Thursday, October 14, 2010

Those reference letters

The older you get, the more reference letters you are asked to write. The price you pay for moving closer to death. - This thing cuts really both ways. Initially you spent your while hassling busy mentors of yours to do reference letters for you, and another, and another ... you felt bad, and no doubt, so did they. Well, eventually you find yourself in the same situation, provided you do/did some mentoring or other.

Here are several problems I have both with writing and reading reference letters:

1) More often than not what I read is utterly dishonest and stands in no relation to the person who is being praised over the moon. As a result of seeing this time and again, I barely - if at all - bother reading reference letters. I assume that whoever requested one asked someone with the understanding that it would be a positive, uncritical letter. Well, if all I find out is what is good about a particular job applicant, and I have good reason to assume that whatever is written down in the reference letter is hyperbolic, what's the point?

2) My problem as a reference letter writer is that I can't get myself to lie even in order to help good people. So, if you were to ever compare my reference letters to those of people who do the whole hyperbolic shebang, you'd think I hated a candidate who I actually think would be a good choice. Am I supposed to put on the rhetorical battle gear and write about that 'one in a life-time' future academic, a coming academic superstar? I don't even think of current crowned academic superstars (just check the philosophical gossip site Leiter Report for ongoing coronation activities) in those terms.  I know that, secretly they go to the loo, just like I do, and just like Professor Middle-of-the-Road at Popplesdorf University.

3) I would love a system whereby reference letters could be honest and balanced. In the absence of this, I prefer to stick only to objective markers like peer reviewed publications, citations of those publications, teaching evaluations, etc, when it comes to academic appointments. You might want to take a closer look and check how frequently, especially in the arts and humanities, appointments are made based on verifiable evidence of excellence versus appointments made entirely on a candidate's capacity to drop names and attract reference letters from crowned superstar academics. It's painful to watch.

4) Dishonest reference letters reflect very badly on the professional who wrote them! I mean, once I have seen Prof XYZ praise a weak student to me, and I fell for the praise, what would I think of future reference letters I received from that same professor? These sorts of activities can only work efficiently for a short period of time, begging the question why Prof XYZ thought it would be sensible to lie about her supposedly to brilliant student!

5) So, what lesson is there to be drawn from this? Are we really compelled to lie reasonably qualified to good candidates into jobs with our reference letters, because that's what everyone else is doing?

All a bit self-defeating, isn't it? As I said, I give close to no weight and attention to reference letters. I wonder how many others in more senior positions do the same. Are we all wasting our time with this sort of stuff?

ps: you're welcome to make use of the disposable bullshit bag displayed to the top left of this blog. Seems the perfect place for most reference letters.


  1. I have exactly the same problem, but I don't think it's quite as bad as you say.

    For one thing, people who know me know that I never use extravagant praise in my recommendation letters, which means that the one time I do say "best student in 10 years", people can absolutely rely on that as an honest judgment that is not just hyperbole.

  2. Well, yes Jeffrey, up to a point. People who know your policy on such letters. How many do? After all, it's likely your students asking for a letter, and you can't realistically be known personally by all or even many of those who would eventually read them... no?

  3. Here is my favourite example of a letter of reference (by Richard Harter):

    When I was a (newish) manager at a now bankrupt Canadian telecom equipment company, I hired someone from another department who came with a glowing recommendation from his manager, but turned out to be disastrously incompetent. A while later, I found out that it was common practice for managers to give inflated recommendations for employees they are trying to get rid of, in the hopes of unloading them to another department.

  4. individuals who know me know that I never ever use lavish praise in my professional recommendation words, meaning normally the one time
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