Taking down their Particulars and Examining their Testimonials
If you’ve looked at Cosmic Variance recently you will know that has almost gone up in flames (metaphorically speaking) . The incendiary item was what I thought was a gently humorous post on the subject of recommendation letters for entry into graduate schools, which evolved to include postdoctoral positions too. This item has generated nearly a hundred comments so far, some of which are quite sensible and interesting but others worryingly vitriolic. One correspondent in particular got hold of the wrong end of the stick and proceeded to beat wildly about the bush with it, accusing academics of everything from intellectual snobbery to the Whitechapel Murders.
I’m actually quite pleased that the more extremist comments are there, as they make mine look quite sensible which they perhaps wouldn’t if they were on their own. I’ve therefore collected my thoughts here to see if they generate any reaction.
A follow-up post attempted to defuse the issue with an injection of common sense, but it remains to be seen whether this will indeed steady the ship. (I’m proud of that multiply mixed metaphor.)
The principal bone of contention is the matter of “recommendation letters” and whether a Professor should ever write negative comments when asked to recommend a student for a place on a graduate course.
In the UK we generally don’t have “recommendations” but “references” or “testimonials” which are supposed to describe the candidate’s character and abilities in a manner that is useful to those doing the recruitment. They are not meant to be written in absurdly hyperbolic terms and they are not meant to ignore any demonstrable shortcomings of the applicant. They are supposed to advise the people doing the recruitment of the suitability of the candidate in a sober, balanced and objective way. Fortunately, most students applying to graduate schools are actually rather good so there are many more positives than negatives, but if there are weaknesses in my view these must be mentioned, even this turns out to be the kiss of death to their application.
Another objection is to recommendation letters that include statements of the form Aaron is better than Brenda but not as good as Charlie. I don’t object at all to the idea of a reference that includes some form of ordering like this. Since there are inevitably more applicants than places the panel will have to make a ranking, so why not help them by giving your input? After all, you know the candidates better than the panel does.
The point is that the referee is not only providing a service for the student but also for the recruiting school. On this basis, it is, I think, perfectly valid to include negative points as long as they can be justified objectively.
British professors are often criticized by our colleagues over the pond for writing very reserved recommendation letters, but having one year received references from a US institution on behalf of 4 different students who were all apparently the best student that institution had ever had in physics, I think I prefer the old-fashioned British understatement.
However, references transcripts and other paperwork can only establish whether a student has reached the threshold level of technical competence that is needed to commence a research degree. That’s a necessary but not sufficient condition for their success as a scientist. The other factors – drive, imagination, commitment, and diligence (which apparently is a term of abuse in the USA) are much harder to assess. I think this part has to be done at interview. You can’t just rely on examination results because it’s by no means true that the best students at passing examinations turn into the best graduate students. Research is a whole different ball game.
I also think there’s a difference between how references are used for making a job appointment versus a place at graduate school. Where I come from, in the UK, graduate study is funded by a studentship which pays a stipend rather than a salary and the successful applicants are not formally employed by the university. It is rather different in the case of a postdoc where the successful candidate is an employee of the institution.
Owing to recent changes in employment legislation in the UK, best practice for the process of appointing staff is now considered to not even ask for references until after short-listing or even after interview. The purpose of references is simply to verify that the information the applicant has given in the application is complete and correct; they are not to be used in deciding on quality. Shortlisting is done on the basis of whether the applicant can show in the application that they have skills that match the requirement of the post. The final decisions is made after interview of shortlisted candidates.
Many academics hate this new-fangled way of doing things partly because its a new-fangled way of doing things but also because they tend to rely heavily on references in judging the relative quality of candidates for PDRA appointments. Personally, however, I don’t find references particularly helpful in this context – especially those from America where the language is so inflated as to be laughable – so, unlike most of my colleagues, I’m quite happy to embrace the “new” approach. I think relying too much on references is a tantamount to wanting other people to make difficult decisions for you rather than making them yourself.
On top of this, modern protocol requires the use of a standard application form rather than just a CV and list of research interests. That way the relative merits of all candidates can be judged on the basis of the same pieces of information and answers to the same questions. Whatever you think about this process, it certainly does make things more transparent.
I’m currently advertising a postdoc job and will be shortlisting for this position on the basis I have described, i.e. without asking for references uprfront. I’ll only look at references later on, after shortlisting. This is the first time I will have done it this way, so I am interested to see how it works.
But I can’t see at all how one could possibly make decisions concerning entry of an undergraduate student onto a graduate programme without using references earlier on in the process.