The different species of academic references

How does a professor spend her day? Sometimes, it feels as if it's mostly writing academic references and giving telephone job references. Nino-Umaka's "banging head on desk" gif perfectly expresses how I feel some days. So much so, that I wasn't surprised that Stephen Mumford suggested that this particular academic activity may be in need of some reform.

As of February 2015, my main written output for the year was 15 reference letters.
Even with only one active graduate student and a very down-sized lab, I've still been writing loads of them for a total of over 35 references thus far in 2015. Some of them are for the same person who is applying to different positions, but I never send the same reference twice. Neither do I ask people to write their reference letters for me, as described in this Professor Is In post.

In this day and age of LinkedIn endorsements,  and given how I spend a large chunk of my time every year, I found myself pondering the question: "just how important is the academic reference?"

A twitter conversation with @davidimiller about whether the Twitter Academic Reference should be a thing, along with numerous LinkedIn requests to be connected, made me reflect a bit differently on "the reference" than how I usually think about them, and to ask myself if all the time that I invest in writing reference letters couldn't be better spent on other tasks, in some cases.

Usually, when I'm  asked to write a reference, my first thought is:
"Am I the right person to be giving this reference?"
I am blunt about telling someone whether I feel compelled to give them a lukewarm reference. This may be for 2 reasons:

  1. I don't know them and their work well enough to give a strong and specific reference.
  2. I do know their work well enough not to be able to give them a glowing reference, as in: this wonderful person is in the top 10-20% of students that I have taught and here are specific reasons why I am giving them this rating.

My second thought is:
"How long will this reference take to do the person justice?" followed by,
"Is this a 1 hour or 4-5 hour task?"
The 4-5 (up to, in extreme cases, 7) hour reference letter is usually something that I would write for a colleague or post-doc who is applying for a job, or for tenure and promotion, or for a big research grant or honour. It might seem strange that a 2-3 page letter would take that long to write, but there's the job advert or conditions of the award, and/or the research proposal to be read and reflected on, digested, and spoken to in the reference. Also, a short, tight reference takes much more time to write and edit, than a rambling unfocussed one -- believe me, I have read too many of the latter in my life, and feel bitter that I will never get that lost time back.

Regardless of whether I suspect that a reference is likely to be more or less disregarded because it is a pro-forma thing that allows a box to be checked by the adjudicators of the application, the reality is, that a boilerplate, recycled reference can be spotted from a mile away. I can't speak for my colleagues, but these kinds of obviously dashed off references definitely influence my perception of an application package.

Similarly, a really well written reference that is highly customized, and speaks to the specifics of what the applicant is seeking also makes an impression on me. This is, in itself, a bit of a testament to the applicant's ability to obtain a good reference -- there's a whole ecosystem of interactions that feed into and emerge from a reference, even one given over the phone for an undergraduate student applying for a summer job.

In taking this customized approach to references, more time really does help.

HOWEVER, I'm often asked to write references on very short notice. Given that we'd all like more lead time than we are sometimes given (I was recently given 4 days notice for a reference for a colleague applying for a prestigious fellowship, and yes, I did it), I thought that it might be useful to make a guide to different kinds of academic references, and to list their different purposes. I hope that this explanation explains some of my grumpiness around being given short notice for reference letters.

This post is also a bit of a follow on from my last blog, where due to a time crunch (caused by 4 references that had to be written), I embedded a storify that I made, of tweets and articles about how to avoid or cure Meetingitis. This disease, is, in my opinion afflicting many university administrators, and is causing large-scale institutional gridlock. At least writing references contributes to the chance of something positive happening for an individual! Even if many of my letters don't end up as part of a successful application, you can't win if you don't buy a ticket and throw your hat into the ring: the reference letter is part of that ticket.

Who asks me to give them a references?
What are the references for?
1. Undergraduate students - for scholarships, in support of applications to professional and graduate programmes, or to jobs.
2. Graduate students and post-docs - for scholarships, in support of applications to professional and graduate programmes, post-doctoral fellowships, or to jobs.
3. Academic colleagues - for tenure and promotion, jobs, research grants, and prestigious prizes and fellowships.
4. Non-academic colleagues, both inside and outside of the university.references table

How long does it take?
As I mentioned, from 1 hour for filling a form for an undergraduate student scholarship application, or job, to many more hours, in the case where accompanying documents must be reviewed.

After the reference is written, it must then be printed on letterhead, signed, scanned and sent off as an attachment, and, less and less these days, in hard copy. Alternatively, many fellowship and scholarship applications involve online submissions. This means that passwords and usernames must be sorted out and different user interfaces navigated. This all adds at least an hour in my experience, of processing time to reference writing.

Do I recycle references and is this ethical?
Sometimes people are applying for multiple fellowships or jobs. It's definitely easier to write a 2nd or 3rd reference when the initial hard work of writing the first one has been done. But, in all cases, the reference must be adapted and updated.

So, just how influential are references these days?
It depends to a large extent on how expert the adjudicator reading the reference is, at evaluating the person's actual application, from the cv to the proposal and all the extra bits, above and beyond the actual reference letters.

In cases where the reference is being relied upon for an expert opinion, in my experience, the reference is likely to be much more influential than in those cases where the person who receives the reference is merely looking to tick the box "2 references received". In cases where the reference is providing information that is filling a gap of expertise or information, it is likely to be highly scrutinized.

In some cases for letters in support of prestigious nominations, the reference letter writer has to provide information about themselves, of the "I'm important enough to be giving this important person a reference for some particular prestigious honour" kind.

When that happens, or when someone that I feel is a particularly strong candidate doesn't get a particular award for which I have written a reference, I wonder whether it's that I was somehow not credible enough or that the application just wasn't strong enough. Hah! Reference letter writer's guilt!

At the end of the day, it's important for the person seeking a reference letter to find out how much of a time investment that their reference writer is willing to make in a reference letter. If you don't do this, then unbeknownst to you, your reference letter writer may be doing you a disservice, and influencing your applications negatively. I often wonder whether applicants sit down with their mentors and reference letter writers for an honest conversation about how that person approaches their reference writing.

Conversely, some people have a reputation for giving overblown references. This is also a bad thing, especially if the adjudicators who read the reference letter and the application have some level of expertise in a particular field.

Regardless, there's no doubt in my mind, that whether the reference is a pro-forma thing (more likely to be the case for professional school applications) or will be scrutinized carefully and play into a decision (for a prestigious prize, for example), that I'll be writing them for the foreseeable future.

Bring on the Twitter references, @DavidIMiller.