Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wasted Time?

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.


Anonymous said...

In most hires I've been involved in, letters are only requested for candidates who make it to interview. The logic is that 99% of letters are so glowing that they don't really discriminate between people. The point of the letters is more to check that the candiate is not lying about their achievment or in some other way fatally flawed. But for two good people with good letters, the interview and fit with the job carries much more weight than the eloquence of the letter.

NJA said...

I think I'm missing something here... What's the difference between requesting letters when someone has been invited to interview (the first exception) and requesting letters "only after there has been a first stage of selection based on other information supplied by the applicant" (apparently the norm)?

In the UK system, it's normal to invite a shortlist of several candidates to interview for a single position and this is the stage when referee letters form part of the selection process (along with research talk and interview itself). How does the US differ?

Anonymous said...

I prefer letters to be requested after the short list is made.

When I was a student and post-doc, I hated having to request tons of letters. I thought it was better for jobs to request contact info. Think of the many hours of productivity wasted on letters that are never read....

franglais said...

In the US, and in the sciences and engineering domains with which I am familiar, the most common search committee practice involves:
1) Gathering applications by a target deadline;
2) reviewing applications and determining a subset of applications (a long list of 20-40% applications is common) for which letters are deemed useful to the selection process; letters are requested and become part of the process that identifies a short list for interviews;
3) Additional letters may be requested or other communication may take place before a final decision is made, which typically involves a ranked list of acceptable candidates for the position.

The main difference between the US and some European systems I know is that reference letters in the US are part of the review to create a short list of interviewees. But this may be changing, as FSP is pointing out.

Anonymous said...

"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."

Industry jobs are particularly strange, in my experience. They are thinking about hiring someone who has been a postdoc in my lab for five years, but do NOT request a letter. Instead someone from HR calls with a canned list of questions like: "Is this person reliable?", "Do they have a good work history?", and "Did thy have a porblem with drug or alcohol abuse"?"

Nothing like "Are they smart and resourceful?", "Can they direct a project?" or "Are they good at learning new things?'


Mark P

Alex said...

Not yet being a letter writer I can't comment on this, but I read a comment somewhere recently (Rate Your Students, I think?) regarding job searches and transcripts: I don't understand why some schools require transcripts as part of the initial application. I get why they might require a transcript before an official offer is made, since they need to formally verify credentials. However, if there are 100 applicants for a position, and each applicant spends $10 or $15 on an official transcript, that's an extra $1000+ spent by people who will ultimately not get the job. It seems like a lot of money and hassle.

I suppose the argument is that nobody wants to discover the con artist only at the last moment, but weighing the unlikelihood of a person with a fake degree making it to the offer stage against the hassle caused for all applicants, it seems kind of silly.

Kim said...

In job searches at predominantly undergrad/teaching institutions, I've used the recommendation letters to help make the first cut. There isn't much information in a typical CV that tells how a candidate will be as a teacher. (Experience as a TA doesn't mean that someone will be good at teaching, or enthusiastic about teaching.) I can glean some information from the cover letter and the statement of teaching and research interests, but those mostly help me eliminate candidates who don't have any clue about the kind of institution they've applied to work at. The recommendation letters are the only outside source of information about a candidate's public speaking skills or quality of work as a TA. (Teaching portfolios have potential, but I find it hard to judge them, given that the applicant can choose to include only the information that makes him/her look good.)

The flip side is that the people writing the recommendation need to understand PUIs and make sure that they say the right glowing things. ("The candidate is the best researcher I have ever worked with" doesn't help the case for a applicant to a PUI.) FSP understands, but a lot of other MRU professors don't.

John Vidale said...

I think requests for letters are just unavoidably destined for highly variable levels of scrutiny and overkill.

Sometimes they are necessary to discriminate between numerous unknown candidates, other times committees are looking for unknown sides and details of familiar people, sometimes the committee just wants letters to propel a case past the upper administration to gain the requested level of appointment and other perks for a good offer.

We need to calibrate our writing to make efficient use of our time - longer and more careful letters when they matter more. More cut and paste or simply declining to write when letters matter little or not at all.

Letters for promotion cases are even more problematical.

Anonymous said...

I've wondered about this quite a bit as I've emailed/bugged my former/current mentors and collaborators for TT faculty recommendation letters. It seems enough of an annoyance to bother these busy people without the understanding their letter may never even be read. As an applicant, I really prefer waiting to request a letter until I know I've made it to the "next stage", whatever that next stage happens to be.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it would be best for the candidates and their letter writers for the search process to require contact info from references and letters only for the short list candidates.

However, I can see two pitfalls in this plan on the part of the hiring committee: turn-around time and privacy.

What if the letter writers are not able to "turn around" a letter request within the requested timeline? While rare, international sabbaticals and illnesses and various other external factors can sometimes influence the timeline unduly. [There were several instances in my job search where letters were lost somewhere between the letter-writer and the hiring committee - these glitches can theoretically be addressed with electronic uploading of letters, but those methods aren't foolproof, either.]

People outside of the search committee will know who is on the short list, and, if the candidate they support is not invited for an interview, then reference-writers will know it had something to do with the letters. Maybe this is not a problem, but perhaps the illusion that hiring decisions are made "behind closed doors" can be comforting to the committee.

Given how pervasive it is (in my field) for letters to be requested in the job ad, I'm wondering if the letters play a larger role in some hiring decisions than others?

Anonymous said...

"Letters for promotion cases are even more problematical."

This would be a great post -- what does a strong letter look like? How do outsiders judge a tenure package? How do you pick letter writers for your tenure package?

Anonymous said...

My advisor once received a request for a reference letter about me for a research job at a national lab after I had already been given a written job offer letter. She forwarded me the request, asking "Didn't you already accept this job?" Um, yeah, be sure to give that letter a lot of time and energy....

I asked about it, and the explanation was something about needing complete application folders for all applicants, in case of some kind of equal employment audit.

physics grad student said...

I've heard that its very common for students from certain foreign countries write their own letters of recommendation and then just their professors to sign them. Sometimes its easy to tell since the cover letter and letter itself will both be written in the exact same poor English style.

Kevin said...

I've been on a lot of faculty search committees. Our committees read all the letters before choosing who to interview---the letters often provide information not available in the application letters and CVs. Part of the reason is our institution's process, which requires us to rate each applicant into one of a small number of categories before we can interview anyone.

Alex, our grad applications require transcripts. These are an extremely important part of the process and we read them carefully. We want to know what courses you took, which ones you did well in, and which you had trouble with.
Of course, I'm in a program that gets applicants from a wide range of very different programs with very different preparations. The GPA doesn't tell us much, and neither does the GRE. We need to analyze the courses taken and the research done (as evidenced in the recommendation letters), before we choose who to interview for grad school.

Alex said...

Oh, I was referring to transcripts for faculty jobs. There are a few schools that actually require transcripts with the application materials. I get the importance of transcripts for grad applications, but for faculty jobs I think the main significance of a transcript is for verifying credentials. Nobody hires a professor based on grades in courses.

Anonymous said...

why not just request a list of references instead of requiring letters to be written by those same people. And then the hiring committee can call up the people listed whenever they want and ask specific questions to remove ambiguity inherent in written letters anyway?

Kevin said...

"Oh, I was referring to transcripts for faculty jobs."

I've never heard of requesting transcripts for faculty jobs---publications and teaching skill are what matter, not grades.

Proof of credentials is sometimes needed, but it is usually requested after interviewing is done, just to avoid disasters like the admissions director at MIT who'd lied about her credentials.

Kevin said...

"why not just request a list of references instead of requiring letters to be written by those same people. "

Because the recruiting committee members are often doing this work in their "spare time", which means 2 in the morning.

Also, I can read through 10 letters in the time it takes to do one phone call, and close to a hundred letters in the time it takes to actually reach 3 people by phone.

Phone calls *are* done, but only after the pool has been shrunk from over a hundred down to 5-10.

Venkat said...

As a postdoc applying for fellowships, I found this really strange: A resubmission of my proposal required that all my referees re-upload the reference letters they wrote for me just 6 months ago.
Already I feel delicate to bug them, this is even better. *facepalm*

Anonymous said...

I am going through the interview process now as an applicant, to add to your types:

1. Request for reference after I have had the on-site interview.

2. Verbal references, several institutions have actually called and talked with my references. More pressure, but probally gives better insight into the candidate.

Kevin said...

"several institutions have actually called and talked with my references."

This is fairly standard (even when letters have been written) once the pool has been whittled down to 2 or 3, particularly if there are some very close contenders or a split department. It is also common to double-check letters that are too glowing.