish I could remember the rest because it was brilliant.


Other Quorans have described instances of negative letters.
I was concerned about this possibility when applying to graduate school.

I was fortunate to have had eight professors whom I could ask for letters.
Between graduate schools and fellowships, I had ten applications.
To ensure that I wasn’t undercut by a negative letter, different combinations of professors were used for each application.
The results seemed to confirm my suspicions.
The three least successful applications all included one particular professor.

Three years later provided proof positive.
I was a student representative on the admission’s committee of my graduate department.
Professors writing letters were usually asked to compare applicants with other students from the same undergraduate college who had enrolled in my graduate department.
One applicant was compared to me.
Although his record was clearly inferior to my own, the Professor compared him favorably.
He was the professor whom i’d suspected.
I never did figure out why he was so negative towards me.

Some of the other combinations were far more successful.
In hindsight, it was prudent not to have put all my chances in the hands of the same group of professors.


Others have answered that if they have a low opinion of the recommended, they either decline to write or write a letter that "damns with faint praise.
" This matches my own experience in writing letters and reading those written by others, for grad school, faculty hires and tenure.

Though the original poster probably meant that first category, the second and third are quite interesting.
In letters recommending a person, say a new PhD, for a faculty position, one type of information that I've never seen, but is very important, involves the issue of whether the ideas for the student's research came from the student him/herself, rather than being fed to the student by the professor.
If the student is applying for a position at a research university, this is a key question, yet I don't recall ever seeing a letter address this issue.

It's interesting that Prof.
Zhao brings up tenure letters.
I've seen many tenure letters that make direct comparisons with specific individuals, along the lines of "X is as good as Y, who just got tenure at University U, but not as good as Z, who will soon get tenure of University V.
" So, one may encounter a mixture of the positive and negative in the same letter, stated in a highly personal manner.
If valid (in whatever sense), such comments can be very informative, but they exacerbate the effects of personal biases, I believe.


Usually, we do not.
If I cannot recommend you with enthusiasm, I would normally just tell you that I do not know you well enough.
Now, if somebody tells you they do not know you well enough it does not automatically mean they do not think they can write a positive letter – maybe you did not even take classes with that prof or only took one and were not active enough to be remembered and they honestly do not know.
If you took a bunch of classes with them and they still “don’t really know” ask yourself – were you texting all the time in class? Were you the whiney jerk who’d always interrupt the class with “can we go earlyyyyy”? Did you come to every class late? etc.

If you argue past the ‘I don’t really know…” and insist they write one anyway you are risking getting a less than glowing letter.

I once wrote a letter that was not particularly enthusiastic – well this girl was a complete non-entity in my class.
She sat in the back and could not care less about anything at all in the class other than her boyfriend there next to her.
Never paid attention in class, never answered or asked questions, etc.
She did manage to somehow get through the class, probably cheated.
The class she took with me was a core class for non-majors.
So then she comes to me in a year or two asking for a letter to grad school in that major that’s not mine.
I at first told her I couldn’t write one – because seriously, based on what? She absolutely did not display in my class any qualities that would make her a good grad student.
I advised her to get recommendations from profs in her major (and really, a good idea anyhow).
She came back in a few days, crying.
Everybody else refused to give her a letter.
So I felt sorry for her.
I wrote as best I could – I was not going to lie and there was very little to go by- so I basically wrote something along the lines of “this student is successfully graduating from our program which proves that she can be successful” and “She got good grades in her major” and things like that.
I think she actually did get into that school.


Yes.
But there’s a simple way to make sure this doesn’t happen to you.

When you request that someone recommend you (or serve as a reference), ask them the following “Would you be able to write me a strong letter of support?”.
Notice the wording.
You’re not asking WHAT they would say, but IF they would recommend you.
It’s a “yes” or “no” question.
If the answer is yes, great.
If it’s no, perhaps the person would be willing to further give you some valuable feedback about how you can improve, so that, in time, you’d get a good recommendation (from someone else, not the original person…that ship has sailed).

And, please, NEVER list someone as a recommender without asking permission first.
That, in my opinion, is where the “I don’t remember this person and don’t know why s/he asked me” letters come from.

Also, unless completely unavoidable, do NOT ask someone for a last-minute recommendation.
If the deadline is 2 months from now, ask NOW (and be organized).
Of course, if you’re nominated for something on short notice, it’s unavoidable.
I tell my students that I can write a pretty lousy letter in 24 hours, but I can write a much better one with more notice.
And you run the risk that the recommender includes the information that they were asked at the last minute in the letter, which is a ‘red flag’ that, in my experience, isn’t ignored when organizational skills are part of what is being sought.


Oh sure, it happens more often than you think, especially in recommendation letters for PhD applications.
But I've seen it elsewhere, even in tenure letters, which is more surprising given the significance of those letters.

For PhD applications, there are different kinds of "negative" letters.
  Some examples are where a faculty member is writing for a student, and it's clear they don't have too much to say.
The letter ends up being quite short, and says very little but the standard "he/she was a student in my class and they got an 'A', but I know little about them beyond that.
" While it's not strictly negative, the net effect is negative, considering how important strong recommendations are for PhD applications.

There are also overtly negative letters, where the faculty member comments on specific negative traits about an applicant.
I've seen some that comment on lack of communication skills, and yet others who talk about specific personality or technical issues in surprising detail.
In general, these tend to be well known faculty who value their reputation as truthful letter writers, and are less likely to write a fluffy letter for a problematic applicant.
  My guess would be that in most of these cases, the applicant should have known better than to ask for those letters, given their perhaps blemished interactions with the faculty.
When put in a similar context, I generally try to decline or at least strongly hint to the student they might not want a letter from me.

Perhaps the most surprising are 'negative' tenure letters.
Tenure letters are requested by a young faculty's department when he/she is going up for promotion to tenure (typically in their 6th year at most US universities).
It's a huge deal, and basically determines if they get to keep their job or if they have to migrate schools or leave academia altogether.
Departments generally try hard to find senior, well-known experts in the young faculty's field to write strong positive letters (with rare exceptions, nobody wants their young faculty to get a negative evaluation).
When these requests go out to letter writers (generally full professors), they stress the importance of the letter to the career of the young faculty member, so that the letter writer does not take the request lightly.
  That's why in almost all cases, tenure letters come back quite positive in favor of promotion.
  For 'weak' faculty who a senior faculty does not want to praise, they would just find some reason to decline the request politely.

Every once in a while, you see a tenure letter come back and it's filled with damning praise.
I remember reading one particular letter where the writer (a very senior and well known faculty at a top 10 department) phrased the question of tenure for the candidate as an open question, then proceeded to basically debate both sides of the argument.
That had the net effect of highlighting negatives and making the letter basically a negative letter.
The writer ends up giving "support" for the candidate's tenure case, but wrote it in such a way that it sounded like they were slyly trying to undermine the candidate's case.
  This is not a helpful letter.
  There are other instances where tenure letters are not necessarily negative, but the writer has such high standards that their praise is carefully qualified and couched in clear statements of limitations.
A letter from a well-known faculty at a highly-ranked department supported a hiring case, but directly compared him/her to their peers, saying something to the effect of .
.
.
they were more productive than X, but intellectually not as strong as Y.
  That was a tough letter writer :-)


I can not speak for why “some” professors do such but can only address the case of which I am familiar.
In fact, I was to become aware of one professor who did so, during the course of my college undergraduate years, back in the early 1970s at a state college located on the east coast.

But the professor did so (who wrote such a negative recommendation, in the instant case, to a graduate school in behalf of the requesting student) regarding a male student who he, the professor erroneously believed, had indubitably had an intimate sexual relationship with a female student; a female student, who the professor himself, was seemingly romantically interested in and had, following the female student’s college graduation, went onto have a brief affair with her.

The young woman student, did thus briefly later on, actually sleep with the professor, but this was well after, she had been sitting as a student in his, the professor’s various classes which he taught at a state college in the northeast.
No harm, no foul, the student-professor relationship was no longer thus.
Years later, she confided to her male student friend that he, the professor, had been in her words “a lousy, distant lover,” and that there was no future there to be had between them.
She said that after they had made love, “he just gazed off into space as if he were on another planet.
” The professor was a single parent divorcee’ at the time.
The young woman had long moved on in the years which followed.

The professor thus seemingly had much resented the friendship between this female student and her male friend student who had commuted together as commuter college students) and were never anything but the best of platonic friends, period.
They, commuting to and from campus together and majoring in the same undergraduate academic discipline, had sat in many of this professor’s classes over a two year period.
He the professor thus believed they were, in fact, an item.
Not.

Fast forward.
Many years later, it turns out that the male student is in the university offices of a graduate program during the evening hours where offices were unlocked and unattended so that janitors could make their evening rounds and, through a set of unfolding circumstances, the student serendipitously finds himself, opportunistically alone, and reviewing his “school file” when, lo and behold, he comes upon this scathing letter of recommendation, one that had sliced and diced that student, as being wanting in far too many ways, to be necessarily admitted into any type of graduate education of merit and standing.

It seemed to me having heard the story that the professor had confided to the young woman during the course of their most fleeting affair, his adamant refusal to believe the truth, notwithstanding her efforts at convincing him,, that she and her male student (fellow commuting student) friend had not been romantically involved, as in ever.
She made it clear to the male friend that the “professor” would never concede the matter, a point which she found endlessly amusing.

Before the woman’s untimely passing, the male student friend had the opportunity to share the entire story with the young woman.
To tell her of the nighttime examining of the file in the school’s offices and of his uncovering the distasteful letter of recommendation.
And the two of them, male and female friends took much delight in discussing all of the professor’s possible motives and related baggage tied to that most tepid letter of recommendation.

The male student over the years excelled beyond anyone’s wildest expectations in terms on his future academic performance and career success accomplishments.
He continues, however, to forever mourn the passing of his dear great lady friend, his former fellow classmate and commuting student, she who tragically passed away, unexpectedly of natural causes, in her early 30s.
May God rest her soul.



I have never written a negative letter.
If I don't think highly of the student, I simply won't do it.
There are reasons for this:
1.
In order to write a letter, I need to review a CV and written work.
It makes no sense to put in that kind of time for a letter that is going to be negative.

2.
If I am going to write a letter, I have to remember the student, even with all the work above.
I have a lot of students.
So if he or she appears a few years later and thinks that I remember him, they may be disappointed.
If I have a strong impression of that student, I will consider the letter.

3.
If my impression of that student is negative, then it is just mean to do such a thing.
Why would anyone do such a thing? It is unethical.
It cannot help the profession by hurting a student deliberately.

I don't think students always know what they are asking when they ask for a recommendation.
A job, a volunteer organization or another school asks for a letter.
So a student may think in terms of the grade.
Even a high grade does not mean I will write what will be seen as  an outstanding letter because that is only a discussion of the work in the class.
Somehow the student has to stand out.
That means he or she needs to cultivate the relationship.
That isn't easy for a student with a lot of classes, nor is it easy for a professor with a lot of students.
  So I think students need to show care in whom they ask.
We instructors also need to say no when we think we won't help the student.
A few minutes of discomfort may save a lot of agony for others.


After reading through most of the answers, I can see disparity between Asian and US (or European) scenario in this.
This could be a cultural thing.

In Asia, face is everything.
Students would not dare to ignore their project advisors/supervisors when it comes to getting recommendation letters.
It would be a sin for junior faculty to sideline their mentors (usually assigned to them) or immediate superiors (department heads, deans, etc.
) in this matter.
Face must be accorded to someone above us in academic hierarchy.
Requesting recommendation letters equates honoring them.

The professors, on the other hand, rarely (if not at all) give bad recommendation.
Even if the student or junior faculty concerned does not meet the expectation, the professor would provide superficial praises.
However, those who are valued by their mentors or superiors will get excellent recommendation.
The only problem here, sometimes, is the way recommendations are written.
Most Asian professors from Asian universities do not have the richness in vocabulary and adequately high proficiency level in the English language compared to their western counterparts.
Native speakers of English are often confused when reading their letters.
A bad and good recommendation may sound the same.
A way to solve this would be to get recommendation via telephone or Skype.


As others have indicated, there are various grades of letters of recommendation.
As the quote below shows, there are also different ways of handling the issue!
My advisor gave this to me as I was finishing up my dissertation, “just in case, I ever needed it.
” It was posted on a Usenet message board Nov.
7, 1993.

You're called upon for an opinion of a friend who is extremely lazy.
You don't want to lie — but you also don't want to risk losing even a lazy friend.

Try this line: “In my opinion,” you say as sincerely as you can manage, “you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you.

This gem of double meaning is the creation of Robert Thornton, a professor of economics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.

Thornton was frustrated about an occupational hazard for teachers, having to write letters of recommendation for people with dubious qualifications, so he put together an arsenal of statements that can be two ways.

He calls his collection the Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations.
Or “LIAR”, for short.

“[LIAR] may be used to offer a negative opinion of the personal qualities, work habits or motivation of the candidate while allowing the candidate to believe that it is high praise,” Thornton explained last week.

Some examples from LIAR:
To describe a person who is totally inept: “I most enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever.

To describe an ex-employee who had problems getting along with fellow workers: “I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague of mine.

To describe a candidate who is so unproductive that the job would be better left unfilled: “I can assure you that no person would be better for the job.

To describe a job applicant who is not worth further consideration: “I would urge you to waste no time in making this candidate an offer of employment.

To describe a person with lackluster credentials: “All in all, I cannot say enough good things about this candidate or recommend him too highly.

Thornton pointed out that LIAR is not only useful in preserving friendships, but it also can help avoid serious legal trouble in a time when laws have eroded the confidentiality of letters of recommendation.

In most states, he noted, job applicants have the right to read the letters of recommendations and can even file suit against the writer if the contents are negative.

When the writer uses LIAR, however, “whether perceived correctly or not by
the candidate, the phrases are virtually litigation-proof,” Thornton said.

Yes, professors do write negative recommendation letters.
However, as Professor Thornton points out, sometimes you want to call a banana an apple just so you don’t have to deal with other problems.
There is a certain artistry to doing it elegantly!
Image from Bad Liar – TV Tropes


Only a few write such letters o refuse to write one!
How do you react to that? Well, its unfortunate your life path crossed their path and they had a doublespeak letter to write about you.
Basically you met a snake who decelerated your ability to reach your goal earlier.
However, do not let this discourage you from achieving your goal.

If you are
then you are unstoppable and will reach your goal.
I speak in abstraction!
The snake cut you off in a shorter curve but if you take another curve or path then you will get there.
You just have to bypass such snakes.
The early you identify such snakes the better you are.

So how do you identify such snakes?
——————————————————————————————————-
Three categories of professors!
Category AAA: They are difficult to determine but you will know when you meet one.
He/she will give you the impression that they are out to get you.
You will feel that he/she will write a bad letter for you or write poorly about you.
In reality they may go to the extent of even producing a pseudo-copy to use fear as a method to actuate your potential and
help you fix up your foolishness and stupidity for lack of focus and priorities and for not seeing the big picture that they are trying to help you see through your cognitive lens.

They will give you opportunities to succeed and keep the pressure until you give up.
They bring the best out of you and you will never know until many years later.
These professors will write a positive letter but give you the impression until the very end that they are writing a bad one to challenge you to do better!

Category A: The good ones, who will always find the best in you and guide you in that way or they will explain objectively what you will need in your academic and learning journey to achieve that end-state.
Some will even go further to make smooth your journey of discovery and learning and be happy that you have embarked such a journey.

If you a student who found such a professor then they will be happy when you will be proud of yourself and you make other learners proud for investing your time, life and energy for taking up such a journey of learning and seeking wisdom.

Just make sure you don’t bring them dishonor!
When you fail, they fail.
When you succeed, they succeed.
Never give up and learn from your mistakes and failures.
Be resilient!

Category AAA and category A professors understand the complexity, non-linearity, adaptive capability, imaginative and time varying and reality varying nature of the human mind and the understanding that it is HIGHLY sensitive when young and while in learning, observing, acting, resonating and reacting modes
Category B: The ones who like the limelight and receive benefits for giving the illusion of teaching and they are not really for teaching but for promoting their intellectual foolishness and deceiving the public by showing that they are smart fall in this category.
They will write the negative letters because they have a machine based simplified model of the human mind in their perception.

It is because category B is easily pressed and have always been easy pushovers.
Because they are controlled by so called false reputation and currency, they enjoy the comfort that it brings and hence write words in doublespeak or multispeak language which enables them to keep enjoying those benefits.

CATEGORY A are truly deserving of respect and the highest title of society for making the self-sacrifice and for being selfless and humble in their pursuit to transfer knowledge.
They understand the responsibility that goes with shaping the future of a student and seeing them from the lens of LIFE.
They understand you are a LIFE-FORM even if it means they hate the student and are emotionally compromised!

CATEGORY B.
If you don’t know who you are, others do.
When you do find out, you are utterly SHAMEFUL for thinking you are better than others.
Whether you accept or reject my words will not negate the truth behind it!

If you do accept that it is shameful then I hope you will transform future minds and do everything in your capacity to shape the past minds and make amends.
You will then have the courage to say what I am saying.

I think they should go through a annual psychoanalytic, psychiatric and SOCIAL evaluation to retain tenure!
One should be judged by the group that he/she judges and for being offered and given such a position of trust and power!
In fact they should be judged by their own criteria first and then by additional criteria placed by the society to test their motives by surprise!
————————————————————————————————————-
I have written letters and performance reports that have influenced the future of many men and women in the University, Civil and Commercial Industry, Government and Armed Forces.
Most of these people employ DOUBLESPEAK (lookup this book by William Lutz).

They hate it but tend to use it as well because
If you are a student reading this,
If you are a professor reading this,
My best experience has been witnessing all the people I have influenced come back and tell me that they are happy because of my feedback and input.
I feel successful because they are successful.
My negation of the self has helped me see a bigger picture than myself and help the profession and the SCIENCE of DISCOVERY and that one day humans will conquer the natural challenges that face this world.

When they will succeed, I will succeed!
I represent the chain of humans before me who wait for you to succeed!
I will claim my HUMAN victory


I think that it is a matter of professional courtesy that if you think little of a person or don’t have much to say positive about a person, you tell them as such when they request a recommendation.

For example, if student X who you had for two classes asks for recommendation and all you can remember is that he go a B and then a C+ in the next course and he often missed classes or showed up several minutes late and they never stood out to you as a good student, you should tell them as much.
They should be prepared that if you do write an recommendation for them it won’t be a good one.

I have had to write multiple recommendations for many reasons, grad schools to internships to special programs, etc.
Thankfully ,the majority of students who ask me are in fact, excellent students.
Ones who either received an A in my class or an A- while being one of the top 3 grades in the course.
But once there was a lone engineering student who took a Junior level math course in Diff Eqs with me.
He was a graduating senior and needed letters for his job applications.
I had to be frank with him and let him know I’ve only known him for 2 months, he had 5 or 6 unexcused class absences, his HW sets were at best average and he got a D on his midterm.
There was not much else I could write about him.
Academically, he was easily in the bottom third of the class and personally, any professor that he had spent a full semester with would have a better standing.
He just said that he ‘got’ my concerns and said he would think about it before asking me again.
He never asked again.


Explicitly negative recommendation letters for graduate school never happen.
Sometimes, there are letters that have some red flags.
For example, sentences like the following are relatively common.
They could be interpreted negatively or not depending on the reader’s point of view.

Letters of recommendation for senior faculty appointments are a completely different game.
More than once, I have seen letters explicitly advising against hiring certain candidate.

There are many other ways, even unintentional, that letters may affect a file negatively.
But I don’t want to make this answer too long.


As a general rule, they do not.
As you saw many say, if they can’t write a good letter, they tend to tell the student that they can’t write one at all.
This is my own personal rule of thumb as well.

That said, there are professors who will write you a bad letter.
Unfortunately, once it’s out there, there is little you can do about it.
However, you can take some steps to increase your chances that it won’t happen to you.
Here is what you should do:
Good Luck!


Well i didn't get an extremely negative one but yeah kind of.
The professor under whom I did my Bachelor's thesis project was one of my recommender for graduate school.
I asked for her recommendation, she agreed and the next day she told me collect it from her office.
The recommendation letter format had tick mark questions good/ excellent/ bad.
The time when i reached her office she was putting my recommendation letter in the envelope.
I didn't meant to sneak a peek but i got a brief glance.
She ticked moderate for every column and just 2 lines for “describe the student” column i was like what the hell is she thinking.
Truly speaking i am not a mediocre category student even without her recommendation i got in a good University.

So i would suggest everyone to get an extra recommendations as you might encounter the same situation.
In my case i had to submit 2 recommendations, so after this tragic incident i asked my summer research internship professor(I was 100% sure that he'll write me a good one bcz he offered me to join his University for MS but since he is from different country as mine, i was kind of lazy to ask him) to write me a recommendation.
The another one i got from a professor who had taken 2 courses (I did well in both courses, one was based on the research which i did in summers and he was really intrigued by my research) in which i was enrolled.


I serve on a fellowship committee for a grant that requires 2 letters of reference for each student applicant.

The vast majority of letters we see are positive.
Some are exceptionally strong; the best ones explain point by point how the applicant matches the requirements of the grant.
Such letters really help applicants stand out.

But there are definitely letters that hurt applicants’ cases.

For example, in one particular case a faculty member submitted a letter that was hastily repurposed from a letter of support for a summer language program.
While the letter was addressed to us, the content of the letter was a bizarre mismatch to what this grant requires of its’ applicants.

There are also the cases where we see letters from the same faculty member for different applicants.
Sometimes the letters are equally positive, but I’ve also seen a specific case where, putting the letters side by side, it was absolutely clear that the faculty member supported one applicant far more than the other.


They absolutely do.
It is a mistake to think that positivity is inherent in the word "recommendation.
" Therefore, when asking someone to write for you, know in advance how they feel about you and your work.
Ask them if they would be "willing to write me a positive recommendation.
" Use those words.
Bear in mind, too that there is such a thing as "damning with faint praise" : giving a.
.
.
lackluster recommendation, which is not exactly negative, but neither is it effusive.
Effusive is what you want.
Finally, if your potential recommender seems even the least bit reticent to write for you, take them off the hook and ask someone else.
A reluctantly written recommendation is as bad as an overtly negative one.
Hope this helps.
 


Yes, it does occur.
I asked if a professor could write a positive letter of recommendation for me in graduate school.
I had great recommendations from Purdue University professors for my masters program.
I expected the same at this University for my next degree.
When I requested the letters I added if he or she did not feel that they knew me or my academic performance and ability well enough, I would understand if they refused.
4 professors agreed and one said he didn’t believe that he knew me, except for my academic work.
I had made also high grades in his class.
He was my professor in a large lecture style class.
I believe that this man disliked my father, intensely.
My father was a professor of law at the same major American University.
My father suggested that I request recommendations in this manner.
Professors are people too.
Not all people will like you or your personality.
You may have asked a question in class that offended or threatened the professor.
This may have been a political response.
You may have come to class untidy or hung over.
You may have made a poor impression.
Or in my situation, the person may be professionally jealous of your father.
As I have already stated, Professors are people too.


They do, but it is completely spineless.
When this happens it is the result of a professor who can not say, "No.
" This is not just for professors, it's for everyone, everywhere.
If a person asks for a letter of recommendation, and the person being asked can't provide a positive recommendation, they should tell the asker that they do not feel comfortable giving a recommendation.
They should further be available to explain to the asker why they are refusing.

For example: "While I like you in general, and think you have an inquisitive mind, and will make a great scholar one day, I don't at this time, feel comfortable recommending you to Harvard for a master's program.
I fear you are not prepared.
I would suggest you take some graduate level courses at the local university and get an idea of what is expected of graduate students before you apply to Harvard.
Once you've done that, I will be happy to recommend you.
I just don't want you to get hurt.
"


I’m sure some do, but it’s rare.
I don’t think I have read an outright “Do not take this person” letter, ever, in over 10 years of reading recommendations for many different programs.

Students need to worry more about:
Professors who refuse to write recommendations.

A former assistant reported to a Harvard human resources office in late 2008 that Dr.
Fryer … refused to write recommendations for economics graduate programs she was applying to, according to her complaint(.
) – Star Economist at Harvard Faces Sexual Harassment Complaints
Professors who accidentally write a letter that ends up harming more than helping.

Did Bob try to offer some carefully nuanced observations to lend credibility but, instead, inadvertently wrote a hit piece? That seems likely.

Considering the doozy of a letter that he wrote for this other person who I know well, it’s hard to imagine that he even knows how to write a supportive recommendation letter.
Tenure denial, seven years later
Professors who write form letters, just changing the name of students.

Updated: 16.06.2019 — 11:15 am

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