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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Jason "I discount letters anyway and mostly look at publications" Brennan
Jason "I discount letters anyway and mostly look at publications" Brennan
3 years ago

I’ve seen letters before where one letter writer sabotages the candidate. For example, a prominent political philosopher claimed that a junior candidate’s work was pedestrian and derivative, and that the reason she had low output was that she was not very good.

Is it wrong to say that? What if the letter writer sincerely believes the candidate is not good? What if the letter writer is not merely sincere, but justified in that belief? Is the letter writer obligated to act as an advocate for the candidate, or as an advocate for the field? Report

Mikha
Mikha

I think a more helpful piece of comment would be one other than simple negation (*not* good & *low* output), but offering an accurate estimate of her level. It’s true that not everyone deserves a job at Princeton, but what level does the candidate fit in? That’s still a piece of important information, assuming the candidate is not so bad as to not qualify a job in philosophy *at all*.Report

Rick
Rick

I don’t think scholars have an obligation to write letters for junior scholars—especially if they don’t think they are competent, hard-working, etc. But if they can’t honestly write a strong letter, they should be up-front about it and tell the candidate that they plan to undermine the application. (I think we can assume that the political philosopher you mentioned did not say these things to the candidate.) The word of anyone who is too cowardly or passive-aggressive to say those things to someone’s face should be assumed to be untrustworthy. Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

“The word of anyone who is too cowardly or passive-aggressive to say those things to someone’s face should be assumed to be untrustworthy.”

I can understand why we might not want to trust someone who is passive-aggressive—someone like that may have an ax to grind. Why shouldn’t we trust cowards though?Report

Sergio Tenenbaum
Sergio Tenenbaum
3 years ago

We vet letters. I think most of the work of vetting letters is ensuring (insofar as this is possible) that one is not *accidentally* undermining the candidate or conveying a different message than one intends. Because of the unfathomable code, it’s very hard to judge how your letter might come across until someone else reads your letter (I have found input from placement directors very valuable). For instance, a friend of mine was totally surprised when their placement director said that the phrase “I recommend X for any teaching position in X’s area” could be read as implying that they’re not recommending the student to R1 departments. Of course, it would be fine to think that a candidate is better suited for positions SLACs, for instance, and imply that in a letter, but this was not the intention of my friend’s letter (they just thought that any philosophy job is, possibly among other things, a teaching position). Many, many years ago, as placement director I vetted a letter that said this was one of the n best students that I had in the philosophy of X in the past m years. I read the letter as very faint praise; this seems to me to put the student at the nth place, and one would suspect that given the demographics of an average dept, there would not be enough people in the Philosophy of X to justify thinking too highly of the candidate. Again, this was not in any way what the person was trying to convey (the letter writer was thinking that they had n excellent students in the recent past in the philosophy of x, and would not want to rank any of them as better or worse than the others). Also some times letters writers are saying inconsistent things about the same student (especially about timelines), so this gives the dept a chance to sort out this kind of thing.

We send comments and suggestions to the letter writer, and explain why we think some parts of the letter might be problematic, but, of course, it’s up to the letter writer whether to incorporate these changes.
Report

Brian Weatherson
3 years ago

At Michigan letter writers are (strongly) requested to send their letters to the placement director before they go out. The director will look them over for factual mistakes (as you suggest) but also typos, misnegations and, perhaps most important, implicatures. Sometimes a writer won’t intend a negative implicature, and the placement director catches this and lets the writer know that their letter could be read as negative. Sometimes a writer might have intended to clearly communicate something, but it was left as a slightly unclear implicature, and the placement director will suggest that it be made more explicit.

It’s then completely up to the letter writer what they do with this feedback from the placement director. The letter is going out under their name after all. But usually I’ve found having someone look a letter over makes it a better letter, so I’m happy to get this feedback.Report

Recent graduate
Recent graduate
3 years ago

Oxford’s placement director vetted letters when I graduated. While one function was to check for negative letters, the main benefit for me was ‘ranking’ the letters in terms of strength. A number of positions limit letters to three in their application, and it was quite helpful to know which 3 of the 4 letters I had were the strongest, and therefore submit those.

This ranking probably benefited me, though a propos Brennan’s point I do wonder whether it’s harmful to the profession as a whole. It further exacerbates a positivity bias among letters received, making them even less useful and trustworthy to hiring committees than they currently are. It also arguably gives an unfair advantage to students at those institutions that provide rankings, by artificially inflating the quality of the letters submitted. Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 years ago

I have no doubt, for the reasons given, that it is good idea for the placement directors of big graduate schools to vet letters of recommendation. The problem is that this merely adds to the Matthew effect: For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. What about graduates of programmes that are nowhere near grand enough to have a dedicated placement officer? Or what about the graduates of programmes where all or most of the staff are ignorant of the arcane codes and supposed implicatures that govern the interpretation of such texts? How can we know that we are not unwittingly doing our students a damage when we write what we take to be a strong letter of recommendation? The existence of such codes and the fact that they are not as widely understood as they need to be, provides yet another argument for discounting such letters, at least until the search committee makes the final cut (at which point they can be examined with due care and attention and in the knowledge that boondock philosophers such as myself may well be ignorant of the relevant codes). Report

Pamela Hieronymi
3 years ago

The person running placement at UCLA will vet letters, for the reasons Sergio and Brian give above, and, as above, it remains up to the letter writers what to do with the feedback they receive.Report

Aaron
Aaron
3 years ago

I think vetting letters is generally a good idea, but ideally there would be a better system than “we’d like you to send your letter to Prof. Y”.

I’m an interesting case where 3 of my letter writer are the Head, the Grad Director and the Placement Director, i.e. the 3 people who might be involved in vetting. Now I’m not worried about those letters, but such situations could be problematic, especially in smaller department.Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Well, I’m certainly glad my university doesn’t do this with respect to the references we write. I don’t think I’d be willing to continue writing letters, if this was required.Report

Recent graduate
Recent graduate
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

I’m curious – could you say why you object to the practice?Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Recent graduate
3 years ago

Because when I write a reference, I am communicating *my* view of a person’s aptitude, suitability, the quality of his or her work, etc. That does not strike me as the sort of thing which is appropriate to subject to editorial review.Report

philosopher
philosopher
3 years ago

“What about graduates of programmes that are nowhere near grand enough to have a dedicated placement officer?” It does seem to me that, if a department isn’t prepared to take on placement responsibilities _very_ seriously, it simply ought not to have a PhD program. (And honestly it doesn’t take _that_ much grandness here, to take on this responsibility; I have seen placement up close at two fairly prestigious PhD programs, and in both, the position was just seen as a standard sort of departmental service, without course reductions or anything like that.)

Daniel Kaufman, are you maybe thinking of student references to get into grad school? I don’t think that there are many programs that vett those. The issue here is about job letters for folks finishing up (or even who have already finished, in the last few years) their PhD. Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  philosopher
3 years ago

philosopher:

Thank you. Yes, I wasn’t sure if the practice applied in that area as well or if people were suggesting it.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  philosopher
3 years ago

philosopher:
But I also should say that I do sometimes get asked to write references for graduates applying to jobs, and there too I would probably stop saying “yes” to such requests, if I knew that my references were going to be “vetted” through some editorial process.Report