Vetting Letters of Recommendation

The American Philosophical Association (APA) recommends that the letters of recommendation in a job candidate’s dossier be reviewed by the candidate’s placement director. Specifically, in its “Guidance for Placing Departments,” the APA states:

Confidential letters of reference should be reviewed by placement directors for consistency about important dates (e.g., the date of the dissertation defense) and for inaccuracies (e.g., in statements about when the candidate entered the program or what courses the candidate has taught). Any clear inaccuracies should be brought to the attention of the letter writer and corrected if possible. Placement directors also should review letters for significantly inappropriate material (e.g., intentional or unintentional “poison pills,” unprofessional comments) and confer, if possible, with the author of the letter about the advisability of removing or revising this material. (p.6)

A professor has written in asking about whether departments do this, and if so, details about what to do when problems with a letter are found:

I’m curious if most departments trying to place PhD students have someone who vets letters of recommendation. It would be super helpful to get a sense for how often, and how, this happens. In particular, I’d be curious to hear what happens when the vetter finds something off in a letter (whether innocent—like forgetting to update a defense date—or intentional—like damning with faint praise). My department is currently deciding whether or not to vet rec letters internally, so I’d like to get a sense of what best practices are, given that the APA officially recommends that we do it.

It might also be useful to share examples of potentially problematic lines in letters of recommendation. Readers?

Annie Vought, “Under the Blah Blah”

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