100th letter of recommendation and whatprofessorsdo

One of my colleagues–honestly a research powerhouse and a veritable icon of his profession– charms the bejesus out of people by referring to himself as a schoolteacher. I don’t think for a second that this wasn’t a calculated bit of humility on his part–he is very famous in his field, and he’s far too sharp not to know it–but it is charming nonetheless, and like him, I would be quite proud to list myself among schoolteachers. Our jobs are different: they do more teaching than I do, and I do more research and writing than they do, but the heart of the matter is the same: we are trying to help people get where they are going.

Today I am penning the 100th letter of recommendation I have written in my three-year academic career at USC. That’s not counting the first three years’ of letters that I penned at Virginia Tech. That means I’ve written a little over 30 letters of recommendation a year, for various students. This year is still young.

Whenever parents or students are nasty to me about how “they pay my salary”–yes, they do, but I also pay their salary with all the goods I buy, and it doesn’t entitle me to act like a boorish boss or wronged when–gasp!–they are enjoying free time in the middle of the week–I think of all the letters of recommendation that I have written, one of the invisible tasks of my job. It isn’t onerous; it’s often a pleasure. But it’s a very real task, one that I take very seriously, because students need letters to get where they are going.

Today’s 100th: a graduate student from industrial engineering at Viterbi who wants to pursue her PhD.

2 thoughts on “100th letter of recommendation and whatprofessorsdo

  1. Recommendation letters, important as they are, are only part of the unrecognized overhead of university teaching. Other parts are advising, mentoring, strategizing, negotiating, mediating–and that’s just with the faculty. You’ve got to do the same with students too. It’s all very time-consuming, and people rarely grasp what’s happening here.

  2. One of the big shockers for me when I became a professor was just how much management it entailed: your time, students, colleagues, projects. Like most things, it’s harder than it looks from the outside.

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