Halfway through October I have written several academic references for three people already. This is one of the more hidden aspects of an academic job. Writing a good reference is often time consuming for good reasons, including: the reference needs to be tailor-made for the specific job and the candidate; you may not have seen the candidate for several years and finding relevant details, such as ‘when did the candidate work for your organisation?’ takes time; and last but not least, the employer asking for a reference has its own system. The latter is a more recent addition to the burden of writing a reference. Gone are the days of writing a structured letter about the candidate, a letter which you could tweak for different jobs the candidate applied for. Most employers have their own reference system which may make the job easier them but creates far more work for the writer of the reference.
To illustrate each these points with an example. One reference I write on an online form automatically assumed I was writing as the most recent employer, the electronic form ‘forced’ me to write as if I was the most recent employer and then explain in the text box for another question that I had worked with the candidate some years ago. Another request was for a reference for a former colleague whom I had worked with 15 years ago in Aberdeen. She was returning to a research post and had looking after children and working in clinical practice in the intermediate period. Lastly, a former BU M.Sc. student is applying to several universities for a Ph.D. place and each university offered a different thesis topic and required me to complete its own online form, and, of course, each form is slightly different!
Prof. Edwin van Teijlingen