Wednesday, September 04, 2013
Why Do We Still Use Letters?
Wise and worldly readers, am I missing something here? Is there a better argument for letters?
I propose a Massively Open Video Interactive Exchange. (MOVIE) Basically, a webinar in which everyone thinking of hiring the candidate gets to participate. All of the hiring institutions can ask questions, and institutions that are debating whether to "waste" an interview slot on somebody who might not accept the job can gauge the interest of other departments.
This way you do it all at once (more scalable) rather than doing several separate phone calls. Also, you get to use fancier technology.
Second, for a hiring committee, I can easily make 10 copies of a letter, while it's much more difficult to make a recording of a phone call, and much less powerful than just one member's notes.
This second one is probably the more important, and also explains why letters are holding on longer in committee-dominated academia, compared to more executive-type decisions in the private sector. Private sector jobs are more likely to ask for reference contact information.
IOW much like the colleges that are going SAT/ACT optional, the calculus for the applicant would be to decide if a letter or two helps them make their case to get on a shortlist or if they will be strong enough to get there based on the CV/writing sample/teaching philosophy/evals/whatever to clear the bar.
Recording is no solution. I've had a couple of reference calls recorded for students who've gone to Wall St., and I absolutely hate it. It's awful having every word and every pause recorded for later scrutiny. I'm comfortable expressing myself in writing, but I'm not comfortable improvising in a recorded conversation on a sensitive and important topic. This is hard enough for politicians, and there's no reason why I should have to do it.
On the other hand, there's no viable option except recording. Scheduling a conference call with the entire search committee is difficult, and doing it with the whole department and administration is impossible. Maybe this isn't a problem if you just view recommendations as a preliminary filter (and plan to forget about them once you do an interview), but that's totally not how it works in my department. Letters of recommendation really matter at every stage of the process - the department and administration will not approve a hire without great letters, no matter how well the interview goes - and so accurately recording and conveying this information is crucial. And I think we're right to do things this way, since there's a lot of valuable information in letters.
Just to let you know how far off from logical a lot of places are.
And on the other side, how many references are currently writing for three or four candidates? Or more?
Finally, the sheer difficulty of letters may serve as a sort of “seriousness” filter.
I think that last theory is the closest. It's actually a matter of signalling, and especially signalling the ability to get along with others. What about those people who can't get three letters? They're probably also people you don't want to hire, or who are being actively filtered out of the system.
You've probably declined, explicitly or implicitly, to write letters before. I have. Some of those people might not be able to get letters at all, which doesn't signal good things, regardless of the content of the letter.
Nonetheless, your phone call theory is probably a better one, but I've noticed that few academics like taking calls these days.
Could that be done equally as well with answers to a questionnaire? Yes, absolutely. Would busy advisors and other referees fill endless forms out to provide this information? No, I don't think so. I've had to urge candidates to make sure their advisors send letters in in a timely fashion.
What I propose as an admittedly labour-intensive solution, is to have a half-day work-immersed "interview". When I visited my current university before my PhD, I asked grad students about the PI, purchasing streamlining, and just general work environment. Doing things like that, even if it involved an hour of labwork (in my case relevant), would be more informative for me and my work environment than any phone call or reference letter. This way, you can pick up on subtle cues like respect, playing nice with others, basic skill competence, etc. It also eliminates situational bad references like having been a good worker in a bad work environment, an introvert working in a group of extroverts, or a fall-out with previous management due to personality differences.
I'm sure there are shortcomings I haven't recognized and would love to hear them. Overall, I am more in favour of an immersed interview rather than a formal one. Definitely ditch the recommendation letter, use the phone call as a last-ditch resort if an in-person immersion interview is unfeasible.
My post-doc advisor preferred letters to phone calls. He would write one letter and his administrative assistant would adjust for the particular school and upload them. It was less work for him than trying to schedule a time to chat. His time was too valuable. He was a good writer and it didn't take him long to write a great letter. He kept notebooks on all of us so he was prepared to write a letter when the time came. Once a letter was written, the time commitment from him was minimal. All of us who applied for positions got multiple interviews which would have required multiple phone converstations.
FYI, my CC does both pdf/paper and phone. Phone calls are made by the Dean and are a mandatory part of due diligence before making the final choice from the short list. Those calls go to former employers, whether offered as a reference or not, and may or may not include a reference. Letters are used by the committee. I've seen a case where the committee recommended that the Dean get clarification on something in a letter. Our committee cannot ask for more information from a reference.
I don't understand the comments about litigation. Don't you understand that failure to disclose certain kinds of negative information would make the recommender liable for damages? If you let someone resign rather than press charges for expropriation of funds, the next victim might be unhappy and justifiably litigious if you covered up those facts in a background check phone call.