Monday, October 01, 2012

Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Lukewarm Letter

A new correspondent writes:

I wondered if I could crowdsource a request for advice from a colleague trying to find a full-time academic job. 
She finished her PhD a little while ago and has strong references from two prominent faculty members at her graduate institution. For 6 years, she has been doing part-time teaching work at another university that has only two full-time faculty in her discipline: one she doesn't get along with at all (through no fault of her own), but the other is great and has written reference letters for her in the past. However, my colleague just saw one of these letters and it was all of two paragraphs long with nothing of substance to say. 
Her question is: should she keep using this poor letter writer as a reference and, if she does, how can she mitigate a weak letter? If she doesn't use her, will too many red flags be raised since she wouldn't have a letter from the institution where she has been teaching (part-time) for the past 6 years? 
I have some ideas of my own, but I'd appreciate your thoughts and those of your wise and worldly readers.

This is a delicate one.  

For what it’s worth, on the hiring side as I’ve experienced it, letters don’t count for a lot.  They need to exist if they’re asked for -- someone who can’t find anybody to say anything nice about them probably isn’t our first choice -- but at least here, the content of the letters counts a lot less than I used to imagine they did, back in grad school.  (If anything, phone calls are far more useful than letters.  You can ask followup questions, and, sometimes, hear some very loud pauses.) That said, of course, your mileage may vary.

Assuming the second full-timer at the current workplace isn’t an option -- I’ll take your word for that -- and assuming that the current employer matters a great deal, then you’re left with how to improve the letter that’s already there.

If you decide to ask the writer to try again, the first issue that comes to mind is explaining how the applicant came to know what was written.  The writer may have understood the letter to be confidential.  If that’s the case, then there’s a basic epistemological issue.  I don’t have a magic bullet for that one, though some of my wise and worldly readers might.

Alternately, I guess, you could try something a little more roundabout.  Mention some new twist in either the market or the applicant’s qualifications, and ask for a revised letter.  (“Could you make a point of mentioning my latest award?”)  That evades the epistemological issue, and offers a face-saving way to ask for a new version.  But it raises the very real possibility that the second letter will be just as tepid as the first, if with new details.  (It’s a variation on the old dilemma of a student whose extra credit work sucks.  Yes, it’s extra, but if it sucks, it sucks.)  

Depending on context, some applicants have also used a statement like “please contact my current employer only if I reach finalist status,” and then offered phone numbers.  If the kindly soul is a better speaker than writer, this gives a generally-understood way to shift media to something that might get better results.  I’ve seen this more on administrative searches than on faculty searches, but it’s generally accepted as an acknowledgement that some places actually punish people for looking.  Offering the name and phone number of the kindly professor, bracketed with a statement like that, may come across as “here’s a good soul in a dysfunctional place,” rather than “here’s someone who writes weak letters.”  It’s a dodge, but it may work.

I’ll admit not being a fan of letters of reference generally.  Between the competitiveness of the academic job market and a widespread fear of litigation, letters are puffier and less candid than would be helpful.  It’s one of those old “rational choice” dilemmas: collectively, we’d all be better off with more truthful and nuanced letters, but the first person to make the shift loses.  Letters are also subject to cultural biases, quirks of writing style, and the limitations of the genre of what is supposed to be deep reflection but is really just advertising.  

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, I’m fairly confident that there are more angles to this.  What would you recommend?  Are there elegant ways around this dilemma?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.