December 22, 2003

Death of the Author (of Letters of Recommendation)

Henry Farrell considers the implications of a practice that is apparently becoming more widespread:

Students applying for a Ph.D. usually need good letters of reference from well-known academics to get into the better programs. One of Nasi Lemakís former students recently asked a professor at a top US research university for a reference letter, and was told to write a draft of the letter himself, which the professor would then edit and sign. Nasi Lemak did some asking around, and found a surprising number of people who seem to believe that this is acceptable practice.

His main concern is that of praise inflation:

Reference inflation is bad enough as it is; a variant of Greshamís law means that over-inflated puff-pieces are driving out serious letters of reference. Allowing students to write their own encomiums isnít going to help much.

Henry argues that "while the student may suggest some qualities to be evaluated," the professor should be "fully and entirely responsible for the evaluation itself." That sounds about right to me.

But while some commenters are inclined to agree with Henry that this is not a good thing, others see the matter quite differently. Decon, for example, suggests that having the student write the letter is an effective means of "[saving] the Professor time;" "js" views the practice as "a gesture of respect and trust" in the student; and cs, for whom, apparently, time is money, sees Henry's statement of concern as "all a bit precious and pious for my money Henry."

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at December 22, 2003 09:10 AM

Ugh. I'm in the middle of this right now. I need a letter for a conference-attendance grant I want. I'd like the SLIS librarian to write it, as she knows me better than anyone else in the department, but the grant form INSISTS that the recommender be a professor. (Mark the irony: a librarian's recommendation is insufficient for a library-related conference.)

So the compromise is that the librarian will write it and the department chair will sign it. I didn't suggest this compromise, and I'm not thrilled with it, but I'm accepting it.

Are silly, essentially snobbish requirements such as this conference's demand for a professorial recommendation part of the problem? I surely do think so.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at December 22, 2003 09:26 AM

Is there a common consensus of what an "SLIS librarian" does? I mean there is some reasonable understanding of what a "professor" does across different schools. But I am not sure that this holds for a "SLIS librarian" across different schools. Such a requirement seems pretty reasonable.Besides, grant forms are pretty generic across fields. Most grant-granting(?) shops use the same stuff everywhere.

Posted by: Passing_through at December 22, 2003 10:10 AM

I really dislike the idea of a student writing his own recommendation for me to sign.

What I really like, though, is when a student is prepared and hands me their CV/resume when asking me to write the recommendation. That's more than enough student input.

Posted by: PZ Myers at December 22, 2003 10:13 AM

You're missing my point, I think, P_t. This is a professional conference for librarians. A practicing professional librarian isn't recommendation enough?

Changing the subject, I think there's another indictment lurking here. How many professors bother to learn anything about their students (grad or undergrad) these days? How many of them even can, given other rat-race responsibilities? What gets lost in ceaseless jockeying for attention by students?

When I was 22 and stupid, I thought that simply being admitted to grad school was an implicit contract for a certain amount of professorial attention, to my work if not myself. I was bloody wrong about that, mind you, but that's what I thought.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at December 22, 2003 10:21 AM

I once had to ask for a letter from a famous professor (a member of my dissertation committee) who most definitely did not particularly respect me. He thought I was an idiot. He had me write it for his approval and signature, while I suspect that for students he did respect he took the time to write the letters himself.

Posted by: Bob at December 22, 2003 10:36 AM

After getting one master's degree, I went on to apply to grad programs in another field entirely, and one of my profs from the first degree had me write the letter myself. It was a great opportunity for me to really explain why what I'd learned in one program would apply to the other, and to highlight all of my strengths - without any need to be modest! It was actually quite liberating, and fun, and - aside from whether these should actually be used - I think it would be great as an exercise for anyone going on the market or applying to schools.

Posted by: af at December 22, 2003 10:36 AM

Good recommenders frequently write things about you that you'd never even think of. Most of us are pretty bad at knowing our own strengths and comparing them to those of our peers. And when we're grad students, we often don't even know which strengths to emphasize in the first place. I take the write-your-own-and-I'll-sign-it thing as an shirking of responsibility.

This week I'm in the middle of writing rec letters myself, and what I usually do is have the student write me a paragraph of things she or he thinks it would be worthwhile to mention or emphasize, particularly given what kind of program the letter is for. And then I write and send it, and then I email the student to know that it's been done. I dislike the whole rec-letter tradition, and I like trying to minimize the stress on the student.

Posted by: Bob at December 22, 2003 10:44 AM

Have the student write a note with what *he* thinks are his strengths and may remind you of some things you wouldn't have thought of on your own. But write the letter of recommendation yourself.

Posted by: David Foster at December 22, 2003 11:08 AM

Well Dorothea, if I were applying for a civil engineering thingy, they will still want a professor's recommendation, not a certified civil engineer( certified usually by the state no less. ) Similarly if one were to do something with accountancy, a CPA wont do the trick. The rational is that there isnt a common understanding of what these people do daily ( this is not to say that they are not qualified ). Its possible that some certified civil engineer somewhere has moved onto management and no longer actively signs off plans, or that some CPA is more of a consultant than accountant. Thus how would you evaluate these people from different backgrounds? At the very least, we have some common idea of what professors do and there is generally some uniformity across the board of their responsibilities. Now I dont think this is an ideal situation, especially for people returning to school after working. I suppose this system is geared towards more "traditional" students.

On an unrelated note since some people on this site are applying or have applied for grad school. Does anyone know what happens if say I were to mail my application on time but my transcript is about a week late? The problem I have is that the school is on holiday and I dont think I can get my trascript till 2nd Jan the earliest. The deadlines are on Dec 31st. ( I am mailing express overnight )
Any advice will be much appreciated.

Posted by: Passing_through at December 22, 2003 11:20 AM

Frankly, PT, your second try is as bad as the first. All the potential problems with a non-professor might appear with a professor. I don't think that there is, or should be, a common understanding of what professors do. All you know about a professor as such is that he did get a PhD at some point, and that he has a certain job title. You know quite a lot more about a working CIS libraraian -- especially if you are in the library field, which you and are not.

I think that it's a guild-monopoly issue again.

Posted by: zizka at December 22, 2003 11:30 AM

contact the graduate advisor in the department you're applying to. It might be possible for him/her to help if the late transcript is a problem.

In my own case the transcripts were late, and my advisor said he could write a letter to get an exemption for me if necessary. Turns out it wasn't a problem with this particular school.

Posted by: karen at December 22, 2003 11:33 AM

Good riddance to the letter of reference. I hope it is truly gone. It was a feudalistic practice, which may be why it was so popular at universities. (It goes well with all that neo-Goth architecture and hierarchy.) Massage Dr. Famous Prof's ego and get the golden letter that opens all doors. Engage him intellectually and get cut loose. Got a nice, detailed letter from Asst. Professor Serf? So what? The hierarchy of these letters is an insult to everyone who doesn't have the institutional clout to get someone else do the work of writing the letters.

Posted by: che at December 22, 2003 02:35 PM

Good riddance to the letter of reference. I hope it is truly gone.

Huh? Are you living in some alternate universe where the recommendation letter is no longer used? If so, how do the rest of us get there?

Posted by: language hat at December 22, 2003 03:56 PM

I hate asking for letters of rec. Even though I am one of the lucky ones, with a committee of scholars who know my work and me, and who are willing to write the letters on their own, I still find it demeaning ever grovelling time I must ask for one. I am all for finding a better way!

Posted by: DM at December 22, 2003 06:18 PM

I agree with the poster who said professors who ask students to write their own letters of recommendation are shirking their responsibility. When I was an undergrad and shy about asking for letters, one of my professors said never to be shy, that for them it is "part of the job". Would that everyone had that attitude.

I'm currently a postdoc and applying for jobs for the third year in a row. One trend I have noticed that I am immensely grateful for is that more and more jobs (in my field, at least) ask only for names and contact information for references with the initial application (rather than letters). They then presumably make a cut and ask a subset of applicants' references for letters. I'm grateful for this because I no longer have to be constantly asking for letters, and my poor references don't have to be constantly writing them. If the place I'm applying to is totally not interested in me, then no one's time gets wasted (except the time I spent preparing the application, but that's the way it goes).

Posted by: Me at December 22, 2003 07:32 PM

Me, does the university where you were awarded your doctoral degree have a dossier service? I
have all my references update my letters once a year and send them to my doctoral university. The grad secretary in my department sends the package out as needed.


Posted by: Canadian Postdoc at December 23, 2003 01:23 AM

My grad department has a dossier service, and it is run very well. I just wonder how many years you can get away with doing this. It seems okay the first couple years after being out; down the road, meaning 5 or more years or so, I wonder what academic employers would think of anyone still relying on the graduate department.

Note, this is not an attack on anyone, just a general musing.

Posted by: DM at December 23, 2003 02:22 AM

DM, what an excellent question. I hadn't thought about the implications of using the service down the road. I think I would keep using it until they told me I couldn't (for purely monetary reasons - they don't charge). I've been on hiring committees (as a grad rep) and have never heard them discuss where references were sent from from (as opposed to the quality of the references). This doesn't mean that some committees don't consider it. I know people are eliminated for the strangest of reasons.



Posted by: Canadian Postdoc at December 23, 2003 10:11 AM

In my own experience, I found that the professors at my small liberal arts college wrote letters that captured me pretty well. My original graduate advisor sat me down for coffee and warned me that my tendency "to be a shark in the classroom and most supportive colleague out of it" might need modification in the more professional world of graduate school (where oddly, people's egos were more fragile, not less). As a recommender, I have never asked a student to write their own letter, although I refuse to write one unless a c.v. or equivalent and a copy of the personal statement (at least a draft) is provided. I put this in writing and make students sign. It leads to better letters and better personal statements. And, believe it or not, every single person I have written for has gotten the fellowship/grad school/college admissions of their choice. I do not think my letters are all that good, but by making the applicants do their work well in advance, I think they wind up with a better end product.

When I sat on a job search committee it was shocking how little regard was paid to most letters. I was blown away by one letter but the professors on the committee remarked "oh, all his letters are like that." In the end, the cover letters were more important. One caveat, letters did not necessarily help people, but they did hurt them. Subtle suggestions such as "will be a great historian one day" (translate as should not be on the job markety yet) went a long way to knocking people out. That and the guy who got a letter from his boss at his day job as an accountant. I don't know what he was thinking.

Posted by: Da vid Salmanson at December 23, 2003 08:36 PM

To karen (#11) Thanks.

Gee zizka (#10), how bout this?
'You know quite a lot more about a working XXX professor -- especially if you are in the XXX field.'
or perhaps
'All you know about a working CIS libraraian as such is that he did get a CIS degree at some point, and that he has a certain job title.'
That can then be followed by
'I don't think that there is, or should be, a common understanding of what a working CIS librarian do.'

Why cant I just subt "working CIS libraraian" with "XXX professor". Whats the difference between your post and mine? :)
But seriously though, I do think there is some common understanding of what professors actually do. I am not familar with library stuff, but the job scope done by a XXX engineer is a lot more varied than that of a XXX engineering professor.
Merry Christmas

Posted by: Passing_through at December 24, 2003 11:20 AM

I hate asking for reference letters.... the only reason why places ask for references up front is to save themselves time. In today's world of e-mail and phone calls it really shouldn't take any time to get a reference and would save everyone else's time who has to write the letters. But bureaucratic habits last a long time... I just wish people would only ask for letters for people they migth seriously think of interviewing. For new PhDs/ABDs without a track record the letter is useful but I wouldn't bother reading the letter of someone who's CV wasn't any good if I was on the commitee. First I read the CV, then their own statement and then recs.

I have always wondered whether big names on the recommendations help... I don't see any problem with a student writing a letter as a starting point for me to work with. I have done that occasionally...

Posted by: David at December 25, 2003 03:58 PM