I've been asked by my former department to write a letter for my doctoral advisor's promotion. What kind of information do departments typically want in these letters?

They specifically asked to mention any areas for improvement. While I got along with him very well overall, I can, with hindsight, see some areas in which he could improve. To what extent would this hurt his chances for promotion?


  • 6
    I would definitely check with a trusted insider whether they actually want to hear "areas for improvement", or if this will be a kiss of death. This sounds like the kind of thing an administrator would write.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 15:10
  • I second @xLeitix's concern that actually doing what is suggested, in terms of "areas for improvement", could have a fatal effect. Even if you do think there is room for improvement, often in such situations there is a severe inflation of praise, and code about negatives... so don't get drawn into answering in artificial ways. Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 16:04
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    I agree with @xLeitix about the need to be cautious, but I have to say, it would be a severely dysfunctional department in which the request for a letter of recommendation isn’t meant to be read as literally as possible. Generally when we ask for letters and ask the writers “please comment on X, Y, and Z”, we consider the letter helpful if it actually comments on X, Y, and Z. By contrast, a letter that only comments on X would make me wonder if the writer has some ulterior motive for not discussing Y and Z. At the very least, it is unhelpful, and could potentially even hurt the promotion case.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 18:47
  • @DanRomik I agree if this request indeed comes from an academic, but administrators being out of touch with academic reality happens even in departments that aren't particularly dysfunctional. And requests for promotion material are often send by an administrator (at least at my university).
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 19:11
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    @xLeitix I stand by what I said. A department that invites people to write a letter of recommendation asking for something and expecting them to read between the lines and write something else is, by definition (at least by my definition) severely dysfunctional. I’m not denying that such departments exist of course, hence the need for OP to be cautious.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 19:19

1 Answer 1


Write about what you know and don't speculate. Because of the power imbalance, let others (professors) speak about improvements.

Think about whether you have had a good experience and whether you would recommend him to other students. Make it personal. If some sorts of students might not thrive with this prof and you wouldn't recommend they work with him you can say that.

Be honest, but don't stray too far outside the limits of your relationship.

From a student I think that is all that is expected.

If you think he needs improvement, speak to him about it, privately. And preferably after you finish. "I wish that ..."

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