(Note: this is purely hypothetical at the moment, but I thought of it and it struck me as an interesting dilemma.)

I am an early-career faculty member in linguistics at a big public college in the U.S.; I do quantitative research on language change and dialectology. Most of the reference letters I write, unsurprisingly, are for graduate programs in linguistics (or psychology). However, I occasionally get a request from a student for a letter of recommendation to medical school or nursing. I'm totally happy to provide these.

While tracking down the password for my American Medical College Application Services account just now, it occurred to me that I might someday get a request for e.g. programs in naturopathy or chiropractice. Right now, I wouldn't know how to handle such a thing.

To be clear, I have no medical credentials at all (seriously - I stopped taking biology after my tenth grade pre-AP class). And I can see the argument that it's absolutely none of my business what my students decide to do, and that introducing my personal views into the decision of whether to write a letter is potentially a slippery slope. (For instance, would I refuse to write a letter for a student applying to a graduate program in some country whose military actions I might disapprove of? I hope I wouldn't. Is that much different from this?)

But I'm a big fan of, well, science in general; I'm also keenly interested in the place of science in American society. I regularly read blogs such as Science Based Medicine, which leave me feeling pretty suspicious of most "alternative medicine" and wanting to do what I can to avoid supporting it. If I received a request for a letter to a program in naturopathy or chiropractice or something, I'd probably cringe. I'd rather work out how to deal with this kind of situation in advance in case it ever suddenly presents itself. Any thoughts?

  • 2
    I have found chiropractic care to be extremely helpful, when practiced well, but I'll imagine a variant of your question. Suppose my student wants a recommendation for a job with the CIA. (Yuck!) I will ask the usual stuff-- please outline a job description, and any specific things from your transcript and life experience that you think make this job an especially good match for you. I might lean a bit more on having the student describe his motivation for the job. All of this will allow me to check whether s/he has really thought things through (and will encourage him/her to do so if hasn't). Jun 2, 2017 at 18:43
  • Update from OP: I actually encountered a situation just like this about a year and a half ago: a student asked for a letter for naturopathy school. I told the student I'd get back to them and consulted a friend who has a degree in bioethics, who said they would 100% decline if it were them. I thought about it and said a gentle no. The student said that three of their other professors had also said no, without adding any details, and asked if I would elaborate. I did, gently, and they took it well.
    – trikeprof
    Jul 12, 2023 at 0:45

1 Answer 1


I think this dilemma can be approached from first principles: a letter of recommendation is an explicit choice to support a person on the path that they have chosen.

In most cases, the main question is not the path but whether this particular person is a good match for that path. If one didn't like the path, however, I think it would be vital to come back to the question of how much you support the person.

Sometimes, we support somebody enough to want to help them even when they are on a course that we have grave doubts about: many a parent has faced such dilemmas, and a teacher's role can sometimes be quite similar. Other times, we might find the path itself so problematic that we refuse to support, even if it means doing damage to a person's hopes and dreams.

In short: I don't think there's a cut and dried answer, but that one must judge the individual situation with the question: "Can I, in good faith, support this person's decision to take this path?"

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