Go read this post at Female Science Professor. She writes:
Years ago, a friend of mine had a highly unsuccessful interview for a faculty position. According to the legend, the department chair, who had had the same adviser as the candidate, was upset that their mutual adviser had written in the reference letter that the candidate was the best graduate student he had ever advised. This was humiliating for the not-best professor and he did not support hiring the candidate.
Perhaps I am naive, but I don’t believe that the wounded ego of one professor would be enough to sink someone’s chances at a job if there weren’t other reasons for other faculty to not prefer this particular candidate. The reasons might be good ones or bad ones, but I think there must have been other reasons. I also think in this case that it was true that the candidate was indeed the best graduate student of that adviser; the years since the fateful interview have demonstrated this well.
It’s likely that the adviser sent the same letter to every institution to which the candidate applied and did not modify it out of consideration for his former student who was on the faculty at one of these places. Should the adviser have worded the letter in a different way for that particular institution? Or was he was correct to state his frank opinion, which was surely accurate and not a case in which every one of his students was the best?
We’re thick in the middle of hiring season–and by “we,” I mean not my department, but maybe some of you lucky duckies work in departments that have money to spend on recruiting a new colleague. Some of you are or were recently on search committees, and have had the opportunity to read hundreds of letters from graduate advisors and colleagues recommending people for a job in your departments. I think Female Science Professor is right–but I suspect that that fateful letter of recommendation for her friend might also have been a product of laziness and hyperbole, rather than an honest evaluation of the job candidate in question. There is a famous historian, probably the leader in his field, who teaches at an Ivy League university and who is legendary for his ridiculously inflated letters of recommendation. He writes to seach committees that each of his graduate students is THE BEST student he’s EVER worked with in his career. Never mind that three, four, or five of his students might be applying for the same job–they’re all THE BEST. (Needless to say, few people take his recommendation letters seriously.)
Oh, and that department chair who was allegedly so P.O.’ed that his advisor said that someone else was THE BEST–what a fool. But the fact that this story undoubtedly comes from FSP’s friend the unsuccessful job candidate makes me doubt that this is anything more than a legend. By the time anyone becomes a department chair, ze has read hundreds of these letters and knows to take their inflated language with a grain of salt.
In my experience on search committees, it’s been interesting to see how relatively unimportant the letters of recommendation are when we consider the application as a whole. Maybe my department is just extremely democratic and/or confident that we’re better judges of job candidates, the significance of their work, and their “fit” with us than are the eminent Professor Famousfaces who recommend their students to us. But, to us what’s more important is how the candidate describes hirself in the application letter and the quality (and admittedly, quantity) of their dissertation and/or publications. Letters from advisors and colleagues are helpful, but they’re strictly advisory–all we’re looking for is an endorsement that the job candidate is a solid and promising historian. Superlatives and hyperbole are wasted on us, as is letterhead from FancyPants University. (Maybe this is why I reacted so viscerally to that strangely proud description of the profoundly immoral search process described in Inside Higher Ed last fall–as did many of you. It’s not how we roll–but then, my department’s strengths are in U.S. Western history, environmental history, and public history–three fields for which I would not look to the Ivy League to provide us with candidates.)
One thing that always endangers a job candidate is the letter of recommendation that has a better grasp of the details, scope, and significance of the applicant’s intellectual agenda than the letter of application from the candidate. Please, job applicants: give your advisors and recommenders a draft copy of your basic application letter template–you will probably get some valuable advice as to where you can sharpen your description of your research. They need to know where your head is, and I’m betting that most of them don’t want to write letters that get ahead of you.
I’ve also learned a lot from reading letters of recommendation about how to write better and more effective letters myself. I certainly have learned what notto write, that’s for sure–like the letter of recommendation from a fading once-upon-a-time starlet in his field whose opening sentence was, “this student’s request for a letter of recommendation comes at a difficult time for me, because I’m packing to go on a fellowship at Someplace Really Prestigious in the United Kingdom, . . .” What a tool. We don’t care about you, and your letter is dated September, so it looks like your student got hir request in on time for an application due in November. (And U don’t haz internets Someplace Really Prestigious? Srsly?)
Readers: what have you seen on search committees or in the hiring process? How important are those letters, and what makes for an effective one, in your view? (And, most of all: share your stories of recommendation epic FAILS!)