Some applications for open faculty positions require letters of recommendation up-front; some request letters only after there has been a first stage of selection based on other information supplied by the applicant. Although I don't mind the first method, I prefer the second because it seems like a better use of time for those writing the letters and for those reading the applications.
I know that things are done in a different way at many non-US institutions, but lately I have encountered variations on this system within the US. In the past few months:
- I received a request for a letter of reference for someone who had already been invited to interview at a US institution. In fact, no letters of reference were solicited until this stage, so my letter wasn't supplementary or an attempt to fill a reference letter quota. The letters were clearly not a part of the interview selection decision. It is unclear what role, if any, they have in the search.
- I received a request for a letter of reference after someone had a phone interview but before they were invited for the actual interview. I am glad I am not on that hiring committee, as it seems to involve several extra steps.
I didn't mind either of those requests, although the first case made me wonder why the institution even bothered to get letters if they are so unimportant in the process. Perhaps it is an administrative requirement? Having read thousands of these letters, I must say I can't really blame anyone for not valuing reference letters very much.
A letter request that did annoy me, however, was one accompanied by the information that my letter would not even be read unless the candidate advanced to the final interview stage. In this case, the position is not an academic one, so perhaps I just lack familiarity with how things are done outside academia.
From what I could tell from the instructions, the organization will not read the letters before the final candidates are selected from a huge pool of applicants but wants to have the letters on hand to read as soon as the final interviewees are selected, and hence the request for possibly superfluous letters. I can understand the wish for efficiency, especially given the large number of applicants, but it is a bit of a strange request: Please write this letter even though we are unlikely to read it. We need to be efficient but we are willing to (possibly) waste your time.
Wouldn't such a request lend itself to getting cursory letters or letters that are not focused specifically on the position for which the applicant has applied? I typically take some time to customize each letter depending on what the position is, and in some cases this takes quite a bit of time. Why would I do that if I don't know if my letter will even be read?
I guess I will do it for the same reason we write any reference letters, not knowing if the subject of the letters will get the position.
Despite knowing in this particular case that my letter may be transferred, unread, directly to an electronic trash heap, I think the best strategy is to try to forget about that and write the letter in the hopes that it will eventually be read, the student will get the job, and it will all be worthwhile in the end.
2 months ago