The academia is an ever-moving field, with many labs open throughout the day. Throughout the year, there is a constant need for suitable candidates who produce high-quality data in this highly competitive world. However, recruitments often depend upon a plethora of factors mostly focussing on educational achievements.
In addition to lab skills and publications, recommendations often play a decisive role in recruiting new members. In many cases, these words of mouth (albeit written), have been prima facie the joining letters for students. The recommendation system provides a simple (and effective?) way to judge the candidature for the given position.
But the system is far from being ideal. One needs multiple letters of recommendation throughout the academic career for admissions to Ph.D. courses, for postdoctoral positions and even for faculty recruitments. Potential students need at least two and often three recommendation letters for a position. These are often procured from the heads of labs that people have worked on.
In the case of undergrads, many would ask course instructors for these letters. Thomas, a prospective Ph.D. candidate, says that since he has to apply to multiple institutes, he needs at least 4-5 putative referees who could provide him with the needed recommendation letters since he can not ask the same people to provide for a recommendation again and again. In many cases, it is difficult to arrange for these many referees. Those critical of the system often claim that it is impossible for an instructor to fairly judge the capabilities of a person in a class of hundred students.
Additionally, faculties across the world unvaryingly complain about being asked an overwhelming number of recommendation letters every year. The fact that usually several queries are made for the same candidate (by different prospective employers) does not make the situation any better. Writing these letters is many times an ethical obligation and takes up a lot of time that could have otherwise been used in more productive chores. These are the practical issues that plague this system for the faculties as well as the students.
But there is a lot more than what meets the eye. It is an open secret that academia is full of toxic advisors. Academic bullying is an open “dark” secret of academia. Online platforms – including the ones from high-end scientific journals viz. Science Career, Nature Career, cross talk on Cell Press- are full of tales of exploitation by supervisors. The stories often suggest that numerous times recommendation letters are exploited as tools of blackmail by principal investigators. Many also complain that the system encourages sycophancy and flattery. On the other hand, in the case of a difference in opinion, it discourages an honest exchange of thoughts. For inflated egos can take even a slight diversion from their preferences as an act of rebellion that needs to be punished. And what could be more comfortable than a bad letter of recommendation?
Ethically recommendation letters should reflect on the candidate’s capabilities and his/her goodness of fit for the job in question. But given the confidentiality of recommendation letters, there is immense scope for not doing so. A student who chose not to be named gave an example of why this secrecy leaves a big space of exploitation. The student in question -a university topper- was doing a project in a lab. She published a few papers from her Master’s work. Still, when she started applying for a Ph.D. in international labs, she was not successful. To her surprise, she was informed – by one of the PIs she applied to- that her referee wrote nasty things about her in the recommendation letter. This was simply done to retain a brilliant student in the lab.
Sandeep, another Ph.D. student (Southeast Asia) was told by his supervisor that a part of his Ph.D. work would go to the thesis of his colleague. When he protested, the PI openly threatened that he would need a recommendation letter from him throughout his career and he could destroy his career if he wanted. A clear case of taking advantage of ones authority and I am sure they would be countless others. Do not this system of recommendation bestow people in places of authorities with immense (unrestrained) powers?
Another thing to ponder is that a postdoc would need the Ph.D. supervisors recommendation even during recruitments for faculty positions. This is after spending 4-5 years (on an average) outside the Ph.D. supervisors lab. It seems the system believes that the personality/intellect of an individual would become static after Ph.D. As humans, we tend to keep on evolving as individuals, and there are changes in a person (good or bad) during any period of time even after Ph.D. Why is it that the recommendation of the last supervisor in addition to the academic record of an individual is not sufficient to establish ones candidature for a position? Or is it plain formality to ask for multiple recommendations during these recruitment processes.
It would be pertinent to ask if we need this old traditional system to get a new job? Or if it is so necessary, would open letters of recommendation bring a much-needed transparency in the system. Even more, can we have a common platform where supervisors can upload the letters of recommendation reducing their workload? Or radically enough, can we come up with a new system that can altogether bypass the system of recommendation. These are important questions that need to be addressed to make academia a more efficient and productive place.
P.S.: Names have been changed for the sake of keeping the identities secret. Some of these people still need a letter of recommendation from their (abusive) PIs.
To learn more about Science news and inspiring stories, Please visit mScience Magazine at ScieceBlurb
In my experience, recommendation letters say little. An interview is much more informative. Thank you for writing this article.