In ancient times, having a professor/mentor write a recommendation letter on your behalf was a pretty straightforward deal: you asked, and the professor said either yes or no (usually the former). However, a step was added to the process a number of years ago. In this incarnation, the professor responds to your request by asking you to prepare what is essentially a draft of the recommendation, which the professor will then review and presumably revise before sending it to a graduate school or potential employer.
The public rationale for this practice emphasizes the ability of a self-generated draft to produce a more fine-grained account of the applicant’s experiences, strengths, and characteristics than would otherwise be the case. Of course, one can convincingly argue that such a detailed description is what personal statements are for. But let’s not quibble over technicalities. The real reason for self-generated drafts is that it reduces the professor’s workload. We shouldn’t embarrass ourselves by pretending that this ship doesn’t sail in ethically compromised waters.
Against this background, University Life is pleased to offer draft-writers five suggestions to help make the final versions of the recommendations produced by their references credible and compelling on an individual level, and not so similar to one another on a collective level that they generate undue suspicion among readers. To put it in psychometric terms, one wants the inter-rater reliability of these communications to be high, but not too high.
Suggestion 1: Identify related but distinct minor flaws about yourself that underscore your humanness and can be distributed among multiple drafts. The key here is to make sure the flaws are consistent with one another. “Todd is prone to fits of screaming when frustrated” in Draft for Mentor A doesn’t fit well with “Todd remains disturbingly passive in circumstances that would provoke righteous anger in others” in Draft for Professor B. A better pairing with Draft A would be, “When Todd is in the room, the level of ambient tension increases markedly.”
Suggestion 2: Emphasize aspects of your research or scholarship that are likely to be associated with a variety of opinions. “Not surprisingly, Daphne’s dissertation research on cloning of human infants has been shrouded in secrecy, but I have high hopes for its eventual impact.” This meshes nicely with “Personally, I have ethical reservations concerning Daphne’s proposal to clone upper-class children in the Hamptons, but there is no arguing with the brilliance of her Bouillon Model for Centrifuge-Based Replication.”
Suggestion 3: Speaking of ethics, don’t be shy about pushing the envelope. Keep in mind that the very act of writing these drafts makes you complicit in an unsavory activity. “Some might call Gavin unethical, but I prefer to see him as transcending conventional discourses of morality in pursuit of transformational knowledge.” This could be a winning match with, “Is Gavin a bit of an a**hole? Absolutely, but so were Steve Jobs and General George S. Patton. Case closed. You’d be lucky to hire any one of them.”
Suggestion 4: Classroom teaching. Anything goes here, so don’t worry about it. “Harriet consistently receives abysmal student evaluations, but keep in mind that she does not pander to students by providing them with crutches such as syllabi, course objectives, or punctuality in showing up for class. She understands that, ultimately, education is a journey you must take on your own.” In another draft you can say, “To be sure, all the available evidence indicates that Harriet is a disaster in the classroom. Not a problem. She will be coming to you with enough long-term grant support to buy out her salary until global warming turns your campus into a bubbling Petri dish of throbbing organic matter.”
Suggestion 5: Figure out multiple ways to say you’re altruistic. “Sheldon is a giver. Whether it’s helping a colleague jump-start her car in the parking lot when it’s 5 below zero, bailing a drunken advisee out of jail on Homecoming Weekend, or bringing recreational marijuana to the department Christmas party, he’s there for you. Of course, sometimes he can be too there for you, knocking on your bedroom window at 3:00 am, bearing donuts and ready to discuss the spreadsheet he’s developed for scheduling intro courses. But that’s just Sheldon: he’s a giver.” On the other hand, sometimes less can be more: “Sheldon Chicklett is the finest being, human or otherwise, I’ve ever met.”
Well, that should get you started. Writing multiple drafts of recommendations for yourself isn’t easy, nor should it be. But don’t forget: once you’re hired or accepted into a doctoral program, you can have your students write their recommendations. Is that cool or what? Ultimately, everything evens out. Isn’t that what the classic song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” is all about? Okay, perhaps not.