Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Beware of Letters of Recommendation

If you are asking people to write you letters of recommendation, my advice is to make every effort to read these letters before they go out to their intended recipients. If you need to cheat, lie, and commit minor criminal acts to get access to those letters, consider doing it. Because letters of recommendation are often mean as hell. I don't know whether it's true that one isn't allowed by law to write a negative letter of recommendation. I do know, however, that most people are smart enough to write a letter that seems to be nice on the surface but ends up hurting the candidate's chances of employment severely. Here are a few examples from the letters of recommendation I have seen with my own eyes. I have changed some factual details in them, but the nasty digs at the candidates have been preserved in their entirety.
  • "You might have heard about the numerous conflicts this candidate has had at her previous places of employment. You don't need to believe all of these accounts of strife, however." - No, we never heard anything like that about this candidate but I guess we have now. Thanks to you, kind colleague.
  • "The only thing I can tell you about this candidate is that he is a really nice guy." The only thing?? So he isn't a great pedagogue, an important scholar, a talented administrator? He is just a nice guy? And we are supposed to pay him 100K per year for being a nice guy?
  • "I am happy to recommend Professor X for the position of Full Professor of German. His command of German is quite good." "His Spanish is quite good" is what I say about my B- undergrads. Is it possible that the recommender honestly doesn't know that a Full Professor of German is kind of expected to be better than "quite good"?
  • "This candidate is often disliked by his colleagues. Some people might refer to him as stubborn and conflictive. I, however, have never had a slightest problem with him." Right. And that slight problem that you never had with him is now making you characterize this candidate in a way that will make him unhireable everywhere in the world.
  • "All I can say about this candidate is that if you need to discuss anything trivial - like where to do the laundry, or where to take your kids during summer holidays - he is the person for you." Of course, if this were a position in Trivial Studies we might be interested. But offering a Full Professorship with tenure to someone whose main contribution will be to discuss the best place to do the laundry might be a little hard to sell to our Dean.
So once again: be very very careful about whom you ask to write your letters of recommendation.


Canukistani said...

Letters of recommendation can be difficult. In the spirit of the season, here are some reasons why God never got tenure at any university based on comments from religious professors in an article from an old file of unknown providence:

He had only one major publication, it was in Hebrew, it had no references, and it wasn’t published in a referred journal.

It may be true that He created the world, but what has He done since then?

He expelled His first two students for learning.

He never applied to the Ethics Board for permission to use human subjects.

When one experiment went awry He tried to cover it up by drowning the subjects. And when the subjects didn’t behave as predicted, He deleted them from the sample.

Although there were only ten requirements, most students failed His tests.

He rarely came to class and just told students to read the Book.

Some say He had His Son teach the class.

His cooperative efforts have been quite limited.

The scientific community has had a hard time trying to replicate His theoretical results.

Clarissa said...

This is absolutely priceless!! I almost hurt myself laughing. And I think I woke up the neighbors while howling with laughter.

Thank you so much for posting here this brillinat parody of academic obsessions.

Clarissa said...

I especially love the "what has He done since then?" part. It's so recognizable, it hurts.

Rimi said...

Canukistani, you genius you!

Clarissa, you're SO right about recommendations. But (as the eternal outsider to US mainstream culture as I know I will be) I must emphasise how much culture influences letters of recommendation. For example, my faculty in India wrote me glowing letters -- by their standards. My US faculty let slip that they were a bit worried at the formal, moderate tone of those letters, but then they've come not to expect gushing praise from Indian academics (and my writing sample was great), so I was in.

Now, a friend of mine who faced a similar situation while coming to the US requested her US faculty to writer her a reco when she wanted to move to Cambridge for her PhD. She got in, but later her adviser said it was by way of her writing sample and publications (all two of them). The recos were given a cursory look because "American academics are notorious for styling recommendations after sentiments inspired by the topless hero in romance novel readers".

Those were not his exact words, but his exact sentiment. Go figure.

Clarissa said...

I know exactly what you mean, Rimi. I was a little disturbed when my professor wrote in her letter that I have "a sunny personality that lights up the room."

I love how this thread has become so wonderfully humorous.

Rimi said...

Haha, I bet you do. I do such a brilliant cheerful I convince most people, but my good friends all know me to be the nitpicky grumpy cynic I am. Oh well, I'm just a mulifaceted genius =P

Vertigo said...

I always thought it was illegal to read those letters of recommendation, at least in some college application, you have to waive your right to read it, that way, professors are 'more free' to write what they like. Some of my professors are open about it, and send me a copy of their recommendations, others are very secretive about it (even though I doubt they are writing 'bad' things about me).

Clarissa said...

That's why I'm saying that you need to be prepared to. . . erm . . . bend the rules, if you cacth my drift. When one's career is at stake, it's up to everybody to decide whether they should feel bound to uphold these conventions.

All I'm saying is that sending out letters of recommendation that you've never seen is a HUGE risk.