Friday, January 25, 2008

Going Postal : Reference Letters

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.

33 comments:

Yvette said...

Brilliant post. To be honest, what amazes me most about this is how everyone complains about it but nothing ever seems to get done.

Anyone want to make a quick buck by designing a website similar to ArXiv where professors can upload their letters? You can just charge departments a nominal fee to use it, and the revenue would add up... I'd do it myself, but can't pretend my webskills are good enough but think it's a good enough idea that I won't mind if someone uses it. :)

KCProgramr said...

I'm going through the same thing at the moment (and have one student who may be applying to every graduate program in the country, but maybe it just seems that way). Yes, the process is insane. Everybody asks for pretty much the same information, but always in a slightly different format or according to a different set of rules. Some of the specialized questions make sense (Our program places an emphasis on student research, so we're interested in any undergrad research experience), but for the "Mary is smart" stuff, there should be a standard form so it can be entered once and copied as needed. I don't need to re-enter the information that mary is in the top 12.73% of left-handed undergraduates who drive sports cars over and over again; once should be enough.

0, 1. (Just my two bits.)

Kelli said...

I created fillable PDF forms for all of my requests that required printed forms. This way faculty could still type on them without a lot of extra effort. It worked very well.

sandyshoes said...

Huckabee's out then, eh? ;)

Tuff Cookie said...

Oh, I feel your pain (from the student end). Not only do I have to figure out which school wants what part of their application online, on paper, signed in blood, sent in triplicate, etc, I had to fill out at least one extra paper form to send to my professors and NOT ONE of them asked the same thing. Some demanded I fit half my undergrad transcript into a two inch box even though I'd already sent multiple copies to the school.

Not to mention that I felt particularly horrible when, after I'd already put together one packet of signed recommendation forms with envelopes, stamps, address labels, and information about the programs I was applying to, I discovered I'd MISSED forms from several schools and had to send another package overnight to get it to my profs in time. The one school that didn't demand paper forms had an online system - and I have no idea what that was like for my profs.

Let me say a big thank you for dealing with all this crap for your students - I know I owe my professors a great deal of gratitude, and possibly a large shipment of baked goods.

Silk Stocking said...

When I applied to graduate school, I gave my recommenders an addressed, stamped envelope and two months to write them. One of my professors still had to fax in their letter because she waited until the last minute. I love her, and I still see her at conferences and meetings because I went into the same field, but holy crap is she disorganized. Her office always looked like a bomb exploded.

I have actually started getting my own requests to write letters of recommendation, mostly from students who want to go to dental or medical school. I think this is because my class is one of the only science classes some of these students have ever taken. Sometimes, even students who haven't done well ask me for letters (I tell them that they would be better off asking someone else to write one for them if they got lower than a B in my class). I also have students give me their entire life story - abusive fathers, chronic health problems, etc. etc. Why do I want to know these things?

Wow, okay, end rant.

yellowfish said...

Great post... I hate those forms, where you know not everyone is in the top whatever percent, but also feel like you're completely screwing someone unless you check off only the top few boxes. Its always a balancing act.

But, this year I had something I've never seen... this was a question for a letter of rec, for a science (social science, but still through the 'school of science and technology') grad program:

Describe the degree to which the applicant would be supportive of the Christian lifestyle and distinctive mission of XXX U to "further the healing and teaching ministry of Jesus Christ, to make the man whole" (see http://www.XXXU.edu/XXXU/handbook/stand.htm for lifestyle information and http://www.XXXU.edu/XXXU/XXXUmission.htm for the XXXU mission)

Whaaa? somehow during their research assistantship stint, we never managed to cover any of this...

Harvestar said...

You're not the only one out there struggling with this issue:

http://scienceblogs.com/catdynamics/2008/01/why_your_professor_would_like.php

who complains about the websites requiring certain browsers to submit their letters.

psychprof said...

I have been refusing forms for years, writing 'see letter' across them. But the internet thing has changed all of this - in that i have not been able to do so on the internet forms and have now had to fill out boxes to be permitted to upload the letters. GRRR...

and one school just wrote me a personal email and demanded that i complete the form. i had to resist ranting to them, by breathing deeply and reminding myself that such behavior probably would only harm the student, who is completely innocent in this process.

Anonymous said...

Two for one--in the same letter!

“As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual
certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life - so I
became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can
meet girls.” M. Cartmill

“I am among those who think that science has great beauty.
A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is
also a child placed before natural phenomena which
impress him like a fairy tale.” Marie Curie

polite girl, sometimes said...

I wrote (handwritten) thank you notes to profs who had written me a bunch of rec letters (e.g. for grad school or for fellowship apps). My husband said that that was a "girl" thing to do, but your post reassures me that it was a "polite" thing to do.

Slightly off topic, two comedic academe novels that I have enjoyed are Russo's _Straight Man_ and Smiley's _Moo_. Neither will become Beowulfian staples of Western Lit, but they're both quite funny.

Female Science Professor said...

polite girl, it's not too late to vote! See:

Academic Novel Poll

Lisa said...

I applied to 8 grad schools, and I had 4 reference writers. I gave each a folder with forms instructions for each school. I felt bad for making them do so much work, but my husband and I needed to ensure some overlap of where we were accepted. Of course he and I both did thank-you notes! It's just polite.
Also, the applications themselves are pretty bad--it was like having a half time job for several weeks!

polite girl, sometimes said...

Very funny, thanks. Will my vote be subject to Electoral College lumping? (off topic: thought Intuition, while terrific at lab life, was just a tarted up rewrite of the Baltimore story, best described by Kevles).

Back to topic, it's odd that while the Common App has become...Common for college-bound students, there is no equivalent for the grad process. Of course all programs want different things, but the basics of personal info, awards, personal statement, letters, etc. is always the same and could easily be bundled.

EcoGeoFemme said...

Have any of you on the recommending end investigated or tried to simplify the process at your own school?

Ms.PhD said...

There are services for rec letters. However, they are usually run by a school's career services center, and not all schools have them. (and obviously not all students even know about them).

I have blogged before that I like the idea of having things go through one big center, all at the same time (as they do in some fields for faculty positions).

I'm not entirely sure why nobody wants to implement this. It works well enough for things like SAT scores, so why not this?

The current system is annoying at best, and at worst it's a waste of everyone's time.

For postdocs we either have to wait until all the ads come out (thereby missing some of the deadlines) or request letters in batches... it's impossible to be organized enough to keep track of all of it AND do a really good job on all of them (let alone keep doing experiments). It's a full time job to look for a job (or school).

Anonymous said...

ecogeofemme -

My department has opted out of the university-wide online form system. We crunched the numbers and found that we would save time doing more work on our end with diverse applications if it means that we do less when writing letters.

However, we are lucky that many departments are very keen to get our students and so have are starting to begrudgingly accept that we won't play their games. Not all departments can do this.

Typically, the university saves administrative resources by using these online monstrosities. The fact that this then collectively costs faculty time sending applications out is irrelevant to them.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Spot on! I'm so glad that when I applied to grad schools, all that was required was a standard letter. I've had to be the go-between for my undergrads and The Boss, and I must say that The Boss has not been taking the little box forms well!

ExtraordinaryCollegeStudent said...

Hehe but we loove you guys for writing them for us :)

ScienceGirl said...

I applied to grad school 4 years ago, and the whole process still makes me cringe... I tried to put together as much info as I could for my letter writers (detailed resume and reminders of what I have done with them in terms of classes/research, links, directions, deadlines, addressed/stamped envelopes) 2 months in advance, and sent out reminders/pleas 1 month and 2 weeks before the deadlines. Not sure what else a student can do to ease the situation, but I do know that my profs appreciated me trying (and all the letters I asked for made it on time).

Silk Stocking said...

@ Ms. PhD -

The law school people have the centralized database deal down pat with the LSAC system. The biggest problems are that it can be a financial burden on the students and all university have to basically want the same thing for it to work.

an american grad said...

I gave my reference writers baked goods after all was said and done.

small college science prof said...

I'm surprised that you don't like online letters. I have found them to be far easier than printing out multiple hard copies, trying to figure out which way to put the letterhead into the printer's manual feed tray, stuffing numerous envelopes, etc. I tell my students to set me up to submit online letters if at all possible.

Another rule I have: if at all possible, I send letters directly to the school/department, rather than giving signed sealed envelopes to the student. This ensures that if a student changes his or her mind about applying to that particular program, he or she cannot open the letter and read it. Anyone ever had this problem? (I guess you'd have no way to know if you did!)

Female Science Professor said...

I prefer online letter, but only if the system allows a simple 'upload your letter' option rather than 'cut and paste your text in this tiny box that will truncate anything more than 100 words so you have to print out and send the extra text separately' option, or the option in which you have to cut and paste text addressing 12 different questions into separate boxes.

IP Freeley said...

The letter writing process is insane, but do proffs have anyone to blame but themselves? Can you proudly state that the admissions committee at your school only asks for a simple letter and it can be emailed, snail-mailed, or messenger pigeoned and it will be correctly filed with the student's application?

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't someone with a Ph.D. be able to figure out how to submit letters in different formats? I am grateful for the many letters written on my behalf that got me to my current position. Now I am paying back those mentors by paying it forward to my students. Resenting having to do that is ungrateful, in my opinion. Further, this is just another part of doing the job. Complaining about doing the job seems a bit "high maintenance" when there are so many out there who would give a great deal to have a tenure track position. While you're at it, don't you want to complain about the size of your desk or the fact that you have to do your own typing?

Anonymous said...

Last anonymous: What a bizarre response. I don't think tenure-track or tenured faculty lose the right to comment on a process that takes more time than it should just because there are others who wish they were in our position. Writing letters is 'part of doing the job' (there is nothing in the original post to suggest that it is otherwise), but wouldn't it be better if the reference-submitting process were more efficient, so we could spend all that 'extra' time on teaching, research, advising, service, and so on?

Anonymous said...

First of all, why do people wait to get information to the recommenders? I got my apps submitted and info to my recommenders (including resume, transcripts, summaries of where I was applying and why...and anything quirky about their requirements) over the summer. I was done with all that before school even started last fall.

Slight rant: Of course, it frustrated me to no end that one of my recommenders failed to send out anything (paper or online), despite repeated assurances that he would "get right on it". I really hope that isn't a bad reflection on me.

Back on topic, though, it think it's a lot less stressful if people don't wait until the last minute...especially because every school does seem to have their own special forms and submission criteria.

Dana said...

This is not really related to this post, but there is a very interesting meme going around on "Why I teach literature" and "Why I teach history" started from the below fantastic post. I would be very curious to read what science professors have to say and if this could cross disciples. I'd be curious on your perspective.

http://reassignedtime.blogspot.com/2008/01/why-teach-literature.html

ARL said...

Filling the application is enough work (for the students), I can imagine a similar pain for letter-writing professors.

Small college science prof writes about not liking when students find out what the letter says about them. I have wondered about this for a long time. First, I would find it unprofessional for a professor to write a bad letter without telling the student ahead of time that he won't get a recommendation. In this case, a smart student would give thanks and immediately go find another recommender. Second, assuming that point 1 doesn't happen, would a letter really change that much (or at all) if a professor knew the student didn't waive his right to read it?

Anyways, what's the reasoning behind that waiver? Why does it matter?

chemfan said...

As someone who has just applied to graduate school I have to say THANK YOU to all professors who care enough to write thoughtful letters of rec for students. Over the years I have needed a lot of letters for summer programs, scholarships, study abroad programs, and now graduate schools. I always give as much notice as possible (even if it is "hey, I'm thinking about applying for such-and-such program, the deadline is 6 months away, if I decide to apply would you be willing to write a letter?")

While we are on the topic of how non-standardized the grad school app process is, I finished my apps about a month ago and while all of them were submitted online (thank goodness!) some applications were incredibly convoluted. One school wanted to know the names, numbers, and textbooks of all my courses. This was annoying enough considering the course numbering system at my small liberal arts college doesn't translate to any regular system. Another school had it's own online form for me to fill out not only that information but also the names of my professors and the topics covered in the course. It took me two days. My research adviser told me that one recommendation form (from an admittedly snobbish school) wanted to know about her credentials too. Graduate schools need to work on some form of the common app, for the sake of students and professors.

Anonymous said...

Never mind the whole "please enter your computer generated password then change to an appropriately secure password before continuing" crap. Like I do not have enough on-line passwords I have to remember! The whole "on-line recommendation letter" bit is a load of crap. Our department secretary just prints all of those out. Giant waste of so many resources, mental, emotional, and physical.

Student2b said...

What would you suggest to a student with Cumulative grade B-Bplus and very interested in going to grad school but none of the professors are willing to act as reference.