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02/23/2022

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academic in Latin America

The ethics of this are tricky if you’re a student in an environment where faculty aren’t familiar with the practice of writing letters of recommendation. Letter writing is not a common practice outside the Anglosphere, or at least not in the Latin American country where I teach. In this case, if you don’t write a version yourself, you run the risk of getting a poor letter. On the other hand, if you’re in an environment where letter writing is the norm, it seems wrong to me to write your own letter in most cases. Maybe an exception is if the recommender explicitly asks you to and you have assurances that they will edit it carefully.

No letters in the first place

I once discussed this with someone working outside academia (in HR) and she was puzzled why would anyone think writing your own letter of recommendation is someway problematic. You (the candidate) are the best person to know your work, what you have been doing and working on, so it would be very odd if the candidate itself would not be able to write or at least give feedback on the letter. Even more disturbing is the idea that the candidate cannot even see the recommendation letter. (if you have written a book, you are the person writing the back cover for the book, and there is nothing wrong with that either!)

I think the best way would be to write the letter together so that both can agree on what is said is accurate. (The best option is of course not to demand letters in the first place, that is just stupid).

elisa freschi

It is extremely common in continental Europe (where, however, letters are less important than in NA).

postdoc

@No letters in the first place: Yes, but you also usually write a cover letter, which should serve that very purpose. I always thought -- but may be wrong then -- that the main aim of a recommendation letter was to confirm what you wrote about yourself in the other places of the application, and to confirm it on "independent grounds" (i.e., by being written by someone else).
I think that if candidates write their own rec letters, these letters do become indeed redundant.

Hmmm

@No letters- I tried to convince my Chair and Dean of this when I went up for tenure - after all, no one knew my work better than I, so who better to evaluate me for tenure. For some reason that didn't fly, and I suspect the reasons, while not identical, bear some relationship to the reasons why many find the practice of people writing their own recommendations for jobs problematic.

At my university, for both job applications and grad student applications, letters are an important component. However, when we have reason to think that they were primarily written by the candidate, or when they come from philosophers who have a standard letter in which they only change the name and a couple of lines, then they are basically tossed from the application. (We have even had letters digitally submitted that still have the track changes and comments of discussions between candidates and their letter writers embedded).

Trevor Hedberg

I have no idea how common the practice is, but if it is common, then it completely defeats the purpose of asking for letters of recommendation. I'd agree with "postdoc" above that letters are supposed to serve as independent confirmation from someone else -- ideally, an expert in the field who can assess the quality of your work -- that you do in fact have the credentials you claim elsewhere in your application materials and would be a good person to hire for the position. It may be true that you know your own work better than others, but you may also be biased about the quality of your work and think that it is better, more original, etc., than it actually is, and it's in your self-interest to suggest it is better than it really is (since this would give you a better chance of being competitive for jobs). This is why an evaluation of your work and character from a third party can be valuable.

The book analogy referenced by "No letters in the first place" also doesn't make sense to me. Yes, you are typically responsible for writing the blurb that goes on the back cover of the book, but you don't write the endorsements that appear on the opening pages: those come from others who have read the manuscript (or at least large portions of it in advance). Endorsers for my book had to send their official statements to the publishers separately; I couldn't have submitted them on their behalf. You also don't write book reviews yourself, since those are meant to serve as independent evaluations of the book's quality. In my mind, that's the same role letters are supposed to play in the application process.

grad student

Fwiw, my personal experience has been that the people I have approached (in a US context) have been silent about the contents of their letters, and have at most indicated that it would be a "good" letter. I'm not aware of any fellow grad students being asked to write/edit their letters. So my sense is that in the US academic context, this is a norm violation.

That said, I agree that these letters are fairly useless, given how inflated they all are. The best thing a letter writer can do for you is describing concrete examples of things you've done -- but then again, whether they do is more a measure of the ability of your letter writer to write good letters. On the other hand, the practice of requiring letters reinforces dependencies, because anyone without tenure may need go back to their letter writers for years to come. Depending on who your letter writers are, these dependency relations can be bad for you...

anon

For those with more knowledge of this, in the environments where it's more common: can you say a bit more about how the people doing this are even thinking of the practice as they engage in it?

Like, I think of letters of rec as someone else's evaluation of my work. And so if I wrote most of my letters of rec, there's a substantial sense in which they would actually fail to be letters of rec.

So in environments where the ghost-writing is common, do people agree that this is what letters are, and also think that they are all doing them badly? Or do they think of letters differently?

Overseas Tenured

I can confirm that writing one's own letter is very common outside the Anglosphere. I think the reason is precisely that letters are much less important there; so a lot of letter writers think of the letter as an annoying formality, just yet another bureaucratic hurdle to overcome. Since they think of it as this busywork with no significance, they outsource it to the job candidates.

Michel

I have two close friends who were asked to write their letters--one a teaching recommendation, the other a more general external letter based on their long association and collaboration.

These friends, in turn, asked me to write the letters for them, since it's much easier for someone else to do so. I did, the letters were sent to the recommenders, and my understanding is that they lightly modified them to reflect their own thoughts.

I think this is a gross abrogration of responsibility and should be roundly condemned. It completely defeats the purpose of the letters, as others have said, but it also outsources the labour to those who least have the time for it (they're on the market, FFS!), and who lack the experience and perspective to do a good job in the first place.

It's also plagiarism.


So: down with that sort of thing! It's shameful.

former international student

This isn't uncommon in my country of origin, which I do not wish to disclose. Prestigious supervisors often spend negligible time and effort with their students, and thus can't write informative letters in any case. This partly explains why capable students are desperate to study abroad, and why search committees sometimes explicitly state that foreign PhDs are preferable to locals.

Peter Finocchiaro

To add to the other comments addressing how culturally variable this issue is: in my own personal experience, many students here in China have asked me for a letter and simultaneously said that they would write it for me. I have always insisted on writing the letter myself, in part because I'm supposed to be a bridge to the Anglosphere. But I do wonder how much friction is caused by the difference in norms.

Chinese philosopher

As a Chinese scholar who did Ph.D. in America and have since taught in a few other countries, I concur with many comments above that writing recommendation letter by oneself is a common practice outside the Anglophone academia. Cultural differences obviously play a role (including importance of letter, societal norms about praising others, different advisor/advisee dynamic, etc.), and do language barriers (many senior academics in non-English-speaking countries can't write in English; and if they write in their own language and then translate, the letter will appear very weird b/c grammatic nuances; so it's better the student writes it themselves, given that the student is going to study in the U.S. anyway and supposedly writes better English than senior faculty)

Hannah

I'm so sick of people saying this is a rare practice in the anglosphere. I have had to write the vast majority of my own letters, and I am well acquainted with the chore of trying to ensure three separate letters of recommendation sound like three different people.

As to whether it is a good or bad practice, my experience has been colored by later learning that the only recommender I had who wrote his own letters - my adviser - was so gripped by personal insecurities and authority issues that every letter he wrote for me was extraordinarily patronizing and only served to undermine me (despite the fact I was his top student). This experience has left me very cynical about the competence and good will of recommenders, including those who are most supposed to be on your team.

On the other hand, I think it's unrealistic to expect that candidates who write for themselves are going to produce the best letters for themselves. Everyone can write "X is a clear and original thinker" but, from what I understand, those statements are a dime a dozen, and the kind of facts and statistics that stick out are comparisons to a candidate's peers, and that's something that candidates simply don't have access to. Not to mention the presumptuousness that would be involved in guessing. There are probably cultural and gender differences here, but what kind of narcissist is going to have a respected veteran of the field say "This candidate is in the top 1% of students I have ever had the privilege to teach?" Even if you do get away with writing something like that in your letter, you then have to worry about whether it has damaged your ongoing relationship with your mentors. Perhaps they will understand the need to "hustle" for a job. But perhaps they won't - senior scholars don't always give young candidates the benefit of a doubt (alas, expectations are especially loaded if you are a young woman). You can't know what they will say in advance and it's too dangerous to risk an important relationship like that over a letter. So if anything (and at least in my experience), it's more common for a self-written letter be underplayed because of the complicated authority dynamics with the relationship one has with one's recommenders, which is in itself a reflection of your competence (and again this situation may not be identical across gender and culture).

Or am I missing the point? Are there other things that really stand out for committees as significant points of information in a letter, beyond comparisons? That would be so helpful to know, both for my own ghost-written letters and my future letters for others.

In any case, I wish there was a solution to this problem. I am glad that letters are not the only element of an application. I suppose they should be seen more as general rubber stamps of affirmation than concrete pieces of data. And that's not nothing.

Hannah

(correction of significant typo: the complicated authority dynamics in the relationship with one's recommenders..., is *NOT* a reflection of one's competence)

what is going on here?

Michel
I am perplexed by your story. You are complicit in this plagiarism. You wrote the letter, knowing very well that it would be signed by someone else.

Michel

What is going on here?:

Sure. I abetted it so that my friends would have access to a letter each. It seemed less bad than leaving them in the lurch. It's also obviously less bad than offloadingmy supervisory responsibilitirs onto someone else who is less equipped to discharge them.

I'm not the one in a position of power and with a cushy teaching load imposing that situation on vulnerable new members of the profession.

What do you find particularly perplexing?

Charles Pigden

My clients (if that is the word) don't write their own letters of recommendation but I do ask them for a bragsheet on which I can build, since I want my letter to chime with their own self-assessments. I then try to embellish, often working in an anecdote illustrative of their abilities and achievements. When applying for promotions or progressions I supply my own referees with similar materials. Not to do so would be to make writing the reference more of a chore than it has to be since it burdens them with the task of researching my achievements. . I don't write letters for people I cannot conscientiously recommend, my motto with such letters being Thumper's 'If you can't say somethin' nice, don't say nothin' at all.'

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