This is the fourth in a five-part series on the Letter of Recommendation (LOR) system, describing feedback received in spring 2021 by Mitra Sharafi and Ronit Stahl on an online poll and survey. Here are parts 1, 2, and 3.
Our earlier blogposts conveyed the dissatisfaction of many respondents who filled out our online survey on the LOR system. What to do?
At the personal level, some respondents shared these strategies for making LOR-writing more manageable:
I only write for graduate students that I advise or have a close working relationship with and understanding from the start that I will be writing letters for them. Currently, I am writing for 10 Ph.D. (and former Ph.D.) students. That number is down from a few years ago. For me, it's not just the letters. I give students feedback on their letters and related materials. This is as time-consuming as writing letters. But I also think it is as important and part of the training that I do -- at the undergraduate, but especially at the graduate level.
"I write letters of recommendation on Mondays." This adapts advice I received from one of my mentors […] when I was on the job market. She suggested this as a way to keep applications from devouring all the time you are willing to give them. Now that I am mostly a letter-writer, I find this helps me manage the workload (and avoid missing deadlines). And when students want to know "how much lead time do you need," the answer - especially once a letter has been written - is somewhere between one and seven days. I also give my students guidance on what to give me to help me write a good letter. [link updated by eds]
I generally ask Ph.D. students I'm writing for to give me a chart with positions they're applying for with all the details so that I have a master list for each student and also have their basic materials (CV, cover letter for earliest position, the current status of their progress . . . ), link to job/fellowship - so I can see the full details, and date the letter is due and how to submit it. They update these as the semester/year goes along. But given posting practices, there are many things that don't make the original or updated list and so there are generally more letters. But this does allow me to get a first foundational letter written that I can then work from.
For most Ph.D. students I advise or work closely with I write a new letter late summer/early fall for jobs and postdocs for interfolio. This gives them a letter to go to in case they don't have time to contact me or in case an emergency would mean that I wouldn't be able to get a letter written.
Get students to send me a bullet point list of things they think I should highlight in the letter. It helps me do the tailoring more precisely, and brings in a transparency to the system that it sorely requires.
More after the jump.
One letter-requester offered this admission:
I write letters for my recommenders. Clearly not what this question is getting at, but worth emphasizing that this happens a lot.
The bigger focus, though, was on how to reform the LOR system at a structural level. The most popular proposal was to only require LORs for finalists in high-stakes application processes like TT jobs.
For example, here were comments on how to change the LOR system:
Would eliminate entirely for things like archive fellowships or undergrad study abroad; would only ask at final round for jobs
Get rid of them (or the number of them required) for most situations.
Eliminate it except as verification of the candidate's positive qualities AFTER hiring/funding/fellowship decisions have been made.
Require no more than one letter for admission to a graduate program, or for a particular fellowship application.
There is no reason for job search committees to ask for LORs until they come up with their short list.
And here were some similar, longer statements:
The tendency to make providing letters a default part of the first stage of an application process [is a problem]...A fair number of applicants are always weeded out in the first round of any evaluation (whether for job or fellowship) as uncompetitive for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the letters of recommendation. Therefore, it seems pointless to make candidates provide them upon application.
I think that asking for letters of recommendation makes sense once the candidate has moved to a second round of screening or beyond; otherwise, it feels like faculty write a lot of letters, applicants stress about making sure that faculty get the letters in, etc. The only risk is that applicants may get their hopes up if a LOR is requested, whereas if everyone is asked, you don't hear anything until the end.
[As] a professor, I have been on numerous search committees and I rarely used LORs for the first round of screening. It would have made a minimal difference if I only received letters for those we interviewed on any search (we shifted to that system anytime I chaired a committee in fact and it worked perfectly fine). I also think that then advisors could actually have time to know what job their student was interviewing for. I work at a teaching school and when I talked to a recommender who could honestly say the person wanted THIS job rather than having some generic sense that their advisee was applying to a bunch of jobs of a variety of types, it made a difference.
As someone who has to ask for letters, the system just does not work the way it should. It is unreasonable to request letters before the shortlisting stage, as it places a major burden on the applicant and her recommenders and more often than not leads to absolutely nothing. It is hard to believe that hiring committees carefully read these letters to make shortlisting decisions. Yes, I am sure it may matter when actual hiring decisions are made. But how often does a committee find letters to be the 'make or break' criterion for shortlisting? I seriously doubt that it does, but committee members would have to weigh in with their experiences.
I can see only asking for LORs for final-round TT job processes. However, this will mean building the process of contacting letter writers into the timeline for the search.
However, not everyone favors restricting LORs to final-round TT job searches:
It's clear that in [an] earlier era, faculty spent far less time writing letters. But I would not want to return to that system. A formalized job market did not eliminate institutional hierarchy, but letters open opportunities for students that otherwise they wouldn't have. This is one of the reasons that I oppose the move to limit letters to those who have made the short list for positions. I want students to be judged on their individual merit. Eliminating letters will mean that greater weight than already is the case will be placed on institutional affiliation and that narrows opportunity in obvious and troubling ways […] I think more than the LOR system needs to change: (1) dramatically smaller (and fewer) Ph.D. programs; (2) I think just as I generally tell students that their cover letters should not exceed 2 pages, I think LORs should be capped at 2 pages (and for many undergraduate opportunities - limited to 1 page...with firm font type/size, margin restrictions). I am not […] in favor of limiting letters to those short-listed for positions and fellowships. While this is happening and it has lightened the burden for me, I worry deeply about it increasing inequities in an already inequitable system.
Additional suggestions included formatting tweaks or alternatives to LORs:
I would like to [see] a page limit become generalized, in part because otherwise one's detailed comments on the dissertation tend to linger, being rewritten even as they become somewhat out of date.
Personally, I […] think that phone reference calls for any stage job applicants are the best option.
The option to speak on the phone about a student or to have a quick form filled out rather than a detailed letter
Others expressed interest in a centralized system like LSAC (for law school admissions) or Interfolio:
In this whole universe of LORs, the system that involves the Law Schools admissions clearinghouse is the best one, for the obvious reason that I can write one letter for one deadline that gets sent to various law schools.
LSAC/Interfolio system allowing for single letter per person. Standardized requirements rather than customizable. Non requirement for candidates until they are shortlisted.
Go back to the dossier system. Programs should also consider whether they really need a letter. It's become so easy to ask for them that they just do, when they don't really need them. A $300 research grant in a small pool that means most applicants will receive funding does not need a letter; a $30,000 year-long fellowship that only 5% of applicants receives does. Study abroad programs do not need letters.
At least one respondent rejected the idea of replacing LORs with online forms:
Writing letters of recommendation [can be] a burden, but I worry about replacing them with forms. Once you've written a letter for a student, you can REUSE the same letter for everything the student applies to. Also, we the writers choose what to address and what to skip over when we write LORs. If LORs were replaced by forms, each school or job would have its own form, and I think we'd waste more time. PLUS, our creativity and our mode of expression would be limited because we would have to answer set questions. I greatly prefer writing in my own words to filling out forms. (The latter just makes me feel like an administrator). But asking for LORs only for finalists is a great idea.
The bottom line: there is a general sense that the system has spiraled out of control for those writing *and* requesting letters. And although many of our respondents favor only requiring LORs for TT job shortlists, not everyone agrees on what to do.
This concludes our survey feedback. In our next and final post (part 5), we share some of our own thoughts on possible fixes.