Inside Higher Ed has an article this morning, “Getting the Letters Right,” with advice for people asking for letters of recommendation, and nudging grad students and junior scholars to mentor your mentors into providing quality letters of recommendation on time. It’s good advice, and it all boils down to providing your letter-writers lots of details about you and about the job/s or fellowship/s to which you’re applying, and giving them plenty of notice before the letters are due. In my experience as a junior job- and fellowship-seeker, nothing was more anxiety-producing than wondering whether or not those letters of recommendation were sent on time. Now, with digital systems, letter-writers are prompted to submit letters on time by the institutions to which their students or colleagues are applying–at least, that’s been my experience with some recent letters I’ve written on behalf of professional colleagues. But–what they say remains (or should remain, I suppose) a mystery to the applicants.
In my experience as a faculty member and as a veteran of several search committees, I’m happy to report that the vast, vast, vast majority of letters of recommendation arrive punctually and they do their job of fluffing the job candidate thoroughly and fulsomely, if not also extravagantly. People who have the honor of training Ph.D. students recognize that the successes of their students will reflect on them, so that’s usually sufficient motivation for most grad advisors and committee members to do their duty. However, the occasional loser of a letter comes across the transom–one that sticks out in my mind came from a middling Flagship State U., and was written by a person in my field(ish) who has a reputation for being rather vain and temperamental. (He wrote some contentious stuff early in his career for which he received a lot of attention, but the rest of his career has been kind of a fizzle.) The first two paragraphs of his letter were alternating complaints and bragging about how “this request for a letter of recommendation comes at a very difficult time for me, as I’m packing up to move to [foreign lands] to take a [prestigious fellowship]. . . ” (Since the student had evidently asked for the letter of recommendation shortly after the job was advertised, ze could hardly be blamed for the fact that Professor Jerkface was “packing up to move” when he wrote her letter!) It was all about him, and nothing about the student whom he was putatively recommending for a job, except for a grudging couple of paragraphs at the end of the letter–as if he could hardly be bothered to talk about someone other than himself.
Fortunately for that job candidate, his reputation preceeded him, so I was able to advise the search committee that this letter shouldn’t be held against the student. (On the other hand, even if I weren’t on that committee, I’m fairly confident that a letter as bizarre as that would have been read as evidence of narcissistic personality disorder on the part of the writer, and not held against the poor graduate student at all.)
What are your experiences with letters of recommendation, either as a young scholar requesting them, or as a faculty member reviewing letters of recommendation on a search committee? What fresh hells have you witnessed?