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?

ghostwriter

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Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea
5 years ago

I know this isn’t what you’re talking about, but it occurs to me that it might be fruitful as a professionalization practice to have PhD students each year write letters of reference for themselves (with examples of such letters to hand as models). It would be a great way to have students on a yearly basis reflect on their accomplishments and on how much remains for them to do. It could be the start too of an annual review conversation with their supervise.

Moreover, it would be interesting to have the students write such letters for both academic and non-academic posts. (I take it that grad professionalization ought to extend beyond preparation for the professoriate. Many PhDs flourish in non-academic careers.)

But I don’t think someone else should them sign and submit these letters.

Closer to the actual question, let me observe that one reason for not having candidates write their own letters, a reason additional to those stated or implied in OP, is that they don’t yet know how to write good letters of reference.

As well, there is reason to worry that the practice described in OP could in particular disadvantage students who for cultural, gender, or other reasons are less comfortable blowing their own horns than are some of their peers.

tl;dr: 1. This practice could be a cool professionalization exercise, but it should be no more than that because, inter alia, 2. students don’t know how to write effective LORs and 3. making them do so could lead to inequity.Report

Sebastian Luft
Sebastian Luft
5 years ago

My experience is that this is more common in Europe than in North America. Part of the reason it happens here (on the European Continent) is that people (esp. older ones) are not familiar with the practice of writing letters of recommendation and that also their English might not be good enough (or both).

In any case, I would definitely NEVER offer this to someone who asks for a letter from me (no matter how busy I am), nor would I recommend that someone offer this to his/her supervisor. This is highly unprofessional, no matter how you look at it.

Writing letters of recommendation bears a great weight of responsibility with it. I only write letters if I know the candidate well or if I am convinced by the project (should it be for a post-doc or the like where I do not know the candidate). If I do not feel comfortable writing a letter for someone I don’t feel strongly about, I decline (politely).Report

Anca Gheaus
Anca Gheaus
5 years ago

It seems in several countries in Europe it is routine to write your own letter, and a rare exception *not* to. (I believe this based on first-hand experience re one country and anecdotes re several others.) The assumption behind the practice seems to be that what really matters is who’s willing to support you, not what the letter actually says. And I take it that this is yet another reason to scrap letters of recommendation.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
Reply to  Anca Gheaus
5 years ago

I’m not sure which countries are included in this “several countries”, but never in my experience living/working in the Netherlands, Germany, or England have I ever been asked to write my own letter, nor have I come across anyone who has.Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
Reply to  Anca Gheaus
5 years ago

In the USA the assumption is false, so not a good reason for anything.Report

GradintheKnow
GradintheKnow
5 years ago

I’ve heard of this practice taking place in the US and Canada and from folks who are on the market and from folks who got jobs 10 years ago. It’s not just a Europe thing. Report

Sebastian Luft
Sebastian Luft
5 years ago

It is definitely not just a Europe thing, unfortunately. As Anca says, it seems based on the assumption that what matters is who wrote it, not what’s in it. So yes–a reason to scrap it (the letter, as well as the practice!).Report