Bad Letters of Recommendation: A Cautionary Tale

Brian Taylor

February 27, 2013

The history program where I teach recently made its fourth appointment since I arrived at the university. Our search process has three main steps. First, we ask applicants for a cover letter, a CV, and a teaching statement. Then we select a "long list" of 12 candidates who send in their letters of recommendation and a writing sample. Six lucky winners have video interviews.

Our recent search, however, revealed an alarming incident of professional misconduct that I feel needs publicizing.

The trouble arose at the second stage of the hiring process, and concerned a candidate's letters of recommendation. The candidate was a recent Ph.D. from a respected North American institution—let's call it the University of Metropolis. The first letter, from the candidate's supervisor, looked strange: It contained several words in unexpected bold type, and others in a random alternate font. Below the professor's signature were the words: "Associate Professor/Deparhnent of History" (sic). The letter, in the form of a PDF document, reminded me of scam e-mails promising easy fortunes from Nigerian bank accounts.

Wondering who could have written such an unprofessional letter, I Googled the professor, and immediately noticed an alarming discrepancy: The professor's Web page gave a different e-mail address and phone number than those listed in the letter of recommendation.

Suspicious, I checked the contact information on the candidate's other letters.

All four of the letters were from historians at the University of Metropolis. Letter No. 2 had no phone number, only an e-mail address, which differed from that reported on a departmental home page. Letter No. 3 listed no e-mail address, only a phone number, which differed from that on a departmental home page. Letter No. 4 offered no contact information at all.

A Luddite historian without a mobile phone, I cannot claim to be particularly adept at modern telecommunications. But I do know how to create a dummy e-mail account, and also understand that it's possible to purchase dummy phones with which an accomplice might pose as a recommending professor. Could the candidate have forged the letters with false contact information?

Pondering that appalling possibility, I realized that Letters No. 1 and No. 3—supposedly from faculty members in the same department at the same university—appeared on different letterhead. One letter read: "History/University of Metropolis." The other: "University of Metropolis/Department of History." Letter No. 2, meanwhile, did not appear on formal stationary at all. Most damagingly, Letter No. 1, from the candidate's adviser, was on letterhead that proclaimed that the history department belonged to the "FACULTY OF ARTS a SCIENCE," if I may reproduce the letter's strange capitalization and bold type.

After documenting all the discrepancies, and feeling a bit like Sherlock Holmes, I shared my suspicions with my colleagues. The head of our search committee wrote directly to the supposed letter-writers, at the e-mail addresses given on their institutions' Web pages.

Gentle reader, I ask you to guess: What do you think we discovered?

All four recommenders wrote back promptly. Three sent letters identical to the ones already in our possession. Two added their home phone numbers and invited us to call in case we had any further questions. The graduate adviser, whose letter with strange fonts had provoked my initial suspicions, sent a revised letter with a few extra comments to the candidate's benefit. The revised letter corrected the spelling of "department," contained no extraneous bold type or novelty fonts, and read "FACULTY OF ARTS & SCIENCE" on its letterhead. The adviser had probably printed the original letter on letterhead and scanned it into a PDF file. And then whoever sent the documents to us didn't bother to check if their text-recognition software had functioned properly.

Astonishingly, the adviser's new letter provided a third institutional e-mail address. I don't know why professors at the University of Metropolis have so many e-mail addresses, or why they use two different letterheads, but it's evidently part of institutional culture.

In short, everything checked out, the letters are genuine, and my suspicions were unfounded. So where is the misconduct?

I suggest that the professors at University of Metropolis badly let down their doctoral student at a crucial moment. Graduate students have a right to expect professional letters of recommendation from their supervisors. While all the recommenders warmly praised the candidate, I can't help thinking that letters that arouse suspicions of fraud have failed to achieve their desired effect. Would some departments—seeing such letters—have tossed the candidate's file?

It bears repeating: The candidate's adviser sent us a letter on which both "department of history" and "faculty of arts and sciences" were misspelled. And none of the contact information supplied in letters matched the information on the University of Metropolis's home page. Such discrepancies do not inspire confidence.

In short, the University of Metropolis should do better by its students.

I propose, as a basic expectation, that letter-writers should provide contact information that a Google search can verify. Almost all recommendation letters already end with some variant of "do not hesitate to contact me with any questions or concerns." Nevertheless, neither Maura Ives's guidelines for the Modern Language Association or the advice from The Chronicle's Career Talk columnists on how to write a good letter of recommendation explicitly discussed the question of contact information. Perhaps those authors didn't anticipate the need to spell out something so seemingly self-evident? Perhaps, perhaps. But it doesn't seem too much to ask that contact information on a letter match that on the faculty Web pages.

Alexander Maxwell is a senior lecturer in history at the Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand.