Being Asked To Write Your Own Recommendation

Yes, this is “letters of recommendation” week at Daily Nous. On Monday, there was an inquiry from a student about how to write letters in support of faculty. Yesterday, we began a discussion of what not to include in letters of recommendation. Today, we turn to the egregious practice of recommenders asking recommendees to write their own letters of recommendation, which they may then edit or just sign.

Scott Clifton (Miami University of Ohio) sent in an article from Science in which the author, Roger Day, describes how this happened to him:

A few years back, I asked two colleagues for letters of support for my grant proposal. One colleague drafted a letter personally. The other, citing heavy time pressures, asked me to draft the letter myself. I was sympathetic, but I felt queasy pretending to be someone else as I described my own work….

Later, at a workshop on winning grant-writing strategies, I asked the instructor about this practice, describing my discomfort. The response was, “Get over it.” The practice is common, after all.

How common is this in philosophy? A professor of philosophy (whose identity is known to me but who prefers to remain anonymous) shares the following:

I am still angry about what happened to me several years ago, when I was a postdoc at a middle-sized institution. I was looking for positions as my (non-renewable) postdoc was coming to an end, and asked my department chair to write letters on my behalf. He said “Since you know yourself best, why don’t you write a draft yourself? I’ll fine-tune it.” Since some jobs required a letter from my then present employer, and since it would be weird not to have his letter (my other writers were my supervisor and external advisor), I went ahead and drafted my own letter. I hated it. Then, he sent the letter on.

Someone who was in a SC told me I should watch out and not ask a letter from him again, as it was damaging. She sent me the letter he had written. He had indeed customized it, adding all sorts of irrelevant comments, and, to top it off, ending the letter with “Due to financial considerations, we will need to let some of our postdocs go, and [I the candidate] is one of them. Still, I believe she’ll be a good fit for your institution”. I was livid—since this was just plainly false. I was coming to the end of my postdoc and was not let go! I applied the next year again without his letter, and got a postdoc at an R1. I am now an associate professor.

Take-home lessons:
1. Do not ask candidates to write their own letters (apparently he did this to everyone, except people he really liked)
2. Do not write things in the letter that are not true and damage a candidate’s prospects

Have you been asked to draft your own letter of recommendation? Professors, have you asked recommendees to do this? Does anyone have a plausible defense of this practice? Is it fraud?


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