Magazine article Times Higher Education

May I Recommend

Magazine article Times Higher Education

May I Recommend

Article excerpt

A bulging inbox of reference requests prompts Stephen Mumford to propose reform before six-page testimonials become standard

I love writing and I love being an academic. But if 20 per cent of my authored output is the writing of references, and it takes up a day of my working week, then something is out of balance.

We all want the best for our deserving students, especially good employment or admission to higher study, but have references turned into a self-defeating arms race creating an unnecessary extra burden on us all? For an academic job, we will typically write a three-page reference for a former graduate student. Is that enough or too much? Knowing that rival candidates are likely to get recommendations at least that long, it's all too tempting to up the ante even further.

But where will it end? Surely there is a point beyond which we needn't extol the virtues of our students any further. Is a six-page reference necessary? Surely not. The longer such letters become, the more likely it is that they are merely skim-read or not read at all. Still, you might think, a long reference looks good even if it's not properly studied by the recipient. I sometimes feel I am being assessed as much as the applicant. Whether they get offered a position seems to depend at least to some degree on how well I make the case for them.

If only one could write a single reference for a student on their departure and then be able to consider the job done. But for many positions, we know that without a bespoke reference, addressed to the specific job requirements, our favoured candidate has little chance. Sometimes there is even the dreaded pro forma in which you have to complete a set of mandatory fields addressing specific questions in up to 200 words. I once had a reference request for a position in which security was paramount asking me about the drinking and sexual habits of my former student, just in case she might be subject to blackmail. No standard single reference would suffice there, though I admitted I knew nothing of the matters concerned.

The escalation in standards of reference is almost understandable. Apart from wanting one's best students to prosper, it seems also a duty on our part, for who else is in a position to vouch for them? Occasionally there might also be the more selfish thought that until the individual is satisfactorily placed, they will inevitably be back requesting further references. …

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