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So you want to go to grad school?
Future grad students of the world unite!
an ethical question 
11th-Dec-2012 02:21 pm
faith shock
Everyone here is usually so helpful with my questions. My last one was about the ethics of applying for a PHD program for funding and leaving after completing a master's. I agree with the bulk of your suggestions that going into it without meaning to finish is not a great means to an end. It's hard to understand the line in academia between "getting ahead" and "clawing out the eyes of everyone else". I hate that it seems to be that either/or and I hope when I eventually make it into grad school it's....not a way in which I need to live my academic life.

I have another question and was hoping you all could help. Not exactly about grad school, but about LORs. In 2009 I asked a professor I greatly respect and admire if she would be willing to write me a rec letter for an internship. I ended up never applying for said internship and, at this point, probably never will. The sealed letter is still in my possession. I am curious as all get out to read it, but I feel slightly uneasy about the ethics there.

Is it wrong for me to read a rec letter written for me that I'll never use? Thoughts?
11th-Dec-2012 07:35 pm (UTC)
I don't think it's unethical at all. Go for it!
11th-Dec-2012 09:29 pm (UTC)
She clearly didn't intend for you to read it, so the most ethical thing would have been to return it in 2009 (or to shred it now). That said, on a scale from 0 to 10 where 10 is Killing Puppies... Reading it is not the worst thing in the world to do. ;) I think you have to go with your own conscience on this one.
12th-Dec-2012 03:12 am (UTC)
Slightly unethical but I'd totally do it.
12th-Dec-2012 03:43 am (UTC)
It's a pretty victim-less act. I think that if you signed some kind of waiver saying you wouldn't read it (like you would on a grad school app), she would have written it thinking it would be private, so it's a small violation (somewhere between 0 and 1, using the Killing Puppies scale from above). If you didn't sign a waiver for the internship application, and she knew there was the chance you could read it someday, I don't think it's a problem at all.

Either way, I would probably read it. If you plan to use her as a letter writer in the future, it could really help you to see what the letter is like.

I had one professor tell me several times that he was writing me a glowing letter, that I would get in anywhere with his recommendation, etc. I didn't get in anywhere I applied, and later asked him to upload a copy to Interfolio so I could save it for the next application cycle. He emailed it to me as a .pdf instead and told me I could use it for anything, so I of course read it. It was *really* underwhelming. He used lots of phrases like "a delightful girl," "a hard worker" without giving ANY specific examples of the hard work I've done. I am really glad I had the opportunity to read it, so I could ask someone new.
12th-Dec-2012 03:31 pm (UTC)
Many professors don't know how to write effective recommendations. As a graduate student, I've been expected to write recommendations for students but never given any sort of guidance from professors in my department on how to do this. I'm just saying that there's a chance that your professor really thought he was writing a great letter when he simply didn't know what he was doing.

That's why it's a good idea to discuss in detail with your recommenders what you need from your letters. Definitely don't assume that they already know what to write.
12th-Dec-2012 11:13 pm (UTC)
Yep, I think he had every intention to write a glowing letter. I wasn't trying to blame him. Like you said, I should have been more specific when I asked him.
12th-Dec-2012 05:03 am (UTC)
I had extra copies of my LORs left over after applying to PhD programs some years ago. I considered reading them (in fact, I held one up to a light and saw about a sentence worth of content before stopping myself) but ended up destroying them unopened.

I didn't feel comfortable reading the letters for various reasons, and am glad I didn't.
12th-Dec-2012 07:19 am (UTC)
I wouldn't say it's unethical exactly, but you might be disappointed. I'd probably toss it without reading.
12th-Dec-2012 06:52 pm (UTC)
It's not completely unethical but you might end up disappointed that what was written wasn't very personal. I asked a professor that I really liked and had a rapport with (we're Facebook friends and talk regularly about our mutual interest in figure skating) but I had to turn one of his letters into a PDF for an application and saw parts of it were very general. I didn't read the whole thing though because I felt guilty I read parts of it
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