There is a beast that, though incredibly abundant in the world of science and academe, is one for which I have yet to really figure out its purpose. The reference letter.
It’s a usual box to check when committees put together requirements for job applications, grants, or grad school admission. But I’d argue that not only do reference letters not really serve the purpose they may have in the past, but that they can actually be detrimental.
Though relatively nascent in my research career, I think I have sufficient bona fides to call for a massive reduction in the ubiquity of reference letters. Apart from reviewing several grants that require such letters, I sat on a graduate admissions committee for two years, during which time, I probably read well over 150 letters of reference for 50-60 candidates.
Now, before I take an axe to the tradition of the “ol’ ref lett”, I should say that they do have a limited place in our academic world – as letters of support from organizations for large grants (>$10k), or in perhaps the final stages of a job competition. I think a standard referee form is far more effective at communicating what a free-form letter attempts to do when read by a committee member. But more on that later.
Break out the thesaurus
I bet the thesaurus function in Microsoft Word receives no more use than when writing reference letters (except, perhaps, when writing grant applications). Is Candidate X a supreme leader in their cutting-edge cross-disciplinary field? Is the application of Student X endorsed unconditionally, unreservedly, and wholeheartedly? Academia is know for its buzzwords, but they come out in full force in letters of reference. I think Rebecca Schuman has hit the nail on the head when she calls them “hagiographic novellas of the absurd“. Was that student grant application for $1000 really the best thing a faculty member has read in the last year? Last 5 years? EVAR?! Probably not. But reference letters seek to elevate the everyday to the exemplary, the mundane to the magnificent, and the typical to the unprecedented (as in “without precedent”). They are replete with hyperbole which, in my view, makes them disingenuous, especially to those who don’t (or choose not to) play the game of inflationary language. Or the use of “code words” is overly interpreted (“She wrote that he was ‘excellent’, so that means he’s probably just average“). But these letter are written hyperbolically because that’s just what’s done. As a reader of these missives, some by luminaries in the field, and well-respected researchers, I can’t help but feel a little twinge of something that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. This proposal certainly isn’t the best thing since sliced bread, and they probably know that, so why write as though it’s the next barn-burner by G. Evelyn Hutchinson, Joan Roughgarden, or EO Wilson?
If we suspend, for only a moment, my thesis, and believe that reference letters should be written at every opportunity, for even the smallest grant, or most meaningless application, the shear volume of letters is certainly a frustration on those asked to write them (predominantly faculty). Having written only a few reference letters myself, I have taken great care to craft a letter suited to the person and the purpose of the letter. Why, then, if a job advert elicits well over 100 applicants, should everyone provide two reference letters? Fully 90% of these will, in all likelihood, remain largely unread by the people for whom they were written! This is part of the problem that Schuman points out when she calls for a central CV clearinghouse. Now, some organizations are pretty good here, and only request reference letters from those on a long-list (or even on a short-list) for a job, or finalists for grants. But I’d hate to think of the person-hours put in writing reference letters that wouldn’t be read because the candidate’s application was rejected early on. It surely must be years.
Yes, we’re all individuals!
In their wonderfully satirical film on the foundation of religion The Life of Brian, Monty Python cast member Graham Chapman plays a reluctant messiah. After the hoards of followers literally follow him home, he attempts to impart a little wisdom:
Chapman: You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals
Crowd, in unison: Yes! We’re all individuals!
The point is, I hope, self-evident. Reference letters perform a similar function, and after reading a good many of them, I think I can summarize 95% of them as “<Candidate X> is an excellent candidate for <position>, and would be a valuable addition to <department>”, or “I can think of no one more deserving of <award> than <Applicant Y>, who is a <superlative> researcher.” If the purpose of reference letters is to help a hiring committee or granting agency to make a decision, they sure don’t help. Rarely, a letter stands out, or is written by someone I know of, and who’s opinion I respect. But if it’s written by Dr. <Lastname>, Ph.D. from the Department of <Discipline> at the University of <Location>, I have no basis for trusting it beyond what’s written (see also my first point above, and how hyperbole can erode that trust).
Moderation, or write reference letters responsibly
I alluded to some possible solutions above. First, don’t make reference letters required for everything under the sun. If it’s a small grant or student award, would a signed standard statement of endorsement not suffice? Do all the applicants for a job need to provide two or three reference letters, or just those that make it to the short-list? Does someone applying to a M.Sc. program need two letters of reference when a standard form where referees are asked what quintile/decile the candidate fell in their classes/supervised students, and to confirm a few factual statements to reduce applicant fraud? And when letters of reference are required, perhaps they will be more revered as outlets for genuine feedback, and not rife with overzealous, exaggerated superlatives.