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Thanking a prof for Rec. Letter

  1. Apr 11, 2012 #1
    I know this might sound like a petty, unimportant question but I'm really not sure of the proper way to thank the profs that wrote Letters of Recommendation for me. I got accepted into some good 4 year schools and I know that I got some really good letters from 2 professors at my 2 year college.
    I was debating on anything from a thank you email to a thank you card with a Starbucks or restaurant gift card inside. Would a gift card (anything with monetary value) be inappropriate?
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  3. Apr 11, 2012 #2
    I think a gift card is inappropriate. I think just a good thank you email is totally sufficient.
  4. Apr 11, 2012 #3


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    Writing recommendation letters is part of a prof's job. Giving anything of monetary value for it certainly inappropriate, and could get you involved in allegations of bribery if somebody else with a LOR from the same prof, who didn't get the position they wanted, found out about it.

    A thankyou email would probably be harmless, but a verbal thank you would be just as good, and leaves no record for somebody with a grudge to use.

    (I don't work in academia, but I'm assuming the ethics situation is the same as it would be in industry).
  5. Apr 11, 2012 #4
    Thanks for the replies. I was pretty sure that any kind of gift card would be inappropriate. In my defense, I only meant a small gift card for a coffee or something so I never really thought there would be any ethical issues.
    I was just curious what others did.
  6. Apr 11, 2012 #5


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    I've baked them cookies (when I lived nearby) and sent them Starbucks gift cards when I didn't. Either way, they were very appreciative. I really don't think it's inappropriate to send a small gift card. Sure, writing letters is part of their job (and now my job as well) but it does take quite a bit of time, especially if you apply to a lot of schools or jobs. A thank-you of some sort is never inappropriate.
  7. Apr 11, 2012 #6

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    I don't see a problem with cookies, or a note. I think anything with a dollar amount on it like a gift card would be problematic.
  8. Apr 12, 2012 #7


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    It depends on the cultural expectations of the people involved. In some cultures, if you accept a gift from someone, there is an implicit agreememt that you then "owe them a favour" which will be paid back at some future time.

    That's one reason some multinational companies (including my employer) have formal guidelines and zero tolerance of what might seem innocent enough behaviour - there's always the possibility that you don't realize the other person is playing to a different set of rules from you. Even if this is way below the radar of obvious "bribery and corruption", it can have long term consequences for somebody's reputation as a "good" or "bad" person to work with, though they might not have any idea how they got that reputation.
  9. Apr 12, 2012 #8
    Part of what makes this interesting is that part of the protocol of gift giving has the both the gift giver and receiver both insisting that there is no quid-pro-quo. One of the funnier things that I've seen was when an official helped someone I knew on a legal issue, and the person was absolutely insisting on giving a gift to the official, and the official absolutely refusing to take the gift. In this particular situation, it seemed obvious from the body language that the official really didn't want to take the gift, but what's funny is that people go through the same motions even if in the end both the official and the person giving the gift know it's a defacto bribe.

    It's also useful as an issue of face. In some situations it's considered rude for someone to refuse a gift, and pointing to official guidelines helps people to refuse a gift. In that situation, the official was making the point that they would get fired if they accepted the gift, but my friend kept insisting. (What ended up happening was that the official took the gift, and then next day, my friend got some gifts back of equal value.)

    Things can go too far in the other direction. You get into meetings where people wonder if its acceptable to serve coffee and doughnuts to foreign officials. After a long meeting people figure out that yes, you can serve coffee and doughnuts to officials. The trouble with this is that there is a fuzzy line between "normal business practice" and something shady, and there are teams of lawyers that work on this full time. The reason that you have tons of lawyers working on this is that every is terrified of being the target of a Department of Justice investigation for FCPA violations.

    Food has some really tricky bits. The thing is that if you refuse cash, then the cash won't spoil, but if you refuse food, then food will.

    And also you run into a "tipping" problem. Once one person gives a gift, it doesn't take very long before gifting is considered standard and anyone that doesn't give a gift is in trouble.
  10. Apr 12, 2012 #9


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    I suppose you could see it that way, but my letter writers worked for universities and were all good friends of mine (former professors and advisers, colleagues). I suppose it depends on your relationship with them. I certainly saw it as 'I've already asked them to do quite a bit of work for me, so this is the least I could do to thank them'.
  11. Apr 12, 2012 #10
    That's kind of how I see it. Time is money and if someone is willing to spend some of their time helping me out, then I feel they should be compensated. (In hindsight, I hope this isn't a reflection on me- thinking that I should be compensated for any help I might give to others).
    Obviously, a small gift card isn't worth the time they put in, but it's at least a gesture that shows you value their time. I can see how this could turn very problematic, though, no matter how good the intentions are.
  12. Apr 12, 2012 #11


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    But presumably they didn't write these letters in their spare time?
    Writing recommendation letters, letters of support etc. is all part of the job; i.e. the people who wrote you those letters are paid to do so. is just part of the normal paperwork we all have to deal with.
    I even have indirect time codes I can book my time to when I write letter etc. :frown:
  13. Apr 12, 2012 #12
    That points out why the situation is bit tricky. Part of the rationale of recommendations is to given an evaluation of someone's abilities, and it's often the case that having a friend that wants to help you out is the worst person to do an evaluation. Sometimes, the person whose opinions you really want are someone that hates your guts and wants to do anything they can to make your life miserable.

    The other thing that happens is that if you are in a system with recommendations, then a lot of doing well in that system involves the ability to make friends and have people like you. That can cause conflicts in situations where technical ability is part of the equation.

    One weird thing is that in Chinese applications to US universities, it's common practice for the student to write their own evaluation and then have the professor sign it. The system works pretty well, and one subtle implication is that if you end up with a glowing recommendation, you *don't* owe the professor anything, since you wrote the recommendation.

    One reason that it's socially awkward for the professor to write the recommendation letter is that it's considered bad form for a professor to say anything bad about their students. However, because there are social pressures to be humble and modest, it's considered bad form for a student to say anything positive about themselves, so having the student write the recommendation typically results in a more negative evaluation.

    Something else that I've also not fully understood is why recommendations are never used in industry. I think the theory is that anyone that knows someone well is fundamentally unqualifed to evaluate them. The standard procedure in most companies is that you can introduce a friend, but that the person introducing the person stays out of the evaluation process. It's also standard practice for a company to pay someone a few hundred dollars if they introduce someone that gets hired.

    One big difference between academia and industry is that in academia, everyone knows everyone else. In most research faculty searches, if the committee hasn't heard of you before you submit your application, then you are not qualified for the position.
  14. Apr 12, 2012 #13
    Thanking someone for a job well done has never hurt anyone. Even if it is indeed the person's job. It will keep people motivated to do their job properly and with some enthusiasm, and for a letter of recommendation that makes all the difference.

    I'd go up to the prof and thank him in person. If you've already moved, then send a friendly e-mail pointing out where you have ended up.
  15. Apr 12, 2012 #14


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    I never gave anything to my rec letter writers, except for a thank you, and a your help is highly appreciated. I have received in total from Undergraduate to Graduate school close to 15 letters of rec. Some people like my advisor wrote 2-3, and a professor who is a friend wrote 2. The rest is different professors. I think is part of their job, but also it is voluntary. That's why I am thankful, because they can always say no.
  16. Apr 12, 2012 #15


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    I think in Industry is about who you know, and that is your letter of rec. I am part of a committee of the NAS/NAE, and through it I met a friend who works as a senior in a company. I was applying to jobs in Jan (I already accepted an offer), and I contacted him, and sent my CV, and Cover Letter. I didn't even answer all the questions they required in the job application until they interviewed. Out of 100 applicants, 4 were selected and I was among them. I am sure it has to do because of my friend connection. That is my letter of rec to the company. I am sure the higher the reputation of the "insider" the more valuable is your "letter of rec".

    In academia, Everyone that is contributing significant work is known by everyone. If you are not known, you are fresh PhD student or unfortunately your topic is not so known (but still known to the people that matters for an academic job). I have had people approach me telling that they read one of my papers, and commenting on it. As I became more seasoned PhD Student it became more common. I already have met all the people that matters with regards to my research.
  17. Apr 12, 2012 #16
    I think one other factor is that people in industry don't like to write things down. In every industry situation where a recommendation was involved, it's been verbal and "off the record" i.e. not even e-mail). Something that seems to be true in industry is that people pay a lot more attention to verbal responses. "So what do you think about this guy?" "Great person!!!" At that point the person asking you is going to look at *how* you said "great person!!!"

    Something else that may be a factor is that people in industry don't have job security and there are often no policies other than "trust" that deal with personnel records. Companies also have to deal with lawsuits, and anything that isn't written down, can't be subpoened.

    There's also the level of the position. Senior positions are far, far more "relationship based" than junior ones.

    But it can work both ways. One reason people *don't* like to recommend people is that if you recommend someone and they blow up, then it's going to look very bad for you.
  18. Apr 13, 2012 #17
    I bake them a medium to small cake (depending on how many letters I asked for).
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