Andrew Thaler

CEO at Blackbeard Biologic

No One Is Reading Those Reference Letters

Full letter of recommendation

Image: letter of recommendation/Flickr

Of all the small things that academia does to frustrate and confound candidates on the faculty job market, none would be simpler to fix — and yet, bafflingly,is so often ignored — than the way departments require reference letters for an initial application.

Search committees take note: When you require letters of recommendation — in advance — for dozens (or even hundreds) of new Ph.D.s, postdocs, or early career scientists who are applying for a fellowship or a faculty position, you are creating unnecessary work for faculty and handicapping your own job search.

There are numerous reasons why this application requirement is so onerous and so unnecessary. After discussing this topic with academics on both sides of the hiring table, I’ve boiled those reasons down to three.

  • It’s unfair to the applicant's references. Most new Ph.D.s will be applying to several dozen, if not several hundred academic positions during their first job search. Each one of those applications requires references. In any normal industry, applicants are expected to list a few references, who will then be called —if the applicant makes it through the first round of review. Not so in academia, where job ads routinely request letters of recommendation. A good, strong reference letter has to be tailored to each position, requiring the recommender to invest significant time in many letters, the majority of which won’t be read.
  • It limits the applicant’s options. Many candidates I spoke with said they sometimes find job listings only a few days before their application deadline. In such a short time frame, it’s almost impossible to rally your best references to prepare a fresh letter — especially if someone is traveling, doing field work, juggling a huge teaching load, or just away from the computer for a few days. I talked with postdocs and early career scientists (many of whom have gone on to build fantastic productive careers) who have, in the past, opted not to apply (or been unable to apply) for a job because the time frame was too tight to coordinate three to five carefully crafted, position-specific reference letters.
  • It limits the search pool. Requiring these letters is bad for search committees, too. By erecting an unnecessary barrier for applicants, this practice cuts down on the number of applications, reducing the search pool and possibly excluding some of the most qualified applicants. It also annoys and frustrates faculty recommenders, resulting in generic, boilerplate letters that — once they are finally read when a candidate makes the shortlist — will still require follow-up with the referee.

In an ideal world, letter writers would be happy to prepare accurate, specific, tailored letters for their students or postdocs. And students and postdocs would be so plugged in to the job search that they would have plenty of time to prepare application materials. And search committees would treat every application with the same consideration and energy that went into preparing it.

But that’s not how academia works. Inundated with applications, search committees pass on most of them without reading beyond the CV. Requiring recommendations letters in advance has done nothing but waste everyone’s time.

So why keep asking for them when almost every other industry in the world waits to narrow the field of candidates before approaching their references for a recommendation?

Truly, this is the single easiest fix in academic culture. If you’re heading a search committee or preparing a call for applicants, don’t ask for letters of recommendation. Instead, ask for contact info for references, and only contact them for letters once you’ve narrowed the field. Everyone will appreciate it.

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