Sunday, November 08, 2009

Recommendations Rant

I'm writing recommendations today.

Back when I started, I could pretty much do a set of recommendations in an hour or two. I'd start by writing a letter, and then I'd fine tune the letter for each of the schools by changing the address and the name of the program as I'd print out copies. Even so, to get the first page on letterhead and the others not (if more than one page, which most aren't) means I have to print each document twice, making sure to change which tray the paper comes out of on the printer, then go to the printer in the department office, collate and make sure the right pages were together, then type an envelop (because feeding an envelop from another room doesn't seem to work well), and go back to my office to do the next one.

Now, half the programs want a standard letter and half want me to fill in something special via the web. I CAN cut and paste, but the specificity of the questions means that the basic letter I've written won't necessarily cut and paste well. Yes, the paragraph about how long and in what capacity I've known the student basically does, but the others, not so much.

Each grad school has it's own web thing (if they have it), and the web thing sends me an automatic email about how to get in.

And every automatic email gets read by our system as spam, so I have to check our spam box to make sure I don't have vital emails dumped in there. (I still get a variety of male-oriented medication and enhancement ads in the regular in-box, though, and also a really enticing financing offer from Nigeria.)

One of my students has complicated things a bit by not deciding what sort of grad program s/he wants to go into yet. Imagine, for example, a biology undergrad who can't decide if s/he wants to go into a PhD program in crop-plant genetics, or one in large mammal wildlife management, or maybe med school. How much do I tweak the letter for each? Do I talk about my experience teaching this student's microbiology lab? Do I talk about their project in deer population control through culling? It's like that.

Part of me enjoys this student's limitless enthusiasm, but part of me worries that s/he doesn't really have a sense of the commitment it takes to do graduate work and keep plugging on at a dissertation through all the funding hassles and hoop-jumping. But then, I sure didn't know how much commitment and just plain stubborness it would take for me to get through, and here I am.

It does feel awkward to be doing two separate recommendation forms to different programs in the same department at the same grad school, though.

I guess I should get started and quit complaining.


  1. I'm with you. I have had a couple of students over the past three years at warm-and-fuzzy school ask me for recommendations. (Why don't they ask tenured folks? Because Visiting APs make up the majority of the department.) There are always a ton of different forms, etc. I recently had a student who was applying to nine different schools, all with different requirements, web forms, or letter "stuff." Thankfully, the student was very thoughtful and made me a checklist for each school. In the haze of trying to deal with my dad's death and pregnancy and being behind, etc., the checklist was absolutely necessary.

    My major complaint about all this comes down to the fact that schools are using things like forms on websites to make things "easier" for recommenders. However, they're just making recommendations more of a pain in the butt. It's never a good feeling to get to the end of the recommendation saga feeling like you wish you hadn't said 'yes' to the request. Ugh.

  2. If it makes you feel any better, online applications are a pain in the ass from the student's perspective too. I'd much rather send my CV as a PDF than retype every freakin' box into the online application.

  3. It's annoying -- we had a perfectly good system here until they forced us to shift to using the same form as the province's undergraduate application system. Now most of our applicants aren't sending in a statement of interest (because that doesn't come clear on the provincial system's links) and the letters of reference are much harder for faculty from elsewhere to provide.

    I despise all of the "you can't save this form so you have to fill it in online" rigmarole. Sadly, if we don't follow through, the students' applications will never be considered as finished and they won't be forwarded to the department or program for consideration. Vicious cycle!