A further comment on “Don’t ask for letters of recommendation up front”

I recently argued that asking for letters of reference to be submitted with applications for tenure-track positions devalues the time of highly productive scientists:

Letters of recommendation should be requested by the committee, and they should be requested after the first cut.

A senior researcher who’s a friend and colleague recently told me that for the last few years, she has simply not applied for any position that asked for letters of reference up front. It’s not hard to understand why. After a while, you start to feel that you’re imposing on your references (in reality, it’s the search committees who are imposing). In my case, I’ve submitted well over a hundred such applications, which means that each of my three references has supplied over a hundred letters (and thank you for that).

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Don’t ask for letters of recommendation up front

I’ve been sitting on this for a while, not wanting to piss off hiring committees who might evaluate my own applications. I have applied for over a hundred tenure-track faculty positions, and I’ve had over a dozen in-person interviews. One of the things that has always struck me is the incredible degree to which the time of anyone not on the hiring committee is devalued. This is true of the applicants’ time, but today I’m mainly talking about the time of their references.

It’s typical to request three letters of recommendation with an application, but some departments will request four or (rarely) five. In most cases, the application is considered incomplete and will not be considered until all of the letters are submitted. If one of your references has a hard time with deadlines, tough.

In most cases, your references will be fairly senior scientists, Associate Professor or above. It would be nearly impossible, for example, for your Ph.D. advisor to be an Assistant Professor, since that position typically lasts about as long as a Ph.D. In my case, all three of my references were full Professors, one a department head. In nearly every case, all three references will be highly productive scientists. Their time is valuable, not just in terms of salary but in terms of advancing science. Requiring letters of recommendation up front wastes it.

Letters of recommendation should be requested by the committee, and they should be requested after the first cut.

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Those beautiful Research Features articles? The authors get £50.

Research Features

Back in August, I wrote a fairly critical post about an outfit called Research Features (“Research Features: seems sketchy to me“). My main complaint was that they call themselves a magazine but seem to me to be closer to paid advertising:

What’s sketchy about this is that it’s self-promotion passing itself off as journalism.

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Buy your Ph.D.

100 pages ought to do it, I think. If you’re worried that that won’t pass the weight test, just add on a great big appendix; nobody’s going to read it. Think of the time and money you can save! Think of the poor slobs pipetting their youth away while you’re partying. Don’t think about how your committee is going to react to a data-free dissertation at your defense. What can they say? They have to pass you; it’s 200 pages!


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