Working Life

Retire the letter of reference

Science  05 Feb 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6273, pp. 630
DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6273.630

Each year, I write letters of reference for undergraduate students applying to master's and Ph.D. programs; law school; and programs in social work, architecture, and medicine. I write letters to help them win awards, internships, and placements in study abroad programs. I write letters for graduate students trying to win fellowships, find postdoc appointments, and secure tenure-track positions. I write letters for faculty members submitting applications for prizes, as well as for those coming up for tenure and promotion appraisals. Suffice it to say, I spend a lot of time writing letters.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“We need to write fewer letters.”

Maybe I should feel good about this—after all, I am helping a lot of people achieve their dreams—but I don't. It isn't that I don't wish the people I am writing for well—I do. They often succeed in their applications, and I like to think that my letters play an important part in this. However, I am beginning to question the value of all this letter writing. I certainly don't mean to sound ungracious. Yes, many people have written letters on my behalf. Yes, without these letters I wouldn't be where I am today. But I became an academic to be a scholar and a teacher. I didn't sign up to be a letter writer.

Even as I am sometimes exasperated with my own letter-writing load, I was surprised to learn that, compared with other colleagues I have talked to, the 50 or so letters I am now writing each year is probably average. One colleague told me that he knows someone who routinely writes several hundred letters each year. Others probably write more. This is work we in the academy all feel obliged to do—but lately, as I serve on more of the hiring and award committees that request all these letters, I find myself wondering whether they are losing value.

In the past, there were fewer universities than today, and networks were smaller. A letter of reference mattered because it was written by someone the letter reader knew. Now, we are reading hundreds of letters of reference, most by people we don't know. Maybe we have heard of the letter writer's research and have met once or twice at a conference, but still, we often have no sense of what a letter from that individual means. Is “good” high or faint praise? When is “brilliant” honest and when is it hyperbole? Is this a form letter? Does the fact that a letter was written by a big-name scholar employed at a big-name school indicate that the subject of the letter is doing quality work or merely that they are well connected? And should we discount a letter if there are typos or grammatical mistakes? In the end, a strong letter can simply mean a strong letter writer.

Indeed, now that I have served on committees faced with hundreds of letters, each describing said candidate as “outstanding” or some other superlative, I find myself paying less and less attention to them. Although we used to look to letters to get a sense of someone's scholarly promise, in today's competitive academic arena, promise is no longer enough. Instead, we end up relying on markers of achievement—CV, transcript, proposal, scholarly output—as do the writers of all those letters.

Last month, Roger Day wrote on this page that some academics need to stop using others to ghostwrite their letters. (You can read that story at http://scim.ag/RogerDayWL.) But we don't just need more diligent letter writers or more honesty about who is doing the letter writing. We need to write fewer letters. I think it's time we consider retiring the letter of reference. Professors' labor isn't free; our time must be allocated and paid for, to say nothing of the time spent by contingent faculty members who are asked to write letters on their own dime. Although the price of a single letter may seem low, the cost of the time faculty members are spending reading and writing all these letters probably amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Yes, it would be nice to have highly insightful letters that provide valuable information about a candidate beyond what comes through from a CV or written work. But if you are on a committee that does admissions or any other form of adjudication and you request letters, ask yourself this: Will the decision you make be that much better?

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