A professor (currently Associate Professor) I used to collaborate with is being considered for the promotion to "full Professor". The Department asked me to write a letter supporting the professor's promotion as former student.

I am super happy to be able to support this promotion because I have a great opinion of this scholar and I genuinely think it is fully deserved, but I have few concerns:

  • I am just a postdoc, and usually referral letters are asked to other professors (ok, it's true I was asked as former student).
  • I have not been formally student of this person, neither I was enrolled in that university. I was doing my PhD in another university in the same city and just met the professor casually due to common friends and interests. The professor became my PhD co-advisor, but this was mainly to acknowledge the nice discussions and ideas exchanges we had over lunch about my work, more than a formal collaboration.
  • we did not publish papers together.

That told, I am wondering whether I should be really writing this letter, and, in the positive case, what kind of shape I should give to my message.

  • 34
    I think you are overthinking things, given that they explicitly asked you to write this letter.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 14:17
  • 1
    @xLeitix, In principle I agree with you: I was thinking of the possible ethical implications of this specific case, and in general I would not like to contribute in something potentially harmful for the promotion. Not being myself in academia I have little experience in these kinds of referral processes and I just wanted to have a more informed opinion
    – Nemesi
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 14:37
  • In the message asking you for a letter, were there no guidelines about what they were looking for? If not, they will perhaps be provided to you after you accept or you can ask.
    – Kimball
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 14:52
  • The message was quite short and open, it does not really provide a guidance in the kind of information requested. I will definitely ask more info, but my point is more on the issue of referring the teaching activities of someone to whom I have not been student. That's my main concern.
    – Nemesi
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 14:59
  • 10
    It's worth considering that declining to offer a reference may be seen as not supporting the professor/having nothing good to say about them, even if the real reason is just that you don't feel that you have standing. Better to offer a letter that speaks to what you know about this person (however limited) than to decline to be a reference, if you believe they deserve the promotion.
    – APH
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 23:16

6 Answers 6


There's a good chance that this professor's department's or university's policy is to send requests for letters to every recent student of a faculty member who's up for a promotion. Look for an official document called something like "appointment and tenure policy" on the department's website; if you can't find anything relevant there, go up to the university level or the "school" level and look some more. To give you an idea of what they're like, here's the appointment and tenure policy document for my university.

Don't second-guess whether you were enough this person's student for your opinion to be helpful. The promotion committee thinks so; that's what matters. (Was this person an official member of your thesis committee? If so that's plenty good enough for most departments.)

Do be honest about the depth and breadth of your interaction with them. For instance, you could lead off with "I have known Dr. Lastname for 3 years. I was never enrolled in any of their classes nor did I have very much interaction with their research group at $UNIVERSITY, but we regularly met over that time to discuss the research leading to my dissertation on $TOPIC." And then go on to talk about how they helped you with your dissertation.

  • 4
    +1 for most of this, but in your suggested opening, I’d want to switch it round to emphasise the positive side, e.g.: “We met regularly during that time to discuss the research leading to my dissertation on $TOPIC, though I was not enrolled in any of their classes nor did I directly interact much with their research group at $UNIVERSITY."
    – PLL
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 8:01

The department asked you to write because they want your opinion. Of course they also asked others. If they do not ask you specific questions, then just give the reasons for

I am super happy to be able to support her/his promotion because I have a great opinion of her/him and I genuinely think s/he deserves that,

If they do include specific questions in their letter to you, then answer those, or explicitly say "I cannot answer question 3 because...".


Since you and the professor collaborated on things and you are happy about the result presumably, just describe the collaboration and what it meant for you. I think that in this particular university teaching and fostering students is valued. In some places it is valued more than research, actually.

So, if you think the professor has helped you along toward a career as an academic through your joint work (or otherwise) you can write about that.

The fact that you are "just" a post-doc may be an advantage. It will give variety to the professors promotion dossier. Others will contribute from different perspectives.

Just be honest.


This kind of thing is becoming more common. I have heard it referred to as 360 degree assessment. It doesn't replace the more traditional 'top-down' assessment but the thought - I gather - is that it adds extra information and gives a different perspective to the people making the decision.

For an example of why this might work: most people are not too reluctant to help their boss. If you are difficult with everyone else though, it's not always the case your boss will notice this and couldn't tell whoever is reviewing the promotion.

If there's no other reason to worry, I wouldn't read any more into this than: it's a new thing they're doing.


I've had a professor ask me for a letter before (decades ago). He was up for a major award. I was post bachelors, not even in grad school yet (in industry).

Be a big person and just help the fellow out. Don't underestimate yourself or your ability to make contributions, regardless of seniority. Life comes at you fast...in a few years, it will be normal.


I think that if you think he should be promoted and they asked then go ahead even though your experience with them was casual it shows that he influenced your life. It shows that they went above and beyond and he loves to help people. If he has such an impact on you, a non-student just imagine the impact he will have on his actual students. Teachers like this are rare nowadays.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .