A humble request: don’t ask for letters of recommendation

Asking applicants for academic posts to submit references from supervisors can lead to exploitation; the practice needs to end, says Sanjay Pulipaka

August 4, 2016
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“These scholarships are not for people like you.” That was the comment of one of my professors a little over a decade ago when I said that I wanted to apply for scholarships to pursue doctoral studies in the US or the UK.

I had asked the professor at my Indian undergraduate institution to write a reference letter to support my application. Given that I had been awarded a university medal for my MA, I didn’t understand what he meant by “people like you”. In India, I belong neither to a minority religious group nor to a section of society that is discriminated against. But the perceived indignity deterred me from applying for any more fellowships or scholarships for the next three years.

Eventually, I was lucky enough to encounter another teacher who encouraged me to apply (successfully) for a Fulbright fellowship. And I have always been able to find people to provide me with a letter of recommendation every time the need has arisen. Yet I continue to experience anxiety whenever an application form asks for one: probably, the “people like you” comment continues to echo deep inside me.

Among other things, letters of recommendation are supposed to give a comprehensive assessment of a candidate. However, in societies marked by hierarchies of race, caste, class and so on, they lose this original intent and become an act of “benevolence” that an individual bestows on someone who is lower in the hierarchy. This immediately traps recipients in a host of obligations and can expose them to exploitative practices. It is even possible that some may have to put up with abuse or unreasonably long working hours because a noted academic or senior bureaucrat has promised to provide them with a letter of recommendation.

To compound the misery, some fellowships and international organisations have a practice of requesting references from the current or most recent employer or academic supervisor, which imposes direct and immediate obligations of gratitude on the applicant. I often wonder how such processes impact on applicants from vulnerable social backgrounds.

For instance, we recognise that there are societies where girls experience difficulties in accessing even primary education; we honoured the young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai with a Nobel Peace Prize for her courageous work in this area. Yet if a young woman from a similarly poor milieu wants to study at a university in the West, or to apply for a job in an international organisation, she must obtain two or three letters of recommendation while protecting herself from potential psychological coercion. I find this perplexing. We accept that people can be subjected to the violence of hierarchies, and yet our recruitment processes inadvertently make prospective candidates vulnerable to that by subjecting them to iniquitous power relationships.

We should consider discontinuing the practice of insisting that applicants for doctoral programmes, fellowships or jobs supply references. If it cannot be eliminated altogether, we should at least refrain from asking for references at the start of the selection process: only shortlisted candidates should be asked for one (and only one).

While this might not address all the concerns I have raised, it would result in more inclusive admissions procedures by ensuring that students from diverse backgrounds could apply for fellowships and doctoral admission without hesitation. Shortlisted candidates could approach prospective referees with confidence, and the latter would know that the person seeking a reference had already succeeded at a preliminary application stage without their assistance.

Finally, all institutions that ask for letters of recommendation should investigate how easy it is for their own staff to obtain such letters internally. If, for instance, some academics are unwilling to write them for their students, this needs to be addressed.

Many youngsters from countries such as India aspire to study in the West. Tweaking admissions procedures without compromising on quality would protect young minds from unwarranted and avoidable stress.

Sanjay Pulipaka is a senior consultant at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. He was a Pavate fellow at the University of Cambridge and a Fulbright fellow in the US. He writes in a purely personal capacity.

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Reader's comments (1)

Spot on Sanjay. I had a similar personal experience with one of my supervisors at uni. He did request my undergraduate grade records prior to giving me a reference and in another email he warned me that the PhD I wanted to apply for is very competitive. Having known him for 4 years, my mind translated his comments directly as I wouldn't have received a positive and helpful reference/recommendation from him. I turned instead to a company which I previously volunteered for. They did not ask me for my undergraduate history, they knew what I was capable of and agreed straight away for providing me a recommendation should I needed one. At the end I did not pursue the PhD programe but not many people have the plan B option that I had and looking for one can be very, very frustrating and undermining process for people's aspirations and goals.

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