Reluctant to Recommend


    You have a student who's asked for help networking in a professional field where he knows you have connections. You don’t think he’s talented enough. Should you help him or tell him the truth?

    Dear Miriam,

    I have a student who has asked me to help him network in a particular professional field where he knows I have connections. I don’t think he’s talented enough to make it in this field. Should I help him make the connections anyway, or tell him he’s not cut out for it?

    Reluctant to Recommend

    Dear Reluctant,

    How much help does this student expect? If he wants you to recommend him for a particular job, or to serve as a reference for him, then you need to consider whether you want your name attached to his performance and talents. You aren't helping anyone by recommending him for something for which he's not qualified. On the other hand, if you feel strongly enough about it, you could agree and then give him a negative reference, though that's never a position I want to be in and not one I would suggest for someone else. 

    However, if he only wants to meet professionals in the field, then you don't risk much by introducing him to a couple of people and letting him make his own impression. You can limit your connections to those with whom you have a good relationship and those who won't judge you or accuse you of wasting their time. You can also prime your contacts by letting them know that this young man may not have a future in the field but could still benefit from their professional guidance. 

    It sounds like you're not in this field yourself, so I'd warn against the kind of direct discouragement you're describing. Your critique might strengthen his resolve to pursue his dream, in the way of young people everywhere who want to prove themselves. If he's especially disgruntled, he could use you as an example of someone at your institution who didn't support him professionally. You're also not helping anyone by putting yourself in a position where you're not necessarily qualified to make that judgement call.

    By introducing him to a couple of supportive people in the field, you're doing what he asked in making those connections, and you're also relieving yourself of the burden of having to discourage him yourself. If these individuals have any respect for their field and for the difficulties young people face when first starting out, they'll be able to carefully guide him towards another career direction. There's also the possibility that your assessment is too harsh and they'll be able to give him advice that would help him in the field or would be able to tell him specific skills to work on to improve his chances. Either way, you'll have done your part, they'll do theirs, and hopefully your student will be on a path to success.

    Be well,