Letter of Recommendation, Academic Influence Peddling, and Related Pet Peeves

Letter of recommendation writing season has come and passed. I probably did 10 or 15 letters for a variety of academic jobs, graduate school applications, and served as a reference on a couple more job applications. I do not mind writing the letters, because I know that my students need to get past this hurdle. I also always try to do well by them, although without fabricating things. But there are things that bug me about this whole process, such as the forms that ask us to make untenable numerical estimates of a students abilities (i.e. top 1%, 2%, 5% etc.), and some of the posturing that inflates the importance of the letters. But using letters as a form of influence peddling is perhaps my biggest peeve.

When used properly, I think letters are a good way for search and admissions committee to check for three semi-important things. First the letters are good for checking if the shyer people “bragged enough” about themselves in their application letter. Second, they are good for evaluating whether the applicant will be a good colleague. When I read such letters, I like to read that the applicant has been involved in outside activities. Finally I use letters to check that the applicant is not a whiner, and willingly does reasonable things that are not in their job description. Note though that these three semi-important things are not nearly as important as the c.v. listing accomplishments, or the cover letter explaining the applicants goals.

There are a couple of things people write that do not make the letter any better, at least in my mind. One is the letter from the big shot who claims that this particular student will make a major theoretical a breakthrough on the basis of their Honors Thesis/master’s thesis/dissertation. Ok, big shots are asked to write lots of letters, and this is an easy and unverifiable throw away assertion. Fact of the matter though is that big breakthroughs very very rarely result from dissertations, and I have yet to meet anyone other than maybe a palm reader who can make such accurate predictions.

Another mild fraud of letter writers are assertions that a student has been the best two or three in the last twenty years (or whatever). These are ultimately empty comments which tell me nothing about the student how the applicant will be to work with, or whether they will whine or not. All it really tells me is that the recommender has never listened in on lectures about statistical reliability and validity. But this minor fraud is only mildly annoying.

A next step up in annoyance level are the little boxes on the applications for graduate school which ask us to place our students in some percentile (top 2%, top 10%, top 50%, etc.). The bubbles presumably were put on the form designed administrators who not only did not pay attention in research methods, but probably slept through the lectures on validity. Nor, I suspect, were the people who designed the bubbles ever teachers. For what it is worth, my best students are always the ones I have right now. Indeed, if I did not believe this unreplicable tautology, I would get out of teaching. Part of being a good teacher is belief in the capabilities of the students you have now, not only those from a glorious past. (Imagine how depressing it would be to face a classroom of people who could never be as good as those five years ago–ugh). Nevertheless, I continue to fill in the bubbles—it doesn’t seem worth the trouble to resist this national practice.

But what I find most annoying about the letter writing business has nothing to do with bureaucratic chores. Rather it is the underhanded “influence peddling” that some faculty badger students with. Typically, such faculty claim to be owed favors by someone at another institution. Because of this influence, the student is told that the recommender can make (or break) a grad school application with a letter, email, or especially a phone call. They often point out that the world of a particular discipline is small—which is only partly true, and that their personal reputation is riding on the letter, which is unlikely. Such an assumption assumes that if/when you get the job or assignment, and later screw up, you have he power to personally embarrass them.

But this assumes that committee members are sufficiently impressed with a letter to actually remember the letter writer’s name with that of a successful applicant two or three years´later. Sorry, I can’t do that, nor if I could, would I hold my mistake in making a admission or hire against that of a letter writer. None of us, including letter writers, have perfect foresight, and we have only the ability to indicate whether someone was in the past a good colleague, and pleasant to work with. Indeed, in a typical job search I read something like 200 or so letters of recommendation.

As for the students and applicants on the opaque side of this whole process, they continue to have my sympathy. Applying for a job or graduate school is always a humbling. Letters of recommendation are important parts of it, but they are still no substitute for the work and accomplishments on your c.v. and letter of application.

2 thoughts on “Letter of Recommendation, Academic Influence Peddling, and Related Pet Peeves

  1. Great post. I am graduating in may and thus all my friends are in the process of mocupbh on to other realms. Unfortunately as long as the masses still play by this broken system, nothing will change. Still, it is redraging to hear the candor of someone on the other side

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