On My Way In IV: ‘Aren’t You Exclusive?!’ On the Pros and Cons of Writing Letters of Reference for Only One Candidate in an Academic Hiring Process

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At the time of writing – there is often a significant gap between the writing and publication of EJIL editorials – it feels like hiring season. Requests for letters in support of academic job applications pop up with the same speed as files to read for hiring panels. One question about academic practices has come up in discussions with both requesters of letters and letter writers: Should one be exclusive in letter writing, that is to say, should one write for only one candidate in any given application procedure?

As part of the EJIL On-My-Way-Out/On-My-Way-In series on academic practices, this Editorial reflects on some of the pros and cons of exclusive letter writing. It may seem a relatively minor question, but it can be a consequential one.

A Different Case: Writing for Admissions

Let us first distinguish writing for admission to masters and PhD programmes from academic job applications. Admissions are less of a zero-sum game than hiring processes, so there is less of an argument for exclusive writing. Indeed, there is a strong argument for non-exclusive writing: students often have only a few people who know them well enough academically to write a relevant letter of reference. Their teachers can therefore consider writing letters of reference as part of their duties: teach (and ideally inspire!), mark and write letters, lots of them. By contrast, colleagues in academic posts who are applying for a different job should have access to more people whom they can ask for an academic reference. But here the boundary begins to blur: when (former) PhD candidates or post-docs apply for their first academic position, does one write for only one of them if several apply for the same position?

Why Exclusivity?

One obvious and practical argument in favour of exclusivity is workload management. Writing individual letters of reference, tailored to a specific job, takes a lot of time, especially if one has to multiply that by several candidates. A more principled argument that is sometimes made is that it is not fair for the ‘weaker candidate’ if one also writes for a ‘stronger candidate’. This argument resonates with the answer sometimes given in response to the slightly different question whether one should write at all if one cannot give one’s full support: writing a letter that does not ‘sell 100%’ would not be fair vis-à-vis the person who asked for the letter. To answer these questions, we need to answer a prior question: To whom does one owe duties when writing a letter?   

Balancing Duties

As Joseph Weiler observed in a previous Editorial on letters of reference, ‘A balance needs to be struck between helping the candidate in his or her application purpose and an academic fiduciary duty owed to the admitting institutions in their selection procedures.’

From the perspective of a hiring institution, authors who write for several candidates can be tremendously helpful. Precisely because they know the differences between the applicants, they can and will often put different emphases – collegiality, scholarly breadth, scholarly depth, agenda setting, support for students, community service, originality, creativity, broadcasting power. Different people will come with different associations and experiences. When one and the same author writes very different letters for different people, the differences in the letters are clearly reflective of the differences in the applicants, rather than being attributable to letter-writing style.

While tremendously helpful to the hiring institution, writing for several applicants is not necessarily a breach of duty towards the applicant: candidates are different. Thankfully, writing references is not a check-box exercise where referees fill in some standard template. It is a holistic reflection on the unique qualities of the particular candidate and the specific ways in which they would enrich the community they are seeking to join. Let the differences among the candidates appear through the implied comparison. Taking into account these different emphases, the hiring institution can then decide who would make the best fit.

That said, an issue does arise if one knows some of the letter-requesting applicants much better than others. The more one knows, the easier it is to elaborate. And in some academic cultures, the length and depth of letters are taken as indicators of support. A letter that extensively discusses publications, teaching and academic citizenship may thus be read as more supportive than half a page of comments on the CV and a reference to an encounter at a conference. This risk also exists if one was asked by only one candidate whose work one is not very familiar with, but it is exacerbated if one writes for more than one applicant because it will be apparent to the hiring panel that the brevity is not inherent in the author’s writing style. It seems fair to be entirely open about this risk to the letter-requesting applicant and leave it to them to decide whether they still want you to write.

The situation gets particularly tricky if one deems one letter-requesting applicant stronger than the other requesters in almost all relevant aspects. But in a way, this dilemma is not much different from the situation in which somebody asks you for your support while your support is only lukewarm. The dilemma is only accentuated because a comparison between the letters makes it easier to gauge the different levels of support. In these situations, too, to put it in Weilerian terms, the truth may be the best lie: ‘I can write for you, but given the job and the field (and in case one writes for others, too: ‘and the letters I am writing for other candidates’), I may not be able to give you enough support’. The applicant can then make an informed choice.

The greatest tension with duties vis-à-vis the letter-requesting applicant may arise if the author engages in explicit ranking: Y is my top candidate; Z no. 2; X no. 3. But it is even questionable whether such a ranking would be most helpful to the hiring institution. The ranking will be based on what the author values, not necessarily on what the hiring institution considers most important for the specific position. Compare it with peer review reports: unless editors have outsourced the decision-making to the reviewers, the most helpful reviews are not the conclusionary ones (accept/reject) but the ones that explain the evaluation, leaving it to the editors to weigh these factors to reach a decision in line with their editorial policy. Similarly, the whole range of considerations of the hiring institution are unlikely to be known to the letter writer, so one can leave the ranking to the institution.

Against Exclusivity

There are arguments against exclusive letter writing. First, unless one upfront knows exactly who will be in the race for which job, exclusivity could easily mean rewarding those applicants who ask first. Whilst in some contexts speed does deserve to be rewarded, it is not necessarily the case that the applicant who asks for a letter the moment the job ad appears is more worthy of a letter than the one who takes some time to reflect. If the slower/more reflective applicant then asks the exclusive letter writer for a reference, it will be difficult for the writer to backtrack on the earlier commitment, even if the writer in fact thinks the latter would be a better match for the job. De facto, exclusive letter writing could then also risk privileging men over women, given that women tend to take the required qualifications more seriously than men and may need some more persuasion to apply.

Secondly, a principle of exclusive letter writing combined with a first-come-first-serve approach may create question-begging silences: Why does this applicant not have a letter from, say, their former supervisor? Did they not want to write for them?

Thirdly, a principle of exclusive letter writing could give the wrong impression that letter writing is about championing a candidate by tying one’s name to that candidate. In this understanding, the race seems to be one among the letter writers, rather than the candidates: Who gets their favourite in the post? The balance between the duty vis-à-vis the applicant and the institution has then been lost.

Finally, a risk of exclusive reference letter writing is that it could sustain … exclusivity. Many people on appointment panels look at the names on the letters: for better or for worse, big name and big institution are often taken to weigh more. If one is at such a big institution and chooses to write exclusively, one may find oneself constantly writing for one’s own supervisees (to avoid the earlier mentioned silence question) or people in related well-networked institutions, rather than for scholars whose work one values and who have not passed through or worked at those institutions. Non-exclusive writing could do more to break with – or at least push against perpetuating – institutional path dependencies and academic hierarchies. 

From a Binary to a More Communitarian Balance

Perhaps the balance that needs to be struck should not merely take into account the interests of one applicant and the hiring institution, but also those of many other applicants and the wider academic community. Exclusive letter writing risks reinforcing a view of academia that is dynastic and tri-lateral (candidate – letter writer – hiring institution) rather than communitarian

None of this is to say that one should say ‘yes’ to every request for a reference. There remain plenty of reasons for saying ‘no’, including ‘I barely know you or your work’ or leaving the choice to the applicant after saying ‘I am also writing for someone else for whom I can provide more evidence on all the selection criteria’. The only argument that would fall by the wayside is that of exclusivity as a principle. Let the ink flow in more directions.

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