A small idea to improve graduate student mental health

A "Less Stress" Recommendation Letter Timeline

By Jeff Huang, last updated 2021-02-13

I have been thinking about what we can do about graduate student mental health, the stress that academics accrue. Most ideas require cooperation or agreement among a large number of stakeholders who generally disagree about a lot of things. So I have been brainstorming ideas that would already be beneficial for whoever chose to use them.

One source of stress is the dance to request recommendation letters, which are often needed for applying to graduate school, fellowships and awards, or faculty positions. The stress comes from the fact that faculty often wait until the deadline to submit the recommendation letters, that quite a few submit them late or not at all (from my experience on the Ph.D. admissions committee). But even if the letters are submitted on time, the graduate student does not know this until close to the deadline. So there's the stress of uncertainty and when it is appropriate to send a "gentle reminder" to submit the letter. On the letter writer's side, this means responding to multiple reminders for each letter to write. And sometimes despite best intentions, a letter is missed, but once the deadline has passed it is too late.*

But this problem can be fixed with a simple social protocol, without agreement by a large academic community or require changing the existing recommendation letter systems. I propose the following timeline:

  1. The student requests recommendation letters from the letter writer 3 weeks before they're due, and points to this page describing the protocol, asking "do you mind if we try this protocol which hopefully will be easier for both of us?" The student includes in this email their application material drafts, list of places that need the letter, and deadlines to the letter writer.
  2. Within one week, if the potential letter writer agrees, then they are indicating they will submit the letters at least 72 hours before the deadline. During this period, the student refrains from any "persistent by friendly" reminders to submit the letter, trusting that the letter writer is already aware of the task. They can send updated materials or corrections, but should not expect a response.
  3. If the letter writer does not submit the letter 72 hours before it's due, then the student would have free reign to send reminders or seek alternate writers, as it's clear there is a problem. This is not ideal of course, but the difference now is they have 72 hours to address the issue, instead of it being too late because the deadline having just passed by.

So in the best case when both parties follow the protocol, it means fewer reminders and less worry for the student. In the worst case, it's an extra 72 hours to resolve the missing letter compared to using the original deadline.

Anyways, I think social norms are powerful, especially ones that don't require a major network effect to benefit its adopters. A student can suggest this timeline, or a considerate letter writer can. I will try this with my students, and would love to hear from anyone who tries this as well.

PS: If you came to this page to request a recommendation letter from me, please see my FAQ as well.