Monday, February 16, 2009

under the net

2008 was supposed to be the year I stopped smoking, stopped drinking, went to the gym every day and finished five books. It didn't work out that way; one reason is that there were rather a lot of people to deal with who wanted references. While these people differed in all kinds of ways, they shared a family resemblance in their approach to the application process:

1. The application was poorly supported. The following were thought superfluous to a reference: CV, samples of relevant work, copy of the application proposal.

2. Eligibility was largely irrelevant. The fact that someone has asked me to write a reference is no guarantee that the terms of the grant/course/other do not specifically exclude him or her from consideration.

3. The application was done at the last minute.

4. Writing the reference was taken to set a precedent: if one was written, there was no reason why it could not be dusted off and sent out as further last-minute opportunities arose.

I think that there are a couple of misconceptions at work.

One is a belief in a mythical entity: a reference that can just be dashed off in half an hour and popped in the post / fired off in an e-mail. There is no such thing.

The second is the belief that, if you have a personal relationship with someone, you can not only ask for support for professional advancement, you can also be unprofessional in the way you ask for it. That's what friends are for.

I don't want to spend a lot of time explaining why these are misconceptions; I simply comment that, because they are common among people who ask for references, they are very disruptive. I can't get back all the time that was lost in 2008, so I am simply drawing a line under reference-writing for 2009.

I don't like to sabotage applicants who are two days from their deadline; unfortunately it's not easy to know how to notify all the people who are vaguely thinking: 'I might ask HD for a reference if I decide to go in for X.' I'm hoping some of these people read the blog; if you do, bear in mind that I won't be writing references until 2010.


Jenny Davidson said...

This post made me laugh! It is the price of the ticket, though - and at least when I am writing for people who are or have been my students, I can set out rules like "two weeks advance notice" - I always write 'em the night before anyway, but it makes me feel more in control of the whole situation! I do not know why someone thinks that it is possible to write a good letter of recommendation without a HUGE amount of supplementary paperwork - I think it must be that they have never been on the opposite side where they are READING the letters - and they do not know that a letter, even from a very famous person, that says "As far as I know, this person is an utter genius" will not help them much!

Anonymous said...

This is a thank-you for all the thank-yous you probably never received for doing references. Can I reference this when I am asked for the nth time to be a referee?