The Job Fairy Speaks: Your Letters of Reference

October 31, 2012, 5:35 pm

This, for example, is too short for a letter of reference.

If you have been following Tenured Radical lately, you know that we are all about the Twitter feed.  In the midst of all hell breaking loose with Hurricane Sandy, we got this question in 140 characters or less:

“I’m curious as to what happened to @TenuredRadical’s reflections on the academic job market. No new ones for this season? Too depressing?”

I’m certainly not depressed about the job market — after all, I went on the market and got a job! But to tell you the truth, I have been deliberately trying to ignore it. Last year, having moved to a new job, my pal Lesboprof wrote that she was

having to force myself to stop looking at jobs. I have been looking at job ads for several years, trying to find something in the discipline or in central administration that fits my interests. I now have to take myself off the disciplinary website job notification list. When I read through the Chronicle (yes, I still like the hard copy), I have to flip quickly past the job ads to the essay on the last page. It is difficult to remember that I am “off the market” in my professional life.

I wouldn’t say that I am forcing myself not to look at jobs but I am spending the time that I used to devote to looking for jobs to prospering in the place I have landed.  This probably means that — temporarily — I have ceased to pay attention to one of my original bloggy constituencies, the job seekers.

OK, so here you go: this morning on Facebook, one of my “friends” (who is also one of my friends) posted a question.  If you are on a search committee, and you are reading dossiers, and you come across a short, ambiguous letter about a job candidate, and you know that person’s advisor — should you place a phone call and give the advisor a head’s up that she needs to replace that letter?

If you have never been on a search committee you may not know what kind of letter I’m talking about. It doesn’t say anything bad, but it isn’t long or substantive enough to say anything good either.  I was once on a search committee where I read the following letter from a prestigious prof at one of the most prestigious institutions where a peson can take a degree in history (names have been changed to protect the innocent):

To whom it may concern:

Moe Romney is a historian. I advised his dissertation. Please give him  every consideration.


Professor Famous O. Fart

Since most letters of reference are at least a page and a half long, such a letter was bound to raise questions. Did Professor Fart want brevity to speak for itself? And if so, why was Fart trying to destroy Romney’s entire career? Why didn’t Fart simply step down off the dissertation committee, or refuse to write for Romney, rather than having this kryptonite letter duplicated and sent around everywhere? If Romney had done something egregious that meant he did not belong in the company of scholars, why not have him cashiered from graduate school?

A letter like Professor Fart’s is what we call “having a fish in your file.” Some people — particularly those who had reason to think Professor Fart to be legendarily pompous and mean — might disregard the letter. Others, who respected Fart for his achievements (he was, in fact, one of the half dozen top scholars in his field and his students populated history departments around the country) might say: “Hold on there! Without saying it, Fart is trying to tell us something! Better pass on this candidate.”

Neither response is correct, in my view. A letter like that requires a phone call, preferably to someone who cares about the graduate student’s welfare and will put the letter in context. Here are a few things you might find out, and they have very different consequences for the job candidate:

    • There has been an ugly incident involving Romney and Fart, in which Romney has had to appeal to university authorities. Let’s say that Professor Fart refused to write a letter of recommendation unless Romney performed certain services, and Higher Ups reprimanded Fart, insisting that he could not refuse to write a letter following his abusive behavior. This settlement would most likely be confidential, with the outcome being that no one but the department secretary has actually seen the letter. In fact, Fart may have simply uploaded it to Interfolio. Why does your phone call matter? Because Fart has not kept to the agreement and is still trying to punish Romney. Someone in authority needs to remove the letter and let the higher-ups know that the agreement has been breached.
    • Professor Fart is famous for thinking that writing such letters is not worth his time; his prestige is so huge that merely attaching his name to a job candidate should be enough. For all the people who really labor over letters of recommendation, there are a few who don’t take the time to write a letter that says anything. Some of these people, I know darned well, are supervising too many theses, and I am sometimes curious as to whether they are actually reading their students’ work at all. Why does your phone call matter? Because chances are that people already know that Professor Fart is lazy and diffident when it comes to letters. The department should be embarrassed about this and offer a choice: he needs to meet his obligations to graduate students in full or not be allowed to teach them.
    • Professor Fart suspects Romney of plagiarism or some other ethical breach. Other faculty are either unaware of this or do not have first hand knowledge of what happened and are willing to give Moe the benefit of the doubt. This is slightly trickier if you ask me, although again, if I were Fart I would have excused myself from the committee altogether.  Just as I will bet you dollars to doughnuts that cycling officials were not as clueless as they claim about Lance Armstrong’s gang of boy dopers, it is hard for me to think that the number of academic plagiarists who turn up every year were never suspected and forgiven by anyone at any point in their careers. Why does your phone call matter? This one might require two phone calls, frankly: one to the director of graduate studies and then, if you don’t get a satisfactory answer, you must call Professor Fart himself. I failed to do this once and later found myself on an airplane with the letter writer, who said some version of “Nudge, nudge, wink, wink — hope you read between the lines!” My instinct since then is that a brief, diffident letter may be screaming: “I CAN’T PUT IT ON PAPER, PLEASE CALL!!!” It is worth your while to act on that possibility.

Graduate students, is this making you nervous?  It shouldn’t.  You are good people! Here’s what you can do to ensure that your file looks as good as it should.

  • Don’t do bad $hitte that puts your referees in a compromised position and causes them to act in passive aggressive ways to avoid confronting you about it.
  • If you have reason to suspect a letter writer has put a fish in your file, have the dossier sent to an advisor or committee member you trust to make sure that everyone did a good job. If a letter has to be withdrawn and replaced, the letter writer who is being replaced doesn’t even have to know about it.
  • Don’t ask a referee just because that person is famous. Overburdened, elderly or self-absorbed famous people may not do the kind of job an up-and-comer will do. And you know what? Many of us greatly admire that associate professor you may be passing over in favor of Professor Fart. Letters from prestigious people matter, but letters that really show admiration for you and excellent knowledge of your work are better.


This entry was posted in Fear Itself, graduate school, the job fairy. Bookmark the permalink.