Let’s all write shorter letters of recommendation

Let’s all write shorter letters of recommendation

If you are an academic who is in a secure, full-time position then , let’s be honest, no one in the precariate wants to listen to you complain about how hard your job is. But if you were to complain, one topic would be the endless rounds of letters of recommendation you are asked to read and write. The production and circulation of these letters has gotten out of control, people: out of control. We need to go back to letters that are shorter, more candid, and easier to process for everyone involved.

When I was in graduate school, I was told that there was a distinction between the ‘American’ and ‘European’ (European here also includes the UK — sorry Brexiteers) style of recommendation letter. The American letters were voluble, hypberbolic, and long. The European letters, in contrast, tended to be one line affairs which said “I, Famous Professor X, Y, or Z hereby officially know this person and vouch for them.” Of course, the real situation is more complicated then that, but if anything it seems to me that the American style of letter is spreading, both across space to other countries and across the page.

The sad thing is that letters of recommendation spend most of their time describing things about an applicant that are already covered in the CV and cover letter. Is there a reason to describe someone’s research when it is already described in two other places in a dossier? If so, I can’t guess what it is. And, sadly, too often we use the length of letters of recommendation as a way to avoid the hard work of actually assessing applicants. I’ve read many letters of recommendation that don’t say anything about the candidate at all, and go to enormous lengths to hide that fact behind boiler plate prose. And as for addressing the criteria — if there are any that aren’t totally nebulous — I’m shocked at how often people simply don’t do it.

What is our letters were one paragraph long, and explained candidly, empathetically, and honestly how well the applicant fit the criteria for the job or scholarship they were applying for? Not only would it radically improve the signal to noise ratio in these letters, it would cut down the amount of work that everyone had to do. And, frankly, professors would probably gain a deeper understanding of their students and their relationship with them.

At a certain point in my life, I felt the ‘European’ style “I know this person” letter didn’t do enough to show a professor’s support for a student. Now, however, I increasingly think it’s a good idea. Don’t get me wrong: Bumping up the length of a letter to address crtieria or explain complicated intellectual projects or circumstances is fine with me. But in the future, let’s try to make letters of recommendation as long as they need to be — and no longer.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book “Leviathans at the Gold Mine” won the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology book award. He is interested in political anthropology, the anthropology of virtual worlds, the history of anthropology, and public anthropology and open access scholarship.

3 Replies to “Let’s all write shorter letters of recommendation”

  1. I’m going to disagree with this opinion. I find detailed letters of reference to be very useful. A more senior scholar can often contextualize a younger person’s career with greater clarity, and can bring out features of a young person’s scholarship that a committee might miss. Done well, the letter of reference adds to the dossier by saying things that would be inappropriate in the CV or cover letter. “Glowing” is one part of this, but far from the most important part.

    That being said, I fully recognize how few people actually write good letters of recommendation. Letters that are meant to be “glowing” often unwittingly undercut the cover letter or misrepresent what is in the CV. Some letters damn their candidate with faint praise, others sabotage their candidates with gender-loaded language. Our job is to write letters with real scholarly judgment, and most scholars fail in that task.

    The problem posed here, of overworking references, is a real one. I think the root of this problem is that committees solicit letters for too many candidates. Thousands of letters are composed and sent for candidates who never had a real chance at a position or nomination to begin with. This is because committees are outsourcing their responsibility: The effort of obtaining letters is substituted for judgment.

  2. I would like to ask a naive question as someone who got their PhD degree a couple of years ago and has been on the “job market” ever since (mostly in a non-US, international context). I’m not coming out of an Ivy League school but I have 6 papers published on peer reviewed journals, a similar amount of book chapters and book reviews, and I’ve been hopping around international conferences since my first doctoral year. I’m recognized as an expert in my sub-field of anthropological research and I’m regularly asked to review papers, give guest lectures, contribute to journals, and so on.

    I have applied for more than 40 positions (from postdocs through lectureships to assistant professorships), most of which have required me to submit letters of recommendations (2 or 3, 5 sometimes), or (bless them) to just indicate the names and contact details of some referees. I haven’t kept track of the numbers, but a moderate guess is that six colleagues have written for me around 50 letters of recommendation over the last two years. Some of them, I don’t dare ask anymore. Others have kept supporting me and openly reminded me of their availability. Some have never replied to my requests, or possibly agreed but then never sent the letter they agreed to write.

    Now, I know academia is tough and only the 1% makes it and all that jazz, but every time I read academics with stable jobs lamenting they are writing too many letters or spending too much time on them, I can’t help but literally scream in my mouth: WHY ARE RECOMMENDATION LETTERS STILL A THING?

    When I apply for a job, I am regularly asked to send a pile of documents: a detailed CV containing everything I ever did as a scholar; a cover letter in which I describe myself; a research proposal in which I detail what I’m good at doing and what are my future plans; sometimes, a teaching statement or a course syllabus to prove that I’m ready to teach; a sample of my published works; an academic portfolio; student feedback; peer evaluations. My reputation and recognition is easily trackable with a simple Google search. So, what is the use of three additional pieces of writing that I have to coerce out of similrly busy people through my professional connection with them?

    I often read rants and complaints about recommendation letters from senior academics, but rarely from people on the job market. Yet, from my point of view, it’s way more stressful to be constantly on the look for potential, willing and reliable referees and make sure they send their letters in time (sometimes via e-mail, sometimes via post…) by the required deadline, so that the hours and days spent on my latest job application don’t go wasted because one of the three referees forgot to send an email or misheard a deadline.

    I was lucky enough to make a few friends in academia during my graduate and postgraduate years. Some of these friends are professors, and some of them are willing to endorse me with job applications. I was also lucky enough to be in a good relationship with my MA and postdoctoral advisors, but not so lucky to be in a good relationship with my doctoral supervisor – the last time I was supposed to have their recommendation letter the committee informed that my supervisor had applied to the same position I was applying too; I don’t know if the recommendation letter was ever even sent.

    The point here is: There is so much social capital a postgraduate student can bank upon when asking for recommendation letters before his or her pool of potential referees dries up. I sometimes end up asking the same person to write me a recommendation letter for a position I already applied to a year before, and it doesn’t feel great. Other times, a referees has already agreed to recommend another student to the same position, and doesn’t feel comfortable doing the same for me. Sometimes the deadlines are strict and referees are busy or unreachable; other times, they write letters filled with errors and banalities that I wouldn’t want to see attached to my job application if I didn’t have to pay rent and buy food.

    Letters of recommendation are by far the most stressful component of my academic job applications, but this might be because I didn’t get a job yet. Talking to colleagues who got a position before me, I recurrently hear about how much they think the recommendation letter by their supervisor or recognized academic helped them (if not heavily determined) their success in obtaining the position through inter-institutional politics: some have shared the history of exchanges of hires between universities, regulated through letters of recommendation and committee majorities, others have explained to me how to read between the lines of job ads and spot the ones that are written for an already chosen candidates.

    I understand that it’s tough to pick a new colleague out of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of applications. But why is the opinion of three other people, whom you have often never met, on a candidate they might not be even so familiar with, more important then the work and voice of the candidate themselves? Why am I spending hundreds of hours of unpaid work on publishing peer-reviewed articles and participating in academic life and compiling bizantine job applications if my future is decided by “who’s friends with who” committee decisions, academic celebrity endorsements and nepotist lineages across university departments?

    If getting a letter of recommendation is merely used as a threshold to sieve out scams, falsified CVs and documented illegalities, then there should be a better way of doing this – maybe some form of professional cross-validation built into the academic system (oh… that was the point of a having a PhD degree? Alright.). If letters of recommendation have more weight than this in academic hirings, then it’s probably time to do away with them entirely. It’s absurd that institutions that pride themselves over meritocracy and scientific research hire people through a system that promotes disciplinary parochialism, student clientelism, institutional nepotism and the exchange of human resources as currency. The argument that reference letters play only a minor role in hiring decisions is moot – if what makes a committee choose a candidate over another comparable candidate is the fact that a well-known professor voiches for them, then the whole hiring system isn’t meritocratic.

    Letters of recommendations are a classist relic of an university that I wouldn’t want to work for. It’s stunning that anthropology departments, which should be at the forefront of studying what happens beyond the exchange of symbolic documents and the social divisions of labor that result from them, hasn’t said much about recommendation letters, nor done anything substantial to remove them from their hiring practices. You’re on the committees, you write the job ads. If you hire someone because your friend hired your student two years ago and now he’s recommending a candidate to you, you are complicit.

  3. Letters should NOT be requested in the initial call for applications. It would be fine to ask candidates to submit the names of three referees from whom they will seek letters should their application advance. But departments should wait until they have created their “long list”, and then seek letters from those candidates. The letters can play a role in moving from short list to long list.
    As a relatively new faculty member, I have mentored one PhD student through the course of exams, proposal, research and completion of the dissertation. My student was on the market for two years and landed a post-doc, and will soon be pursuing tenure track jobs again in full force. I have already written 54 letters, based on a single template but tailored for each opportunity. I estimate I’ve spent about 25 hours just processing the correspondence with my student, the writing and rewriting, the uploading, downloading, subscribing, printing, stamping, etc. of these letters. I have a few more students in the pipeline. This will likely mean devoting as much as 60 or more hours of my time in a year to the process. For many of the jobs, I know very well that the applicant is unlikely to make the first round of cuts, and I resent writing the letter. I resent the hiring department’s callous assumption that this is somehow worth my time. I resent the obligation I have to be at least a little dishonest with the applicant (when you are at the application stage, things are too fragile for real honesty). I resent the time it takes away from my work and especially from my family.
    How might we change things? It would be great if a blog would call out individual departments for their evil ways. Like an “all male panel” blog of shame, we need to shame departments into being good actors. We could also laud those departments who do it right the first time.

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