Why I am angry about academic references

"To whom it may concern..." Photo New York Zoological Society, Public Domain
“To whom it may concern…” Photo New York Zoological Society, Public Domain

There is perhaps nothing more important to would-be PhD students than the Kafka-esque processes of applying for money. While universities and funding agencies are good at publishing guidelines, they are often terrible at making those guidelines intelligible to outsiders, especially when it comes to explaining what it is that selection panels are looking for.  The criteria are often deliberately obscure, some instructions seemingly contradictory, the expected standards so impossibly out of reach. And thus the skills required for a successful application can seem to have more in common with divination and witchcraft than anything else.

One reaction to that observation is to “make it easier”, and I’m sure our process at Warwick could be made more clear, but to leave it at that would be terribly simplistic, because of the very nature of what we are looking for.

Let me try to spell it out. What we are looking for in a prospective PhD scholarship recipient is the potential to learn and excel at a craft, not just to learn some facts and technical skills. That is, we are looking for the ability to marshall ideas, facts, theories and arguments into a logical, coherent form to produce something new and insightful. We are not interested in candidates’ ability to learn chunks  of knoweldge but their ability to search out knowledge, compare it, arrange it, chip away at it over years until something new and insightful appears, much like an artist could reveal any one of a number of new forms from the raw materials they assemble. That in turn depends on their having a more-or-less clear vision of what it is they want to create. That vision will almost certainly change over the course of a PhD – if it doesn’t then something’s wrong – but it is a necessary starting point. You can’t teach someone how to do that with a set of guidance notes. It’s something that you have to be trained to do over the course of several years of study.

So why, oh why, do many writers of academic references fail miserably at telling me why their allegedly-favourite students have that potential, that vision?

I am angry about this. Right now, I’m in the middle of assessing a large number of applications for three scholarship schemes to study political science at Warwick, and time and again I am seeing applications from clever people with interesting ideas backed up by references that seem to have been cut and pasted from Mr Beige’s Guide to Writing Bland Shit. These are written by academics who have allegedly climbed the narrow path to attain their PhDs themselves, who have supervised and sat in judgement over others, who write and teach and try to have an impact on the world. Their job is to persuade me that Ms X is also capable of climbing that path and having an impact. And what do they write? Empty cliches. Vacuous nostrums. They tell me what a pleasure it was to have Ms X in class but tell me nothing about the quality of Ms X’s mind and the importance of what comes out of it.

Let me give you some examples from the latest batch of references:

  • The writer who told me, an academic at Warwick, how ideally suited the candidate would be for the course at UCL. Well, off you go to UCL then, mate.
  • The senior professor who wrote (I use “wrote” in its loosest possible sense) a generic “to whom it may concern” reference that said “he will be well suited to any organisation that chooses to engage him”.
  • Numerous references that communicated nothing other than that the writer hadn’t bothered to read the candidate’s research proposal, and thus offered no substantive thoughts on its signficance and originality.
  • An equal number of references that went on about the candidates’ wonderful moral principles, enthusiasm and grooming, and nothing else. I am not interested. I want to know why you think they’re going to survive and thrive in a doctoral programme; and why I should get excited about their ideas. Tell me why I should want to work with this person.
  • The person who mispelled the candidate’s name and then told me they’d won a “sort-after” award – if you can’t be bothered getting the person’s name right, how am I to believe a single word you say? Your mispelling of “sought-after”, fairly or unfairly, diminishes my trust in you even further.

I am angry because such references materially damage the candidates chances of getting a scholarship. They are a critical bit of quality control – I, fellow thinker, have seen potential in this person for these reasons. The failure to do that means I either think:

  1. the candidate is a fool because they wouldn’t know quality if they saw it; or
  2. they’re a fool for not having involved their recommendation writers in the process and thus get the references they deserve; or
  3. the writer is a lazy arsehole who ought to be ashamed treating those who put their trust in him or her this way; or
  4. all of the above.

I am willing to believe that a great deal of the fault lies with the candidates themselves, but in the current batch there are clearly candidates who have been let down badly by their recommendation writers. Those those who are applying for scholarships this year, please take note. Choose your recommendation writers carefully. Take time to discuss your plans and ideas with them. Involve them in the process. And if they are not engaging, choose someone else – they’ll never notice.

For those recommendation writers who do fall into category 3 above, shame on you.

There is lots of guidance available from professional associations and others online – google a few – but for writers for a US market, I particularly like this from Karen Kelsky who blogs at WordPress under theprofessorisin.com

4 thoughts on “Why I am angry about academic references

  1. I wish I had seen this, and the post you linked to, last week when I was writing references! That said, I think I avoided the problems you raise here, mainly because I took it very seriously, spent a lot of time over it and got advice about how to do it properly. As you point out, people’s futures are in your hands when you’re writing their letters – it’s such a big responsibility, and deserves a serious amount of time and effort put into it. And if you can’t be arsed to do a decent job, you should refuse to do it.

  2. I agree with much of what you said, John. But let me be devils advocate here for one minute. I work with academics who are heads of departments, deans, etc., and they are often tell me they are asked to write 30 or more reference letters per semester in addition to their already insanely-busy schedules. The examples you give are obviously people who didn’t take the time or care to write their letters (and I don’t believe any blame lies with the candidate as often they are not allowed to see the reference letters) and I wouldn’t know their circumstances at the time of writing their letters. But is it any wonder that careless mistakes and thoughtless prose exist given such pressures in their job? Not an excuse, perhaps, but your comments certainly highlight the need for referees to take more care.

    1. I guess I would distinguish too between recommendations for things like PhD scholarships and academic jobs on the one hand recommendations for other purposes which don’t require anything like the degree of engagement that I’m asking for. I’m also not asking for that much – a page is fine, with just one para engaging with the proposal. But yes, I do have sympathy with those who get bombarded with requests – but they could always say “no”. Perhaps they should, and we’d get fewer useless letters from big names and more useful ones from more junior faculty.

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