Repost: Don't waste at least 270 people's time

Aug 25 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

We're coming up on another job season and, like always, I'm seeing tons of jobs requesting Letters of reference up front. This is stupid and wastes a huge number of people's time. It really needs to stop. I posted this last year, but my views haven't changed.

Once again my department is putting together a job ad. There's been much discussion over the wording of the ad and exactly how we want to phrase every last detail. Frankly, the minutia of picking one word over another because of subtle differences in implication is rather pointless in today's job market. People aren't worried about the exact phrasing including or excluding them because it doesn't.

One thing I always fight hard for, however, is that we not ask for letters of reference, up front. Why? I mean, maybe an LoR is so good it puts someone on the shortish list! But do the math. Let's say you are advertising a specialized position and you get 100 applications. Three LoRs per application gives you 300 LoRs. If you plan to phone interview 10, there's a really good chance there's nearly 270 LoRs that will never or barely be read.

It does not take much time to send off an LoR, this I know. But it's one more deadline for busy people. In fact, unless the job candidate is a special snowflake, there's a pretty good chance that it's 30-40 more deadlines for busy people. And for what? So the committee can maybe argue a little longer over numbers 10 and 11 on the list? Please.

If you are involved in a job search, do your community a favor. Don't ask for LoRs until the shortish list. Those 30 people will actually feel like they are helping the candidate rather than mailing out fliers for a job-a-thon.

8 responses so far

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    This is a good point and also raises the issue of the value of letters of reference This seems to have been deprecated in many ways to a form of "this person is not a psychopath". Many letters are incredibly generic and usually out of date. It is true that once a letter has been written by a mentor, it is only a matter of changing a few words, etc. The trouble is, not all positions are looking for the same attributes and such genericism doesn't help the applicant. There is also a big difference in the tone of North American vs European references. The latter tend to be more unvarnished and describe both the strengths and weaknesses. The former usually have one superlative per sentence.

    At my institution, we do ask for letters (am now re-thinking this...) but also use which makes the process somewhat easier. We do consider applicants if the letters aren't uploaded but if short-listed this then becomes a requirement prior to interview.

  • Just because I gave the "don't let the ad prevent you from applying" advice doesn't mean people follow it. The study cited in this article ( suggests that the wording might matter - a lot. Women are less likely to apply if they don't think they fit the ad 100%. Made me wonder if very narrow ads were more likely to have male-biased pools because the women were more likely to self-select out. Would be interesting to know.

    I've been on several job searches now from the assistant to higher-level. I have to admit the letters have been completely useless to me for exactly the reason Jim Woodgett points out. For some reason, American letters have become these saccharine love letters that are pretty useless. I've seen search committee members bend over backwards trying to parse out whether some superlative was superlative enough or might reflect underlying issues. Useless. Given the emerging evidence of gender bias in how we write letters, I'm now even less convinced of their usefulness. But I'm a rebel. 🙂

  • K99er says:

    I was on a recent search committee where it was mentioned that because particular applicants have very famous people writing letters for them, they will be more likely to get the fancy young investigator grants/awards. This moved them up on the list almost regardless of what the letters actually said. Given the number of applicants with similarly stellar publication records, this distinction between the caliber of letter writers is a fair point. This is just another example of how ridiculously competitive things are becoming.

  • Established PI says:

    We always ask all applicants to send letters. Here is the problem with the alternative: you advertise, collect applications, start looking even before the deadline and finally come up with a shortlist a bit after the deadline. Now you request letters and get an 80% response rate. Then you start chasing after Prof. Bigshot 1, 2 and 3. Then you send out second and third requests. Meanwhile, the ones you have letters for look OK but you REALLY want to know what Prof. So-and-so thought of that candidate and you still don't have the letter. Now it is mid-February and you finally have sent out the invitations, but now some people are already getting offers and are telling you they will need a decision very quickly. Now you scramble even more to line up the talks, the faculty who really should be around when the candidate visits, etc....

    And so, we ask for letters up front. I send these out for postdocs and former students all the time and don't have a problem with it.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    As I responded in the original comment section, I was on a search that did this with no problem. There's also this crazy device called a "phone" or "crone", who can remember, but we used it successfully to actually talk to slow responders in real time! It barely delayed the process at all.

  • NotoriousJIG says:

    While some may not be fond of the cost, running a search through a service like Interfolio can solve many of these issues. The recommender uploads one LOR to the service (granted it has to be generic - or there has to be a small college and an R1 version). Then the applicant can dispatch that letter as many times as he/she wants to where-ever. The main issues are the cost to the applicant (a few dollars each time the letter is sent out) and that the letter has to be pretty generic. But that it true for all applicants so it is at least a level playing field.

  • M says:

    Yes! Please do this all search committees. I know the problems with chasing letters is real but delayed/missing letters have to be a problem with letters requested at the start too, and with a smaller pool of letters to go through at the short list phase presumably it's easier to spend the time tracking these down. Here's the thing if I have to send in a letter when they apply I'll tailor it to some degree but I don't have time to do this extensively. If I know someone I'm a letter writer for has made it to the short list I am happy to put that time in, you're interested in them and I will give you all the info you need to know just how (truly) great they are.
    My dept still requests them up front but this is a generational issue and it will change as all the junior folks want to ask for them later and the folks that are most determined to ask for them up front are approaching retirement. I think there really is a generational difference in the perception of the issue. I haven't tallied it but probably applied for 40-50 jobs while some of my mentors talk about applying for 'several' or 1! Big difference in the burden on your letter writers.

  • TT Faculty, not not looking at ads says:

    I'm currently at a quite decent institution--with fantastic colleagues in a really fun department--but there are certain infrastructure limits that are frustrating at times and so I do read over ads from bigger institutions. Unlike when I was a post-doc, whether or not letters are required comes into play in deciding to apply. With the size of applicant pools I think it pretty damn discourteous to require letters.

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