21

Today some of my friends were discussing a motivation letter. One friend's application was rejected. One reason his friends find out is that the letter of motivation is very emotional. So I was thinking: is there no place of emotion in academia? People used to study a lot as a strong feeling works in them, inspiring them to do more and more work. This is the emotion. Can it play harmfully in a letter of motivation?

Edit: I have collected his small letter. It is included. We thought it is very emotional.

College XY has best undergraduate mathematics department of the university of XY. IITX is built upon the basement of the first engineering college of Asia. I completed my B.Sc. from XY and M.Sc. from IITX. Both the times I got first class after each evaluation. I had a dream to continue my PhD studies in a good western university. I tried. My degrees are equivalent to degrees from European universities. I came to the understanding that my knowledge is not much sufficient for their requirements. Currently I am working in a project focussing on a very particular problem. I am out of touch from many interesting topics of mathematics. Many advanced parts of mathematics are till unknown to me which shall be very useful in my work. So I am thing for a better opportunity to revise my mathematical concepts in a better way and to collect new knowledge. I wish to build myself in a way that I can continue my PhD work in a good university and I can be a successful researcher. If I get the opportunity to continue the diploma hope I reach my dreams.

  • 3
    So what did his friends "find out"? – Pete L. Clark Jan 13 '15 at 18:19
  • 2
    As a general approximate rule, youngish students' speculations based on essentially no information should not be reasons for concern. The motivation to guess is clear, but that doesn't mean that guesses will be accurate. – paul garrett Jan 13 '15 at 18:28
  • 60
    The extract you are showing is a translation right? If this is the text that was submitted I don't think 'emotions' are the primary concern. – Cape Code Jan 13 '15 at 18:33
  • 38
    The letter is not emotional. However, it won't convince anyone to give your friend an interview, let alone a position: it tells us nothing useful about what your friend wants to study, and why the particular program is a good fit for him! – aeismail Jan 13 '15 at 18:47
  • 12
    I am wondering if we should change the title of this question. Currently, this question would not really help anybody who is actually wondering whether (s)he should keep emotion out of a motivation letter. The title should be more "Can a very generic motivation letter be harmful?" (to which the obvious answer is "yes", of course). – xLeitix Jan 13 '15 at 20:35
49

In brief, even after imagining that text's language cleaned up, the problem is not about "emotion" but about lack of verifiable substance. As in @aesmail's good answer, insubstantiated claims, or, worse, claims which appear to be counter to any documentable reality, are at best unpersuasive. For example, unsupported claims about the quality of one's university or department are at best pointless, and suggest that one does not know how things work. Proposing to "collect new knowledge" gives a very strange impression, as though the writer believed that learning new things was somehow unusual... while being remarkably inspecific.

That is, if I were to receive such a letter, I'd consider it basically content-free, for all practical purposes. "Emotion" is not the issue. The problem is that such letters should not be content-free, but should include tangibles, past accomplishments and connections with the future, etc. A content-free letter competes very badly with content-ful letters.

  • 8
    This reminds me of the understandable efforts made by applicants-to-grad-schools to find some formulaic approach to "good personal statements"... The essential impossibility of a formulaic approach is what makes reading of personal statements important to me as admissions committee member. Such statements are harder to usefully fake (given their dependence for sense on the writer's circumstances) than many other things. – paul garrett Jan 13 '15 at 19:22
38

There is a wonderful quotation by Bertrand Russell that perfectly sums up the nature of emotions in academia:

Nothing great is achieved without passion, but underneath the passion there should always be that large impersonal survey which sets limits to actions that our passions inspire. [1]

You should definitely show a sense of inquisitiveness, drive, enthusiasm, and eagerness; the "catch" is that we want to see that in your work. Dazzle us with your papers and presentations. Wow students in your lecture. But what we don't want is for you to tell us that you're enthusiastic and passionate. Leave that for others, such as the people writing your letters of recommendation, to tell us that.

[1]: The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., p. 536 (1961).

  • 15
    I think this is a really good answer. In many (if not all) parts of academia, your passion for your work will be taken into account (even quite significantly, in some cases). What will not be taken much into account -- and, if taken into account at all, more likely negatively -- is your own verbal description of your passion for your work. – Pete L. Clark Jan 13 '15 at 18:33
  • 2
    Yeah. A lot of things make a lot of sense as long as you're not saying them about yourself. – Mehrdad Jan 15 '15 at 6:46
20

As others have said, the main problem of that letter is not its emotionality, but the lack of content and the presence of unnecessary details. Let me analyse a few example sentences:

College XY has best undergraduate mathematics department of the university of XY.

According to whom or according to which criteria?

IITX is built upon the basement of the first engineering college of Asia.

This is unnecessary: it does not actually strengthen the previous claim, nor it gives useful information to understand the background of the applicant. It's just a historical curiosity. Probably briefly listing the main research topics of the department would have been more useful.

I completed my B.Sc. from XY and M.Sc. from IITX. Both the times I got first class after each evaluation.

What was he evaluated on? Typically students have to write a dissertation at the end of their degrees, it would have been better to add information about these: objectives achieved, feelings about continuing on the same topics or moving to other topics.

Currently I am working in a project focussing on a very particular problem.

Which problem? Is it a toy problem or a research problem that can be suitable for a publication?

Many advanced parts of mathematics are till unknown to me which shall be very useful in my work.

Indeed, many advanced parts of mathematics are also unknown to mathematicians. So which are these parts that are needed for his work?

Therefore, on the basis of the above, I would have rejected his application too. You can write an emotional letter, but the emotions should be just an addition to the information needed by the application board to correctly assess the level of the applicant.

9

There is most certainly a place for emotion in academia. That place is amongst your most trusted friends and closest colleagues.

Science works by identifying truths that hold regardless of whether we care about them or not, regardless of whether we desperately want them to be true or fear that they might be. Science is funded by agencies who don't care how much your work means to you, but rather how its outcomes might support the agency's mission. Professors are hired by other faculty who don't care whether working there will fulfill your dreams, but rather how your skills and abilities will fit the needs and goals of their department.

So by all means, have emotions, share your emotions with people who genuinely care about you as a person, and allow your emotions to direct your passion in research and teaching. But know that you will be judged not by your passion, but by the fruits of your labor, and make sure that those are at the forefront of how your present yourself to strangers.

  • 5
    " But know that you will be judged not by your passion..." That seems too strong to me. Many academic recommendation letters mention how passionate / committed / intense a candidate is. For me, when someone is unusually keen I make sure to mention it as a positive trait. Note also that academia \neq science. – Pete L. Clark Jan 13 '15 at 18:17
  • @PeteL.Clark academia \neq science? I thought that academia is the place for science happens – Ooker Oct 2 '15 at 9:22
8

Here is my cruelly honest translation of the letter. I am not trying to insult you. I have received many similar messages as unsolicited emails (always from India), and this is essentially how I read them.

College XY has best undergraduate mathematics department of the university of XY. - I am aware that my university isn't particularly good, so I am making a desperate attempt to argue that my education wasn't as poor as the general standard for my university.

IITX is built upon the basement of the first engineering college of Asia. - If something isn't actually good, point out how big, old or expensive it is and maybe people will be fooled.

I completed my B.Sc. from XY and M.Sc. from IITX. Both the times I got first class after each evaluation. - Hard to tell due to the bad English, but apparently the applicant is claiming to have had good grades. Impossible to tell whether this means top 10% or top 90%.

I had a dream to continue my PhD studies in a good western university. I tried. - What is this supposed to mean? Applicant once was accepted and started a PhD at a European university, but failed?

My degrees are equivalent to degrees from European universities. - According to whom?

I came to the understanding that my knowledge is not much sufficient for their requirements. - Contradicts the previous claim.

Currently I am working in a project focussing on a very particular problem. - Currently I am doing some research that I am not at all interested in and that I am not even prepared to explain in detail if someone asks me about it, because I don't understand it myself.

I am out of touch from many interesting topics of mathematics. - In an application I was once asked about some basic (first year level) knowledge related to what I was applying for and didn't even have an idea what the words meant.

Many advanced parts of mathematics are till unknown to me which shall be very useful in my work. So I am thing for a better opportunity to revise my mathematical concepts in a better way and to collect new knowledge. - Maybe I could become a mathematician by doing my undergraduate degree all over again, this time at a proper university.

I wish to build myself in a way that I can continue my PhD work in a good university and I can be a successful researcher. - Because I underestimate the effort involved in learning things properly, I think that I can do this on the side, while officially working on a PhD, and even get a PhD too.

If I get the opportunity to continue the diploma hope I reach my dreams. - Diploma or PhD, what's the difference? It's all the same to me.

Besides, my English isn't good enough to study in English, and since I am blissfully unaware of the fact it is not likely to improve. Sorry that I can't mention the special strengths of the university I am applying to. I have no clue what they are, and anyway, I am sending this to several hundred. It would be too much work to adjust the text for each.

7

Emotion in academia is a double-edged sword. On one hand, emotion (e.g. curiosity, drive) is usually what drives us to conduct research in the first place. But as research should always be targeted at getting closer to a objective truth, emotions must not interfere with your struggle for the truth. Yet there are many emotions (e.g. fear, faith, trust) that can cloud your judgement and lead your research down a wrong path.

In short, emotions can be a good reason to conduct research, but must not affect its results. If your friend's motivational letter was suggesting that he might be affected by emotions in the latter way, this may justly be held against him.

  • This is tangential to the question, but still have good information – Ooker Oct 2 '15 at 9:19
5

The problem is not about emotions. Other answers have pointed out a lack of substance, but I'll make a different point. It's that your friend draws a very bad image of him/her-self. Your question title should really be "Can a letter of motivation that highlights weak points be harmful in a PhD application?"

Just isolate these four parts of the motivation letter:

I tried.

And then?

my knowledge is not much sufficient for their requirements

So no surprise you're not admitted.

I am out of touch from many interesting topics of mathematics.

Not good if you're to pursue cutting edge research for a PhD.

advanced parts of mathematics are till unknown to me

ditto

This is an application. It needs to draw a good image of the applicant, not show the weak points.

1

The original poster is asking totally the wrong question. The problem isn't his friend's level of "emotion"; it is his friend's utter lack of social intelligence at how he will be perceived in writing such a thing. The answer is not for his friend to become a smoother wordsmith; the answer is for his friend to get out into the world more, and actually develop a functional level of social intelligence.

The intended reader of this letter is a HUMAN, probably a group of them. Each of them can be expected to be a very, very smart human, who will analyze the letter on many different levels, but nevertheless, a human, with emotions, from which the writer would like a particular (favorable) response. My immediate emotional response, as a human, after reading this, is disbelief, annoyance, and disgust. Disbelief at how clueless the writer is, annoyance at how little useful information he provides me, disgust at how little he must have thought about me and what I might want to see in such a letter, and then a bit more annoyance at what a waste of time it was to even read it. This letter is so poor on such a fundamental level, it's hard to wrap my head around the idea it was written by someone seeking entry into a PhD program.

The primary emotions being expressed in the letter are anger at the injustice and victimhood of being denied, and bewilderment at not understanding the reasons why, and then more anger at finding out his prior education, is, apparently "worthless" in the eyes of these institutions.

So, the reader of the letter should admit into their PhD program, an angry victim of rejection, a victim who seems to believe the fault was with the evaluators, not himself, yet does not show any understanding of WHY others rejected him? A candidate with this lack of awareness does not inspire confidence, doesn't seem like a good bet.

And instead of telling us even what area the "very particular (mathematics) problem" is in, we are left to guess? Why doesn't he just say it's a "problem in the area of (some mathnobabble area, I'll say "online reputation management") involving (slightly more particular considerations, I'll say "mathematical models for detecting falsified reviews"). What is he hiding from us by being vague? Maybe he's hiding... that he actually knows NOTHING! Yet, perhaps he knows a great deal. The reader cannot tell anything useful about what he does and does not know in the relevant area.

A socially intelligent writer would have gone to great lengths to find out why his qualifications were perceived to be unsuitable by other institutions, and then calmly but briefly explain it. How could he appear to not know WHY those other institutions rejected him? Was he so lacking in motivation, he did not bother to find out the specific, detailed reasons for his rejection? I submit that much academic work is about figuring out what the problem is that needs to be solved, and then applying thinking and action to solve it. How is it possible to have confidence in a candidate who accepts rejection without clearly figuring out the reasons, what the PROBLEM was? How can this man be trusted to take effective action to identify problems, and then solve them, as part of a a PhD program? To address this issue, he must be able to briefly and calmly explain what the problem was, and preferably why it will not be an issue at the desired institution. For analogous examples from Finance and Economics, "European institutions require an EU-accredited course in Financial Derivative Models, which was neither required nor available at my prior institutions." Or, "European institutions prefer graduates of the Austrian school, while my coursework was centered around the Chicago school". Explaining why the problems other institutions cited won't be an issue at his desired institution is an exercise I will leave to him.

And overall, there is little to no mention of anything substantive he has done, nothing that can be verified; the primary mentions are of the injustice he feels has been done to him by having his degrees ignored and disrespected by other schools he has applied to, schools who are obviously arbitrary, mean-spirited, and just out to get poor little him.

I hope I reach my dreams? What ARE his dreams, maybe a little statement of them would help? His dreams are so vague he can't even briefly state them? And he HOPES he reaches, not he "is determined to do the work to reach", his dreams? But don't just try to be more smooth; invest time, attention, and emotion to figure out what his dreams actually are, so that he can clearly and compellingly express them in a sentence or two. "My dream is to..." (I'll say, "help the online world become a more honest place") "...and being admitted into this program would bring me closer by..." ("being around brilliant mentors who can help me devise and improve mathematical models for detecting patterns of deception and fraud").

Such a letter should be written to show an awareness of, and caring for, the point of view of others. As it stands, it loudly conveys a lack of awareness in those areas. The readers would be likely to conclude the writer is unaware, a bad thing in itself, or, even worse, uncaring.

The writer of the letter would be better advised to take up some hobby or activity, take a year off from school if necessary, to work on and improve his social intelligence. Maybe go to a university and work as a mathematics tutor for students in the areas he has learned, while taking classes or doing other work that involves interacting with people a lot. It should be an area that requires a level of social intelligence skills to be successful, provides opportunity after opportunity to develop them, and provides immediate and direct personal feedback on how well he is doing. A quick list of ideas could include doing commission sales work, working as a bartender, and volunteering to canvass and advocate for political candidates and their campaigns.

  • 4
    Welcome to A.SE! We try to provide constructive answers here -- your response is unnecessarily negative with ad hominem attacks, which is why it likely will not attract many upvotes. I'd suggest editing it to make it more constructive -- imagine that you are writing to the student applicant himself/herself. – RoboKaren Jan 15 '15 at 3:33
  • 4
    RoboKaren tells me "your response is unnecessarily negative with ad hominem attacks". I have been direct and descriptive in describing how I, as an evaluator, would process such a letter. At the same time, I have tried to provide constructive suggestions and specific actions to improve the situation. While I could certainly be more concise, I stand by what I wrote as an authentic expression that, I believe, is more likely to be helpful than a kinder, gentler wording. Relevant cliche: Tough love. Is RoboKaren right, and I am too harsh? Or is my direct wording a better medicine here? – Developer63 - GoFund Monica Jan 15 '15 at 3:46
  • 3
    I accept your opinion that I may be too harsh in some areas. I simply can't immediately tell which ones. :) In some cases, pain, emotional pain, is needed to trigger humans to action and change. I hope what I write inspires the right kind of pain in the original writer to motivate him to take constructive action to address what I see as the real, underlying problem. He needs to become better at reading, understanding, and anticipating the perceptions of humans, in order to put himself in a position where whatever mathematical skills he has will become relevant. – Developer63 - GoFund Monica Jan 15 '15 at 4:24
  • 14
    The problem isn't his friend's level of "emotion"; it is his friend's utter lack of social intelligence at how he will be perceived in writing such a thing - looks like you should take your own advice. – Davor Jan 15 '15 at 9:17
  • 3
    This answer is only "harsh" in that it doesn't sugar-coat the conclusions or explanations of reactions letter-readers would have. In fact, it is very informative about specifics. – paul garrett Jan 15 '15 at 14:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.