Lies, damned lies, and references

I’m in the midst of reading through a pile of applications for the Analysis Studentship. There are some impressive looking candidates. But I’m frankly not too impressed with some of my colleagues in various universities who are writing references. Indeed I’m pretty damned irritated. For two reasons.

First, the advert for the Studentship plainly says the “the successful candidate will have a CV which would make him or her a strong contender for a Junior Research Fellowship”. How come then that too many colleagues are agreeing to write references for people they must know perfectly well wouldn’t haven’t a snowball in hell’s chance in a JRF competition. They should just have the honesty to say straight out “Sorry, you are batting out of your league here; I don’t think you should waste your time or the time of the Studentship Committee in applying; so I can’t support you on this.”

Second, it can’t be that every PhD student is one of the top 5% of students the referee has taught, etc. , etc., etc. The inflationary guff that you get in too many references is now just ridiculous. And prompts in this reader the sceptical response “Oh yeah?”, so is in fact counterproductive. Irritating your reader is not a good way to promote your students.

8 thoughts on “Lies, damned lies, and references”

  1. “Second, it can’t be that every PhD student is one of the top 5% of students the referee has taught, etc. , etc., etc.”

    Check the number of students, multiply by 5%, and you see it is possible that all those applying there can be among top 5%. :) This just shows that this 5% and asking faculty to decide which student is good (i.e., doing your job!) in place asking them specific questions like: is she intelligent? does she propose new ideas during your courses? … is not working. You want them to do your job, and of course it is not working. It is ridiculous when I am asked in reference forms of some universities to tell if this student was among top 1%, 3%, 5%, …

  2. Referees weren’t asked “the 5% question”: I was remarking on the inflationary tropes that referees seem to radically overuse.

  3. Hmm… so you want the referees to ensure that only the best students make applications, but you don’t like it when all the recs say wonderful things.

  4. Abo: Yep. Few of even the best students are wonderful: after all, very few of us are! So let’s have some straight talking, and in particular useful comparisons and rankings, rather than armwaving exalted praise!

  5. So what would be YOUR set of questions on the referee’s form, if they were to be accompanied with a set of objective and clear-cut criteria (and what criteria would that be)?

  6. Anon: It isn’t a matter of questions on a form (indeed there wasn’t one in this case). It is a matter of some referees exaggerating beyond reason.

  7. Several years ago my tutor told me that Oxford philosophers had been urged to boost their generally understated praises when giving references for BPhil applications, because the hagiographic references coming in from the States were making it hard for them to justify taking any home-grown candidates at all.

  8. Brunellus: indeed. But there must be a middle way between the absurdly hagiographic and muted understatement!

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