Wednesday, September 04, 2013


Why Do We Still Use Letters?

The Modern Language Association put out a statement this week suggesting that letters of recommendation have gotten out of hand.  It offered a series of suggestions for reducing the burden they place on candidates, writers, and readers.

From the perspective of a hiring manager, I’ll offer a different suggestion.  Yes, letters have become burdensome on all involved. Streamlining the number involved helps, but doesn’t solve the core problem.  My suggestion is simpler still: abandon letters entirely.  Go with lists of people who are willing to take a call instead.

This approach would save a great deal of labor all around, and actually give hiring managers better information.  

For one thing, it would apply only to candidates who made it to the final round.  So the sheer number of references would be reduced dramatically, especially in fields that attract the most candidates.

It would also allow each employer to find out the information that matters the most in that setting.  For example, in hiring faculty here, I’m concerned about how well the person teaches and how well she gets along with others.  I’m far less interested in how groundbreaking her dissertation is.  In some cases, in which the job called for someone who could do multiple things, I’d have reservations about a candidate’s strength in one of those subfields; having the ability to ask the question directly reduces the guesswork and allows for better decisions.

But the concerns I have about a given candidate may be entirely different from the concerns that someone at another college might have.  Maybe they’re looking at program growth, and are looking for administrative potential.  Or maybe they’re trying to “raise their academic profile,” and are keying on research.  Maybe they want a different mix of subfields.   Any of those, and more, could be entirely valid; relying on candidates to suss it out, and to ask referees for correctly customized letters for each, is just unrealistic.

Calls can also get around the “boilerplate” problem.  Letters of recommendation have become a formulaic genre; after a while, they tend to read pretty much the same.  In a litigious age, people have learned to be very careful about what they write.  But calls are interactive, so it’s possible to get people off script.  They also allow for the conspicuous silences that can say a lot.

In the age of electronic communication, the old letter of recommendation seems oddly anachronistic.  Other than habit, why does it survive?  

I can only come up with three reasons, though I may be missing some.  The first is the “you first” problem.  Even if nearly everybody agrees that letters are kind of silly, nobody wants to be the first to drop them, for fear of looking less “rigorous” or “serious.”  In this market, that concern strikes me as misplaced, but it may be there.

The second is that elites like it.  The Harvard letterhead means something; doing away with letters means doing away with one more reminder of status.  But at a community college, I really don’t see why that’s my problem.  We’ve hired faculty from Harvard -- we have several -- and we’ve hired faculty from less name-brand places.  We hire people, not pedigrees.

Finally, the sheer difficulty of letters may serve as a sort of “seriousness” filter.  If letters are so much trouble, then presumably anyone who would bother to scrape enough of them together must really want the job.  (In principle, this same function could apply to almost any arbitrarily difficult task.  “Candidate must supply video of herself juggling bowling pins.”)  Leaving aside the sheer meanness of it, I’d like to think that any reasonably competent search committee could do a better job of discerning seriousness than some contrived hurdle could.

The MLA got the problem right, but stopped halfway to a solution.  Don’t just streamline letters.  Consign them to the dustbin of history.  If I want to know something, I just need to know who to call.

Wise and worldly readers, am I missing something here?  Is there a better argument for letters?

Phone calls? Dean Dad, that's way too low-tech for you. Also, it's one-on-one, not scalable.

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.
I can think of two more. One is stability: if my professor gets sick/incapacitated, takes a sabbatical in the Himalayas, or changes their phone number since I was last in touch with them, I still have a permanent record of their recommendation to give to potential employers. I don't have to worry about them falling off the grid.

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.
Here's a reason: if candidates with tenure-line jobs are competing with candidates who are fresh-from-grad-school ABDs/PhDs or adjuncting, a letter from a colleague in the packet is an immediate, credible signal that Candidate X is not just a malcontent looking to ditch the job because they can't play nicely with others. Without that letter in the file, it's much easier to circular-file the packet and move onto the next one than it is to call the reference and find out Candidate X is a good colleague stuck in a bad situation.

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.
I absolutely agree with Rob about making copies. A phone call is almost meaningless if it isn't recorded. Who knows what the person talking with me will hear or remember (perhaps influenced by confirmation bias), and what they convey to the department will be filtered through their perspective. A letter of recommendation is a much more reliable way of conveying my opinion.

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.
I can't tell you how many searches wanted *both* letters sent and a list of references to call uploaded. And they needed to be the same. I guess I could have added more than the letter writers' names, but still.

Just to let you know how far off from logical a lot of places are.
I'm imagining the nightmare of phone tag. Someone is going to try calling the reference, who probably doesn't sit in the office all day waiting for calls. Then maybe the reference checks voicemail and gets around to calling back. Then the person who initiated the call is in a meeting or class, and so on. Rinse and repeat for three references for three candidates. Fun.

And on the other side, how many references are currently writing for three or four candidates? Or more?
Other than habit, why does it survive? . . .

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.
I think letters are fine, but don't ask for them as part of the application package. Ask for them when a candidate makes it to stage 2. Some of these searches--150 applicants for one history job, say--result in the writing of hundreds of letters, all but a handful of which aren't even read. If an institution is serious about a candidate, then they should request letters at that point.
I'm surprised by the hating on letters of recommendation. In my milieu (math prof at an R1) they're invaluable for hiring. For me they're the first (and often only) part of a file I read. Math mostly does open-area searches (think 500+ applicants) and I lack the expertise to directly judge 90%+ of the candidate's work directly. (Our tradition is the letter writers do one generic letter which is sent to the 25-100 places the candidate is applying.) Of course a teaching-focused college is a very different place, but I also get the best info about a candidate's teaching from the (typically required) letter or two which addresses that exclusively.
We use letters extensively in our hiring at a SLAC. They, along with a candidate's cover letter and CV, are key portions of how we assess a candidate's potential for teaching, the date at which the candidate might be done with the diss. (if it applies), collegiality, etc.

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.
I like your analysis, but I hesitate to agree with your conclusion. You like phone calls because of their (hypothetically) implicit honesty, and all the spontenaity that goes along with it. That description echoes precisely what a letter of recommendation is supposed to do. In a litigous age, like you mentioned, people have adjusted their behaviour accordingly to be at a low-litigation risk. I strongly suspect the same effect will be felt on phone calls/videoconferencing. Your legal team will demand transcripts/recordings of the phone calls (ironically, for litigation purposes) soon after phone calls become an official part of the interview process. Even if the recording doesn't happen, litigation will. Inevitably, it will point fingers and ugliness ensues.

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.
I think letters are fine, but don't ask for them as part of the application package. Ask for them when a candidate makes it to stage 2. Some of these searches--150 applicants for one history job, say--result in the writing of hundreds of letters, all but a handful of which aren't even read. If an institution is serious about a candidate, then they should request letters at that point.
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.
I'm glad someone is looking at this, but why not do something like the "common application" that many colleges use, where rankings and free response info is kept on file for use by everyone in a consortium? There would probably need to be one specifically for teaching colleges like CCs as well as the teaching part of a university job, and then ones put together by the disciplines, like the MLA or the APS (physics) or ACS (chemistry). At most, a prof would have to enter info into two places. No need for generic letters that may or may not be the original or letters tailored to a specific job.

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.
How interesting! Thanks so much for posting this! I have actually been looking into going to a Calgary college... Do you have any tips for that?
Interesting post. I'll have to let my friend, who are going to college in Calgary know about this post and see what they say about it.
@CCPhysicist: In mathematics, we do have a "common application" system, namely "". I don't know about CC's but the vast majority of jobs at 4-year colleges and universities are there. You upload your application materials (as PDFs, Word docs, etc) as do your letter writers, at which point you can apply for a job with a few clicks. The hiring committee (or other department members granted access) can then view all applications (complete or otherwise) via the web. It works really well, especially for larger departments like mine (50+ faculty) where everyone helps read the files.
I'd rather write a letter. Gives me the time to get the wording right. Having to improvise when someone has interrupted me and I'm surrounded by distractions (no private office where I teach) is not fun, and having that conversation recorded — well, I'm just not willing to do that.
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