Thursday, August 02, 2007

It's About Me

Is it OK (ethical) to help write a letter of reference for yourself? (for example, for jobs, promotions, awards)? From what I've seen, these situations are not uncommon. Perhaps I am ethically challenged in this respect, but I think it is OK if a candidate supplies information/text for a letter, as long as the ultimate letter writer agrees with the information and supplies additional information/text.?

23 comments:

Stephan said...

Well, sometimes you (the letter requester) don't have a choice. As long as the "letter writer" signs it as their own I don't think you can object.

I'm an undergrad who just faced that experience for the first time when applying for a summer research program. I thought a letter from my adviser the previous summer would be a really good idea to have, but he wanted me to give him a draft to work from.

working said...

I think it's okay as long as you send it electronically so they can make changes to it. You can think of it as a rough draft ;)

D Lurker said...

As a sometimes letter writer, I think it's just fine. It makes it easier to write them. It is a little bit of a nuisance to have to write letters (it's part of the territory, but still a time consuming nuisance) and having a draft makes it easier. I don't think you are ethically challenged.

Angry Professor said...

I've done it a few times. It's pure laziness on the part of the (real) letter-writer. I was asked to write a draft for one of my own tenure letters. I don't think it's unethical: if the (real) letter writer doesn't agree with what you write, s/he can change it. I didn't sign anyone else's name to it, after all.

Mr. B. said...

Wow, that is the first time I ever heard of a ug being requested to provide a draft...

Nevertheless, the procedure is more common than some of us would like to admit. Typically someone will either run the letter by the applicant - asking for comments or suggestions - or not unusually ask for a first draft.

What to make of this? With grade inflation, etc., etc., even a straight letter is often construed as "damning with faint praise." So everyone feels that their recommendee needs a letter vouching for the fact that the person walks on water.

What to do, I don't know.

Is it ethical? In the end, if someone is willing to sign the letter, I think it is.

Bonzo

Black Knight said...

I'm with angry. Laziness.

And after all, if the writer doesn't know you well enough to write a letter of recommendation, what are they doing writing it?

lost academic said...

When I was an undergrad, every single time I requested a letter I was asked to draft it, or write it. It really shocked me the first few times, and I really never got over it even understanding the reasons that someone might ask for that.

Anonymous said...

I think most of the letters of recommendation I have ever requested ended up being written by me and signed by the "letter writer." Once, I was applying for a scholarship and the person recommending me not only asked me to write the letter myself, but also gave me the letter he had used to recommend a previous student (written by the student) so that all I had to do was switch out his name for mine and change the personal pronouns from he to she.

I don't think there's anything unethical about the practice. It saves time for everyone involved. Really, a letter of recommendation is usually just a vote "yes" or "no" anyways. The person providing the letter is doing their part by signing it.

Annie said...

I don't think it's unethical for a student who is writing the letter, but I do think it is unethical for a professor to *ask* a student to do so. The point of the letter isn't just, "Annie got an A in this class, did this research, won this scholarship," but rather that the recommender has more experience in the field and is better able to take the long view and judge the student's chances of success. You literally can't expect a 22 year old novice (who really isn't 100% sure about grad school) to be able to write about themselves the way you should be writing about them.

Mr. B. said...

Hmm..

Well, with undergrads I usually haul them in and ask them to bring a transcript. Then give them the third degree and write the letter. I would never ask an undergrad to provide a draft or show the letter to him or her.

For other purposes, grad student, post-doc, colleague, I think it is permissible and saves a lot of time to get a draft from the requester. I don't think it is laziness as I am willing to spend the time. But you just get higher quality information from the source.

Just my .02.

Bonzo

EcoGeoFemme said...

I don't think it's unethical. But I would feel mighty uncomfortable writing a letter about myself. And, having not seen many recommendations, it's difficult to know how they should sound or what they should say.

Schlupp said...

Draft is O.k., if you work on it yourself. It's not so bad, because it gives the student / candidate a way to remind you of things and to get in information (s)he wants the addressee to know (e.g. teaching experience). But if someone just sends what the student has written, the letter probably has a high chance of being not-so-informative.

LJG said...

Honestly, I think it's better for the letter writer to ask the requester for a transcript (if the requester is a student), resume/CV, publications, list of interests and extracurricular activities. I have never been asked to provide a draft of a letter (and frankly I would be VERY uncomfortable doing that and would probably thank them and ask someone else), but I have been asked to provide the items I have mentioned. If you need to ask the requester for a draft of a letter, then personally I don't think you should have agreed to write one in the first place.

Anonymous said...

On two occasions I have been asked to assist in writing my own reference letters. Once was for a teaching award and the chair wanted me to say something snazzy about what I do that is so prize-worthy. The other was when she was reccomending me for a retention award (i.e. pay raise) seeing as how I was getting very lucrative offers from industry.

In both cases what I wrote became essentially a draft of two paragraphs in the final letter. No one knows me as well as me!

John said...

IMO this is slightly sleazy but, in most cases, acceptable.

On the other hand it would not be acceptable to ask an undergrad to write his/her own letter of recommendation for grad school, since most undergrads would not know what to say and how to say it.

scarlettscion said...

It bothers me. I always operated on the assumption that if the professor did not know me well enough to write his or her own letter, they were the wrong ones to ask for a recommendation. As an undergraduate, I would have felt extremely uncomfortable if a teacher had asked me to essentially write my own letter. Just my gut feeling.

Harv said...

I was told entering undergrad that many profs would ask you to write your own letters, but that, thankfully, has never happened.

I think it's more common in some fields (larger ones, I guess) where profs may have too many letters to write. I was usually asked for a transcript.

Of course, there was one time I *should* have written a draft for the person, but I didn't know that until afterward. sigh...

Anonymous said...

I think there are a few problems with people writing their own letters. First, most students (undergraduates and grads alike) have not seen enough recommendation letters to know how they should read. Also, I've heard that in general people are not good at praising themselves, so letters written by the requester end up being less positive. (Many people I know have friends or labmates write their drafts instead, to avoid this problem.) Finally, while the recommender can always change a draft, it seems that they would do better to just get the information and write it themselves. I do think it's somewhat unethical to say that someone else's words (about themselves, no less) are your own.

I don't think there is a big problem with writing a recommendation for a student you don't know very well. When I was a freshman, I got recommended for an award, but since I'd only been in college for a semester, I hadn't had a chance to form relationships with many professors. I was forced to ask teachers who only knew me from class to write recommendations for me.

ETK said...

Lazy - maybe, but it could also be because someone really is too busy at the time of the request to give the letter the attention it needs and deserves.

Unethical - no. I think in both academic and business settings, this is common practice and sometimes even a good thing.

Doesn't being asked to write your own letter (review, bio, etc) make you think about your own performance and how it's viewed by others?

Just my two cents (as a...(former) lurker). :)

Ms.PhD said...

Yick. I think it's crappy that people are expected to do this and that some people have no problem with it.

So yes, I worry that your ethics are somewhat stunted.

I agree with the people who said you should supply the appropriate supporting information- CV, papers, maybe even bullet points worth mentioning in the letter.

But I think the practice ensures that science selects for those who are good at self-praise... i.e. people who are either super self-confident in a good way, or supremely arrogant in a bad way.

Anonymous said...

I was asked to do this when entering grad school. I really hated it, but thought of it as a draft. I have a hard time "self-promoting" though so I'm sure it wasn't like some of the other 'glowing' letters sent in for other candidates. It was only one out of several letters, but I needed it. I tried to be as honest as possible and had my dad (a professor too) review it. I felt like it was a test, the real letter writer wanted to see what I would say or something. too strange. If I ever become a professor I think I would prefer requesting a copy of their CV and talking w/ them and then writing it myself.

mentaer said...

form foreign point of view:
I had also to write a couple of drafts for letters about my intership in companies. And i think it is quite usual here from a specific level of education. The difficulty in germany is actually that there are a couple of reserved terms, that should be know.
I also had to write an english draft for myself, because my supervisor was completley unfamiliar with writing english recommendation letters and did not have the time to prepare for (i think a full day is necessary to get some info/background). So i wrote the draft and we both were sitting down for half an hour to discuss the points

but.. in general.. as fas as the person reads and sign, it is ethical ok.

CreditGirl said...

When I was applyign for graduate school in the US two out of three professors said that they would just sign whatever I had written in the recommendation form. I guess they just didn't care.