Reference writing: may I recommend reform?

Stephen Mumford on why academics must take back some control over the process

November 6, 2014

Source: Dale Edwin Murray

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.

Reference writing is just one thing among a number of vital tasks for society that universities and their academics perform on a goodwill basis. Of course it is largely accepted as part of the job and the student who pays a fee to study increasingly sees a good reference as an entitlement. But we shouldn’t forget that the reference is written not just for the student: not even primarily so. Our provision of references is a service to prospective employers or, in some cases, other educational institutions looking for enrolments. Often the candidate’s record of attainment can speak for itself but not always. To feel secure in their appointments, it’s understandable if employers want someone else to vouch for an applicant. The provision of references can on occasion be of incalculable value to the recipient: just consider the costs of a bad appointment. Yet it seems again that it is the squeezed and undervalued academic that is picking up the tab, through free provision of a service in kind.

This latter point ought to give us some power to take control of the process, de-escalating the arms race and shaping the task into something more sympathetic to our overburdened lives. Now I wouldn’t suggest that we consider charging prospective employers for references, for we don’t want to harm our own students’ chances. But might we be able to say that some of the demands made of reference providers are unreasonable? Do we always need a reference or so many of them in every case? Could we collectively insist on limiting a reference to one page maximum and general enough that it need be drafted only once? I have seen some countries where such a system seems to operate efficiently: where reference madness has been avoided and where they cannot believe what UK academics have to go through. Even in the US, from where references tend to be long and thorough, there is a single version handed to the student, which they are then free to use in all future job applications. When I open up my inbox to find yet another batch of deserving requests, I can see that such a system makes sense.

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