The past few weeks have involved much reading and writing of recommendation letters for undergraduate students applying for graduate schools, and writing of letters for graduate students applying for faculty positions/postdocs. I have written before about some issues related to evaluating and writing such letters (and random rants here and here). Today what is obsessing me is just how complicated it has become to keep track of all the different ways that different universities want this information conveyed to them.
It has always been a problem getting students to produce an organized list of the required forms, addresses, and other information well in advance of deadlines (i.e., > 1 week), but that is chaos I can deal with. What I am talking about is additional chaos that makes the entire letter-writing enterprise seem like something out of a novel that parodies Academia.
Faculty positions/postdocs: Some universities want a letter sent by email as an attachment; some want an emailed letter but also need a hard copy to follow at some point (by the evaluation date, at some unspecified time later, or only if the candidate is offered a job). Others only accept a letter on letterhead sent by regular mail. At some universities, the letter goes to the department or head of the search committee; at others the letter goes to an employment office (please include the position requisition number in all correspondence). This is annoying but still a manageable amount of chaos. But then there's:
Grad school applications: This has become an insane process. I hate the online forms with their 57 questions about whether the applicant is in the top 1%, top 5%, top 10%, top 25%, top 37%, lower 12%, or whether I have no basis for judgment of certain aspects of the student's intellectual and social skills. Some online applications have tiny little boxes for written comments, so I have to write a separate letter if I am going to say anything more than that Mary is smart.
Some forms can be filled out online, but only after the student has done their part by entering relevant information and waiving/not waiving their right to see the letter. Others require the student to print out the form with this information and give the paper copy to me, although the point of interactive text-boxes eludes me in these cases. Some of these letters I have to mail; some I have to give to the student in a signed/sealed envelope for them to include with their other application materials, except those that are online.
Some students send me links to reference forms without having filled out their part of the form first. Some of the links they send me don't work or are links to the wrong form. Some students have to send me their social security numbers, date of birth, application number, and shoe size before I can fill out my part of the form. Every place has a different due date.
If the average student applies to 6-7 graduate programs and there is not much overlap in the programs/universities to which they are applying and if you happen to be a professor who teaches required courses for majors and therefore interacts with grad school-bound undergraduates..
At some point during this process in recent weeks, I resorted to the sanity-saving measure of bypassing the online forms and just writing reference letters and either emailing them directly to the relevant departments or printing the letters and giving them to the students to mail in a sealed/signed envelope. I made the necessary communications with departments/graduate programs to ascertain that my students will not be harmed by my failure to fill out all the little interactive text boxes and click on the pull-down menus in the charts divided into random categories.
I did fill out some of the stupid online forms before realizing that the system is broken and that faculty need to rise up as one and protest this insidious form of oppression. If any of the candidates for President of the United States will promise to reform the online reference system for academic letters of recommendation, they just might get my vote unless they don't believe in evolution.
6 months ago