More on Recommendation Letters

16 November 2007 at 9:21 am 7 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

An earlier blog post addressed the ever fascinating topic of recommendation letters. Last week I had the opportunity to discuss this with a prominent MIT Professor who provided some inside information. According to her, if the expression “solid worker” or “hard-working” or the like appears in a recommendation letter, this is likely to be a signal that the recommended person isn’t too bright. That sounds reasonable enough. But I was somewhat disturbed to learn that what I took to be uncontroversial boilerplate — namely, the standard ending “Don’t hesitate to contact if you need further information about NN” (or some such formulation) — is a signal that something is likely to be wrong with the applicant and that the recipient of the letter better drop the writer a phone call. I have ended all my recommendation letters with that formulation! Here is a question for the O&M readership: Is it a problem to have a Euro professor recommending you?

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Institutions.

Individuals and Organizations at DRUID Redux More on Plagiarism

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Twofish  |  16 November 2007 at 9:38 am

    Two comments on recommendation letters….

    1) They are useless in the corporate world, and no one pays any attention to them. They seem to be vital in academia. It is interesting why. In any actual recommendation situation in the corporate world, people will always call since no one will put any useful information in writing anyway.

    What is interesting in the corporate world is that in any actual evaluation situation, you are required to include negatives about the person being evaluated. Any recommendation that only contained positive statements would be considered suspect.

    2) Who the recommendation letter was written by is usually much more important than the contents.

  • 2. Steve Phelan  |  16 November 2007 at 10:23 am

    Twofish, I would argue they are useless in academia as well. Professors are scared of lawsuiits and wouldn’t dare write anything negative leaving recruiters to “read between the lines”, which is an imperfect system at best.

    As you say, “who” writes it is probably the best signal (and most likely this will be the candidates PhD committee members or co-authors in the case of assistant professors at least). Illustrious co-authors or committee members who elect not to write a letter could be seen as a bad sign. But, otherwise these parties have every incentive to write glowing recommendations, so positive comments are discounted accordingly.

    Nicolai, to the degree that most faculty in the US have no idea who’s who in Europe then I would probably not agonize about the specific wording of the letter. However, I would make it very clear in the letter why you (a European) are qualified to write the recommendation (e.g. editorial board of this and that US journal, 297 pubs in top tier US journals etc,)

    One interesting variation is the letters solicited by schools when a faculty member applies for promotion to full professor. In many schools, senior members of a discipline (like strategic management) are polled about the candidates national or international reputation. Sometimes the candidate gets to put together a list of people the promotion committee might contact (or not contact) but often the committee will make their own list. Should the committee take the letters they receive from this process more seriously? How much should they discount positive comments from people on the candidate’s list?

  • 3. Joe Mahoney  |  16 November 2007 at 10:42 am

    In an academic letter, “call me if you have any further questions” is more a Nelson and Winter “routine” at the end of the letter than a Spencer type “signal.” Unless there is some reason to believe otherwise, this sentence at the end of the letter is typically benign.

    Further, I dislike writing that uses terms like hard-working as a “signal”. If the writer thinks the person is average then have the guts to say so. If the writier thinks the person is a hard-working talented individual, then say so, and mean what you say.

    The idea that the letter is full of “signals” is sometimes used by folks to manipulate the interpretation of the letter for their own purposes. If you are not sure if it is “signal” then call and ask.

    Much of this signaling interpretation is nonsense Finally, any letter writer that thinks s/he is “clever” by planting signals is delusional. It mostly shows a lack of confidence in oneself. VERY uncool!

    If I seem to be signaling that some attitudes in elite academic institutions are uncool, it was not intended to be a signal, it was intended to be clearly conveyed..

  • 4. Steve Phelan  |  16 November 2007 at 8:56 pm

    LOL!

  • 5. Cliff Grammich  |  16 November 2007 at 9:23 pm

    I’ve had occasion to write very few recommendation letters. So few, in fact, that when I write them I ask my wife, a far better writer than I am, to review them. Anyway, one of the first things she told me to drop in the very first such letters she edited for me was the “call me” boilerplate. Her thought was that such information was implicit for those who might want to call me. I did, after all, have my name, address, and phone number on the letter. By making it explicit, she thought I was indeed signaling there was trouble. Her background is in accounting, not the European academy, so I guess there may indeed be more of a problem with the signal than with the source. At the same time, having read, written, and, in times now thankfully long past, solicited far too many of these things, I’d have to agree they’re close to useless. So I wouldn’t lose any sleep over this, Nicolai . . .

  • 6. david  |  26 November 2007 at 10:01 am

    I think I would rather have “hard working” than “not hard working.”

    The question of who is kind of interesting. For junior folks it seems obvious. But who should write your letters if you are 10-15 years out and looking to move?

  • 7. abolish letters of recommendation? « orgtheory.net  |  28 November 2007 at 8:39 pm

    […] and Markets, there’s a debate about the usefulness of letters of recommendation (here and here). Critics usually say the […]

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